“Hurry up, Harry! Santa’s waiting.”
“Okay, okay,” I said, struggling to get into my bright-green knickers. I could swear they were looser last year.
“Come on!” Amy barked. “The kids are getting restless.” About every week, Amy changed her management style based on whatever business book she was reading. She was currently on a tear with military memoirs: Generals Patton, Westmoreland, and Schwarzkopf.
“I’ll be out in a second,” I hollered back. We had a new Santa, and apparently he was having a little problem, the nature of which was unspecified.
This was my fourth holiday season as an elf, and I had promised myself not to take the job again this year, but my two sisters had come up with the brilliant idea of sending our parents on a cruise for a Christmas present. I could have opted out, but—
“Harry!” Amy again, like a bugle.
“Here I am.” I burst out of the dressing room in costume, the better to startle her. She spilled her caramel corn on the floor in front of her. It’s the little things that bring true happiness. I was simultaneously guilty and hoping that it had been a latte instead. Amy and I have a complicated relationship; like family. She still got a little annoyed, and that warmed my Scrooge-like heart. Then, knowing where my bread was buttered, I hit the floor to start picking up the pieces, but she stopped me. “Don’t worry about that now. I need you on the floor.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Our new Santa’s a little freaked out,” she said.
“Okay, okay.” I stood and held out the handful of kernels that I had retrieved. “Did you want to eat these?”
She rolled her eyes and folded my fingers closed over the corn. Sometimes Amy played it just right.
But as I was hurrying away, she shouted behind me, “Did you want me to order you a bigger pair of knickers?”
“No,” I said, in a lilting voice. “I’ll just borrow a pair of yours.” Lucky for me, she laughed. She could take it as well as dish it out, and that was good for both of us.
I need to clear something up before I go any further. I don’t work at that big, nice department store chain with stores all across the country and an attractive credit card and an enormous floor of its flagship Manhattan store devoted every year to the spectacle of Christmas… and documented hilariously by David Sedaris.
No, no. Sadly, no. I work at Kelso’s, a nice little department store in a shopping center (not even a mall, though in the shadow of a glittering three-story mall) in beautiful downtown Toledo. Okay, Kelso’s is almost an empire, with two other stores across the Michigan border, in Monroe and Flint. Our customers are loyal, and we employees are like family, not just to each other, but to the genuine Kelso family.
Kelso’s Christmas Wonderland is about the size of a bedroom and features a display of Dennis the Menace knocking over a Christmas tree. Santa does have a big comfy chair, and we serve the visitors homemade cookies and cider. Actually, I (or whichever elf is on duty) serve them homemade cookies and cider, which, I saw when I got there, is where the current problem arose.
One of the little darlings had upchucked his cider and cookies (along with something that looked mysteriously like corn and fish sticks) all over Elf Jason and over Santa’s candy basket. All this was explained in a rapid-fire rant as Jason swept past me to the dressing room. I touched my eyebrows to make sure they weren’t scorched.
The new Santa actually looked like he was doing just fine, talking calmly to the apparent vomiter, who was seated on his lap while his mother held him up like a ventriloquist’s dummy.
“Hello, Santa,” I said in a voice barely above a whisper.
He looked at me and smiled. His eyes actually twinkled; nice eyes. Too bad I’m not into older men. “Oh, look, Colin,” he said to the greenish little kid on his lap in his best Santa voice, which truth be told was kind of cheesy, “one of my other elves came out to see you.”
Came out? “Yeah,” I said. “I’m in charge of all the… train sets and… the puppies… and the electronic games. At the North Pole.”
“Yes,” Santa said, putting his hand on my shoulder. He was strong. “Elf… uhhhhhh.”
“Harry,” I said quickly.
“Elf Harry,” he continued, squeezing my shoulder (he was really strong), “is going to make the exact train set that you want if you can describe it to me. Doesn’t that sound like a good idea, Colin’s mother?”
“Yes, Santa,” the woman said, a bit doubtfully.
“And of course you have to be very good between now and Christmas in order to get it,” Santa added.
While Colin launched into an enthusiastic description of his ideal train set, I zoned out, bouncing from the line of restless children to the disgusting candy bowl (which was still smelly, even though it was covered with Jason’s hat) to Santa. Who was this guy? With the situation in hand, I took the opportunity to dump the candy bowl and find some new treats to put in it. Okay, I also found a new bowl.
When I got back, New Santa was having an intense discussion with a little redheaded girl about Barbie. “You never had a Midge doll?” he asked.
“No,” the girl replied earnestly. “I had a Skipper once, but I didn’t like her ’cause she couldn’t fit into any of Barbie’s clothes.”
“They never do,” Santa said.
“And my brother called her a slut.”
“How old is your brother?”
“Better watch out for the brother,” I said to Santa, sotto voce.
He swallowed a little laugh, but didn’t break stride in his heartfelt discussion with the little girl. In fact, he seemed to relate beautifully to every child he came in contact with, and not with Santa schtick—he didn’t have red rosy cheeks, and as I think I mentioned before, his Santa voice wasn’t completely convincing—but by simply listening to them. Or, more accurately, by listening to them, simply. The awkward older girl who was only half-believing, the Chinese toddler whose speech I didn’t understand a word of, the tough kid who kept kicking his chair and wouldn’t look him directly in the eyes—they all seemed to fall under his spell.
Around six, there were only a few kids left. Traffic generally slowed down before picking up again after dinner. I thought I’d have a chance to talk to him, but he announced that his shift was over. He was replaced by my least favorite Santa, Rufus, who liked to pinch cheeks, both mine and the children’s, and couldn’t stop passing gas, which he always blamed on somebody else.
New Santa made a quick exit, before I even had a chance to ask his name.
I counted the minutes until I’d be free to get away from Rufus’s toxic cloud and take off my tight hideous costume and go caroling or to a Christmas party or a schlocky holiday movie or something. Anything but this.