It was the night before Christmas and at Santa Claus' workshop at the North Pole, the elves were grumbling bitterly.
Lorenzo, the shop steward, said: "The man refuses to take us seriously. Time and again we've asked him for a 401 (k) retirement plan, night differential for all shifts after 4 p.m., a modern conveyor belt which would facilitate transport of the toys from the shop to the sleigh."
"Plus we want the place tested for radon," added Roy, shivering slightly. Smoking was now prohibited in all 16 buildings at Santa Enterprises Inc., and Roy had just returned from grabbing a few puffs outside, where it was 60 below zero.
In the room next door, Santa listened to the griping as he went through a brisk, 40-minute workout on the Nautilus.
He permitted himself a quick look in the floor-length mirror. Gone was the fat, red-faced Santa of a few years ago. The new Santa was a trim, hard 165 pounds. The beard had been replaced by a neat goatee. His hair was heavily moussed and combed back in the style of Knicks coach Pat Riley.
"Slick," that's what the elves called him now. It didn't help that there was a new Mrs. Claus around -- the fourth Mrs. Claus, a real looker named Kelly who worked at the Hair Cuttery.
After knocking off 50 sit-ups, Santa decided to confront the elves. Lorenzo was holding up a copy of the Federal Wage and Hour Laws.
"Y'know, I do and do and do for you people, and this is the thanks I get," Santa said. "I could sub-contract this work to Taiwan or Guatemala. But I keep you bums on because, well, because that's the kind of guy I am. Look, if you feel you have legitimate grievances, put 'em in writing. Right now, I have toys to deliver."
Santa grabbed his beeper and went outside. A light snow was falling. As he neared the stables, Donner approached with the other reindeer. It seemed the reindeer were circulating a petition demanding that Santa lighten the sleigh.
"For the sake of argument, say we're lugging 3,500 My Size Barbies," Donner said. "At roughly six pounds each, you're talking . . . six fives are 30, carry the three . . . 21,000 pounds right there.
"And that's not counting your Talking Barneys, your Tonka Trucks, and so on."
Santa swore softly. He told Donner to get over to the sleigh, as it was time to shove off. But the reindeer were grumbling louder now, and suddenly a voice shouted: "We ain't goin' anywhere, Slick!"
In an instant, Santa pulled a pistol from his waistband and fired three shots in the air. The reindeer froze. Lorenzo, taking in the scene from a workshop window, wrote in his journal: "Pathetic. The man is out of control."
"Now listen up!" Santa barked. "The first reindeer that gives me a hard time, I'll drill 'im right between the eyes, so help me! Our job is to deliver toys to the good little boys and girls all over the world!"
Santa had a temper, there was no doubt about that. One foggy Christmas Eve, he had actually whacked Rudolph with a tree branch when Rudolph yelped: "I'm not going out in this -- you're out of your mind!"
So the reindeer moved quickly to the sleigh, as they had no desire to taste hot lead. The take-off went smoothly, although they came close to shearing off the satellite dish on Santa's roof.
The skies were crowded that night. At one point the sleigh came within 25 yards of an Air Canada flight; they could see little kids making faces at them in the rear window seats. Then coming into Miami, they nearly hit a Cessna trailing a lighted banner over the beach that said: "Happy Hour at Pirate's Cove, 2-for-1 drinks! Sat nite wet T-shirt contest!"
Their only break came when they put down in a 7-Eleven parking lot and Santa grabbed a yogurt and decaf coffee.
There were the usual incidents, of course. In Stockholm, Santa slipped down the chimney and this big, crazy Swede came at him with a fireplace poker. In Buenos Aires, they tripped a burglar alarm and had to skedaddle. In Ireland, IRA sympathizers mistook the sleigh for a British helicopter and began firing.
Well after dawn, Santa and the reindeer arrived back at the North Pole, bone-tired.
Lorenzo met him at the door, waving a fresh list of demands that included the purchase of new lathes, a complete renovation of the warehouse and five weeks paid vacation for each senior elf.
Just then Kelly came in and handed Santa a Coors Light.
"Honey, one of my customers at the Cuttery teaches elementary school," she said. "They're having a Career Day program. Maybe you could talk to the kids about what you do with the, um, toys and stuff -- what is it again?"
Kelly was very sweet, Santa decided. But you'd never mistake her for the editor of the Harvard Law Review.