An Unlikely Santa
A short Christmas story
Copyright 2015- Kathryn Brettell
All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be sold, transferred, or copied in any media form without the written consent of the author, except in the cases of brief snippets used for review purposes. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people, places, or incidents is strictly coincidental.
An Unlikely Santa
Hank needed a bottle.
Hell, I really need a whole case of bottles, he thought, but I’d be happy right now just to knock back a few fingers of Jack. He needed some anti-freeze to get his motor going – to bust the ice off his nose and light that slow burn in his gut.
He rubbed his hands together and blew warm breath into the thread bare gloves, then checked his pockets for the thirtieth time that morning. Fifty-seven cents. His lucky nickel, two pennies he’d lifted from the dish at the 7-11, and two quarters he’d panhandled off geeks down on Harwood Street. Not enough for even one drink.
“Crap,” said Hank. “I can’t believe I’m gonna do this.”
The downtown employment office sometimes hooked him up with jobs sweeping or hauling trash for a few bucks, but not today. It was Christmas Eve and the bulletin board was seriously lacking posts for hourly work. Only one fit Hank’s requirements: indoor work, paid by the hour, and within his geographical limit – walking distance of a liquor store. Somebody wanted a Santa to visit the county hospital children’s ward. He unpinned the note and shoved it into his pocket.
An immense black woman with TyQuando printed on her name badge greeted him in the Human Resources Department at the hospital.
“Change in the bathroom, and don’t be leavin’ none a your nasty clothes in there.” She tossed the pile of red costume at him, topped with a plastic bag for his belongings. “And don’t even think ‘bout stealin’ nothin’. When you finish, come back here and I’ll get you paid, then you’ll get your clothes back. You unnerstand?” She cocked her massive head toward one shoulder, waiting for his answer.
“Yes ma’m, and may I say you are the loveliest woman I’ve seen today. TyQyando – that’s an unusual name, is it Asian?” Then, narrowing his eyes, he grinned. “I’ve always had an Asian fantasy, maybe after work you can join me for some fine dining and we’ll see where the mood takes-“
“Get back, fool,” she poked him in the shoulder. “You jest put on the damn suit, get yer ass upstairs or the only ‘ho you gonna feel is my boot digging a trench up your backside.” She turned her back with a flip of her head, and he watched admiringly as she juggled her ample hips behind the counter and back to her desk. He was oddly aroused. Perhaps, depending on how much he made today, there might be an opportunity for female companionship this evening…
Hank snorted at his own fantasy, then mentally reviewed his game plan: high five a few rug rats, take a nap in a closet, grab his money and get back to the shelter in time for Christmas dinner with liquid refreshments in hand.
Hank took his time getting into the suit, reminding himself the gig paid by the hour. The ratty gray-white beard had been worn many times, but it covered the gaunt hollows of his cheeks. The pants were made for a much larger man, but once the black belt was cinched up tight over the red shirt he was ready to go. He dropped the bag with his clothes on TyQuando’s desk and headed upstairs to the pediatric floor; a skinny, reluctant Santa Clause.
The pediatric ward was decorated with a spindly, anemic Christmas tree, a few strands of mismatched lights and empty, limp stockings hanging from the counter at the nurse’s station. There was little activity on the ward, presumably most kids had gone home for Christmas. The first open door he saw was marked with the name Angel Rameriz, male, age 4.
Hank sucked in a quick breath and entered the darkened room. There was a slight movement in the bed as two small eyes turned to greet him.
“Santa?” the kid asked, barely above a whisper.
“Yeah, sure. Ho, ho, ho.” Hank answered and stepped closer to the bed.
“I knew you’d come,” the kid replied.
Lights blinked in the darkness from the IV poles, and a steady hum of machinery was broken only by a metronome of beeps cutting the stillness of the room.
“I knew you’d come,” the kid whispered again. The kid’s head looked like a bowling ball, bald with two dark sunken eyes. “Santa, I’m so glad you’re here.” Then, more to himself than to Hank, “I think I’m going to die tonight.”
Hank stood at the bedside, too stunned to speak. He leaned in for a closer look and had to admit, it didn’t look very good for the kid. Medicine hanging on poles, piss bag hooked on the bed rail, a rubber tube goin’ gawd-knows-where, tubes and wires all over. The kid’s body barely made a wrinkle in the blankets that covered him. His head was curiously round, and propped up on pillows like a human Humpty Dumpty.
“Whaddya mean die? Ya jes’ got the dwindles is all.” Hank shrugged, and cleared his throat. “Yer gonna be home in no time.”
The kid’s eyes faded, then opened again. He said nothing.
“Yeah, well, Merry Christmas,” Hank said, then turned to leave.
“Santa?” The kid raised tired eyes to see his visitor. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
Hank stopped. “Oh, yeah.” Clearing his throat again, he stepped toward the bed and stared up at the ceiling. “And what do you want for Christmas?”
The kid smiled weakly, and Hank could now see how pale his skin was, thin as paper, with no muscle underneath to hold it off his tiny bones.
“I want,” the kid struggled to say, “I want some LifeSavers.”
“Oh, yeah, sure.” Hank smiled down at the kid, “I think ‘ole Santa can manage to get that in his bag.” Pleased with himself, Hank waved his hand in the kid’s direction and said, “Okay, gotta go now, lots more kids to see tonight. Adios.”
“But, I can’t eat anything. I can’t swallow,” he said weakly. “I used to eat them all the time, and I think they would help me.”
From the street below ghostly echoes of Silent Night carried into the room, temporarily drowning out the beeping monitor. As the chorus ended, Hank became aware of the changed rhythm. The kid’s breathing had become ragged, like some of the guys at the shelter before they left for greener pastures and their bed became available for a new occupant.
“Hey kid, where’s your parents?”
“Dead,” the kid whispered.
Aw jeez, that’s why he’s in county, Hank thought. He pulled off the red hat and rubbed his head. Their eyes made contact once more before Hank turned on his heel and fled the room. Suddenly sweating, he jerked the matted beard off his face and hurried down the hall past the nurse’s station.
Minutes later, he returned and sat on the bed. The kid didn’t move. The pauses between beeps had become irregular and the spaces between them lengthened. “Merry Christmas, Angel,” Hank said as placed the roll of LifeSavers into the kids open hand. Fingers fluttered around the candy just as the beeps flattened to a steady stream. The kid exhaled a tiny puff of air.
Hank sat on the bed, unable to think, but not wanting to leave.
Back downstairs, Hank returned to the big girl’s office and asked for his clothes back. She yelled that he’d worn the red suit less than thirty minutes and if he left now he’d get no money.
“Just gimme my clothes,” he said. He no longer wanted a drink.
Cold air blasted Hank as he pushed the door open, outside he checked his pockets again for the thirty-first time that day. Two cents. Hank pulled his coat tight up around his neck, and tears began to fall on his weathered cheeks.
He walked in the direction of the 7-11. This night, of all nights. It had been years since anyone had asked what Hank wanted for Christmas, and any other time he would have prayed for a bottle of Jack.
Tonight he pulled the collar of his coat up to cover his ears and walked alone in the snow.