The Volkswagen bug died at four forty-eight P.M., on Friday, December 18th, at the intersection of Main and Winterwood. There’s no good time for an automobile to pull the el foldo, but badness comes in degrees. Dave Bellini scored this one on the down-side of terrible, shading into disastrous.

Without trying hard he thought of four reasons why the timing could hardly be worse. The complications knocked at his brain and refused to quit clamoring for attention while he pressed the key repeatedly and listened to the futile grinding of the starter. He sneaked a hopeful glance at the gas gauge, but it didn’t co-operate. He’d filled the tank just yesterday.

The chorus of horns around him sounded an unnecessary reminder that the car had picked one of the busiest intersections in town to take this dive. Dave released his seat belt, unbuttoned his shirt, and yanked the pillow out from under the shiny black vinyl belt. He wanted to take off the whole damned outfit, but it was thirty-eight degrees outside and he wore only thermal underwear beneath it. That was another inconvenience of the timing: a lot of rubber-neckers would get a good laugh from seeing a guy in a Santa Claus suit with his head buried in the innards of a defunct Volkswagen.

Dave got out, opened the back hood, and peered in. A kid in a black Camaro pulled up behind him, stopped the car, and jumped out. He was several years younger than Dave, probably not out of his teens yet. “Got a prob?” the boy asked.

“Major,” Dave answered, swearing at a grease spot on his red pants. The suit was rented. “I think it’s terminal.”

“Mind if I give it a look?” the kid asked, getting into the front seat.

“Go ahead.” Dave checked his watch and felt his late snack take another dive. He still had two stops to make; he’d never get back in time to meet Susan for dinner. It didn’t look like he’d have wheels anyway. For three months he’d been trying to get a date with Susan, and on the very day his chariot decides to blow.

The boy slid out of the car and started poking around inside the motor. “Checked the oil and the…” The last word was muffled as his head disappeared into the entrails. He seemed to know what he was about so Dave left him alone.

Some minutes later the kid stepped back and looked at Dave. “You’ve got a problem, friend.” He launched into a list of the car’s defects. Dave caught things like “fuel pump” and “ring and valve job” and decided that his original diagnosis probably covered the situation accurately: dead.

A police car pulled up and Dave explained the situation to the uniformed officer who stepped out. With the help of the kid, Dave and the policeman pushed the Volkswagen to the side of the road.

“Get you a wrecker?” the officer asked.

Dave agreed; he had to do something about the VW, but he didn’t harbor much hope that it was salvageable. He sat with the officer in the squad car while they waited for the wrecker. The kid had offered to drop him somewhere before he took off, but Dave decided to stay with the body until it was suitably disposed.

“You said your name was David Bellini?” the policeman asked. “Sounds familiar. Should I know you?”

“Geez, I hope not,” Dave said, then thought about it again. “Not like that, anyway. You might’ve heard of me, though. You follow football?”

“That’s it!” the officer said. “You play for State, right? Linebacker, isn’t it? You’re pretty good, I hear. I’m Joe Masterson, by the way. Sorry to meet you under these circumstances. But, listen, I gotta ask. What’s a guy like you doing driving a wre…, er, sorry, a car like that?”

Dave grinned. “Pretty good linebackers at division two schools don’t rate fancy automobiles. Three meals a day and a room in the jock’s dorm. That’s it. But, hey, I’m not complaining. I never would’ve gotten to college any other way.”

“Yeah,” Officer Masterson agreed. A wrecker pulled up beside the police car, then maneuvered around to park in front of the VW.

The driver jumped out and eyed the VW dubiously. “What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Everything,” Dave answered.

Like the kid before him, the wrecker driver tried to start the engine, listened to it clunk and grind, then got out and began poking around in the back. When he moved away from it he was shaking his head morosely.

“Gotta haul it into the shop,” he said with the air of a man who suspects he’s scraping up a DOA.

A passing car, slowing like most to see what was going on, suddenly pulled to the curb and stopped. Dave didn’t recognize the dark blue, late model Toyota. The window rolled down and a female voice called, “Dave?”

He didn’t recognize the voice either and had to walk up closer to the car to see who was inside.

“Hi… er, Lynn, isn’t it?” He knew his lack of enthusiasm might be insulting, but with everything else piling up on him he couldn’t manage any polite heartiness. Besides, he hardly knew the girl and what he’d heard didn’t encourage him.

“Dave Bellini, right?” she asked. “We had Worms together last year.” Worms was Dr. Gregg’s Biology 102. Gregg’s specialty was invertebrates in general and annelids in particular. Dave didn’t give a hoot about worms or biology, but the class was the path of least resistance through the university’s science requirement.

He remembered Lynn Marshall. She was foxy enough to be noticeable and snooty enough to repel most of the interest. He’d heard that her daddy had mega-bucks. As she leaned out the window, he could see for himself that she had nice eyes. They glowed deep blue in the slanting rays of the afternoon sun.

“Looks like you’ve got a problem, Dave,” she said. “Need a lift back to campus?”

He was tempted. He might still be able to cadge a ride and make the date with Susan. But there were some kids down on Barwell Drive waiting for Santa to show up. He ran a hand through his hair and heaved a long sigh. “Thanks,” he said, “but I’ve got a job to finish. I’d better stay with the bucket and see if they can get it running again.”

He could call Susan from the shop. He wouldn’t make it for dinner, but he might get there for the party afterward.

Lynn looked at the dead bug, then eyed him up and down, reminding him of how silly he looked in red flannel pants and shirt. “Why the threads?” she asked. “Are you playing Santa?”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “I was delivering presents.”

Her gaze returned to the Volkswagen and her expression turned scornful. “You really think they’ll get that thing going again?”

Good question. Maybe he ought to just let her take him back to campus. “Hell, I don’t know,” he admitted. “I gotta try. Santa Claus can’t disappoint the kids.” Did Mrs. Claus ever get honked off at Santa for taking so long with the deliveries?

“How long do you think it’ll take?” Lynn asked.

“The deliveries?” Dave shrugged. “Maybe an hour or so.”

She consulted a slim gold watch on her wrist and nodded. “Where’s the stuff?” she asked, looking up at him again.

Dave pointed to the VW, where the wrecker driver was about to hoist the front wheels off the ground.

“You can put it back there.” Lynn waved toward the rear seat of her own car.

Dave was startled speechless. “What are you talking about?” he asked just before the silence became insulting.

“You want to deliver those things or not?” She sounded impatient. “I wouldn’t bet long money on getting that heap moving again.”

“You’re offering to help?”

She rolled her eyes. “No. I’m doing aerobics and counting how many red Chevrolets beep at me.”

“You mean it?”

“Garriefff!” She shook her head. The slanting sunlight picked out molten red highlights in her brown hair as it swung. “I’d heard football players were dense. Now I believe it. I’m offering help. Are you going to get the stuff or not?”

“I’ll be right back.” He retrieved the rest of the costume and two boxes of presents from the VW, accepted a card from the wrecker driver and said he’d call later, then pushed the cartons onto the plush upholstery of the Toyota’s rear seat. He put the pillow back there, too. As usual he had to fold himself up a bit to get into the front. Even mid-sized cars didn’t accommodate six-foot four-inch tall linebackers easily. In the Volkswagen he pushed the front seat back as far as it would go and still felt like he was driving with his knees.

“Where to?” she asked, pulling the car into traffic. Dave gave her the directions. It had been a while since he’d felt a ride as smooth and quiet as the Toyota’s. Lynn brushed off his attempts to thank her. “I had the time. And frankly, I’m curious to see what gives with the suit and the presents and all. This is a new one for me — a jock does Santa Claus.”

Dave kept his grimace to himself. “Can I ask another favor?” he ventured. “If you see a phone, would you stop? I need to make a call.”

“Got something you’re going to be late for?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Dave agreed.

“She’ll understand.”

He looked at her. “How did you know?”

She signaled for a turn and braked smoothly at the corner. “What else were you going to be late for on a Friday night?”

“You really think she’ll understand?”

“Why not? You can’t help it if your car broke down.”

“I hope you’re right. What about you?” Dave asked. “Take a left up there at the light. You were on the way to somewhere when you stopped. Is this going to make you late?”

“For nothing important,” she answered.

“Hey! There’s a phone booth,” he said, pointing.

Lynn pulled the car into the parking lot of a convenience store and settled down to wait while Dave got out.

Susan answered on the third ring. Dave explained the situation and concluded by saying he wouldn’t make it for dinner but he might be able to get there for the dancing afterward. She wasn’t happy about it.

“Come on, Dave,” she moaned. “You said you’d take me to this dinner weeks ago. If you’ve got a ride, can’t you put off the Santa Claus thing? Come right back and we’ll make it in time. We can walk to the hotel; it’s just a couple of blocks.”

He agonized over it for a minute. “Susan,” he pleaded. “I’ve got the Calculus final tomorrow, and I’m supposed to catch a plane for home right after it. When am I going to make these deliveries? The kids are expecting me. How can I disappoint them? Look, how about if I meet you at the hotel after dinner?”

Susan sighed heavily. “What am I supposed to do: say ‘no, it’s not okay, I don’t care about the kids, I want you here for dinner’?” She stopped and thought a moment. “Look, we’ve had this date set up for a couple of weeks. And now, at the last minute, you tell me you can’t make it on time? And maybe not at all. It’s going to be pretty embarrassing going to that dinner alone.”

Dave rubbed a hand across his eyes. “You’re right, I know. But what can I do? I’m Santa Claus. Santa Claus doesn’t call and tell a kid, ‘I can’t make it. My reindeer threw a shoe and Mrs. Claus expects me home for dinner by seven.’ I mean, what would the kid think?”

She sighed again. “I don’t know. I see what you mean.”

There was another pause before she said, “How about if I get Chad to take me to the dinner, and you join us at the hotel whenever you can get there? He asked if I was going just this morning.”

Dave’s fingers tightened around the telephone receiver. Meet Susan and Chad there? He could see how that would go. They’d make a cozy threesome, all right. Susan might take turns dancing with the two of them, but Chad would do his best to monopolize her attention. Dave had seen Chad work. His best was pretty good. And when they all went out for a drink afterward, Dave could tag along, too — crunched in the back seat of Chad’s car. Thrilling thought. But what could he say to her now? No, you can’t go with Chad, even though I can’t make it either? That would really make an impression. He drew a deep breath. “Susan… I wish you’d wait for me. Don’t take Chad.”

“I’d rather go with you, Dave,” she said. “If you come back now, we can still make it. Maybe you can squeeze in the deliveries tomorrow.”

Dave paused; a battle thundered in his head. The Calculus exam was at nine in the morning. His flight left at three, tickets courtesy of his parents, who didn’t trust the VW on the highway. He had just enough time to pack and get to the airport if he didn’t linger over the test. “I can’t do it, Susan. I’m sorry; I wish… Go ahead and do what you want. I guess this isn’t going to work out.”

“I guess not.” She sounded disappointed. “Good-bye.”

The phone clicked loudly in his ear. For a minute Dave didn’t believe it and just stood staring vacantly across the parking lot, receiver dangling in his hand. Returning to the car, he was so caught up in his depression that he forgot about pride and a poker face until it was too late.

“She didn’t understand,” Lynn said.

Dave slammed the car door, harder than necessary. “No.”

“Stupid twit. Who is she?”

“Susan Trent.”

“Oh. You were going to the Drama Society dinner?”

“Right,” Dave agreed. Facts met and collided in his brain. “You’re in that group, too, aren’t you? You were in one of the plays they did last year. Why aren’t you going?”

She shook her head. “Who needs it? Hours of standing around talking, mediocre food, lots of boring speeches. Totally dull.”

Dave was annoyed and not sure why. “So what are you doing instead? Going to some nightclub?”

“Maybe,” she answered.

“Take a right, then pull up at the fourth house,” he directed. They were in a residential area of the kind usually described as”depressed”. Their destination looked like the other houses on the street: it lacked paint, gutters, a few window panes, and some boards in the front steps. Dave pushed the pillow back under his shirt and adjusted it, then put on the fake beard and mustache.

“You want me to come in?” Lynn asked.

Dave shrugged. “If you like.”

“Hey, Santa,” she said, as he reached for the door handle. “Rearrange your face. You’re supposed to be jolly, ho-ho-ho, and all that. You look like you lost your last reindeer.”

He made a valiant attempt as he pulled a box of wrapped presents from the rear seat, but it wasn’t until he stepped inside and saw the two children with their wide, dark, expectant eyes, that he forgot everything else.

Lynn stayed to one side, standing with the defeated-looking young parents, while Dave distributed the gifts and watched as they were unwrapped. The little girl was about ten; the Barbie doll and outfits would get plenty of use, but it was the stuffed kitten that she tucked right under her chin to cuddle and hug. Her bouncy, exuberant younger brother put the Power Rangers helicopter and action figures through an immediate workout.

The little boy zoomed his new helicopter over to where Dave sat on a low stool. The child stopped the toy’s swoop and suddenly launched himself at Dave, landing against the pillow, throwing his arms around Dave’s neck and nearly dislodging the fake beard in the process. “Thanks, Santa,” the boy said. “This is the greatest ever!”

Over the child’s dark curly head, Dave met Lynn’s eyes. She watched the scene with a curious expression that didn’t quite make it to a smile. Her slender, elegant figure, clad in designer jeans and expensive sweater, didn’t look so out of place here as he’d expected it would.

They stayed a few minutes longer than the twenty Dave had planned on, but it was hard to get away from the parents’ repeated thanks. The little girl tugged on the pocket of Lynn’s jeans as they were going. “Are you a helf?” she asked.

“A what?” Lynn said.

“Helf,” the girl repeated. “You know, one of Santa’s helves?”

“Oh.” Lynn assayed an awkward pat on the girl’s thin shoulder. “Not yet, but I’m learning.”

The answer satisfied the child.

“It’s a shame the parents couldn’t do that for their own kids,” Lynn said, thoughtfully, after Dave gave her directions to the next house.

“I know,” Dave agreed. “But they’re generally grateful for anything. Any bit of help. It’s better than the nothing they’d have otherwise.”

“Are you doing this for some organization — a fraternity or something?” she asked.

“Not exactly.” Dave adjusted the pillow so that he could sit and breathe at the same time. “A couple of years ago when I was working with the Big Brothers program, I found out there were a bunch of kids in town who weren’t going to get anything for Christmas. Their parents couldn’t afford it. So I organized a couple of my friends and we collected money to buy them toys. Word got around, and last year people told me about more kids they knew, and then this year there were even more, so we expanded our fund-raising efforts all over campus. We got nearly eight hundred dollars, and we’ve bought presents for ninety-three kids. Last year I started dressing up as Santa Claus to make the deliveries. The kids and the parents both seemed to like it, so here I am again this year in a red flannel suit — complete with grease stains — and boots that don’t quite fit.”

“It can’t have been easy to find a suit in your size.”

“It wasn’t.” The fake beard was starting to itch, so he pulled it off. “I have to wear the boots because the pants legs are four inches too short, and I can’t fasten the top two buttons on the shirt. The only place they make it big, I don’t need big — that’s why I use the pillow.”

“At least you don’t have to climb down any chimneys. Your shoulders would never make it.”

The second stop rang minor changes on the theme. There were five children in the family, three boys and two girls, and just the mother was around. The enthusiasm on the childrens’ part was the same as they unwrapped dolls, stuffed animals, balls, a board game, and a fleet of dump trucks and backhoes, complete with moving parts. The mother could hardly talk for the tears running down her

face and the lump that seemed to clog her throat.

“Hey, Santa, how come you ride in a car instead of a sleigh?” one perceptive eight-year-old asked as they were leaving.

“The sleigh broke down,” Dave answered. “An elf had to come rescue me so I could finish my deliveries today.” He winked at Lynn and saw an answering gleam of amusement in her eyes.

“You’re lucky you’ve got such a pretty elf,” the boy said.

“Hey, don’t I know it,” Dave agreed.

Lynn bent down and shook the boy’s hand. “And you’re a very intelligent young man,” she said. The recipient of that compliment grinned broadly and stared bashfully at the floor.

Darkness had fallen by the time they left the last house. Dave’s watch said twenty after six. Too late to get to the dinner. But the visits had reaffirmed his decision to finish the deliveries instead. How could he deny the children the joy he’d seen on their faces? Now, though, as they got back in the car, Dave couldn’t help considering the long, dull evening ahead. He wasn’t about to play third wheel to Susan and Chad’s twosome. He had only the Calculus exam left, which didn’t require much studying. Still, some review wouldn’t hurt. Dave’s stomach submitted an urgent and embarrassingly loud plea for sustenance. He glanced toward Lynn but she gave no sign of having heard. He decided to send out for pizza and tackle the Math book when he got back.

“What now?” Lynn asked. “Back to campus?”

“I guess so,” he said. “But what about your date? Isn’t it getting kind of late?”

“My–? Oh, that’s all right. I’ve got plenty of time. It isn’t for hours yet.”

“You’re sure?” An idea sprang into his head but he couldn’t decide whether to act on it.

Lynn shrugged. She turned to look at him, but in the darkness he couldn’t make out her expression. “It was kind of a… loose arrangement.”

Dave still hadn’t made up his mind. One rebuff per day was about all his ego could take. “Where were you headed earlier when you saw me and stopped?” he asked.

“Earlier?” she said. “Oh, just out to the mall.”

What the heck. It was dark in the car. He couldn’t see her face, so she probably couldn’t see his either. “Listen,” he said. “Since you’re not doing anything for a while, you want to stop somewhere and get pizza? On me, of course. Call it thanks for the help.”

She didn’t answer. In the darkness he could see only the outline of her head, watching the road. Probably trying to figure out how to tell him no without hurting his feelings too badly.

“Forget it,” Dave said, before she could refuse. “I suppose pizza isn’t your favorite food, anyway.” His words seemed to echo in the silence. As it stretched on, he regretted making the suggestion and wished he could sink right into the upholstery.

“Dave.” She stopped and sighed. “You’re wearing a greasy Santa Claus suit.”

He’d only thought his spirits couldn’t get any lower. It looked like the Calculus book won after all.

“You want to stop by your room and change first?” she asked.