Willow Bay, if you’re not familiar with the area, is nestled on the shores of Lake Thunderbird in the Cookson Hills of Northeast Oklahoma. Folks in Willow Bay make their living by renting out cabins, pontoon boats, giving swimming lessons, scuba lessons, and running marinas. With the summer season unofficially falling between Memorial Day and Labor Day, it seemed that every year the rich folk came earlier and stayed later. The Willow Bay Annual Christmas Get-Together was the town’s way of casting off the frustrations and headaches of the summer and moving forward to a quiet winter and spring before pulling out the fake smiles and patient manners for another season.
In 1978, the Annual Christmas Get-Together was held at the old high school gymnasium. The cars began pulling into the old school parking lot around six-thirty Christmas Eve, but the party didn’t really get started for another hour. Outside, lined along the walls of the gymnasium, were a dozen or more men and women, chatting and laughing as they smoked cigarettes, and nodding at the newcomers as they walked through the blue-gray cloud.
Inside, the first thing to greet you at the door was the twangy guitars of the Irv Winkler Band, which played gospel music every Tuesday night at the V.F.W. in Conphis, Oklahoma. The band sat up on the old wooden stage that the high school used for graduation ceremonies and talent shows. Irv Winkler, who played steel guitar and sang, was born and raised in Willow Bay, and came home every Christmas with his band for the Willow Bay Christmas Get-Together.
On one side of the gymnasium, along the out-of-bounds line, sat table after table of pies and cakes and cobblers filled with everything from apples and cherries to apricots and gooseberries. The older ladies sat behind the tables, some underneath an afghan or quilt that they were working on, keeping an eye on the mischievous men who would walk along the tables, staring down at all of those beautiful dishes. Some of the men would try to stick their fingers into the homemade crusts, only to be hissed at by the old ladies sitting along the wall, and then the women would cackle as the men scurried away. Toward the end of the night, a pie auction would come underway in which all of the pies would be sold off for fifteen to twenty-five dollars – all the proceeds going to help some neighbor who had recently had a house fire or been diagnosed with some disease or another.
Past the desserts was the potluck – stews, casseroles, fried catfish, pineapple baked hams, onion rings, salads, corn on the cob, fried squash, fresh pickled cucumbers, okra, fresh snap peas, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, chicken noodle soup, three-alarm chili, fry bread, meatloaf, yeast rolls, baked potatoes, fried potatoes, potatoes au gratin, baked beans, pork and beans, green beans, brown beans, chicken legs, chicken breasts, chicken thighs, chicken and rice, broccoli and rice, broccoli and cheese, and somebody always brought a big dish of lime Jello with shaved carrots suspended inside. A line wound around the dinner tables. For hours, folks came and went as they pleased, loading their plates with this and that, and before the last person in line could make their way around the food, folks were waiting in line again for seconds.
Scattered throughout the gym were packs of families. Some sat in the bleachers tapping their feet to the music. Others brought lawn chairs and sat in the middle of the floor. For most of the people there, the Willow Bay Annual Christmas Get-Together was a time to get together and laugh with a couple hundred of your closest friends. For others, though, like Melinda Sawney, the owner of a Native American gift shop, the evening was spent keeping an eye peeled for the arrival of the photographer from the paper – and not the little Willow Bay Weekly that circulated through the town, but rather the big daily Conphis Times. Since 1964, Melinda Sawney had made it a point to be mentioned in the news article or seen in the photograph covering the Willow Bay Annual Christmas Get-Together, and has yet to miss an issue. Melinda could be seen most Get-Togethers pacing back and forth at the entrance of the gym. She was stopped occasionally by the newcomers who wished her hello, but she was always short with them, craning her neck to look behind in case the photographer should slip in behind them.
The scores of Willow Bay children ran through the gym, winding around their parents, laughing and whooping and occasionally crying when they’d fall and skin their knees. The adults would chat to themselves about the summer they had just had, sipping their unsweetened teas, or eating a spoonful of green Jello with shaved carrots, and then come to a screeching halt as a dozen or more little heathens came screaming through the middle of their conversations, shouting and giggling and waving their hands like mad. In every pack of running kids, there was usually one back-arming a runner of snot from his or her nose.
The junior high kids congregated along the walls of the gymnasium in packs. At the beginning of the night, the boys and girls would be separated into their own cliques, but by nine or ten o’clock, the groups of boys and girls would merge and dates would be made for next week’s New Year’s Eve parties.
I stood back against the wall of the auditorium with a couple of my buddies. I was fourteen years old. It was still a little early in the night, just before eight o’clock, and I was planning on asking Andrea Deere to be my date for next week’s New Year’s Eve party. It was the first year I was allowed to go, and I was hoping to have someone to go with to avoid the awkwardness of being the only guy without a date when themidnightbell chimed. My friends were chatting about the girls in our class that had the biggest breasts, but I was too nervous to talk. Andrea’s boobs were big enough for me.
The Irv Winkler Band finished up “Just As I Am” and Irv stood up from his steel guitar and said loudly and clearly into the microphone, “I need everyone’s attention please.”
Like a wave, the citizens of Willow Bay turned toward the stage, each face beaming and smiling. Even Maybelle Hill and Diane Wozencraft, two elderly ladies who were best friends 364 days a year, except for on the night of the Willow Bay Annual Christmas Get-Together, when they found themselves bitter rivals for the pie auction. They fought bitterly every winter to be the Willow Bay woman with the pie that brought in the highest bid. That year, Maybelle Hill brought an absolutely beautiful chokecherry pie. Diane Wozencraft brought lemon meringue.
“Can I please have your attention?” Irv Winkler said into his microphone.
Every head in the gymnasium looked at him. The children stopped running and gazed up at the silver-haired musician. The ladies stopped gossiping and looked up at him. The men stopped diagnosing each other’s car problems and watched.
Silence fell across the auditorium.
“I believe I hear a knocking on our door!”
And just then, there came a terrific pounding on the front door of the gymnasium.
The crowd standing in front of the main doors began to push itself back, away from the sound. Everyone’s head turned to look at those chipped blue, heavy metal doors.
“I wonder who it could be knocking on our door!”
Then the blue doors flung themselves open and Santa Claus leapt through the doorway, his boots smashing into the floor where the others had been standing. Santa grabbed his stomach and roared into the auditorium. “HO! HO! HO!”
Irv Winkler shouted, “IT’S SANTA CLAUS!”
And the children, some of whom had seen the spectacle the year before, some of whom were new to the experience, screamed in terror as the giant man in the red suit and beard began running after them, holding his arms out, and chuckling that annoying chuckle.
Six-year-old Amber Swift saw the man’s arrival and screamed with so much force that the adults beside her doubled over from the pain in their ears. Amber turned and fled from the man in red.
The other children screamed and ran as well, scattering through the auditorium, their mouths wide Os of fear. Some of the children ran blindly, bumping into the legs of adults and falling over. Others dove underneath the dessert and casserole tables.
The adults laughed at the kids, mistaking their pleas for “Help!” and “Save me!” for exaltations of joy and Christmas spirit. We watched, smiling, chuckling, until Santa had chased down a slower four-year-old girl, Vanessa Hart, and scooped her into his arms. He held her up by the armpits over the heads of everyone else in the gymnasium so that we could see her.
“HAVE YOU BEEN A GOOD GIRL THIS YEAR!” Santa shouted into the little girl’s face.
“NOOO!” Little Vanessa Hart wailed throwing her head back, allowing her body to go limp.
The adults chuckled at this, and chatter began to pick up like it had before Santa had appeared. The Irv Winkler Band sat back down and began playing another number, and Maybelle Hill and Diane Wozencraft went back to passive-aggressively making insults about the other’s cooking abilities, and Melinda Sawney continued to watch the front door for signs of the Conphis Times, and I tried to muster up the courage to ask Andrea Deere to the New Year’s Eve party.
That year, like it had been for six years prior to that, Santa Claus was none other than Aaron Gonzales – the owner of Aaron’s Cabin Rental. Aaron was well-known through Willow Bay, and liked by most people, though it was common knowledge not to leave your wives or teenaged daughters with him. Aaron was a smooth conman, and was said to have spent many an afternoon testing out the springiness of the beds in his cabins with a variety of tourists and local women. The high school girls knew of Aaron’s reputation and enjoyed flirting with the tall, broad-shouldered devil, who liked to wink at the girls and flash his smile around a Kool cigarette.
Sometime before nine o’clock, I walked around the side of the gymnasium where Andrea Deere was standing with her friends. She was so beautiful in her dark blue jeans and button-up blouse. Her dark hair was pulled back in a long ponytail that she brought over her shoulder so that it fell between her big-enough breasts. I walked slowly, my palms sweating, my knees trembling, my stomach flipping and flopping. “Andrea?” I said. And she turned to look at me. Her friends giggled. “Yes?” she said.
Behind her, Santa Claus had captured another little kid by the armpits and lifted him high off the ground, pulling him back to an empty chair next to the wall. The kid, Colby Patterson, squalled as the giant man with the white beard took hold of him. Colby’s freckled face was red with fear, and his eyes, already magnified behind a pair of thick framed glasses, were so big that you could see the white encircling the lenses. Santa plopped down on his chair, holding little Colby there, and bellowed, “Have you been a good boy this year?” and Colby wailed.
On stage, the Irv Winkler Band was announcing the beginning of the pie auction as folks began gathering around the dessert tables to decide on what they were going to place their bids on once the auction began. I, however, was barely cognizant of any of that, as I had the beautiful Andrea Deere in front of me, and I was about to ask her to the New Year’s Eve party. My eyes flicked from her face to that of the screaming Colby Patterson, whom I could see just over her shoulder.
“You see, Andrea,” I said. Onstage, there was a whine of feedback that I could feel run through my chest. I winced. Andrea giggled. Her friends giggled. “You see,” I started again, “there’s this thing happening next week over at Bobby Owl’s place, and I was wondering if –”
I opened my mouth to say “you,” but instead of the word, what came out of my mouth was this barking explosion. And my eyes just happened to flick over Andrea’s shoulder at that time and I saw the face of Santa Claus explode, splashing little Colby Patterson with blood and pink pieces of meat that could have been brains. Little Colby Patterson, who was screaming already, paused for a moment, then opened his mouth so wide that his chin touched his chest and his pudgy freckled cheeks pushed his glasses up over his forehead, and he let out a wail so shrill that elderly men all over the gymnasium had to pull out their hearing aids.
All conversation stopped, and when we realized that it was a gunshot that had made the noise, nearly everyone standing collapsed onto their bellies. I dropped to my knees. Andrea stood, looking back to where the shot had come from. I reached up and grabbed her by the wrist and jerked her down beside me.
I later heard what had happened from my father, who was standing near the front of the gym when it went down. James Erickson shot Santa Claus in the face for getting his fifteen-year-old daughter pregnant. At his interrogation, James said that he walked in with the rifle at his side, stepped into the gymnasium and just listened for the wailing of a child. He said once he saw Gonzales sit down with the little boy in his lap, he just lifted his rifle, sighted his big immoral nose in his sights, and pulled the trigger.
Those standing around James Erickson pounced on him as soon as he lowered his weapon. My dad was one of those that wrestled him to the ground. Dad said as he went down James Erickson was shouting, “I want my baby girl back! I want my baby girl back!” But he didn’t fight them.
On my end of the gymnasium, Colby Patterson sat screaming at the top of his lungs, staring down at the gruesome bloodied face of Santa Claus. Santa’s hat was blown off, as well as his wig, revealing his straight, black hair and bloody skull. Colby sat and screamed until his mother came and scooped him away, shooshing him, and wiping the brains off his face.
“Call the sheriff!” somebody shouted. And people began to stir again. The residents moved into three distinct groups. There were those that ran over to where my dad was holding James Erickson until the police got there. There were those that ran over to the body of Santa Claus – to see if there was anything they could do. And then the rest of us migrated to the sides of the gymnasium.
Soon, the gymnasium was filled with the sounds of approaching sirens as three police cruisers and an ambulance arrived at the situation. The sheriff and his men advanced into the gymnasium with their handguns pulled despite the fact that James Erickson was, by that time, sitting on the bottom bleacher telling those around him to make sure his wife knew that he was going to jail for shooting Santa Claus, and that she had his permission to go ahead and open the Christmas presents under the tree without him. The sheriff came in and slapped handcuffs around James Erickson’s wrists and led him out of the gymnasium and into his cruiser, where he was carted off to jail.
While that was happening, the paramedics came bustling into the gym with a gurney. Of course, by the time they got to Santa, he was already dead. They wrestled the body onto the gurney anyway, and checked with Colby Patterson to make sure that the boy wasn’t hurt. As they were beginning to wheel Santa out of the gymnasium, a reporter and photographer from the Conphis Times arrived. On the front page of the next day’s paper, in the background of the photograph depicting the paramedic draping the white sheet over Santa’s face, there stood Melinda Sawney, hovering in the background, smiling the same toothy smile she has smiled in every edition of the Conphis Times that mentioned the Willow Bay Annual Christmas Get-Together since 1964.
In the absence of music, the chatter and questions began. The sheriff’s men asked questions of witnesses on both sides of the gym. Women talked in heightened, gossipy tones about what they had been doing and where they had been when the gunshot blew off the top of Santa Claus’s head. Like a Christmas miracle, Aaron Gonzales was no longer the fellow in Willow Bay that men had to worry about leaving their daughters with; by the time the night was over, Aaron Gonzales was said to have been a moral compass in this time of wickedness and was rumored to have adopted not one, but two starving orphans.
As it turns out, the murder of Santa Claus at what would become the last Willow Bay Annual Christmas Get-Together was not the only crime committed that night. As we read the next week in the article in the Willow Bay Weekly, apparently during the commotion after the gunshot, there were several desserts stolen from the table for the pie auction. Among those stolen were Maybelle Hill’s chokecherry pie. Of course, Diane Wozencraft denied rumors that she had in fact done away with Maybelle Hill’s chokecherry pie so that her very own lemon meringue would earn highest honors during the auction, but Maybelle Hill didn’t believe it. It looked as though the long-time friendship between the two women would be as dead as Aaron Gonzales until Diane Wozencraft suggested to Maybelle Hill that someone must have stolen her chokecherry pie because they were always the most delicious. And with that, Maybelle Hill and Diane Wozencraft’s friendship was saved. As of today, the pie remains missing.
I walked with Andrea Deere and most of the other attendees of the Annual Willow Bay Christmas Get-Together out into the parking lot of the old high school gymnasium and watched the paramedics load Santa Claus into the back of the ambulance. As we stood in the pulsing red and blue lights, I leaned over to Andrea Deere and asked her if she wanted to go with me to the New Year’s Eve party the following week. She didn’t look at me or even stop wringing her hands, but she said yes anyway.
After that year, there never was another Willow Bay Annual Christmas Get-Together, and even the donning of a red suit and beard was considered in bad taste within the community. And so for the residents of Willow Bay, who looked forward to the winter season each year after a hectic summer full of tourists, Christmas was always overshadowed a bit by the death of Aaron Gonzales – Santa Claus. Now the folks of Willow Bay celebrate Christmas with their families rather than with the community, and while some see this as a bad thing – the dissolution of the American neighborhood, some might say – I like to imagine the families pulling closer together, appreciating what they have, and cognizant of what they could lose.
After the ambulance left, everyone was in a pretty somber mood, and the pie auction was cancelled, and everyone went home earlier than usual. I, however, was pretty happy. And while my mind naturally associates the first time I asked Andrea Deere out on a date as the same night I saw Santa Claus’s face blown off with a rifle, I still think she was the most beautiful while she was standing there in those revolving red and blue lights of the ambulance, nibbling at her lower lip, and trembling all over.
When not writing, Gregg Winkler splits his time between working for the U.S. government, teaching composition at a number of colleges in Northeastern Oklahoma, playing funky riffs on the bass guitar, and squeezing in some quality time with his beautiful wife and two sons. When asked about aspirations, always near the top of his list is his desire to grow a decent beard.