“Enough about Santa Claus,” our father said last Thanksgiving. “His visits are so far apart, you start thinking he’s never coming back. St. Bernard’s are heavyweights. They’re faithful. They’re rescue dogs for a reason.”
As if that explained the enormous, inflatable St. Bernard. Enormous an understatement, gigantic closer, the balloon as wide as half the yard we’d once played in with a dog named Champion that weighed, full-grown, fourteen pounds. “Champion,” our father had said way more than once, “is a bantamweight.” My brother and I had no idea what the St. Bernard’s fighting weight was, but its paws stretched from the property line on one side to the middle of the yard where a brick walk led to the front door.
Our father said he hadn’t named his new pet, but King Kong came to mind because the dog was so tall it looked right into the front bedrooms on the second floor. Not quite Macy’s Parade size, but larger than any inflatable in the town where my brother and I had grown up watching our parents decorating the house and yard during the Thanksgiving weekend as if Santa in New York City meant Christmas could come early to small-town, central Pennsylvania.
Our father, who still worked the garden center at Lowe’s and wintered there in large appliances, didn’t touch our house when we were boys. “That’s your mother’s business,” he’d say, and every year she surrounded the front door with a single strand of alternating, tasteful blue and white lights.
Meanwhile, our father always attacked the yard with strings of red and orange and yellow, a narrow spectrum of what he took for heat, ignoring that the hottest flames were white and blue. He slathered the hedge that covered the exposed cinderblock across the front of the house. The yard was too small to support much more than a weeping cherry on one side of the walk, but he wove a web through its branches and lit it. Gloriously garish. A signifier. “Wildfire,” he’d say. Our mother said “brothel” until we were old enough to understand.
As if that made him reconsider, he put out that fire and had us help him inflate a fat Santa whose sleigh sported a propeller that swirled. As it grew dark, we noticed that Santa’s body lit up from the inside. From then on, our father beamed, each Thanksgiving, until, four years ago, the weeping cherry tree died and so did our mother.
After that, just those blue and whites remained, the lights in place year-round. Santa, deflated, stayed stored among an assortment of seldom-used tools in the backyard shed. “I’m trying,” he would say as we ate the turkey dinner he’d picked up from the grocery. Three years of that, but then, both of us pushing thirty and giving financial independence a tentative try in Virginia and Ohio, we made the trip back and found that St. Bernard already staked out and inflated when we arrived, Santa a flat, wrinkly mess at the bottom of a small dumpster our father said he’d rented to contain the results of “a good, old-fashioned house-cleaning.”
A sign of recovery, my brother and I agreed, but now, we have returned for Easter, and the St. Bernard is still inflated, half the yard nearly smothered by a balloon as if only children lived here. “There’s been complaints,” our father admits, both of us nodding because the dumpster is still in the driveway. He catches our look and waves us closer to the dog, nearly underneath its belly. “The kids from the elementary school love it. They call it Superdog. The kids from the intermediate school call it Giganticus.”
“What do the middle school kids call it?” my brother says, glancing up, so much innuendo in his voice that I interrupt.
“There’s probably an ordinance about this, Dad,” I say. “There will be fines.”
“Or somebody,” my brother says, “will just stab it in a dozen places.”
“It would take a cold, cold heart to do that,” our father says.
“Or no heart whatsoever,” I say, and my brother nods, accepting the hint.
Our father brightens. “I’m doing the ham myself tomorrow.”
It’s late March, Easter come early this year, and when it begins to rain, our father opens the front door and calls us over. Surrounded by the blue and white lights, we watch the St. Bernard glisten and sway, the leftover gray snow turning to slush. “Your mother loved dogs,” he says, and ushers us back inside.
Soon, there’s enough wind to angle that rain against the house in a modestly noisy pelt, and when my brother and I are upstairs in our old twin beds, that St. Bernard’s large, round eyes drift side to side outside the window. Our father hasn’t unplugged the dog, and its big head is still illuminated from the inside in a way that makes us agree his expression looks concerned, even soulful, the face of a savior.