Marcos Oliveira read Ester’s letter to Santa for the third time. He was crazy to have agreed to be Santa this Christmas. His hot morning coffee burned his tongue. His eyes moved along the curves of his wife’s fat-free body and settled on her tight bum. At the kitchen counter, Julie Oliveira prepared lunch packs for their two kids.

“Kids don’t ask Santa for toys anymore?” said Marcos. “This kinda thing happens because we fill kids’ heads with too many super-heroes stories and fairy tales.”

Julie turned to face her husband. “Santa Claus is not a fairy tale. He exists. I know he does. If you just believe, you’ll find out.”

If you just believe. It was easy for Julie to think that way. For her, Christmas was a time of family reunions, stockings near the fireplace, carol singing, gift-giving, and the like. He had longed stopped believing in Santa. His Brazilian father had flitted from woman to woman like a bumble bee. When one of them snared him, his father followed her to Florida. He never looked back. Marcos was twelve. His Baptist mother from Jackson, Michigan, never accepted losing him. He lost his mother and father with one blow. Christmas became just another day.

“Don’t forget you’re meeting with Ester’s father today!” Julie called out.

Marcos was about to leave home for the office. “This is a crazy idea.” Julie gave him her don’t-defy-me look. “Don’t look at me like that. I’ll meet him. But I still think it’s crazy.”

Thirteen days to Christmas. Even the anticipation of a weekend ahead did not brighten the bleak Friday morning. Marcos drove along Queens Boulevard on his fourteen-minute daily commute from Richmond Hill to his office in Forest Hills. His brainchild, Krystal Web and Graphic Design Services LLC, needed a transfusion. The government was showering Wall Street fat cats with taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars. Who cared that small businesses were bleeding to death?

At his office, Marcos soaked in the warmth of the well-lit, open-space of caramel tones. Try as he may, he could never beat Sherri Ramnarine to the office. She tapped her keyboard like she was there all night. Her enthusiasm and love for her work made it fun working with her. He remembered the days when his creative work consumed all his too-few waking hours. Nowadays, his time slipped away in attending to clients.

“Any calls?”

“Not yet.” The 20-year-old Indian beauty fingered her long shiny black hair. “The proposal for the Vortex account is on your desk.”

“Thanks,” said Marcos. “I’m meeting them later today. Let’s hope they sign a contract.” Marcos knocked three times on Sherri’s desk. She laughed. “What?”

“You’re funny. Knocking on wood won’t change anything.”

“It worked for my father.” Marcos visualized his father lying on a beach in Florida with his rich widow. He removed his laptop from his briefcase. Ester’s pink envelope peeped out a pocket inside the case. On an impulse, he pulled it out and walked over to Sherri’s desk. “Have a look at this.”

Sherri took the envelope. Santa Claus, North Pole, Alaska 99705. She looked up at Marcos. “Where’d you get this?”

“One of Julie’s friends at the New York General Post Office. Letters to Santa go to their “Operation Santa Claus” Section. They give them to people who wanna help.”

Sherri read Ester’s letter to Santa.

Dear Santa,

I hope that you and Mrs. Santa Claus are well and the reindeers too. My name is Ester Persaud. I live in Little Guyana with my daddy Anand, my mummy Sonia and my brother Robby. Robby is six and I am eight years old. I am in third grade.

Santa, I am writing you because the bank is going to close our house in four days. Mummy told daddy that she is not going to live in grandma’s basement. She is going back to Guyana. Robby and I will not see mummy anymore.

Santa, I don’t want my mummy to go away. I want mummy to stay with daddy, Robby and me. Santa, I don’t need any toys this Christmas. All I want for Christmas is my mummy.

I love you Santa and will always believe in you.

Ester Persaud.

Sherri looked up at Marcos. “Wow! That’s a tall order. Can’t be easy being Santa these days.”

“It’s crazy! My daughter thinks Santa can work miracles too. She asked Santa to help her brother to talk.”

“Kids dream big. How do you plan to help Ester?”

“Last Saturday, Julie and I went to the address on the envelope. Their home is already in foreclosure.”

Sherri looked at the back of the envelope: Ester Persaud, 115th Avenue, South Ozone Park, Queens, NY 11420. “It’s getting worse every day. Two homes were boarded up on our block in November,” said Sherri. “It’s scary.”

“We were able to track down Ester’s father, Anand Persaud. He’s a real estate broker. I’m meeting him today at Kaieteur Restaurant on Jamaica and Lefferts.”

“That’s awesome!”

“Don’t you think he’ll be pissed off that I’m meddling in his life?”

“Why should he? When he reads Ester’s letter to Santa, he’ll understand you’re only trying to help her.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“When we sow goodness, we will reap goodness,” said Sherri. “Besides, it’s no coincidence that Ester’s letter fell into your hands.”

On his drive from his Forest Hills Office on Queens Boulevard to the Kaieteur Restaurant, Marcos wondered what he would say to Ester’s father. Sherri thought that his concerns were unwarranted. But an uneasy feeling that he was tinkering with Pandora’s Box gnawed at him. This was not a good idea. Why did he let Julie get him involved in this “Operation Santa Claus” affair? Caring for their five-year-old Ethan had changed his wife. Three agonizing years since they learned their son may never talk. Julie reduced her hours as library technical assistant at the St. John’s University in Queens. She started training as a teacher for children with learning disabilities.

After locating a parking space on the street, Marcos entered the reception area of the Kaieteur Restaurant. Anand Persaud rose from the seat near a tall coconut palm. His handshake was firm. His open smile and eye contact put Marcos at ease. A waitress led them to a table for two, away from the noisy bar. Anand, a foot shorter and slightly stockier, seemed about the same age as Marcos’ 34 years.

Marcos was a beer-lover like his father but he joined Anand with a Planter’s Punch. It kicked a punch like the Brazilian caipirinha. Marcos ordered grilled chicken breast with fried rice. Anand chose lamb curry and plain rice with cabbage and bora.

“Thanks for seeing me,” said Marcos. “I don’t live too far from here: 110th Street in Richmond Hill. As I mentioned on the phone, I received Ester’s letter to Santa.” Marcos removed Ester’s letter from his briefcase. “Here it is.”

Anand read Ester’s letter. Marcos watched his face for any reaction but got none.

“Children can do the most unexpected things,” said Anand. “She must have overheard me and her mother talking about the foreclosure.”

“I’m sorry you’ve lost your home,” said Marcos. “Twelve years of hard labor gone down the drain,” said Anand.

“Beautiful place. My wife and I passed by last Saturday hoping to see you.”

“It was a great neighborhood for the kids. Ester was two when we bought the house. We thought we’d finally made it in the US.”

“Krystal was a baby when we bought our home,” said Marcos. “She’s eight like Ester.”

“Ester has been a blessing for us. She’s smart and doing well in school. She tops her class in English and Math.” A smile spread across Anand’s face.

“It’s so good when they like school and do well, isn’t it? Krystal is doing well but she could do much better. She’s great with her five-year old brother, Ethan. He has a delayed speech disability. He was 18 months when a truck hit my wife’s car. He was strapped in his car seat in the back seat. He doesn’t talk yet. The doctors think it may be an emotional trauma.”

“I’m sorry, man. Our children are our world. We want the best for them.”

“My daughter also sent a letter to Santa,” said Marcos. “She asked Santa to help Ethan to start talking.”

The two men laughed at their daughters’ innocence.

“I think we’re the luckiest men in Queens,” said Marcos.

“Cheers to that!” said Anand, raising his glass.”

“This food is good,” said Marcos, savoring a mouthful of the grilled chicken and fried rice. “I’ve gotta bring my wife here sometime.”

“My wife and kids love the food, too. We used to come here often when my real estate business was booming.”

“We cut down on eating out, too. Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring,” said Marcos. “What can we do to make life easier for our kids?”

“I stay up at night trying to figure that out,” said Anand. “Things are tough for us right now. I had to close my real estate office. Nobody’s buying houses now. My investments went up in smoke when the stock market crashed. My wife now works two jobs.”

“Man, if the banks don’t free up credit soon, I’ll have to close my office too and start working from home.”

“We’ve been here since the eighties,” said Anand. “It’s never been this bad.”

“This is a buyer’s market,” said Marcos. “One of my clients invested in a failed housing project in Jamaica about twenty years ago. He turned it into a successful luxury apartment complex. You might have heard about it: Sitara Luxury Apartments. The owner’s from Guyana too.”

“Are you talking about Balram Ramnarine?” said Anand.

“Yeah. You know him?”

“Heard about him. He was a good friend of my father from their Guyana days. How did you meet him?”

“His granddaughter, Sherri, works for me. In June, she invited my wife and I to Balram’s fiftieth wedding anniversary party.”

“We have little contact with the Ramnarines. There was a falling out years ago between our families. My father hasn’t spoken with Uncle Balram for years.”

Marcos felt uneasy about the turn in the conversation. “Sorry to hear that. I have little contact with Balram Ramnarine. His eldest son runs the business now.”

Anand looked at his wristwatch. Marcos sensed that talking about the Ramnarine family was a bad way to go. Best to call it quits. “It’s been great chatting with you. Thanks for the meeting.”

“Same here,” said Anand. “Thanks for wanting to help my Ester. Her mother and I are working things out. We’re looking for an apartment.”

Marcos waved to their waitress. He and Anand exchanged business cards. “Let’s keep in touch,” said Marcos.

On Monday morning, a chilly wind whipped Marcos’ face as he entered the rear entrance of the office building. December 15. Winter was here again. Forecasters predicted freezing temperatures with plenty of snow. Brrr… Why was it that every beautiful thing had a downside?

He had two client visits today to discuss art proofs. Sherri’s CD cover illustration captured the eye. This was their third proof. The band leader was total drama. Sherri greeted him without taking her eyes off her computer desktop.

“We got the Vortex contract,” said Marcos.

“Way to go! That’s great news.”

He handed her their portfolio. “We’ll meet around ten to define responsibilities.” Marcos glanced around the office. “Where’s Stan?”

“He’s gonna be late this morning. Gotta take his wife to the doctor. He finished the layout for the Kamco Website. He’ll discuss it with you as soon as he gets in.”

Stan’s wife was pregnant with their first child, due in January. Marcos had promised him a raise when the baby was born. That was before the Wall Street crash in September and all the slush that came after. Stan was their programmer and Web designer. Marcos couldn’t think about the possibility of losing him.

“By the way, Marcos, how did your meeting go Friday with Anand Persaud?"

“Glad that you asked. I was wondering when you were you going to tell me that your grandfather and Anand’s father were pals?”

“I didn’t know, Marcos. I swear. Persaud is a common Guyanese surname.” Sherri stared at him. “I told my mother about Ester’s letter to Santa. She said that Aunt Chitra, dad’s younger sister, was married to Anand’s big brother. That was back in 1988, the year I was born. I grew up with Aunt Chitra’s two sons, Harry and Rudy.”

“Anand mentioned that his father and your grandfather haven’t spoken to one other in years. He didn’t want to talk about it.”

“Mom said there was a fight over the property when Aunt Chitra’s marriage broke up. The Persauds and Ramnarines had both invested in the property. Mom said it was a dirty legal battle.”

“Who ended up with the property?”

“Aunt Chitra. The Persauds conceded for the sake of their grandsons. Their son returned to Guyana soon after the divorce settlement. He was murdered two years ago by gunmen who broke into his home.”

“I’m sorry.” Marcos thought about his own father. They hadn’t spoken since his mother’s funeral four years ago.

“Aunt Chitra and her sons moved to New Jersey some years ago. My cousins and I keep in touch online. We chatted Sunday. They want to help Ester.”

“Really? How can they help?”

“Aunt Chitra rented the house when they moved to New Jersey. With the economic crisis these days, the house has been vacant for the last four months. They want Anand and his family to move in.”

“Hey! This is the best news I’ve had in days.”

“There’s just one big problem.”

“What’s that?”

“The two families haven’t spoken to each other for thirteen years. How do we get them talking again? We’re also afraid Grandpa Balram will be against the offer.”

The first day of winter was a big day for Marcos Oliveira. He adored Chitra’s Kessel Street house. Ester and her family would be happy here. He crossed his fingers. He knocked on wood. They had to make this work.

Marcos, Julie, and Sherri planned a Christmas party at Chitra’s house. They transformed the living room into a Winter Wonderland. A large artificial Christmas tree twinkled and blinked in the corner near the kitchen door. The ornament-laden tree mesmerized Krystal and Ethan.

“Look, Ethan!” said Krystal, pointing to each ornament. “Santa’s reindeer… Frosty, the Snowman… Santa… An angel… Baby Jesus in his crib…”

“Look and don’t touch,” said Julie.

Sherri arrived around noon with her grandparents, Balram and Parbattie Ramnarine. Marcos and Julie greeted them in the front entryway. Sherri’s grandparents looked around the first floor.

“The place looks good,” said Balram. He stood in the kitchen door. “I haven’t been here since Chitra and her sons moved out.”

Sherri took her grandparents upstairs to the bedrooms and bathroom. Julie and Marcos remained in the living room with Krystal and Ethan.

“Sherri’s grandmother doesn’t look pleased,” said Julie.

“It’s gonna be okay.” Marcos squeezed Julie’s hand. Women were like that. Letting go of a grudge was not easy for them.

Julie served drinks and snacks when everyone had gathered together in the living room.

“Sherri told us about Ester’s letter to Santa,” said Balram. “My daughter, Chitra, wants to transfer this property to Ester’s father, Anand Persaud.”

“Anand Persaud and his family know nothing about this,” said Marcos.

“They’ll be joining us shortly,” said Julie. “Please think of the children.”

“Indira Persaud coming to this house?” said Parbattie. Her face puffed up like a blowfish.

“Calm down, Grandma!” said Sherri. “You know it’s not good for your heart.” Sherri turned to her grandfather. “Grandpa, don’t you think it’s time to put an end to this feud? These are tough times. We should be helping each other.”

“If it wasn’t for that conniving woman, my daughter wouldda never suffer the way she suffer,” said Parbattie.

“Sherri’s right,” said Balram to his wife. “It’s time we let bygones be bygones.”

The doorbell chimed. Twelve fifty. Marcos opened the door to the front porch. Ester looked up at him with a dimpled smile. Her large black eyes captured everything around her. Two long plaits with red ribbon bows hung over her shoulders. Her brother stood by her side. Her parents and grandparents greeted him with glum looks. Marcos ushered them inside out of the cold. Julie joined them in the front entryway for introductions.

“Why did you invite us to this house, Mr. Oliveira?” said Anand’s mother, Indira Persaud.

“Anand mentioned that he was looking for an apartment,” said Marcos. “My assistant said that this house was up for rent. We thought it would be a good opportunity for you all to have a look around… See if you like the house.”

Parbattie jumped out of her seat when the Persauds entered the living room. “Is what they doing here?” she said, killing Indira Persaud with her look.

Indira Persaud turned to Marcos. “Mr. Oliveira, this was not a good idea.” She took her husband’s hand. “Samuel, let’s go before I say something I’ll regret.”

“Mother, this is about Ester and Robby,” said Anand. “Could you think about them?”

“Don’t accuse me of not thinking about my grandchildren,” said Indira. “We gave up this house thirteen years ago for the sake of our grandsons.”

Parbattie moved forward in attack mode. Balram pulled her back. “What happened in the past should never have happened,” he said. “But it’s done. We can’t change the past but we can change what happens now and tomorrow.”

Balram went over to the Persaud family and shook hands with Samuel, Indira, Anand, and his wife. Parbattie fumed alone.

Indira Persaud approached Parbattie Ramnarine. “My son loved Chitra and his sons very much. I just wanted the best for them.”

“When our children become adults, we can’t live their lives for them,” said Parbattie.

“I tried to stop the drinking and beating. He wouldn’t listen anymore to me and his father. I’m sorry.”

“Where the children gone?” said Anand.

“They’re upstairs with Sherri, playing in the master bedroom,” said Julie, emerging from the dining room. “How about food, everyone? It’s set out in the dining room.”

“I’ll get Sherri and the kids,” said Marcos.

Stan and his wife were due anytime now. They wouldn’t be staying too long, Stan had said. His eight-month pregnant wife could not sit for long hours. Thank God. The pressure in the room had dropped. Ester had taken the other children under her wings. Ethan glued to her like a shadow. Their son who shunned strangers. Marcos and Julie marveled at the way she engaged him in all their activities. The four children sat together on the floor near the Christmas tree. Their plates and mouths were full.

Sherri joined Marcos and Julie near the dining room door. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?"

“Yes, she is,” said Marcos. “We were just saying how Ethan pays keen attention to everything she says and does.”

“Have you noticed that the old folks are actually talking with each other?” said Sherri.

“Yeah, we noticed,” said Marcos. “I was worried for a while that your grandmother would scalp Anand’s mother.”

Sherri laughed. “This is not reality TV.”

The three laughed.

“Everyone has finished eating,” said Julie. “I think it’s time to give out the presents.”

“Stan is upstairs with his wife getting dressed,” said Sherri. “I’ll see how he’s doing.”

Sherri disappeared up the stairs. Within a few minutes, they heard the loud banging of Santa’s bell and his “HO HO HO.” Santa carried a large red sack over his shoulder. Sherri followed with another sack. The children rushed and hugged Santa. Julie arranged a chair for Santa near the Christmas tree.

“Who’s going to be Santa’s helper?” said Sherri.

All the children’s arms went up. Ethan was the chosen one. Krystal accompanied him across the room for each delivery. Marcos’ spirit soared to witness the delight on his son’s face.

Marcos sat between Julie, on his right, and Anand, on his left. Santa got him Kiss the Girl’s new CD rock album, Touch. Things had worked out much better than he had expected. Julie was right. Santa exists. You only have to believe.

As he watched Balram and Samuel chat and laugh with each other, Marcos knew it was time to release the grudge he carried against his father. They hadn’t spoken or seen each other since his mother died of cancer four years ago. What better time than Christmas Day?

Julie leaned forward to address Anand and his wife: “Your daughter has worked a miracle. I’ve never seen Ethan as happy as he is today.”

“I’ve noticed it too,” said Sonia Persaud. “Anand mentioned that he doesn’t talk.”

“That’s right,” said Julie. “He suffers from a speech delay disorder. We’re hopeful that one day we’ll hear him speak.”

Marcos’ body tensed. Ester received her gift from Santa. She shook the small box. She read the card taped to the present. She looked up, eyes wide open. Her large black eyes darted from side to side. She whispered something to the other children and ran towards her father.

“Daddy, Santa got my letter!”

“What letter?”

“I wrote a letter to Santa. I told him about our house. About mummy going back to Guyana.” She handed the card to her father. “Read Santa’s letter, Daddy!”

Anand took the card. He read it in a low voice for his wife to hear.

My dearest Ester,

I got your letter. Mrs. Santa Claus and I were very sad to learn that the bank had taken your home. This Christmas, lots of children have lost their homes. It’s a sad time for kids.

Since you’ve been such a good girl this year, Mrs. Santa Claus and I have decided to grant you your wish. In the box, you will find the keys to your new home. Your mummy will not have to return to Guyana. Continue to be a good girl, be obedient to your parents and grandparents, help your mummy and daddy, and take care of your little brother.

Mrs. Santa Claus and I love you,

Santa Claus

Ester handed Santa’s present to her mother. “You open the present, Mummy.”

Anand’s wife unwrapped the present. In the box were several keys, all tagged. Ester hugged her mother. “You won’t have to go back to Guyana, Mummy. Santa found a new home for us.”

Sonia Persaud kissed her daughter on the head. “Thanks, darling. I love you and Robby very much. Everything will work out for us.”

Ester ran off to join the other kids. Marcos and Julie rose from their seats as Indira Persaud approached them from across the room.

“Mr. Oliveira, thank you for this big blessing you bring to my family.” She outstretched her arms and hugged Marcos. She hugged Julie. “God bless you and your children.”

“You have an amazing granddaughter,” said Julie. “She’s a special person.”

Marcos felt someone tugging at his shirt. “Daddy! Daddy!” said Krystal. “Santa got my letter.” Ethan stood behind Krystal. “Ethan, show Daddy what Santa gave you.”

Ethan held up his book to his father. “Dah-dy… A-nan-si.” He pointed to the colored picture of a spider character on the open page.

Marcos swept his son up from the floor. He lifted him high up into the air.

“What’s going on?” said Julie.

Ethan gave his mother the book. Julie read the title: “Tiger Soup: An Anansi Story from Jamaica.”

“Mum-my… A-nan-si… smart,” said Ethan.

Tears rolled down Marcos’ cheeks as he and Julie hugged Ethan between them. Krystal, Ester, and Robby jumped up in the middle of the living room. They chanted: “Ethan is talking! Ethan is talking!”

In the background, Judy Garland sang “Have yourself a merry little Christmas.”

First published in the now defunct New York-based magazine Guyana Journal December 2008 Issue.