"You want me to, what?" I asked.
"Go to the North Pole and interview Santa Claus," James Rolands, said. He was the editor-in-chief of Plus magazine, a half serious, half trashy magazine geared toward one thing and one thing only, sales.
Mr. Rolands, 45, was a driven man in a world so competitive for stories that there was no room for compassion or morality or common sense. You hesitate you lose. Find a story the public will latch onto, like Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah Winfrey's couch, and you better be the first to get that on your cover or it could cost you millions in sales.
The pressure was enormous and Mr. Rolands, ever the consummate professional, thrived on it. Even to the point of ludicrousness.
"Word is out he's willing to do some interviews and lord knows it's been eons since he's granted one. He's angry about what's going on in the world or something like that. Quite frankly I don't give a shit,the point is, Max, we need to get that interview. That's prime time material. Short of God or Jesus granting an interview, S Claus is next in line. Know what I'm saying?"
"No," I said.
Mr. Rolands got up from behind his desk and started to pace his office. He loosened his tie, a sure sign what he was about to say was serious. "You know this business, Max. I don't need to tell you how cutthroat it is. You've seen the worst of it. But this interview is beyond all of that. This is bigger than Monica Lewinsky. You remember how we were first in line for that mess?" Mr. Rolands, as always, got a kind of twinkle in his eye as he reminisced. "This interview will make the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal seem like a stubbed toe. And that's why we have to be first on the scene. It's that big. There's no guarantee he'll give more than one interview."
"Why are you asking me? Why not get the creative to come up with a story?"
"The creative team?" Mr. Rolands asked, astonished.
I was confused. "I'm not good at coming up with that kind of story, Jim," I said. "I work the field, remember?"
"We can't make up anything," Mr. Rolands said, aghast at the prospect. "This is St. Nick we're talking about, Max. Christ almighty. Make something up? Are you out of your mind? That would ruin us. This interview has to be printed verbatim. Claus says he "pissed off" about something, that's exactly how we print it."
I made the mistake of laughing. I couldn't help myself. I was used to Jim Rolands passion for his job - you don't run a magazine like Plus without it - but I thought this was overkill. He was sounding like he actually believed there was a Santa Claus.
"This is no laughing matter, Max," Mr. Rolands exclaimed. He looked desperate at this point. "I hope you're giving me the raspberries, because I'm getting the serious impression you think this assignment, this assignment I'm offering you, the assignment of a lifetime I might add, is not on the up and up."
"I don't mean to laugh, Jim," I said. "I'm trying to get into this. Really, I am. I mean I can see the monetary value and all, given the season, but I don't think I'm the man for the job."
"Not the man for the job?" Mr. Rolands said in disbelief. "You're the best field man we have, Max. Bar none. This story came across my desk and you're the first, and only one I might add, I thought of. No one can get me this story but you."
"If you need to use my name for credibility I'm willing to play along," I said.
Then Mr. Rolands stopped and just stared at me. "Why are you doing this to me, Max?"
"I told you, Jim, I'm not good at this. You ask me to go interview Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan and I'm on the next flight with exclusives on what that son of a bitch eats for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But I can't do this. I can't make up an interview with Santa Claus. It's not in me."
Mr. Rolands shoulders slackened and he sat down on the edge of his desk. "So that's what this is all about?" He sounded relaxed now, almost relieved. "You don't believe, do you?"
"In Santa Claus," he said. I laughed louder than I meant to, but I could see in Jim's eyes he wasn't taking me seriously. "You don't believe there is a Santa Claus, do you, Max?"
"I'd love to get into a long discussion about this, Max, really I would, but time is of the essence here." Mr. Rolands leaned over his desk, grabbed a map and unrolled it. "Now the closest I could get you is an airport in the small city of Columbia. That's in Greenland by the way." Mr. Rolands pointed to a spot on the map, the northern most tip of Greenland. "There is a chartered dog sled team waiting to take you as far as the border of St. Nick's palace, which I understand, is just beyond this cleft in the mountains," he said pointing to the gap. "They won't go any further than that however."
I sat there dumbfounded. "Why not?"
"Wouldn't say," Mr. Rolands said breezing over the subject. "But the important thing is that gets you at his front door and that's further than anyone else will be by the time they catch wind of his decision. I'm guessing it will be a first come, first serve proposition. First one there gets the interview. And who better than Max Albright?"
"I'm speechless, Jim," I said.
"No need to thank me right now, Max. There will be time enough for that after you get back. Now your flight..."
"Hold on a second, Jim," I said curtly. "You bring me in here and feed me some crap about interviewing Santa Claus and traveling to Greenland with a dog sled team and you... and you expect me to believe this? I play along for awhile, laugh it up, I mean it's the season and all, but enough is enough."
Mr. Rolands looked hurt. Like a ten year old who finally finds out Santa Claus is not for real.
"You only have forty-five minutes to catch your flight," he said.
"I'm not catching any flights until I quit getting dicked around," I said, firmly.
Mr. Rolands took a deep breath and exhaled. "I sort of figured it would come to this. Dim those lights, would ya."
I reached over and turned down the lights. Mr. Rolands grabbed a remote control on his desk and the television in upper corner of his office came to life.
"What I'm about to show you is for your eyes only. Understood?"
"Sure," I said, unconvincingly.
A grainy image appeared on the screen in black and white. I moved up in my seat to get a closer look. It looked like a gargoyle.
"What the fuck is that?" I asked.
"We're not completely positive but we think it's a worker elf," Mr. Rolands said. "It's hard to tell. Nobody has ever seen one."
"That's one of Santa's elves?" I asked, skeptically.
"Listen," Mr. Rolands said. He turned up the volume and the elf spoke in a gruff, scratchy voice.
"I haven't much time, but I should think this information may be of some importance to the outside world. The man is not happy and it would be a good bet he might be willing to talk about it," the elf, or whatever it was, said, before the screen went blank.
Mr. Rolands turned the television off.
"It's a hoax," I said.
"It's not a hoax, Max. Santa Claus is real and I have proof."
Mr. Rolands went to his safe hidden behind the Monet print on the far wall. He dialed in the combination and opened the safe. He reached inside and came out with a manila folder. Oh, god, here it comes, I thought, an authentic letter from the North Pole signed by the man.
"I would have thought you, of all people, would have stumbled across something like this already, considering every place you've traveled," Mr. Rolands said. He laid the manila folder on his desk and reached inside. "But apparently not. Here." He handed me an 8 x 10 photograph.
"What's this?" I asked. "A picture of..." But I didn't finish. I stared at the photograph. It was a black and white photo of me as a child on Christmas morning. I was maybe ten years old and I was opening a gift I still remembered to this day. It was a Daniel Boone rifle. When I opened that gift - a gift I had hoped for but never thought I would get - I had this wonderful feeling flow through me. It was a small gift, but the feeling it gave me was immense.
"What do you see?" Mr. Rolands asked.
My thoughts were racing like a marathon of runners jostling for the lead. I had never seen this picture in the shoe box of old photos my mother used to keep in the bottom of her dresser drawer. And this was not a picture I would have forgotten.
Looking at the picture made me feel like I did that morning. It was my fondest Christmas memory. The lights on the tree illuminating the living room, the early morning darkness as the snow fell lazily, as if it were in slow motion, and everything that morning, that whole day, fell into place. It was my perfect Christmas day.
I wanted to accuse Jim of stealing this photo and using it against me. But how can you steal something that doesn't exist? I wanted to accuse him of something, some kind of trickery, anything, but I was too stunned to make accusations.
"What did you see?" I finally asked Mr. Rolands.
"My fondest childhood memory from Christmas," he answered. "That's what everyone sees who looks at the photo. And there's only one person in the world who would know that. Santa Claus."
I wanted to ask Mr. Rolands where he got this photograph, but it didn't matter. All that mattered was he was telling the truth. No matter how much I tried to rationalize it, there was no denying the flood of emotions that photograph had caused to wash over me. There could be no other explanation.
"You'll be flying out of O'Hare," Mr. Rolands told me when I finally came down from out of the clouds.
"What about a photographer?" I asked.
"One is meeting you there," Mr. Rolands said quietly.
I stopped and turned to him. "Who?" I asked.
"Charlie," Mr. Rolands answered tentatively. "Now before you react we needed the best, and Charlie is the best."
That was true, Charlie was the best freelance photographer around. The problem was Charlie and I had a past. A past torn apart by the fact we both traveled the globe and trying to piece together a relationship under those circumstances is impossible.
"This assignment is full of surprises," I said. But I was glad. I had longed to see Charlie. I was just hoping she felt the same way. "Does she know I'm along for the ride?"
"That's why she agreed to it."
On the way to O'Hare I reminisced. I had met Charlie for the first time five years ago on an assignment in Tucson to interview Julia Roberts, who was on hiatus from film making and was about to reenter the world of celebrity. It was front cover news and Charlie and I had been assigned to make as much of it as we could.
It was an unusual assignment because it was taking place the day before Thanksgiving. Miss Roberts was having friends and family flown out for a huge dinner at the posh Western Desert Spa - a place she frequented for both mental and physical rejuvenation.
We met at the Tucson International Airport. I was waiting at the baggage claim area with our driver when, out of the corner of my eye, I caught this ball of fire rushing toward us. She was pulling her luggage behind her like she was in a Nascar race, and she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
"Are you guys with Plus?" she asked, hurriedly.
"Yeah," I answered.
"I'm Charlie Harrington. Your photographer."
"Nice to meet you," I said, shaking her hand. "Max Albright."
"Are we ready to go?" she asked. Charlie, as I would soon come to find out, was perpetually in a hurry.
"As soon as I get my luggage," I said. "That's all you have?"
"I travel light," she said.
You would have thought someone had set her on fire and she was looking around for somewhere to put herself out.
"We don't meet Miss Roberts for another four hours," I said. "We thought we'd check in at the hotel and grab a bite to eat. I assume you eat."
Charlie looked at me and then smiled. "Sure, I eat."
Besides the glittering smile and ocean blue eyes, surrounded by a full head of blonde, curly hair, Charlie had a great sense of humor.
"Can I ask you a question?" I asked.
"Shoot," she answered, laughing.
"You're sort of hyperactive?"
"Always in a hurry?"
"How do you find time to take care of all that hair?"
"It's my one vice, if you could call it that. My hair is so naturally curly that I can get away with washing it and then just letting it dry. I just can't cut it. I know I should, it would be easier to take care of, but I can't bring myself to do it. It's stupid, I know."
"I don't think so," I said. "I think it looks great."
"It wouldn't be you if you cut it." Charlie cocked her head to one side and looked at me. "What?" I asked.
"That's exactly what my mother told me. 'Charlene,' she said. 'That hair is your trademark. People know it's you coming from a mile away.'"
"Smart woman," I said and we both laughed.
We drove the rest of the way to Western Desert Spa, the posh resort where Julia Roberts was staying, and made small talk. I kept stealing glances at Charlie. She had on a pair of khaki shorts and a button-down, short-sleeved shirt. The shirt was unbuttoned low enough I could see the freckles that danced in between her breasts. Simple attire for people like her and I; people always on the go. Except in Charlie's case, with her long, tanned legs and gangly arms, she filled out her outfit like Julia Roberts in a Gucci gown.
I wanted to reach over and run my fingers through her explosion of curly hair. I wanted to bury my nose in it and smell the fragrance of her shampoo, her bodily aroma. I wanted to lose myself in that jungle of hair.
I listened to Charlie talk about some of her more harrowing assignments. Like the time she had been sent to Bangladesh to do a shoot on teenagers being used as slave labor, the minimum of minimum wages, to support their families.
"I got caught up in a police raid," she said. "Apparently, in the small village I was in, word had leaked out that there was hashish being distributed from there and the police came in, brandishing some very big guns, and arrested me and my crew."
"Why?" I asked.
"They thought we were posing as journalists in order to smuggle the hash out of the country."
"We spent a week in jail."
Somewhere, in my memory, I recalled hearing about what had happened. Every journalist or photo-journalist's nightmare. But Charlie wasn't feeling sorry for herself. It was a hazard of the job.
After we arrived at Western Desert Spa, checked in and had some lunch, we met with Miss Roberts earlier than expected. The interview and photo shoot went smooth as silk. I had worked with Julia Roberts in the past, when she had trouble on the set of Hook, and I was kind to her in the press. She remembered and it was paying off.
I was worried that Charlie's look might intimidate, but she hit it off with Miss Roberts and soon after they were sharing quips of familiar celebrities.
I stood in the background and watched Charlie work. I watched her body - she had changed into a pair of faded jeans and tank top - move and flow with her camera. Charlie liked to work free-style, moving about the room snapping pictures and engaging her subject in conversation, capturing pictures that were both natural and staged. Charlie's trademark, signature style.
"You two make a good team," Miss Roberts said to Charlie and I after we had finished. "I'm looking forward to seeing the article."
"Thanks," we replied.
"Tomorrow I'm having a Thanksgiving dinner. If you two are still going to be around you're more than welcome to join us."
The invitation to join a Thanksgiving feast was a rarity for our field. I couldn't count the number of times I had spent the holidays in some foreign country or far away city. I hate to say I had become numb to feeling sorry for myself and what I was missing. The invitation opened the floodgates of Thanksgiving memories. My family would make our annual trek to Pittsburgh. It was a huge family affair. The memories of smells and tastes had hit me so unexpectedly I couldn't control the tears that leaked from my eyes.
I caught Charlie looking at me, and in that moment I could see she felt the same way.
"That would be nice," I said.
"I'd like that too," Charlie added.
"Great," Miss Roberts said. "Dinner is at two and guests will be arriving around noon. You are welcome any time after that."
The rooms we had at the Western Desert Spa were too spacious for one person. They had a living room, kitchen, bedroom and a miraculous bathroom complete with a tub that I could have swam laps in. I decided I would go over my notes and tapes of the interview for about an hour, and then fill the tub, open a bottle of wine and relax.
Except I couldn't concentrate on my notes. Charlie kept drifting back into my mind. I was wondering what she was doing. Maybe she had already filled her tub and was up to her neck in bath oils and bubbles. The thought of her buoyant breasts floating just beneath the surface of the oily bubbles raced to my crotch.
"Jesus Christ," I yelled to myself. This was not the type of job where you could let your imagination get carried away. The long, lonely trips almost made it a necessity to live like a hermit, quelling emotions and feelings of lust until an opportunity, a sure thing, presented itself.
I returned to my notes, reading and rereading until I realized I hadn't retained one word. This was not like me. I was as focused as anyone in the business. It was why I got the big assignments. Nothing, and I mean nothing, would get in my way. Not even a curly-haired photographer whose very voice melted me like ice in the desert.
"Stop!" I yelled. What was I doing? Tomorrow morning I would leave a note at the front desk, that I had been called away on assignment, giving my regards and making an educated escape before I did something stupid, like falling for Charlie.
There was a knock on my door. I hurried to the door wanting to shoo away the intruder - more than likely room service - so I could pack up and sail away.
I opened the door and Charlie stood there in shorts, flip-flops and tank top, her hair damp from a shower. She had a bottle of wine in her hand.
"Want some company?" she asked.
"Sure," I said, inviting Charlie into my room. The smell of perfume and the painted toenails did not go unnoticed.
"I spend enough nights alone," Charlie said, kicking off her flip-flops and placing the bottle of wine on the kitchen counter. "I'm tired of it." Charlie sat up on one of the stools. "Aren't you?"
I was. Always had been, but it was part of the job and no one went into it with blinders on. I had had affairs along the way, but I knew Charlie would be different. I knew I wouldn't forget about Charlie tomorrow or the next day or the next thirty days.
"Do you mind?" I asked. "I was about to jump in the shower."
"No. That will give me time to chill the wine and pop the cork," Charlie said, jumping off the stool and grabbing the bottle of wine. "What are you waiting for?"
I went into the massive, tiled stall, the one with four shower heads on each side, and showered.
"I hope you like red wine," Charlie yelled from the kitchen.
"That's fine," I replied. "There's another bottle of white in the frig."
"I already found that," Charlie said. Her voice had come from the doorway to the bathroom. I froze, afraid to turn around, the shower stall door was clear glass. "How much longer are you going to be?"
"I'm almost finished," I said.
"I'll pour the wine," Charlie said. "Nice ass by the way."
I looked down, trying to control my natural urges, but failing. I just hoped my pants weren't sticking out in the front when I walked out of the bathroom.
"I thought our work went very well," Charlie yelled.
"So did I," I said, as I walked back in the room. "Very well indeed."