CLEARWATER — Santa's videophone rang Thursday night. An elf answered.
A boy in blue pajamas appeared, calling from Wisconsin. He stared into the camera with a look of doubt, then curiosity.
The elf traced a flurry of sign language with his hands, made funny faces into the camera, shook his head until his hat fell off. The boy giggled, showing a gap in his teeth.
His name was Humberto, he signed with a smile. He wanted to speak with Santa.
The elf tapped at his cell phone. Santa stepped into the shot with a heartily waved hello, lifting his list of good children to the camera. Would you look at that, he jokingly signed — Humberto was at the top.
The boy laughed and hopped in place and signed his wishes for Wii games and Bakugan toys. He promised cookies and milk for Santa and carrots for the reindeer. Humberto's dad, smiling behind him, signed messages above the boy's head.
The elf signed that other children were waiting and reminded Humberto to sleep all night on Christmas Eve. They signed their goodbyes — "I love you" — and closed the connection.
Here, for the first time, was a Christmas rite many deaf people had missed: speaking with Santa. He didn't ho-ho-ho and didn't need to. This Clearwater Santa just watched the signs and shared his own. He understood. And for a few hours, he was a phone call away.
Keith Wann, the 40-year-old elf, could relate. He had joked earlier of his childhood with two deaf parents, how they got him socks when he wanted an Atari.
"This little kid is me," he said of Humberto, his funny face turning serious. "That's why I do this. For this little kid to be able to tell his deaf dad what he wants."
A few seconds later, the phone rang again. Like many of the calls Thursday night, this one wasn't asking for toys.
• • •
The wives of Wann and Tony Barraza, the 39-year-old Santa, laughed from off-screen. Emilia Lorenti-Wann, 42, and Jenn Barraza, 26, poured the actors ginger ale and tallied the callers' wishes on Wann's Facebook.
"We're LIVE tonight," Jenn updated, "ROCKING AND ROLLING!!"
During the day, the four worked for callVRS, their relay interpreting service, from the closed-in garage in Wann's back yard. But during the off-time, they decided, they could share Signing Santa with the rest of the country.
Wann, a touring comedian of deaf stand-up, advertised they would take calls every week until Christmas Eve. Last week was their first.
For the first half of the night, the calls, more than a dozen and growing, never seemed to stop. Wann drew wishes of cars and laptops on a whiteboard, feverishly cleaning it with his knee. Barraza jumped out between calls, wiping away sweat, awaiting his next grand entrance.
Jena, an older woman, wanted a BMW. Destiny, a young girl, wanted a doll. Heather, her mother, wished for prayers for her family.
A deaf father called next with a phone number and a request. Could they call his daughter, he signed? She spoke from the other room.
Barraza conjured his first-ever Santa voice. "Hi, is this Jada?" he bellowed. "This is Santa Claus."
Jada clasped the phone to her face and walked to her father's side. He looked at her as she asked for "a doll that pees and goes to the toilet." Wann signed her wish back to the dad.
"That's so cool," he signed. He leaned back in his chair, his smile widening. "Thank you. Thank you."
• • •
When the ringing calmed about 7:30, Santa's helpers settled. The Wanns found coupons and ordered a Jet's pizza. Barraza, in socks and the Santa suit, stepped outside for a cigarette.
They proposed a Walmart trip to research toys. They laughed at their family members who kept calling in. And they shared a realization. This had all been for the little ones, the mall Santa miss-outs, who couldn't sing carols or listen for sleigh bells but could still share in the spirit.
Yet many of the callers had no kids in sight. They were middle-aged men crumpled into desk chairs, frizzy-haired women in sweats, asking for mansions and luxury cars.
Grown-ups with wish lists, performing a childhood ritual, seeking someone who understood.
Even if that person was dressed in a Santa suit.
• • •
It was 9 o'clock, log-off time, when Wann and Barraza prepared to shut down. The phone rang before they could. This would be the last, they swore.
One man, maybe in his 20s, with thinning hair and a gray hoodie. "I saw you on Facebook," he signed, "and saw how you were asking if people want something. Is that right?"
Santa and the elf hid their fatigue. They joked and made faces and scribbled. His name was Kohl. They asked about his gift.
"I just want a peaceful life," he signed. "So I can just be cool, and be cool with people. Know what I mean?"
Santa nodded, stroked his beard. His fingers signed the night's last message.
"You're on the list."
Drew Harwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170. You can find him on Twitter at @drewtimes.