Here Comes Santa Claus
by Bill Pronzini
Page 2 of 6
The Gala Family Christmas Charity Benefit was being held in
the Lowell High School gymnasium, out near Golden Gate Park. Half
a dozen San Francisco businesses were sponsoring it, including
Bates and Carpenter, the ad agency where Kerry works as a senior
copywriter, so it was a pretty elaborate affair. The decoration
committee had dressed the gym up to look like a cross between
Santa's Village and the Dickens Christmas Fair. There was a huge
gaudy tree, lots of red-and-green bunting and seasonal
decorations, big clusters of holly and mistletoe, even fake snow;
and the staff members were costumed as elves and other creatures
imaginary and real. Carols and traditional favorites poured out
of loudspeakers. Booths positioned along the walls dispensed
food-- meat pies, plum pudding, gingerbread, and other
sweets--and a variety of handmade toys and crafts, all donated.
For the adults, there were a couple of city-sanctioned games of
chance and a bar supplying wassail and other Christmassy drinks.
For the kiddies, there was me.
I sat on a thronelike chair on a raised dais at one end,
encased in false whiskers and wig and paunch, red suit and cap,
black boots and belt. All around me were cotton snowdrifts, a toy
bag overflowing with gaily wrapped packages, a shiny papier-mache
version of Santa's sleigh with some cardboard reindeer. A couple
of young women dressed as elves were there, too, to act as my
helpers. Their smiles were as phony as my whiskers and paunch;
they were only slightly less miserable than I was. For snaking
out to one side and halfway across the packed enclosure was a
line of little children the Pied Piper of Hamlin would have
envied, some with their parents, most without, and all eager to
clamber up onto old St. Nick's lap and share with him their
Inside the Santa suit, I was sweating--and not just because
it was warm in there. I imagined that every adult eye was on me,
that snickers were lurking in every adult throat. This was
ridiculous, of course, the more so because none of the two
hundred or so adults in attendance knew Santa's true identity I
had made Kerry swear an oath that she wouldn't tell anybody,
especially not my partner, Eherhardt, who would never let me hear
the end of it if he knew. No more than half a dozen of those
present knew me anyway, this being a somewhat ritzy crowd; and of
those who did know me, three were members of the private security
Still, I felt exposed and vulnerable and acutely
uncomfortable. I felt the way you would if you suddenly found
yourself naked on a crowded city street. And I kept thinking:
What if one of the newspaper photographers recognizes me and
decides to take my picture? What if Eberhardt finds out? Or
Barney Rivera or Joe DeFalco or one of my other so-called
Another kid was on his way toward my lap. I smiled automatically
and sneaked a look at my watch. My God! It seemed as though I'd
been here at least two hours, but only forty-five minutes had
passed since the opening ceremonies. More than three hours left
to go. Close to two hundred minutes. Nearly twelve thousand
The new kid climbed onto my knee. While he was doing that, one
of those near the front of the line, overcome at the prospect of
his own imminent audience with the Nabob of the North Pole, began
to make a series of all-too-familiar sounds. Another kid said,
"Oh, gross, he's gonna throw up!" Fortunately, however, the sick
one's mother was with him; she managed to get him out of there in
time, to the strains of "Walking in a Winter Wonderland."
I thought: What if he'd been sitting on my lap instead of
standing in line?
I thought: Kerry, I'll get you for this, Kerry.
I listened to the new kid's demands, and thought about all the
other little hopeful piping voices I would have to listen to, and
sweated and smiled and tried not to squirm. If I squirmed, people
would start to snicker--the kids as well as the adults. They'd
think Santa had to go potty and was trying not to wee-wee on
This one had cider-colored hair. He said, "You're not Santa Claus."
"Sure I am. Don't I look like Santa?"
"No. Your face isn't red and you don't have a nose like a
cherry." "What's your name, sonny?"
"Ronnie. You're not fat, either."
"Sure I'm fat. Ho, ho, ho."
"No you're not."
"What do you want for Christmas, Ronnie?"
"I won't tell you. You're a fake. I don't need you to give me
toys. I can buy my own toys."
"Good for you."
"I don't believe in Santa Claus anyway," he said. He was
about nine, and in addition to being belligerent, he had mean
little eyes. He was probably going to grow up to be an ax
murderer. Either that, or a politician.
"If you don't want to talk to Santa," I said, feigning
patience, "then how about getting off Santa's lap and letting one
of the other boys and girls come up‹"
"No." Without warning he punched me in the stomach. Hard.
"Hah!" he said. "A pillow. I knew your gut was just a pillow."
"Get off Santa's lap, Ronnie."
I leaned down close to him so only he could hear when I said,
"Get off Santa's lap or Santa will take off his pillow and stuff
it down your rotten little throat."
We locked gazes for about five seconds. Then, taking his
time, Ronnie got down off my lap. And stuck his tongue out at me
and said, "Asshole." And went scampering away into the crowd.
I put on yet another false smile behind my false beard. Said
grimly to one of the elves, "Next."
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