The Shelburnes had one. The Cronins and Scintas too. The Schwartzes had had theirs forever. In fact, we were probably the last family on the street to have one of those elves on a shelf. Our mother brought it home on Black Friday. She had been out shopping all day and came home with lots of festive bags that she deposited somewhere in the house. At dinner, she brought an extra chair to the table and put my little brother Davey’s old booster seat on it. Then she opened her oversized purse and took out the elf, settling him onto the seat so he was centered and looking out at the rest of us. “Here he is!” she announced.
I knew immediately the elf was going to be trouble. He was about eight inches high, his knees tucked up against his chest, his arms around his legs. He was dressed in a pointy gold hat, a red felt jacket, and bright green trousers. I didn’t like his shoes, black fabric clogs that curled up into pointy toes, little silver bells sewn on the ends. But it was his face that really bothered me. Scared the heck out of me, actually. He looked like Todd Bensen, the goody-two-shoes in my kindergarten class who was always tattling on me to Mrs. Jankowski. Like Todd, the elf had wavy brown hair and oddly pert blue eyes. Todd’s cheeks, however, didn’t match the elf’s, those rosy apples swelling on each side of his upturned nose. But his smile, two pink bananas pressed together, had a hidden smirk to it, like Todd’s when he told Mrs. Jankowski that I had kicked his block tower down. She sent me to the corner despite my saying repeatedly, “It was an accident!” I said that with such fervor, I almost convinced myself that it really was an accident.
Davey was elated with the elf, named him “Elfy,” so original, and wanted to sleep with him.
“No, honey,” our mother told him. “The elf has work to do. He’s going to watch you and Richie and report back to Santa.”
There had been much discussion in the neighborhood as to how an elf that couldn’t talk could tip off Santa as to who had been naughty and who had been nice. But Nancy Boyer insisted that she didn’t get roller skates for Christmas the year before because their elf had watched her pinch her little sister when they were watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV. “The elf saw that, Nancy,” her mother had admonished. “Too bad for you. Maybe from now on you’ll be nice to your sister.”
Billy Spengler thought the whole elf tattling to Santa was “baloney,” but his older brother laughed and said, “Then why do you always tip-toe past ours like you’re scared of it?”
The elf lived on the mantel over the fireplace in most of our friends’ homes. At our house, however, Mom moved the elf around. He ate breakfast with us in the kitchen. When I got home from morning kindergarten, he was in the living room sitting on the television while Davey watched cartoons. He went down to the basement with us where we ran around with hockey sticks, hitting a plastic ball. He was in the front hall to greet Dad when he came home from work and, according to Mom, to tell him whether we’d been good or bad that day. Our father would hold the elf to his ear and look at me and Davey, smiling or grimacing. “You say Richie pushed Davey in the basement? Report that to Santa immediately!” How did he know! Eventually, I’d figure out that Mom called Dad at work and filled him in on happenings at home. At the time, though, I thought that smirky little elf had evil powers. I glowered at him while we ate dinner and wondered if I could accidentally spit my toothpaste at him as he watched us brush our teeth before we went to bed.
Then, in mid-December, something happened at school that gave me an idea how to rid myself of the elf. During story time at school, Mrs. Jankowski gathered us as she always did. She sat on her big teacher chair while we sat on the floor in front of her. “Now, boys and girls, I have a special book to read to you today. Some of you are probably already familiar with it. It’s called The Cat in the Hat.” Such a good story, about an enormous cat in a striped hat that causes all kinds of trouble in a brother and sister’s house. There was no elf in that house tattling to their mother about everything that went on. We were at the part where the cat was balancing a fish bowl on the umbrella when we all heard a knocking. Mrs. Jankowski looked up from the book, putting a finger to her lips so we’d be quiet and she could determine the source of the sound. Now the knocking was louder and Judy Randall shouted, “It’s coming from the supply cabinet!”
The supply cabinet was a magical place in part because we weren’t supposed to go near it. It was a large, step-in closet made of wood with built-in shelves. The cabinet was filled with art supplies. Whenever Mrs. Jankowski opened it, we clamored for a peek at the colorful construction paper, the boxes of crayons, small scissors with rounded ends, furry pipe cleaners, and what looked like spools of ribbon. The closet smelled like the thick glue contained in chunky little plastic bottles with lids attached to miniature spatulas. The opening of the cabinet signaled we were about to do something wonderful, like draw apples on red paper and cut them out and then watch as Mrs. Jankowski pinned them on the bulletin board with thumb tacks. The closet also contained stencils of leaves that we traced on orange and gold paper. The next morning when we came to school, we were awed to see the leaves glued to the classroom door’s window. Whenever Mrs. Jankowski opened the cabinet, we knew we were done with the ABCs and numbers for the day, and some exciting project was in the works.
So, when we heard a knocking from the cabinet, we were curious. Standing, our teacher told us, “Stay here,” and we watched as she crossed the floor and opened the door.
There was Todd, his face as red as our paper apples, tears flowing off his face in steady drips.
Mrs. Jankowski took a step back. “Todd! What are you doing in the cabinet?”
I yelled, “Yeah, Todd! What were you doing in the cabinet?” and a couple of my classmates shouted out the same. I wasn’t the only kid in the class who’d gotten in trouble because of Todd, and this was a moment for getting even. He was struggling to inhale, but he finally managed, “I got locked in!”
Mrs. Jankowski took him by the hand and led him to the sink where she turned on a faucet and washed Todd’s face with a soaked paper towel. “What were you doing in the cabinet? Why did you go in, Todd?”
Sobs rose in Todd again as he said, “I just … I just … wanted to see what was in there. I was only going to stay for a second, but then … someone closed the door and I couldn’t get out!”
Her hand on his back, Mrs. Jankowski ushered Todd back to the group, settling him onto the floor before she looked at all of us and said, “Now, class, do you understand that you should never go near that cabinet?”
We droned, “Yeees, Mrs. Jankooowski,” in unison.
“What if we hadn’t heard Todd knocking? He would have had to stay in the closet until the next time we did an art project. And that might not be until after Christmas. Todd could have missed Christmas altogether.”
That elicited lots of gasps, open mouths, and a fresh round of tears from Todd.
“Now, do we go near the supply closet?”
Before the class could answer, I raised my hand. “You should get one of those elves to guard the closet. I could bring mine from home.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, Richie, but I’m sure your elf is supposed to stay at your house.”
She finished the story, but I wasn’t paying attention. I was staring at Todd, the boy who had disappeared, who might never have reappeared if he hadn’t knocked on the door. I was thinking about the elf, how its arms and hands were always wrapped around its bent legs. It wouldn’t have been able to knock on the door. Before we left for the day, I saw Mrs. Jankowski remove a key from her desk and lock the supply cabinet door. I was crushed. I might’ve been able to smuggle the elf to school and throw it in the closet, but I’d never get away with rummaging through the teacher’s desk.
But, still, the idea of getting rid of the elf had taken hold, and I was filled with resolve to take action. Walking home, my plan started to take shape. For starters, I knew that I had to be alone with the elf, no witnesses. And I had to have a hiding spot for the elf, a good one, somewhere he could never be found.
Two days later, it was trash day, the day garbage cans were set on curb lawns up and down our street. Davey and I were eating breakfast at the kitchen table and our mother was in the bedroom changing from her nightgown into her regular clothes. The elf was in Davey’s booster chair. “Mom!” I called. “Davey has to go to the bathroom.”
My brother turned his head to look at me. “No, I don’t.” Our mother stepped into the kitchen and Davey told her, “I don’t have to go to the bathroom.”
I lifted my hands to look like I was confused. “He just told me he did.” I lowered my face and looked at my cereal bowl, chewing Cheerios and hoping my face wasn’t giving anything away.
“C’mon, Davey,” my mother said.
“I don’t have to go!”
“Well, maybe you do. Just try.”
They left the kitchen and I had to act fast. I unbuttoned the top buttons of my shirt and grabbed the elf, stuffing him in, but then realized I couldn’t rebutton my shirt. I ran to the hall closet and grabbed the bottom of my coat. I yanked and yanked until it dropped from the hanger. Slipping my arms into it, I was relieved that I was able to zip over the lump on my chest. It was a tight fit; I could feel the metal bells on the tips of the elf’s shoes pressing into my stomach.
“I told you I didn’t have to go!” Davey whined as he and our mother came out of the bathroom and went into the kitchen.
I walked back in and said, “Look, Mom, I put my coat on all by myself.” She looked at me, her eyebrows raised in happy surprise, and started to say something but was cut off my Davey’s wailing, “My cereal is all mushy!”
Mom said, “Calm down, I’ll pour you another bowl. Put your sneakers on, Richie. I’ll be there to tie them in a minute.”
A couple minutes later, I was walking down our street, thinking about how much trouble I’d be in if my plan backfired and the elf had a chance to tell my parents what I’d done. I had to be so careful. I looked up and down the block and saw a couple kids a little ahead of me on the sidewalk. I slowed down and walked as slowly as I could until they turned the corner. I was in front of the Scinta’s house when I stopped and looked around. The coast was clear. I lifted the lid of their garbage can and set it on the ground. I had a little trouble unzipping my coat and panicked; I’d once jammed the zipper so bad, my mother had had to pull the coat off over my head and take it to a seamstress to fix. Jostling the little metal pull, it finally yielded, and I zipped open my coat almost all the way. Then I pulled the elf out in the chilly air, putting it in the stinky bin filled with what looked like orange peels and crushed boxes of Cocoa Krispies. I put the lid back on and silently screamed at myself to RUN!
I ran as if I were being chased by a cop who was going to put me in jail if he caught me. Surely it was a crime to throw away an elf? If caught, I would be in trouble not just with my parents and Santa Claus. No, I’d have to go to jail for the rest of my life. As scary as that was, I felt jubilant running down the block. I’d done it! I’d rid myself of the tattletale.
When I got to the schoolyard, our class was already lining up to go inside. Mrs. Jankowski looked at me and said, “Richie, your cheeks are so red and you’re out of breath. And why isn’t your coat zipped up? You could catch your death of cold.” She started to say something else, but the bell rang and she turned to lead our class into the school.
All morning, while writing letters on lined paper, eating our mid-morning snack of milk and pretzels, and building a tower out of blocks, I thought of the elf in that dark, stinky garbage can. By now, though, it would be in the back of the garbage truck and taken wherever they took the garbage. And it would never come back because the elf couldn’t run. I’d never have to look at that chubby-cheeked tattletale again.
Sitting across from Todd Bensen while we were drawing pictures of snowmen, I reached over and picked up his blue crayon. “Can I borrow this?” I said, smiling right at him when I broke the crayon in two. “Oh, it broke.” He was about to yell, so I tossed my own blue crayon across the table.
When I got home for lunch, my mother was in the living room, lifting the cushions on the couch, squatting on the floor to peer beneath it, murmuring, “Where can it be?”
Davey turned from the television, his favorite blankie around his shoulders, and I could tell he’d been crying. “Elfy’s gone!”
I should have known he’d be sad about it. The elf usually tattled on me about stuff I’d done to Davey.
During lunch while we munched on grilled cheese sandwiches, our mother continued rummaging through the house. I heard her opening the laundry hamper in the bathroom, and then she was crawling on the floor looking under beds. Every now and then, she’d say, “It can’t just have disappeared.”
She came into the kitchen and asked, “Boys, when was the last time you saw the elf?”
I shrugged, but Davey pointed and said, “It was sitting right there when we were eating Cheerios.”
“That’s right! That’s what I remember too.” Our mother looked under the kitchen table. “It’s not under there. It couldn’t have just vanished.”
“Can I have another sandwich?” I asked. I didn’t want one but I was desperate for her to stop talking about the elf. I hadn’t thought about her reaction to the elf going missing. That exhilaration I felt running down the street earlier was gone, and in its place was mounting fear. I asked again, “Mom, can I have another sandwich?”
“You’re only half done with that one. Finish it and see if you’re still hungry.”
Later that afternoon, I heard my mother on the phone talking to my father: “I’ve looked everywhere. It was in the kitchen at breakfast, but I’ve searched the entire house. It’s just gone.” She paused and I could tell she was listening to my father. “Well, sure, I guess I could say that. But I still want to know where it is.”
When Davey got up from his nap, our mother turned on a news program on television. She had worked at a TV station before I was born and was hoping to go back as soon as Davey started school. We weren’t supposed to bother her while she watched the program, and she usually let us get out the Play-doh to keep us busy. Davey and I sat on the kitchen floor and molded the soft clay. I made a Christmas tree with red ornaments and a yellow star at the top. Davey made a little blob of something with a point at the top and said, “It’s Elfy.” I reached over and squashed it into the linoleum, turning my closed fist on its side to really flatten the thing.
“The elf is going to tell Santa.”
I leaned over the Play-doh and told him, “The elf is gone,” just as my mother entered the kitchen.
“Yes,” she said, “the elf has gone back to the North Pole to give Santa his final report.”
Davey’s lower lip stuck out. “Did he see Richie break my Play-doh?”
“Oh, Richie.” My mother sounded weary. “When are you going to learn to play nicely?”
“It was an accident. I was reaching for more Play-doh and I knocked his elf over.”
“You know, Richie. The elf can still hear you all the way up at the North Pole. If you’re lying, he’ll tell Santa.”
I was quiet a moment. I thought about what she said. Quietly, I asked, “Mommy, are you lying?”
“Richie! Why would you say that?”
“No one else’s elf has gone to the North Pole. Nancy’s didn’t. Billy’s didn’t.”
“Well … not yet. Maybe ours is the first to go.”
I shook my head. “No. Their elves stay in their houses always. Nancy says that when Christmas is over, her mother keeps theirs with the Christmas ornaments in the basement.”
“Well, Nancy may think it’s with the ornaments, but their elf is really at the North Pole. All year long, the elves are making the toys. You know that. They come live with families just before Christmas.”
Not true. Our elf went to the garbage dump. My mother was lying and that shocked me. I didn’t know parents could lie. All these elves in our neighborhood’s houses, did they tell Santa when parents lied? But parents never got in trouble, right? The elves only tattled on us kids.
When my father got home, he sat in the easy chair in the living room and my mother brought him a martini. “Save me an olive,” she told him.
“Have a drink with me.”
“Not now, I’ve got to check on the roast. Boys, give Daddy a chance to relax before you start wrestling with him. You can play with the Tinker Toys.” She took the container out of the toy chest, popped the lid, and poured the wooden spindles and wheels onto the rug.
Davey, as usual, had trouble fitting the spindles into the wheels, but I was quickly assembling a little car. Frustrated, Davey stood and went to our father, climbing onto his lap. “Daddy, Elfy went back to the North Pole.”
“He did?” He pretended to be surprised, but I was pretty sure he was the one who made up that story, that he’d told our mother what to tell us.
“Yeah,” Davey nodded. “And he’s going to tell Santa that Richie smashed my Play-doh today.”
“No, it’s not,” I said. I dug a rod into a circular wooden wheel, wishing I could clamp Davey’s mouth shut.
“Richie, what did you do to Davey’s Play-doh?”
“He smashed it and Elfy is too going to tell Santa!” Davey shouted.
“That stupid elf can’t even talk, and it didn’t go to the North Pole.”
“Richie?” My father’s voice was calm, but it caused the hairs on my arms to lift. He spent a lot of time in courtrooms, questioning people, and I knew that when his voice became quiet, almost friendly, he was about to zero in on something. I didn’t look up. My hands scrambled for more Tinker Toys, sorting them to look busy, like I hadn’t heard him.
“Richie, look at me.”
I glanced up quickly and looked down again immediately.
“Richie, where’s the elf?”
“You heard me. Where’s the elf?”
I shrugged and started pulling the car apart piece by piece and dropping the rods and wheels into the cylinder container.
“You said it didn’t go to the North Pole, so you know where it is. Where is it?”
Our mother came in the room and said, “Boys, go wash your hands. We’ll be eating soon.”
Davey yelled, “Richie knows where Elfy is but he won’t tell Daddy!”
I felt my mother’s eyes on me. “Richie? Is that true? You know where the elf is?”
My father took a long sip of the martini and stared at me. “Yes, he does. And he’s going to tell us where it is right now.”
“I don’t know!”
“Richie. What have we told you about lying?” My father leaned forward in his chair. I wanted to run out of the room but I stayed, searching for something to say in my defense. I was trapped.
I shouted, “Well, Mommy lied! She said the elf went to the North Pole and that was a lie!”
“How do you know that was a lie?”
My mother walked across the floor and knelt on the carpet in front of me. “Richie, tell us right now where the elf is. Did you put it somewhere?”
Davey erupted into tears. “I want Elfy! Make him give me Elfy!”
I wrapped my arms around my knees, realizing that I was sitting just like the elf. I rocked back and forth, stalling, and finally looked up at the ceiling and bellowed, “I put it in the Scintas’ garbage can!”
It was the worst thing I’d ever done. It was the worst thing anyone had ever done. Davey immediately started wailing, and at any moment, there’d be sirens, the sound of a police car zooming down the street, officers bursting through the door to handcuff me and take me to jail. I listened for the sirens, wondering if I’d have time to run to the bedroom, close the door, and press against it with my arms to keep the police out.
I heard something else, too. I heard my father laughing. He couldn’t stop. He laughed so hard, he spilled his drink on the carpet and then he rubbed the stain with his sock.
“Jim,” my mother admonished him while she tried to console Davey, “it’s not funny.”
I saw him struggle to stop laughing, to look serious. “No, no it’s not funny.”
My mother put her hand under my chin and lifted my face so I’d have to look at her. She spoke slowly, “Richie, why did you do that?”
“Because I hate that elf!” I lifted my arms and then brought my fists down hard on the carpet. “It got me in trouble every day! It’s just like Todd Benson!”
“Who?” my father asked.
“That boy in his class,” my mother told him.
“The tattletale?” my father asked.
“Yes!” I was surprised that my father referred to Todd as a tattletale. Surprised and thrilled.
“Okay, fellas. Do what your mother said. Go wash your hands for dinner.”
“Jim, I think—”
“Let’s you and I talk first.”
My mother looked at him and I saw her give a quick nod.
When I stayed seated on the living room floor, my father said, “Richie, you heard me. Go wash your hands.”
I swallowed. “Do I have time before the police get here?”
I started to cry. “Are they going to take me to jail because I threw away the elf?”
“Oh, Richie, no.” My mother wrapped her arms around my shoulders. “No, of course, not. The police aren’t coming.”
“Am I in trouble with Santa? Does he know I threw the elf away?”
My father said, “We’ll talk about that later.”
As I stood, I asked, “Does Santa know Mommy lied about the elf going back to the North Pole?”
This time, both of my parents laughed. My father said, “Santa’s got the goods on you, hon. You’re on the naughty list.”
She looked at me and said, “Well, just because you put it in the trash doesn’t mean it didn’t make it back to the North Pole.”
“Hon,” my father said to her and I saw him shake his head. “We’ll talk about it all later, Richie. Wash your hands now.”
After Davey was asleep that night, my parents spilled the goods. Santa Claus wasn’t real. My lower lip trembled; I didn’t think I could bear there being no Santa. My mother quickly said, “Well, there is a Santa Claus, in a way; Daddy and I are Santa Claus.”
“So, I’m still getting presents?”
My father laughed. “You cut right to the chase, Richie.”
“Hey, wait a minute. If there’s no Santa Claus, there are no elves, right? No real elves?”
My parents looked at each other and started laughing. That made me mad and I repeated, “Right?”
My mother nodded. “That’s right, honey. There are no elves.”
“So you lied about the elf going to the North Pole! Why did you lie?”
Smiling, my father told my mother, “The kid’s going to make a heck of a cross examiner.”
“Well, Richie, I didn’t lie,” my mother said. “Not really. The elf was supposed to help you be good.”
“It’s still a lie!” I glowered. “You tell me all the time not to lie.”
My mother smoothed my hair, running over it with her hand. “When you’re older, you’ll understand. Parents do things you don’t understand to help you.”
“Are you going to tell Davey the truth?” I asked.
They both immediately shook their heads. “Oh, no, Rich, we won’t. Not yet,” my father said.
“He’s too little,” my mother said. “It’s fun to believe in Santa when you’re little. You liked believing in Santa. Remember last year? Putting out the cookies and milk?”
I did. “Who ate them? Did you?”
My mother nodded. “Yes, we did. But wasn’t it fun to think that Santa did? That he came down the chimney, left presents under the tree, and ate cookies? Let’s let Davey think that while he’s still little.”
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t believe how many lies my parents had told. No Santa, no elves, and now the cookie ritual was just a farce. I sat up in bed and blurted, “Wait a minute. So, reindeers can’t fly? Santa’s not real, so that means there’s no sled and no flying reindeers, right?”
“Right,” my mother said.
“Richie,” my father said, sounding very serious, “You’re not to say a word about any of this to Davey. Do you understand? If you tell him, there won’t be any presents.” My father’s eyes were very large. “Well, Davey will get presents, but you won’t. Do you understand.”
“If I don’t tell him, will I get more presents?”
They both laughed and my mother said, “Richie, you’re always thinking. Turn off that brain of yours and go to sleep now.” She turned on my night light and turned off the overhead light. They both kissed my forehead and left my room.
I stayed awake a long time, though, and considered everything they’d told me. I realized I’d forgotten to ask about the Easter Bunny. And what about the Tooth Fairy? I hadn’t lost any teeth yet but a couple of my friends had. They were excited about the money they found under their pillows. Well, I reasoned, even if the Easter Bunny wasn’t real, you still got candy. And even if there were no Tooth Fairy, you still got money. I could live with that. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, none of them were real but if they were, they’d be good guys. The elf was a bad guy, a fake bad guy.
It didn’t make sense, but a part of me wished that elf was still in our house just so I could tell him that he wasn’t real. I’d look him right in the face, the face with those big round cheeks and that smirky smile, and say, “You’re not even real. So there.”
Featured image: Shutterstock
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