Friday, December 23, 2016

That One Christmas

I used to hate summer more than any other time of year. Thighs scraping together, sweat pooling about my body like the worst superpower ever. One year I even wore a car air freshener almost ironically. But winter gets worse every year. I have a beard because it’s easier than not having one. I don’t think about it too much but every winter the kids stare, and then ask me if I’m going to be Santa. It’s not bad, with the little kids, but children grow up faster with every year. They know the truth sooner and sooner, and the question becomes barbed. Because of course there is no other job for you when you’re fat.

Only that’s not true at all. Santa is fat and jolly, but Santa isn’t obese. You see fat people as Santa all the time, but never anyone like me.

“Are you a Santa?” is asked from behind me. I turn, pause: the kid is eleven. I am too pissed off to register anything else – or even wonder how I know he’s eleven in the way people know hair colour and skin tones – and I give him my best glare.

“No. I’m not going to be Santa this year; you don’t get to be a Santa when you’re too fat to get into his grotto,” I snarl. “Or did you want to make a joke about how I ate Santa and Ms. Claus, or had too many Christmas snacks? I’ve heard it. Whatever joke you want to make. I’ve heard it all before.”

The kid steps back, eyes wide. “But I was doing an asking, which isn’t a joke at all most of the time you know,” he says.


He pauses a moment. “Oh! I guess a knock-knock joke is a question that is a joke, but I didn’t say all the time because I’m clever like a Jay!”

I manage to say what again.

“Is that a joke too? I sometimes miss human jokes even if Charlie says single words can be jokes but she means my name when she says that. I’m Jay,” and he says it as if we’ve been friends forever.

I check his arms for bracelets, spot nothing. “Uh, kid, are your parents around?”


“But you are a little odd,” I say. “Is your mother –.”

The kid stiffens. His grin vanishes and he stares up at me with an expression I’ve never seen before and hope to God I never see again.

“I – I – I didn’t mean anything,” I manage to get out. “I meant that you weren’t alone?”

“Oh!” And he grins. The word doesn’t do anything justice. The grin is huge and welcoming and I’d swear blind that my knees ache less just because the grin is so open and honest, but I can’t forget the look before it and the terrifying certainty he was closer to killing me than even he knew. The kid is eleven: that doesn’t factor into it at all.

“My name’s Rob,” I say. “Sorry. I just – this is a bad time of year for me.”

Jay nods. “Lots of people say that, even if it’s Christmas but people say that about every holiday and sometimes I wonder why humans have them unless they’re weapons to wound other people with?”

“Sometimes they are,” I say, managing to not make it a question. I thought something was loose inside the kid’s head, but now I’m wondering if it’s my head or if he’s real at all. I let out a breath. “I’m not a Santa, no. My beard isn’t white yet.”

Jay nods. “I don’t even have a beard, so I can’t be one at all! And I’m not allowed to be an elf.”

“Uh. Why not?” I ask because I can’t help but wonder what his answer will be.

“Because the kind of gifts I make aren’t nice like the ones elves make, even elves that aren’t nice at all.” He pouts. “And I try really hard at making them because I’m jaysome you know.” He brightens a moment later. “I bet I could help make your beard white for you! Charlie says I give her lots of grey hairs, so giving white ones shouldn’t be hard at all.”

“That’s not –.” I stare down at him. I’m certain he can see me, but I can’t shake the feeling he’s not seeing what other people see. “I’m fat, Jay. I’m so fat that I once tried to audition to be an extra in a movie – the fat background guy in a scene – and was told I’d need to lose weight to get the part.”

It’s a joke but also a true thing that happened. Jay doesn’t laugh. The kid just scratches his head. “I’ve lost lots of things, but not important ones and I bet you’d want to be a Santa, right?”

No one has ever put it like that, and there is something behind the words. “I would,” I whisper, which I’ve never told to anyone before. Not even to myself.

“Perfect! I have some friends you can be a Santa for,” he says, and grabs my right hand.

There are stories you don’t tell anyone about, because you don’t believe they happened even if you were there. I don’t have many of those, but seconds later I know this is going to surpass all of them as a Bigfoot stares down at me. It is at least eight feet fall and smells even worse than it looks. There is a fire in a fire pit, a circle of – some of them look like people. Others don’t look like anything I know of at all. Some hurt my head just to see, as if my brain simply can’t process whatever is in front of me. One of them claims to be named Ms. Apple and is an old lady only she’d not that at all.

“Jay.” The voice beside me is human, and resigned. I turn and look at someone so ordinary it calms me, his eyes full of wry understanding.

“Honcho! I found a Santa,” Jay says proudly.

I notice every thing else has moved to give the boy space; I’m certain he hasn’t noticed that at all.

“Of course you did.” The man called Honcho looks me over without a hint of judgement, and does – I think he gestures, or whistles. Calls. I know that much. He calls something, and I am wearing a perfectly fitting and comfortable Santa Claus costume a moment later.

“Honcho! He doesn’t have a sack of presents,” Jay says. “I bet I could get lots of them and –.”

“Meeting Santa is a gift, Jay. Being one also gift enough,” Honcho says. “You don’t need to give gifts when you are one: people forget that too often.”

“Oooooh,” Jay says. “I’m a gift all the time then!”

A woman beside me snorts. She looks human, though I don’t think that means anything here.

“Charlie. You don’t have to be mean,” Jay says.

“I snorted.”

“You did it in a very meany way though!”

I start laughing I can’t help it. The kid is somehow impossible and grounding all at once, and the man called Honcho is – I think he’s keeping me whole, sane, here, though I’m not sure why I feel this.

There is no grotto, but Santa is the grotto. I understand that and some of the things here were once human, or where human forms, or were never human at all. But they’re in a country where you almost can’t escape holidays. There is a yearning in them, and there is one in me as well.

I sit, and my voice sounds deeper than normal when I ask who wants to talk to Santa.

Some do. Some do not. I don’t remember most of it, which is for the best. Some of them don’t have voices. But at the end of it all I feel content and Jay offers up a huge that impossibly goes all around me and hugs me tightly. I think tentacles are involved, try not to think about that and am back home moments later.

My beard is white. I think it’s going to stay that way. It’s only the next morning when I realize my knees and back don’t ache at all that I realize I was given a gift as well. I just hope it’s not the kind that is secretly a burden. Not that I think Jay would do that, but I am not sure he’d understand it at all. I put clothing on, head outside. It’s snowing, and some kids ask if I’m Santa. Even the older ones don’t have as much bite to the question as they did before.

Maybe it’s the beard. Maybe it’s last night. I just smile and tell them that they should try being Santa as well, and that seems to leave them content. And I am content as well, which is gift enough for an evening I am already halfway to forgetting.  

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