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 innermost desires.
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 staff.
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 friends?
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 seconds…
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 himself.
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 upã”
“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.”