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He felt happy—not “jolly,” that was an irritating word, condescending if you must know, a way to describe someone elderly and out of it or too naïve to know that life was mostly pain or at least as much pain as pleasure; he was not naïve about that, no matter what people imagined. Why else would he bring people joy if not because he knew that people needed it, for there was so little in their lives? Yet tonight, while he hardly “shook” with pride (another asinine idea), he did, well beam a bit—though his face was only visible in the occasional street light, since it was almost midnight, my God, he thought, squinting at his watch—because who wouldn’t be proud surrounded by people pretending to be him?
Some, obviously, looked more like him than others—especially the ones who’d bothered to go the distance, wearing the hat, beard, fake gut, or fat suit. A few just had the hat, which was pretty lazy, he thought; I mean, why not make the effort if you’re going to do something? He gave his all every year, even if it was only for one day (he started preparing six months before, got the ball rolling by July, planning his acquisitions and travel routes). It was only one day for these people, too, even if it looked like they’d started drinking last night and been at it all afternoon, of which he didn’t approve; he only ever had one when he indulged, which he had already done. One young couple even bashed into him now, weaving as they went, and didn’t apologize (kids were so rude these days—spoiled—given gifts all year long and so unappreciative of a special annual event, the way children used to be). Some even dressed like him as a parody, not out of respect, but to trash the tradition, not to exhibit any affection—love!—for it. But he wouldn’t let them spoil his good mood: he’d accentuate the positive; he had to, he represented it in a way, didn’t he, for so many? He couldn’t afford to give into his emotions; he was overwrought and high-strung, which he always tried to hide. Whenever he felt it building up in him—this super-sensitivity, being so easily hurt because he was so eager to help, to love, everyone, that he left himself vulnerable, exposed, skinned in a sense—he’d take that one drink. He sensed the beginning of a meltdown now, and so he pushed his way through a thick crowd of his imposters, drunkenly merged into one big me!—he thought, managing a smile—and marched into the nearest storefront, just to be alone for a while and settle down.
It turned out to be a bar, ironically enough, a dank one with a few poseurs already bellying up (though only two had even competent costumes; a young man of color, actually, was the most convincing. And why not? He was a positive image to all kinds of people). Anyway, he felt he deserved a pick-me-up, having maneuvered successfully through that mob and controlled himself. No one had made him do it, of course; he’d come outside on his own steam, just for fun—and not in “uniform,” disguised himself, dressed in a simple suit and tie—for the first time since they’d started this thing. (Con, they called it, short for “convention,” right? Another kind of joke, for it was really just a crawl through every pub in town. And he’d been disappointed and dismayed by the bad behavior.) So he felt he could violate his pledge of just one drink—make an exception, just for one day!
“Vodka, please,” he said. “On the rocks. No fruit.”
“What kind of Vodka? Do you care?” The bald but youngish bartender was already unfriendly—why? Maybe because he’d had to deal with so many drunks today; who could blame him?
“Why am I not surprised?”
This seemed cutting, characterizing him as cheap when the man wielding the bottle had only just laid eyes on him. Still, he stayed silent, blinked away any waterworks, even as the glass was slammed loudly on the bar before him.
“Should I start a tab?” The question was asked as if the answer was assumed: of course start a tab, for this drink would be one of many.
“No,” he said, an injured tone slipping into his voice, as the booze slipped down his throat (he’d shot it back, fearing that the barman might steal it away, to punish or play with him). Then he, too, slammed the glass down on the bar, comically, showing “two could play at that game,” trying to ingratiate himself, his desire to bond rising in him like the bile the last time he’d barfed up a drink (tequila and lemonade, remember?—never again!).
“Another, please,” he said. It was only his second after the single one he always had, so why not?
With an undisguised look of disgust, the bartender poured it straight up to the brim, sadistically making him pick it up dainty-like, in order not to spill.
But soon he had spilled, though he couldn’t remember when, and the bartender was refusing him a refill—it would only be his second, what gave?
“That’ll be $58.50,” the other man said, scrawling illegibly on a check and shoving it at him on the bartop through the wet so it was half-submerged and the numbers drowned and disappeared. “Last call.”
He checked his watch—3:30 AM? It couldn’t be! “Come on,” he heard himself say, though a curtain of bad breath, polluted air, and black smoke—though cigarettes had been banned in bars long ago—more as an exasperated plea than anything else. “I know it’s been a long night. I understand. But, please, do the right thing.”
“Which is what?” Seething now, young baldy was.
“Make it on the house. As thanks. Didn’t you get gifts as a child? Who did you think they were from, your Mom and Dad? Well, they weren’t, they were from me. You’re old enough to know that now.” At least! “So, please, be a little grateful. It isn’t asking much.”
With that, having sincerely beseeched the bald man, in a choked and halting voice appealed to his “better angels,” he pulled away from the bar. He walked—marched, really, back straight, arms swinging piston-like, just in case he seemed to anyone impaired—toward the door. (But why wouldn’t he be sober? On just two drinks? Get real!)
But soon he was moving quicker, running, really, for the barman had not been impressed or even convinced and come around the side of the bar and made right for him, cursing so bad he was surprised the sounds weren’t bleeped out with a funny horn, the way they used to do on TV, the other customers in costume cheering and clapping, he wanted to believe because they were on his side; but it was probably just because they liked the dust-up, insensitively enjoyed the action.
On the sidewalk, he got stuck in the center of one more mass of imitators, and burst free, crying out, begging to cross the street, the “Walk” sign flashing to warn him that it wouldn’t last long.
Did it stop flashing? Or did the van come through the light before it got to the green? Either way, it nailed him good as it went by, twirled him around and around like a dreidel on that other, much less important holiday that happened around the same time.
“Take it easy,” someone said, catching him, a young cop it turned out (or was it another costume?). And was that a siren coming? It better have been.
“You have to help me,” he said, clutching at him, not trying to hide the helplessness the one drink had always turned into good cheer, friendly feeling, and ho ho ho. “Or there won’t be any Christmas this year. People need me. What will they do without me? Please—I have to—help—have to—love—love—” He couldn’t complete the thought; he was weeping too much.
He saw the cop’s expression—a mix of disgust, contempt, and pity, not what he was hoping for, and only briefly before he felt a sizzling charge in his side administered by the young man. Then he saw the kind of starry sky in which he always drove his sleigh, and soon there were just the stars, and they had been dead the whole time.
Trey came in late; he knew it, but that was the price he paid—and literally, no joke, it all had to do with dough since his divorce from Tanya. He’d taken a second job, doing security for a bookstore on the West Side, and they’d been open extra-hours because it was Christmas Eve. He’d been told to get approval from his CO to take the job, and it was embarrassing, having to ask, he wasn’t a kid any more, he was almost thirty, for God’s sake. But cops didn’t make much, no matter what people thought; it was a disgrace was what it was, but, anyway, he hated complainers, so shut up.
Long story short, truth be told, not for nothing, he was exhausted, and barely nodded to his sister, Celeste, who was clearly impatient and eager to get home to her own kids, not that she didn’t love her niece, or anything.
“She’s asleep,” was all she said before grabbing her coat, no kiss or nothing, and leaving.
Well, it wasn’t his fault, he wanted to yell after her—though maybe it was; he’d chosen to marry Tanya, hadn’t he, even though he knew she liked to put it back? But he’d never have guessed she’d keep doing it—even drink more!—after she had a kid (he thought it would make her stop—stupid). And how could he not ask for custody? Who’d take care of Darla now, her? Right. Anyway, that was enough, no more bitching, it was his burden, this was life. He had one more duty, to put Darla’s gift under the tree, and then he could be oblivious, unconscious, dead. He looked forward to it so bad.
Being dead made him think about that old drunk, the one who’d been nearly dragged by the van in the hit-and-run the week before, during that bacchanal. The guy was the only one not dressed like Santa, had no ID, and had babbled nonsense when he put his hands on Trey, and Trey had had to taze him. Who knew it would stop the old man’s heart? Not him.
He was sorry, but he couldn’t help hating the guy, even though he knew it was wrong to hate, especially tonight, the holiday was all about love (though he’d never say it out loud). That guy had reminded him of an old, dirty, bearded Tanya, who was too weak to do her duty. Maybe people had depended on him, too, and he’d died disappointing them. He wasn’t worth worrying about, but what a worthless piece of crap he was. To live in a dream was to avoid your obligation, Trey thought. Accepting reality was more right than other ways of being; it was moral to be sane, given all that was expected of us. Wasn’t eliminating one more alcoholic a way to protect the public, even if he had done it by accident? Wasn’t it an act of love and so appropriate for tonight? That’s what he would say at the inquest.
Trey entered the bedroom, saw the one pillow where there used to be two, and wondered where Tanya was: she hadn’t even called, not even for her child. She was sauced somewhere, for sure, and screw her.
Darla’s gift was hidden in the dresser (Celeste had advised him what to buy: a doll), just a few feet away. But, beat to hell, Trey found himself falling onto the mattress, falling into a softer past he used to share with someone, far from the harder solitary life he lived now—no, don’t sentimentalize it, she was always awful. He saw the old man’s face, the beard with bits of food in it. Ease up, he thought; just for a minute, let him revel in their kind of irresponsibility, Tanya’s and the old man’s. Just for one lousy minute. Then he would get up and do what needed doing. At least he was capable of it. He would never let anybody down.
It was dark and so difficult for her to find her way, her hands reaching out and feeling, squeezing the air, the way people sometimes squeezed her nose, which was either funny or stupid, depending on who was squeezing. She was never up and out of bed this late, and it was kind of scary but also exciting, considering what she was about to do.
As she passed her father’s door, Darla looked in and saw him, face down on his bed, still in his clothes, snoring like he sometimes did; usually, it was funny but not so much tonight. He hadn’t come in to kiss her goodnight after her Aunt Celeste left; Darla had waited up for him, as she always did and been disappointed. So she had shifted to thinking about Santa’s present, because that felt better, and soon she wasn’t thinking about Daddy at all any more. Or Mommy, either.
She rounded the corner and came into the living room, where it was brighter, where a piece of sun was already shining through the blinds, which were closed—because Santa had closed them on his way out, that’s what must have happened. She could make out shapes—the couch, the coffee table, the tree, the tree—and she lowered her hands, no longer needing to wave them, because she knew where she was going and what would be there when she arrived.
But there was nothing there, beneath the tree. Darla stood still and stared down for a second. Then she got on her hands and knees and ran her fingers along the carpet, like that magician on TV waving his hands over his hat before he pulled a rabbit out: maybe she could make some magic, too. But, no, there was still nothing: no doll, the one she wished to love.
She sat back on her heels, her knees sinking in and jabbed by the carpet needles, as if to punish herself. Santa had not come and it was her fault; she had been bad, and Santa knew it; that was why her Mommy left, too. Now Darla cried, trying to keep quiet, her eyes and nose shooting like the faucet when Daddy washed her hair in the sink but silently, except for that “huh” sound she made to suck the snot back up.
Darla had started crying out of sadness and from what her Aunt Celeste called feeling sorry for herself. But soon she was crying from anger and a feeling of injustice. It had not been her fault, she had not been bad; she had done nothing wrong and deserved a doll. Santa had been wrong, and she wished that he would die, that his sleigh would hit a star and catch on fire, as long as Rudolph and the other reindeer could escape, because they’d done nothing wrong, either, and, anyway, they weren’t Santa, whom she hated now.
Suddenly, Darla felt silly for thinking this. Some kids at school said that Santa wasn’t real, but she hadn’t believed them. Now she knew that they were right; believing in him was for babies, not for her. She wouldn’t believe in him anymore, because that felt better. Soon the sun came up completely, came screaming through the blinds, and she shielded her eyes, a grown-up gesture, as her face grew hot. It didn’t matter: her tears had already begun to dry.
Klavan's novels, “The Cutting Room” and “The Shooting Script,” were published by Ballantine Books. He won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the novel, “Mrs. White,” written under a pseudonym. His graphic novels, "City of Spies" and "Brain Camp," co-written with Susan Kim, were published by First Second Books at Macmillan and their Young Adult fiction series, "Wasteland," is currently being published by Harper Collins. His short work has been published in The Alaska Quarterly, Conjunctions, The Literary Review, Gargoyle, Louisville Review, Natural Bridge, Failbetter, Pank, Stickman Review, and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, among others, and a collection, "'The Family Unit' and Other Fantasies," has just been published by Chizine Publications. He received two Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics of "Bed and Sofa," the musical produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York and the Finborough Theater in London. His one-act, "The Summer Sublet," is included Best American Short Plays 2000-2001.