“Did you see their faces?” the man in the Santa suit says, suppressing a hiccup.
The bar is dim, cheap fixtures casting a blanket of anonymity into the farthest corners. Shelves of liqueur bottles—red, yellow, blue, green, amber—gleam like a jeweled high altar. A tinsel garland is looped on the corners of a framed picture of Jerry Springer, and mini lights are strung around the entrance to the bathrooms. A few sad sacks are nursing their beers at separate small tables. Merle Haggard’s wailing, “Some day when things are good.” And then there’s me and Santa on bar stools at the counter. No one should be pounding back scotch, not in a Santa suit, its red plush worn to threadbare, its white fake-fur cuffs an uneven clotted mass of pigeon-poop gray.
Earlier I watched the mall Santa hoist my twins on his lap, listen to their Christmas wishes and pose for Santa’s elf to snap a photo. Although I stood at a distance, I could hear his convincing, “Ho-ho-ho, we’ll see what Santa can do!” as he eased them from his lap. The twins did not see me; they ran straight to the open arms of their mother, Janine, and a moment later I turned back to my duties inside Walmart. I don’t think Santa saw me. Or if he saw me, he would assume I was just some drudge pausing in the middle of “Hello” and “Welcome” to watch random kids at Santa’s Magic Snow Castle in the mall concourse.
“Doesn’t this bar play televised games?” I say. They’re only playing CNN on mute tonight but I’m sure I’ve heard TSN blaring during playoffs. I’ve stood cheek by jowl roaring in the final moments of a match. I have fantasized, for a brief flash, that future day when I’d be cheering for my boys, sweat streaking their faces under stadium lights. Championship tournaments, those big impossible things I couldn’t help but dream as I wiped up their baby-puke.
“Did you see their faces, how I got kids grinning ear to ear?” Santa says. “Wanna know how I do it?”
How he does it. I know he’s trying to pull me in. I know it will be some cheap trick or stupid joke, so I ignore the guy as long as I can. But my curiosity gets the better of me and I lean closer like iron to the magnet.
Time stands still as his gaze impales me like a pin through a specimen. I see his face expand right before me, the features growing wider and wider. His drink-shiny eyes grow from almond size to lemon size; his bristle-lined nostrils the diameter of a pea widen to the diameter of a baseball. His mouth keeps opening, unhinging the jaw, stretching inhumanly wide, exposing a dark gullet as broad as a watermelon, no—a pig, no—a sinkhole, gaping and murderously dark. A hot foul breath pours upon me, and I see his huge teeth, crooked gray stumps with big heads bowed like chastised children, rows and rows of child-teeth and behind them the reproachful gray faces of parent-teeth. And behind them the leering, ravening faces of strangers. Strangers who’ve been hanging around, slapping a crowbar in one hand, muttering about meeting me, yes me, the deadbeat dad, after coping with the parade of snivelling ungrateful spawn that suck the breath right out of him. Their noise keeps mounting from unpleasant static to ear-rending shriek as Santa’s ever-deepening gullet reveals the roiling multitudes within, climbing and crawling over each other, cockroaches fleeing a burning shack.
I try to shut my eyes but—wait!—amidst the swaying multitude I see one twin, his face pouring sweat, his mouth a rictus of pain due to the scrofulous rat that is gnawing his fingertips. My brother, my brother! he is screaming and in an instant, I realize that it has always been the brothers together, one kid rescuing the other because Daddy’s never there anymore. I gave up, called it quits too soon, and now my whole life is as pointless as the vermiform appendix that has never served any function except to be a blind alley collecting bacteria and causing bellyaches while it putrefies and eventually bursts, making the whole organism sick.
It is my self I see. My breath stops. I am nothing but a useless protrusion that will wither and rot, its stench making me an outcast. There he goes, the deadbeat dad, they’ll say. I recoil, I keep backing up, back, back, far away from this thing that wants a new nest, this thing whose moist greedy tentacles reach from the bottom of Santa’s gullet and are flailing toward me. I rear back from the barstool so violently I lose my balance—whoa!
Now I’m looking up at the dusty acoustic tiles of the ceiling and I hear a voice singing, “That’s the way love goes.” Some guy’s face is bending over me, frowning, holding me by the chin. “Hey, you okay, man?”
I start gasping questions despite the steel vise squeezing my temples.
The guy answers, “You’re at Bernie’s Bar and I’m Bernie. It’s pushing ten o’clock on the Saturday before Christmas…”
“Santa,” I rasp and move my eyes left-right-left.
“You just take it easy now, soldier. You had a spill. You better lay off the sauce.” He folds a cloth, tries to cushion my head on it.
I catch a flash of red and white—no, a presence of dirty tattered red and white—that is sneaking past the bartender, shuffling out the door. That presence—that thing that contains multitudes—must be stopped but I feel too pained to lift a muscle. I hear a low, drawn-out groan and realize it’s coming from my own windpipe. The bartender shushes me, jollies me, slowly slowly gets me up and seated on a chair. Glancing around as the regulars congregate, he says, “You’ve had quite a bump. Wanna get it checked?” He offers to call a cab to take me to the hospital because the ambulances will be too busy, too slow at this time of night. He asks for a “friend or family, any contact name,” and Janine’s is the first name that springs to mind. The only name.
“I was talking to Santa,” I croak, mortified at how puerile the sentence sounds.
Bernie looks startled.
“Mall Santa,” I clarify. “Some geezer dressed up Santa? He was sitting right there,” I try not to sound irritated and pained. The effort this requires stains the edges of my vision with black. My heart is rat-a-tat-tatting like an alarm bell’s hammer. “Right there—for God’s sake!” I say, pointing at the bar stool.
“Just hold on, soldier,” Bernie says, phone to his ear. “A cab will be here in five minutes.”
“Right here! Surely you saw him!” I now can recall Bernie bringing a drink to me but… no scotch to Santa—
“Uh-huh,” Bernie says. “Sounds like you were talking to Ed. He used to drop by for a nightcap after every shift.” He glances at his phone like it’s some sort of escape portal, then back to me, as if calculating how long he’ll have to humor me before the taxi shows up.
A bald, bearded guy steps closer, says it was a pity about Ed, did they ever find the bastards who laid him low in the back alley? And another guy with a sleeve of tattoos draws nearer and says he’d heard old Ed was a pedophile who was ambushed by two of his grown victims. A couple of the sad sacks pause beside me on their way out—they actually seem more tired than unhappy—and when they hear mention of Ed, they say there’s a legend of spirit possession on this land before the mall was built and Ed got accidentally swept into the maelstrom of the eternal struggle between good and evil. They offer to give me an illustrated pamphlet, but I say no thanks.
A cab picks me up, disgust written broadly across the cabbie’s face.
* * *
At the E.R., I wait and wait. With great concentration, I transfer funds for this month’s child support. Don’t know how I will pay for the brain scan.
I continue waiting. I remember our last exchange. The check was a week late; I apologized; and Janine called my apology “worse than useless. Just like you, Dougie.”
Maybe it’s time to own it.
I wait some more. I try to compose a text to her explaining I was laid off from the cabinetry shop so am working seasonal shift at Walmart while I look for a new job. My vision is blurred, and my fingers are rubber, so it takes an hour of intense concentration to type this on the tiny screen.
It’s just asking for more anger and insults.
But it’s time to own it.
What the hell, I’ll send the text anyway. Gotta start somewhere.
“Did you see their faces?” Ed had said to me, and I think, no, I haven’t seen, really seen, my boys in a long, long time.
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