Buckle Up

by Matt Carmichael

A little after 10 am, I'm finishing my first Mountain Dew of the day and trying to come to terms with the shipping rates on last minute Christmas gifts when I get an email from my supervisor that says "young couple hit a telephone pole and flew through the windshield." I work for the Illinois State Highway Department. My job is to update the digital highway signs that allow drivers to count along with the annual automobile death toll. We call them Dynamic Highway Announcements. The signs are our department's claim to fame, and the only reason we're still here. There are four of us tucked away in suite 17 B in the corner of an otherwise empty single floor office building.

My big contribution to the DHA program was the way we start a new year. At the beginning of January, a sign saying something like "7 traffic deaths this year" just doesn't have the impact needed to affect your average driver. "What about already?" my boss Nels said in one of the developmental meetings, "like already 7 traffic deaths this year." But in the end we decided to keep reminding people about the previous year's tally until we hit three figures. And that was my idea.

The way it works is Nels gets her information from a highway department dispatcher who gets that information from the police. She passes that info on to me, and I plug the numbers into a computer program. When I input the young couple into the system and hit return, the DHAs across the state will update to say "1233 Traffic Deaths This Year. Buckle Up."

I toss the empty Mountain Dew into the trash and head to the break room for a follow up can. On the way back to my desk I cup the can in my hand and try to bury it against my thigh. I'm embarrassed to drink it. Everybody else drinks coffee. I tell them I drink Mountain Dew just for the pick-me-up, but really I think it's one of the greatest tastes in the world. Everybody keeps telling me I need to buckle up and start drinking coffee like a normal, well-adjusted adult.

"Buckle up" has become a sort of running joke around the Transportation Administration office. It's like aloha, you can use it for pretty much anything. Like when Francis the receptionist complains about having to finish her daughter's math homework after work, somebody will say, "well, you'd better get home and buckle up." On Fridays, Bren, our account manager, winks at Francis and says something like, "I hope everybody is ready to buckle up this weekend."

Historically, 1,233 automobile deaths isn't a very staggering figure—for example in 1941 there were over 2600—but today is the office holiday party, and I'm one fatality short of hitting this year's death pool right on the mark. At the beginning of the year we all make our predictions and write our numbers on a whiteboard that we keep hidden in the slot between the fridge and the pop machine in the break room. The pool closes at the holiday party so we can make more of a ceremony about it. This year it's the Friday before Christmas. It's like The Price Is Right, so anything over is a bust. Nels guessed 2100 and Bren guessed 1676. Francis thought we were all too high, so she guessed 1. I guessed 1,234. My boss Nels says nobody's been this close in the three years they've been running the pool, but I already know that because I've been working here for three and a half.

The party starts at four o'clock, so I've got a few hours for just one more crash to come through the wire. The odds are in my favor. People are speeding around the state trying to finish up their Christmas shopping, one hand on the wheel, yelling into a cell phone about not being able to find the limited edition September 11th Lego set. We've got it worked out so that the winner gets the whole week off between Christmas and New Year's.

When I get back to my desk Bren says something about how close I am to winning the death pool.

"I need to buckle up if I'm going to win this thing," I say.

"Well, then you better hope they don't," says Bren. We both laugh.

Nels calls me and asks if I'm busy. Unless I'm updating the death count, I'm never busy.

Nels keeps her office messy to put on the illusion of a stressful workload in case any of the people she answers to ever show up. There are always papers and file folders all over her desk and on the floor and on the heater by the window. At some point during the day she goes around the room and shuffles things around. She calls it passive productivity. The bulk of her time is spent waiting to forward me any updates from the police. She's one of the best forwarders I've ever worked with.

She tells me that one of our signs has been hacked and it's telling people to watch out for zombies in the road ahead. There's really nothing I can do about it, it's more of an operator's issue, but she thought I should know. I say thanks and ask her about my desk chair. It leans hard to the left, and when I swivel it squeaks like the bastard wheel on a shopping cart. Two weeks ago, HR sent an ergonomic consultant to our office and she diagnosed my chair with metal fatigue. Then she determined my body mass index and dog eared three chairs in an office supply catalog she thought would work best for me. I ask Nels when we are getting the new chairs but she says we aren't because they spent all of the money left in the budget on the consultant. Try not to let it ruin your holiday spirit, she says.

Every year my co-corkers bring their kids into the office and Bren dresses up like Santa Claus. The kids sit on his lap and he gives them pencils and stickers and other knick-knacks we have left over from trade shows and safety seminars that we don't go to anymore. Bren and Francis are the only people left in the office with kids. Well, Nels has three kids too, a boy and two girls, but they're spending this Christmas with their respective dad's in Tucson, Fargo, and Calumet City. Ask her about it and she'll tell you that custody battles are a bitch.

You wouldn't believe it just looking at him—he'd make a better elf than a Santa—but by the time Bren gets all suited up, he really does look sharp. His own son doesn't even recognize him. The kid is getting older though, and Bren thinks this will probably be the last Christmas that little Tony believes in all of the magic.

"I'm doing everything I can to make sure this year is special," says Bren.

Bren goes all out with the decorations and even sets up a toy train that circles the break room. When he's finished he gives the windows three cans of aerosol snow. The cleaning crew hates Bren. He only buys the canned snow meant for outdoor use, because he says anything else looks silly. Bren calls it "Hollywood grade," and it's damn near impossible to get out of the carpets.

In the break room, I buy another soda and Francis asks me if I have any special requests. She's going to the store for party supplies.

We can't drink at the party, so I say, "brownies. The ones from the deli, with powdered sugar and nuts on top."

"Oh, no," says Francis. "Bren can't eat nuts."

"That's right," says Bren. "I could die." He's on the floor funneling a bottle of liquid steam into the toy engine's smoke stack.

"Right," I say. "I forgot."

Bren hops up and says he could use a hand carrying Santa's chair in from the van.

Outside its cold and geese are honking in the sky. Bren tells me they don't fly south anymore because they can just hang around here and eat fast food scraps at the dump. The commercial park butts up against hunt club land and the shotguns are popping. Santa's chair is a heavy, solid wood throne that Bren painted red and gold and had upholstered with green fabric. Bren and I have a tough go at getting it out of the van. But we get the chair out through the sliding door and set it down on the ground so I can catch my breath.

"How did you get this thing in here?" I ask.

"My wife helped me," says Bren. "She didn't seem to have any trouble with it."

A small snow flurry starts up and Bren looks up at the sky. He sticks out his tongue and catches a few of flakes on his face. And then he starts singing, "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas paaaaarty." I used to know a guy who hired out a needy family and had them sit in his front yard from sunup to sundown Christmas day in a live nativity scene, but I've never met anybody who loves Christmas more than Bren.

Back inside I check my email on the chance that somebody caught some black ice and slipped off the road while Bren and I were hauling Santa's chair into the break room. Bren's on the phone with his son, telling the boy his father got called out of town on a last minute business trip and that he's going to have to miss the Christmas party.

"Sorry, bud. Your mother will take you though. You'll still get to meet Santa." Bren frowns and nods his head a few times into the phone. The kid doesn't seem to be taking it well. "Did I miss it last year, too? I don't remember. Anyways, I'm really sorry I have to miss it again, bud. But I'll be back later tonight and I can't wait to hear all about it. I love you." Bren gets off the phone and says proudly, "he doesn't suspect a thing."

By 4:30 it's starting to get dark and the toy train is chugging around in circles and the break room is aglow with fake snow and strings of colored lights. Bren's been in the bathroom for almost an hour getting into costume. When he finally comes out he does his best runway walk around our desks. Francis and I applaud as he executes his final twirl. Nels comes out of her office and tells Bren he mis-buttoned his coat.

Bren fixes the coat and says he's going to go around back and stand outside for a while. Santa's got to be cold, coming from the North Pole and all.

At five, Nels tells me she's forwarded her emails to me and she goes home. She never sticks around for the parties. We're not even supposed to have them so this way she can play dumb if she has to.

The babysitter drops off Francis' daughter Sue, who's got to be four or five years old by now. Bren's wife and his son Tony get here shortly after that. Francis is in costume now too, something of a slutty Mrs. Claus with elf ears. She takes the kids to the break room where they have soda and chips and mess around with the toy train controls. Tony complains that there's no more Mountain Dew in the machine and I blame the Hungarian guy who comes once a month to restock the machine. Tony doesn't respond.

Bren's wife corrals him into her arms and says "Oh he's just in a mood because his father can't be here." She winks at me.

Then Francis says, "shouldn't Santa be here by now?"

We've been watching the train go round in circles for almost forty minutes.

"I'll go check the roof," says Francis. "Maybe he needs help parking the sleigh."

"That's ok," I say. "I'll go. You stay here with Sue."

When I find Bren he's locked out back behind the office.

"I've been banging on that door for a half an hour," says Bren. He's shivering violently and red splotches are starting to cover his cheeks. But the beard probably saved him from any real damage to his face.

Bren takes a minute to rub his hands and then charges up the stairs and into the break room with a blizzard of ho's and a sack full of "Buckle Up" pencils and "Drive Straight, the Text Can Wait" refrigerator magnets. Tony's face lights up right away. Bren gets real animated and waves to the kids and tries to shake their hands. His fingers are purple and swollen from the cold. Sue gets scared and won't touch him. She pulls her hand back and says "what's wrong with you?"

"Ho, ho," laughs Bren. "Santa must have forgotten his gloves at the North Pole this morning."

"Probably on the kitchen counter," says his wife.

He claps a few times and wiggles his fingers. "How about you, young man? Wouldn't you like to shake Santa's hand?"

"No, thanks," says Tony. "It looks like it really hurts."

"Ho, no, Santa's fine," says Bren. "He's used to the cold." He sinks down into his throne and clenches his fists. "But does anybody want to get Santa something hot to drink?"

Francis gives her daughter a mug and says, "Sue, honey, why don't you fill this up with warm water for Santa. I'll get him some tea."

It takes a minute but the kids warm up to Bren. Sue gets on his lap and asks for a cell phone. Her mom intervenes and tells Santa she'll have to wait at least until she's six. Sue pouts for a minute, but she gets over it quick and pulls a plastic bag of cookies from her backpack. "Here, Santa," she says proudly, "My babysitter helped me make them for you."

"Ho, ho, ho," says Bren. "You've heard Santa loves cookies. My secret is out." He rubs his belly. The color in his hands is getting back to normal. Bren uses a fake pregnancy prosthetic that he bought from a local high school after they cut their theatre programs. He got a great deal by bundling the belly with the throne.

Tony scoffs and says, "Everybody knows Santa likes cookies. He eats cookies that everybody in the world gives him. That's why he's so fat. That and because it's cold in the North Pole and you need the blubber to stay warm."

"Ho, ho, that's right, Tony," says Bren. He pats Tony's head. "You're a smart boy."

Sue gives Bren a cookie and Bren takes a big Santa-sized bite and grins at the girl. But as soon as he starts to chew the smile melts right off of his face and his jaw freezes.

"Chocolate chip," says Sue. "But there's peanut butter in there too. They're my favorite."

Francis snatches the bag of cookies from her daughter's hand and cries, "Oh, no, honey. Santa can't have peanut butter."

Sue shrugs and says, "he ate them at our house last year."

Tony cocks his head to the side and studies Santa, who still hasn't spit the cookie out, or started chewing again. He's just sitting there in Santa's chair, eyes frozen behind the faux facial hair and thin wire glasses. The pregnancy prosthetic heaves up and down.

"That's weird," says Tony. "My dad can't have peanut butter, either."

Bren looks at the boy for a moment. Then he starts chewing again.

"Ho, ho, ho," shouts Bren between bites.

"Oh, for chrissake," says Bren's wife. "Spit it out, Santa."

"Seriously, Santa," says Francis. "There's no need to be a hero." But Bren holds his hand up to call her off and goes right on eating.

Bren smiles at Tony and says, "That's too bad for your dad. Peanut butter cookies are delicious. Santa just loves them." He swallows and belts out a few more ho's. Then he brings the second half of the cookie to his mouth and finishes whole thing. His wife finds her phone and spins it in her hand. Francis stares at Bren with her mouth open, a strange mix of horror and admiration. The kids are having a blast, they help themselves to some more cookies. Bren's tongue starts lapping the air like he's still out in the parking lot catching snowflakes. He paws softly at his neck and face, like he wants to rip the beard off, but he doesn't.

"Ho, ho, ho," says Bren. He's gasping for air. "This Christmas, Santa wants an epinephrine pen."

He stands up and then keels over onto the floor. Francis yells, "buckle up, people, this is the real deal" and calls 9-1-1. Bren's wife runs to his desk and ravages through his drawers. She says she thinks he keeps one of those pens at work. Through the can-frosted windows of the break room, it could be a Macy's window Christmas display. The lights twinkle and dance off of Santa's empty chair. Santa's slutty helper shouts into the phone. The toy train chugs around the bend, whistle blowing and smokestack steaming. Up ahead, Santa Claus is sprawled out across the track, heaving and ho-ing up into the white dropped ceiling. Bren's wife finds an epinephrine pen and rushes in, yelling "off with Santa's pants, he needs it in the thigh."

Francis gets his fur lined pants off with surprising ease. Bren keeps moaning and scratching his beard. He's trying to talk, but nobody can understand what he's saying. The toy train crashes into Bren's ribs. It derails and rolls belly up with its wheels still spinning in the air. Liquid steam seeps into the carpet. Bren's wife slides to her knees and jams the pen into Bren's leg.

Sue asks if Santa's having a heart attack.

Bren lifts his head and nods and points to his heart and confirms it with a thumbs up. The ambulance gets there pretty quick and they get Bren's pants back up and wheel him out on a stretcher. While the medics talk to Bren's wife, I check my email again. Nobody else has died, so Francis wins the pool. I start thinking about a good number for next year. Francis and Bren's wife leave with the kids, and Bren gets treated in the ambulance. Later that night, when the swelling is down, he goes home and tells his son that Santa will be fine by Christmas, heart attacks heal quick.

BIO: Matt Carmichael lives and writes in Chicago, IL. His work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review and The Adirondack Review. He tweets unsuccessfully @mttcarmichael.