Do you believe? Did you?
“He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake…”
Every December once Christmas was close, Daddy loaded us into the old Datsun & drove us west two hours away. Going to the city was special; a country mouse pilgrimage. Being from the woods it meant going to the big stores, looking at all the toys I would never have. Not this year, son. Maybe for your birthday, son.
In the days leading up to the trip, we decorated the old house. Up in the attic, we would haul down the old fake plastic Christmas tree covered in an old thick black plastic trash bag. Droppings and an occasional dead rat fell out with the plastic needles. We removed the metal branches from the dusty bag and placed them into color coded groups; then we placed them into their corresponding holes. It was like a game. A game with no winners and no losers. Just a task. If fate smiled, an old candy cane might be left in the bottom of the bag and what the mice hadn’t chipped away at was finders-keepers. After this came the untangling of lights and hanging of garland. Little silver icicles covered the carpet below. The star was always saved for the final part of the ritual. Weeks later on Christmas night, I would lay awake until my eyes could no longer stand watch, making way for mama and daddy to place the handful of gifts under the old tree.
The boom and height of the city overwhelmed me. We only went 2-3 times a year, so trips to the mall were majestic. For lunch we always stopped by the drive-thru at McDonald’s on the edge of town for a Happy Meal. I loved them so much because of the cheap toys the meal awarded. Nostalgia at its best, a far cry from our small town with one caution light and a cash grocery.
“Daddy, I need to use the bathroom”
“Should’ve went before we left.”
“But I did.”
“Aw, hell. I’ll just go in and order it to go. But make it quick.”
I walked into the men’s room and was greeted by an overflowed toilet. I carefully tiptoed past the urinal and to the last stall to dry ground. As I stood there, I looked over and noticed a sprawling carved Christmas greeting: “PISS ON EARTH & GOODWILL’S WORSE THAN THE PENN”. I finished up as quickly as I could and went back out into the lobby. We took our
food back to the car and drove. Once we got downtown, we stopped by Highland Park to eat our lunch and watch the other children ride on carousel horses before heading to watch Santa parachute onto the top of the Vanity Fair mall.
“Uh, now you’re sure this is safe pal?” the pilot asked with a little skepticism in his voice.
“Sure, used to do it all the time. Just gotta remember to pull the cords. Pretty damn easy. It ain’t exactly rocket science, ya know?”
They were in the air now and on schedule; it was too late to turn back.
“Yeah Mort, but you ever done it half-drunk? If it wasn’t too late to find some other poor schmuck ol’ man Broadhead would’ve fired you on the spot when you showed up this morning.”
“You just let me worry about that sonuvabitch. Known him my whole life,” he barked back, popping in a peppermint candy to cover his hound-breath. “Red first, then yellow, right?”“Right.”He told his ex-wife and two sons that he had gotten a job for the holidays, the first real gig he had in 6 months; she had custody for the past 4 years. He stayed drunk, but he promised the boys he would make them the envy of all the other kids. He planned on using his new employee discount to buy them their toys promised on lay-a-way.
“He knows when you’ve been bad or good…”
In the 80s, Vanity Fair mall stood as proud monument to Meridian. Everyone stopped to marvel at its lights, its magnificence. If you went into the city, you knew Vanity Fair mall. He had grown up knowing the local developer who owned the building and leased the shoppes. That’s how he got the job. They hunted close to one another their whole lives back home. Because of his situation, he was offered the job out of sympathy, not skill.
“I remember being in the Guard, back in the 70’s. Guys jumping out of those beater planes in Idaho and the air was a lot thinner than what we was used to in Alabama. Least a dozen guys musta broke their legs didn’t they?” the pilot chimed in.
“Guard was for pussies. ‘Nam was where Uncle Sam sent the real men on vacation.”He still walked with a limp, but laughed it off; that’s when the pilot asked if he was ready.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Mort said.
“Ready for the kids? I bet the skydiving Santa stunt will have them worked into a frenzy,” the makeup artist asked him.
“Absolutely! I’ve been waiting on this day my whole life, I’m just glad I’m not the one jumping outta the plane!” Claude said flashing a huge grin.
“Well, there are plenty of kids out there waiting who’ll be making their way in soon.” the young woman said applying a generous coat of blush to his cheeks.
“Naughty and nice I’m sure! Not that they’re bad. Some of them just need a moral compass. A center. And if I can’t talk to the kids about Jesus dressed like Santa Claus then who will? Someone has to stand up and be the voice!” he said buttoning up the heavy red coat.
“So, do you do this every year? What do you do when you’re not masquerading as St. Nick?”
“No, this is actually my very first time! I’ve been waiting for today. My father was in the
ministry. I felt that calling but everyone always said I was too soft spoken to preach. I’m retired now, but I still take on odd jobs when I can. I love the children. I even do birthday parties performing as a clown every now and then. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t be around the children. When I’m in the suit. It all goes away. The nerves, the meekness. It’s a chance to inspire.”
He had grown up in a small boarding house across the state line the locals called Mattie’s Manor. He never knew his real father but the story was he had been left in town by a traveling evangelist. Ms. Mattie was the closest thing he ever knew to family. Once he was 12, he dropped out of school to work in a nearby sawmill. When he was 17 he enlisted. After returning from Germany after the second World War, he found himself without a fiancé. She left only a Dear John letter. He never got over her.
He had always wanted to be a comedian but it wasn’t practical, especially his brand of clean comedy. Clean gags didn’t sell. In his spare time he worked as a clown for hire performing at children’s birthday parties and local store openings as Chuckles the Clown. Any opportunity for him to make the children smile was worth the small check. He would’ve done it for free. He had no children of his own.
“Well, you’ve certainly got the look down. Just a touch more here and there,” she said putting the finishing touches on his face.
When his ensemble was complete, he walked out down the small corridor to catch a glimpse of where he would be sitting and taking pictures. There was a small wedding party finishing up their ceremony in the center court near the fountain where he would soon be the center of attention. The groom slid off his bride’s garter and tossed it into the crowd of guests. Then came the bride and her bouquet. Then the insinuations of those lucky enough to have caught the tokens being next to enter into matrimony.
“Been waiting a long time for this, Claude. Don’t mess it up,” he whispered to himself.
As the plane passed over the parking lot, he jumped out and we caught our first glimpse of the man in red.
“I see him, Daddy! Look! Right there!” I shouted pointing at the speck growing bigger and bigger each second as he twirled downward. Swirls of red and white.
Spiraling faster and faster on his approach, something was wrong.
Pulling, jerking, but only the small chute opened.
Missing his mark.
“You better watch out…”
It was a simple sound, his body slamming head-first into the huge metal sign attached to the side of the concrete roof. In an instant, all-encompassing darkness.
“Is Santy Claus ok?” the little girl next to me asked.
“Oh yes, yes I’m sure he is, darling.” his mother said disingenuously.
Among the gasps and shrieks, I couldn’t stop giggling. Parents shielding their children from the dangling corpse and I was smiling ear to ear because I knew Santa couldn’t be dead. This was some 3 stooges-esque, lowbrow physical comedy; a guise. The all-seeing, all-knowing couldn’t be defeated by a crosswind and a tangled shoot. Surely he wasn’t subject to the laws of nature like the rest of us. I kept laughing to myself waiting for him to pull himself up by some magic but the magic had disappeared. He just hung there tangled and gorged in the lowercase t. It took half an hour to get the body down.
“You better not cry…”
When they got him down and untangled, they put the body in a thick, heavy black plastic bag and zipped it tight. They threw him in the back of the ambulance like a penny thrown in the wishing-well fountain inside the shopping mall. Hopeless, meaningless, orchestrated urban mysticism.
They cancelled the whole event and closed the mall for the rest of the day after the accident. They decided shortly after it would be in bad taste to have meet and greet photos with Santa after hundreds of children witnessed his death. Too many questions for the parents to explain to their children. We went home empty handed that year.
Whenever I go back now, I stop through and ride past the now unoccupied building. Cracked asphalt and weeds push up through potholes riddling the parking lot. Chain-link fence has been put up all around the entrances to keep out vagrants. Once bustling, now silent. This side of the city is now quiet. New storefronts were developed across town. Old plastic tarps hang over the cracked windows. Black trash bags tumbleweed around the cracked asphalt in front of a red and white horizon. At night there are no lights, just darkness beyond the glow of the city.
Son of Alabama’s Black Belt. English/Literature/Writing Instructor. Lover of black cats, good bourbon & better storytelling.