Bah damn blasted humbug, thought Susan. She was deep into an early December shift and she was heartbroken.
It was the people. These desperate people. She was heartsick from their constant demands for toys. Their anger when she was out of an item. The last woman had literally cried over a flipping doll. Then she swore. It wasn’t at Susan but it hurt all the same. Yeah, she thought, brilliant idea having these brick locations where the cyberbullies could now yell at her in person instead of the online virtual assistant. She couldn’t quit either no matter how long the hours. Maybe I can take the end of the rope I’m hanging onto and make a noose, she thought. She took a deep breath and gestured to the man that was next in line. He was about five foot ten with café au lait skin. He had black hair shot through with gray. His short beard was also salt and pepper. But the most noticeable thing about him was his black boots, red jeans, and his red overcoat. He stopped at her desk and said “Hey Susan.”
“George” she said. He was another employee who often played Santa for this location. Like that’s what they needed, more screaming kids. Still, the man was good with them. He truly seemed to care about the children, even learning some sign language. And it helped that he knew some Spanish at least. But then again one had to be bilingual to work here. “What’s up?”
“I’m looking for some items.” She thought there was sadness in his voice. You’re not the only one, she thought. "I mean, I have some here. But I was hoping to order more.”
“Sure as long as we go through them quickly. Do you see that line?”
“Huh tell me about it. One more crying kid and I will take to drinking.”
“These stockings I’m in are going to need their own support group never mind supporting me. I hear you.” He laughed. Susan thought that was the only Santa thing about him. When he laughed his body shook. She had asked him once aren’t you too young for this at 45? He had shrugged and said That’s what the wigs are for. Besides I’m sure Santa was young once himself.
“What are you looking for?” She looked around to see if her boss was watching. That man was so crabby even Scrooge would have told him to get a grip. When she didn’t see him, she leaned her elbows on the counter and regarded George with a smile.
“Well I found this coat.” He indicated his cart. “But I want to order two more.”
“Okay.” She pulled up the virtual screen. It hung in the air. Both could see what was on it. “What sizes?”
“Three 10-12 sizes. They’re for preteens.”
"I didn’t know you had grand kids.” Far as she knew his kids were grown but not married yet.
“I don’t. If I told you what they’re for you’d laugh at me.” He ran his hands through his hair and sighed deeply. This job was getting to him as much as it was her. There seemed to be too much desperation in the world, too much neediness, and not enough...not enough of whatever they needed to fix that. Love. Money. Damned if he knew but it wasn’t enough. “Let’s just order the stuff and move on. I also need groceries.”
Honestly while Susan liked George, she was tired and didn’t care all that much. She thought, Good luck with that one, Susan thought. “You know we’re out of most things,” she said. She pulled up the grocery store. “See?” She showed him the virtual computer screen.
“I don’t need much. Do you have rice and beans?”
He looked at her virtual screen. “And here is some flour and yeast. Do you know what you can make with flour, water and yeast? A lot. Bread. Tortillas. Even pasta. I need-how much are they? Employee discount, let’s see.” He pulled out his tablet and did some calculations. “Five bags. The beans are cheap at least and so is the rice. 10 bags of those. Also I’m going to get some canned vegetables. The taste is blah but they’ll keep body and soul together. I’ll give you some addresses. Say what’s with these charities these days?”
“What about them?”
“I swear to God they’re doing less and less. Even the churches. Do you know what some kid just asked for? Well never mind.”
“Toys? That new cell phone? The aPeach?”
I wish that was what he asked for, George thought but didn’t say. And that kid wasn’t the only one.
“George.” Susan paused in her typing. “What’s this all about anyway?”
“I’m telling you that you’ll laugh at me and call me a fool.”
“Hey, you’d be surprised. My neighbor on the other side of me is -well, I hate to say it but her elevator doesn't go all the way up. Not her fault though.” Susan would leave her some food on her doorstep also. Hopefully the woman ate it. Volunteers also brought meals but only one a day. “She tells me some things; I don’t know what to believe. She was a Marine and the last war messed her up. Jacking mental health care is worse than ever. Pardon me. Then my other neighbor on the other side I swear he’ll die before the healthcare approves that new cancer treatment.” She’d bring some dinner to him also, pretending she couldn’t eat it all. “As it is, he can barely walk.”
“Seems to me you could use a laugh anyway.” He looked at her and she felt he saw all the way inside her. He did. Past her dyed blond hair and lined face.
“What makes you think I need a laugh?”
“Because this isn’t an easy job you’re doing. I know all about it, believe me. People are greedy and cruel, aren’t they? So undoubtedly you need a laugh.”
“So give me one.” Susan crossed her arms and waited. But hurry up George. This line isn’t getting shorter and I don’t want to be accused of chatting it up with an employee. I need this damned job.
George put his head in his hands. “Three kids told me today they don’t have winter coats.”
"And that’s going to make me laugh.”
"No but put two and two together,” he told her. He stared at her with his hazel eyes that always changed color with the light. She always thought he had beautiful eyes. Then she would tell herself to get a grip. She had been divorced once and that was one time more than she needed.
“Wait. You’re not buying them the coats.”
He just looked at her calmly. “You’re not laughing. I thought you would.”
“No because you’re insane.” She stared at him.
“The rice? The flour?” She was glaring at him and she didn’t know why.
“Another kid told me they were hungry. They didn’t even have that. It was why I asked about the charities. I’ll email them some recipes too.”
“Goddammit George!” Her coworker stared at her. Susan thought soon she’d have to end this conversation. The line was starting to pile up again. Susan lowered her voice. “Just give them the name of a damned charity.”
“I gave it to the older sister. She crumpled it up and laughed. “I asked where her parents were. She gave me this look like-I don’t know. Like they had checked out since before she was born. Then she said they had tried the charities already.” He sighed. “Why does Santa only bring toys?”
“For heaven’s sake George,” she sighed. “Who cares? There’s no Santa and even if there was, you’re not him.”
"Let’s just finish this sale, shall we? I also need some blankets. Here let me just enter the damn fool things.” He touched the screen hanging in the air, pressing virtual buttons.
“Forget it.” But George was thinking of Susan herself. He knew about this neighbor for she had told him before. He knew she brought her food. She had shrugged it off saying she wouldn’t eat if she didn’t. And there was the other one. He would have said if it wasn’t for the food you bring her, the fact you do she might have given up hope long ago. And your other. The one waiting for his cancer treatment to be approved? If you didn’t go over there to make sure he was eating he wouldn't even have strength to live. But he didn’t. She knew she had no easy life, it wasn’t getting any better, and every year she got closer to outright bitterness. Not yet though.
Susan sighed, “I’m sorry George. But you can’t change the world.”
“I just can’t let those kids go. I-it's only 10 kids and only one time. But I hope-I hope they look back and remember someone cared. Also I have their emails since the parents enter it for their one free picture with me. I was able to look up their physical addresses with them. Damned lack of online privacy laws worked in my favor for once. I’ll keep tabs on them all year long. Anyway. Here’s their addresses. Just have the things shipped, okay?” He took a deep breath. “I’ve heard sometimes the smallest deed means the most, Susan. And I have to hold onto that. Because it’s all the hope I have left.”
“Hope? You’re giving them false hope.”
“I am? How so?” He stepped back from her.
“There’s no such thing as Santa.” Susan gestured. “Especially not in the year 2050.”
“There should be then. We need the man more than ever. Maybe not to deliver toys.” He pulled out his credit card, mostly to show he really was buying items, not just chatting up an employee. “He should be giving to the desperate now. To whoever falls through the cracks.” He handed her his credit card and smiled. “Didn’t you once tell the story to your nephew?”
“That boy never believed.”
George knew about him too. John had gone on that Mars mission and God knew when he’d be back. He video called every three months if that. Susan had never been able to have kids even with the fertilization treatments. Her sister had become drug addicted, like many these days. So, she had taken in her nephew. He had been affected by neglect, had acted out, been anti-social, angry. Susan’s marriage hadn’t lasted through this. The boy was better but of course he had grown up and left her. Now she was all alone and losing hope. She was paid little but the economy was bad and jobs were scarce. George could have bought all this online but he liked talking to her even if it was briefly. He thought of her taking in a little boy and getting little thanks for it. Giving up her youth for it. He thought of her buying food with her limited means to share with her neighbors, sharing her time. She took their money only when she had to.
“Tell me something since I'm Santa at least for today. What is on your list?"
“George.” She took a deep breath. By now everyone in the line was glaring at her. “You need to go so I don’t get fired.”
“I will when you answer my question.”
“A good man and a goddamn life, then.” She slapped the credit card on the counter.
George took back his card. Stopped and turned around. “You know, you’re a beautiful woman yourself.” Dear God almighty Jesus did I just say that out loud?
“And you’ve been drinking.”
“I swear I haven’t. Just...I wanted you to know that. And... if I’m right about the smallest deed, well then. I think you’ve helped more than you’ll ever know.” With that he turned and left. Very quickly.
Susan turned to her co-worker. “Bathroom break,” she said and fled. That night she sat at home arguing with herself. He’s just an idiot and you’re a bigger one for listening.
What did he say that was so wrong? He’s trying to help.
But there’s no such thing as-
Oh who cares? You know what? You're barely fifty but you’re turning into an old bitter hag that’s what! The man’s sincere. And you were incredibly rude. What happened to you anyway? You didn’t use to be like this.
Susan didn’t know but life lately was grinding her down. First, this damn job with its damned long shifts. And worse, the idea that this empty life in this empty condo was all she had. Her husband had left her and so had her nephew. All her friends were married and if they were single, she didn’t have time to see them. This job didn’t pay much but she had to make her mortgage somehow. That meant long hours for the overtime, when she got it. The economy was bad, climate change would probably kill everyone except for the new androids they were building, and she was alone. And now here she was yelling at this kind man. And why? Because she felt she herself had made no difference, was doing nothing absolutely worthwhile. She looked at her cup of tea then suddenly threw it. It shattered against the wall. She broke down.
The next day she apologized to George. He just shrugged it off. "You're right," he said. "I'm not Santa. Not really."
"Forget it. Now we'd better get back to work. We'll talk later." Later never came though. The people got worse, the lines longer. Susan didn't forget but it got buried in exhaustion and pain.
On Christmas eve she was eating a pathetic frozen dinner when she heard a knock at the door. She sighed. It better not be that kid down the hall looking for money again. If it was so help her God she was going to inform his parents he was asking for money at these odd hours. For what? For no good probably. She didn’t care if the kid was an adult or not. She opened the door to see a man standing in the hallway, hands in the pockets of his red overcoat. He had on red pants and black boots.
“I’m sorry. I was going to call and I kept losing my nerve. If it’s a bad time I’ll-”
“It’s not. Come in.” She closed the door and tried to smooth down her hair. At least she was decently dressed in a sweater and jeans for once. “Umm...okay. Why are you here?” Damn that was rude, Susan. She took a deep breath. “I mean it’s a bit unexpected."
He waved his hand at her. "I know. I’m crazy.”
She smiled, her hands in her pockets. “Well yeah we all knew that.”
He shrugged. “Well now you really will laugh at me. Which is fine with me.” He smiled. “You could use one.”
“So you’ve said.” She folded her arms and regarded him, frowning. Why was this guy here?
“Look...you wanted a life you said. And something else.”
“Wait or I’ll never say any of this. Okay?” She nodded. “I’m not Santa. I wish I was. I wish that I had the magical sled and all that. Take you away from your rotten job. I can’t.” He gestured at her. “But maybe we can give each other a life. May I?” He sat on the edge of her couch, head down, staring at his hands. Glanced around. It was a small place but she tried to make it look nice. She had a picture of flowers on her wall, another of some Spanish looking town somewhere. White couch and chair. Inviting. He was horrible at decorating. He looked up at her standing in front of him. “I quit my job."
"You did? Why?"
"I’m working with these people. They don’t have a lot of money but they have connections to those that do. They started a youth center. Doesn’t pay a lot but better than what I was doing. I figured I'd give you the information and you can consider working there also even if it’s only part time. It’s up to you.”
“Is that the only reason you’re here?”
“Then what else?”
He got up and walked to the window. “We might get snow tonight,” he said. He rubbed his hand across his eyes. “Hell,” he said very softly. Still looking out he said, “I was sincere, what I said. Also...” he glanced back at her. She still had her arms crossed but at least she was listening. She hadn’t tossed him out the door yet. It was a good sign. He couldn’t look at her so he turned back to the window. “I hate to be presumptuous but I always thought I was-well-not a bad man anyway. So as far as your other request, I’m the best I can give you.” He smiled. “Of course if I’m wrong then you’re free to leave, no hard feelings, etc. I'm not Santa. But I’ve” he swallowed hard, “always liked you.”
“You told me about your nephew, your neighbors. I always thought you deserved more thanks than you got. Also your ex-husband-well forget him. Moron. Anyway...” he gestured quietly at her frozen dinner, “at least I can take you for something better than that.”
“Oh you can, can you?”
He looked at her, and saw she was trying to look stern but failing miserably. Matter of fact her blue eyes shone with might have been tears held back. “Well there’s no sled as I said, but there is my car. No reindeer but it is self-driving. And I do know a nice little Italian restaurant that is open even on Christmas Eve.”
Susan rubbed her eyes and smiled at him. “Let me get my shoes and coat,” she said, softly.
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