by KT Kieltyka

Until I was about 14 years old, I thought one of my mom’s family’s traditions — the weirdest one — was one that everyone else celebrated, too. I was walking down the hall of my middle school with my friend Jenna the day before Thanksgiving break. “So, ya ready for Pinochle to visit?” I asked.

“Who?” she said, stopping to look at me.

“Pinochle,” I said, rolling my eyes. She stared blankly. “You know, the elf that shows up on Thanksgiving after you eat, and he flies around the windows…?”

“What are you talking about?” she asked with a look that told me everything I needed to know.

[In theory] Pinochle is Santa’s right hand man, or elf, rather. He’s deployed by Santa to catch you doing bad things when Santa’s busy checking his list, or going over his route for Christmas Eve, or reading the very detailed third draft of the letter you sent him (which was, incidentally, the first time you signed your name in script on un-lined paper).

Being the sleuths that we were, we kids knew Santa could not single-handedly watch every child on the entire planet — he had to have help. Santa saw a lot, but Pinochle saw even more. He got places Santa couldn’t, and he took notes.

He appeared every Thanksgiving after dinner but before dessert, a tiny red imp flying past one of the large windows in my Grandparents’ parlor. (And by “imp” I mean a doll in a red outfit, lit up by a flashlight, and by “flying” I mean swinging from fishing wire from an upstairs window.)

Having gorged themselves, everyone would be lazily sitting around, loosening their belts, when a flash of red would appear in the window. One of the kids (I have 22 cousins on just my mother’s side) would scream “IT’S PINOCHLE,” and the rest of us would go batshit, running around the parlor as he “flew” from window to window.

The spectacle would last only a few minutes, but the effect would last the entire holiday season. My mom would enter my toy-strewn room, cluck her tongue and say, “Pinochle’s not going to like this very much,” and walk out, basically ensuring a clean room 20 minutes later. My little brother was so paranoid he would only shower in the one bathroom in the house that didn’t have any windows because “Pinochle couldn’t see him in there.”

Then one year everything changed.

I was eight years old, accompanying my cousins in the mad dash around my grandparents’ first floor, when Pinochle suddenly plummeted to the ground and lay there, still glowing red, but otherwise lifeless. I ran outside and parted the bushes under the window, where the elf lay in a heap on the ground. I hesitated to touch him. (Do elves … bite?) That’s when I saw the flashlight and the fishing line.

“It’s a doll?” I said to myself. I looked up at the window and saw my cousins, their noses squashed against the glass, watching with confused faces. Then I looked up at the sky, from which Pinochle had fallen, and saw my older brother and one of my aunts leaning out of an upstairs window. “It’s … a doll,” I repeated, looking back down at the ground and bending down to pick it up. And as I looked into the face of Peewee (one of my favorite dolls, affectionately named after Peewee Herman), I was filled with all the indignation of a child who had spent the last eight holiday seasons on her best behavior because of a trick.

“IT’S A DOLL! HE’S NOT REAL!” I screamed, holding up Peewee for all my cousins to see. “PINOCHLE. IS. NOT. REAL!” My cousins all screamed like a bunch of Kevin McAllisters. Some burst into tears. The damage was done, the magic was over.

This wasn’t the first time I had “ruined Pinochle,” however, as a grumpy aunt who married into the family spat at me that night. When I was very young, maybe two or three, I had spent the entire night in my Grandmother’s lap, screaming my fancy, patent-leather holiday shoes off, because I was so afraid of the elf’s impending arrival. That year, Pinochle “went on vacation,” according to my Grandma.

One would think, though, that after realizing what I held that night was not, in fact, a dead elf, I’d put two and two together and rationalize that if Pinochle was a farce, then Santa and the Tooth Fairy had to be, too. That didn’t come until a few years later, when I happened upon some Easter baskets in the attic. Perhaps the same lapse in synapses in my brain can account for the fact that I didn’t realize Pinochle wasn’t a world-wide phenomenon until I was a year away from entering high school.

Since then Pinochle has been more of an idea than an actual visitor at Thanksgiving, which I still fully feel responsible for. I tried to make up for it last year by borrowing a light-up Harry Potter wand and a weird Christmas decoration from one of my cousins and enlisting them in the mission of introducing Pinochle to my four-year-old cousin, Luke. Trouble is, it was raining, I was a little drunk, and Luke took one look out the window at my busted-up Pinochle, said plainly, “That’s a doll,” and walked away.

KT Kieltyka has a blog about cancer and a blog about good things.