It’s 6:38 PM at the Westwood Mall, and I think that last kid just peed on my lap. Comes with the job, I guess. The line’s grown and shrank all night.
Christmas is two days away, so everyone’s gotta get their last minute Santa pictures for the relatives. It’s not too bad a job. Ten years I’ve been retired, so I need something to keep me busy.
The pay’s only enough to put gas in the old Buick to get here and back. Enough to buy Sally a little gift, too, though I don’t think she realizes who I am half the time. At least my pension pays for her home nurse. God, I miss her. She loved Christmas. Those were some good times, taking the kids to see Santa in Sears and Roebuck.
Shoot, even I remember sitting on Santa’s lap myself when I was a kid. Seems like nowadays, though, people aren’t half as interested as they were back then. Moms, dads, even the kids keep their faces glued to one electrical thing or another until they get to me.
Then, it usually goes something like this:
• Toddler starts wailing. Bounce him/her on my knee. Forget it; take the picture anyway. “Don’t forget your candy cane. Merry Christmas.”
• “What do you want for Christmas?” No answer but a blank stare. Forget it; take the picture anyway. “Don’t forget your candy cane. Merry Christmas.”
• “What do you want for Christmas?” Kid rattles off about ten things I’ve never heard of. He/she flashes a toothless smile. Take the picture. “Don’t forget your candy cane. Merry Christmas.”
It’s pretty rare that I hear a “Merry Christmas” in return. Everyone’s in a rush to get to American Eagle or Old Navy before the mall closes.
But, there was this one night a week or so ago when I wasn’t feeling particularly jolly. Sally had suffered a seizure that morning, and it looked as though we’d have to put her in a nursing home soon. The health scares were coming more frequent, and I don’t think I had smiled all night.
This little girl about six or so pulled her mama to the front of the line like an excited pup on a leash. Both of them were smiling and laughing. Even made me crack a smile. The last kid had almost yanked my beard out by the roots. It’s real, you know.
Anyway, the little girl bounced up on my lap and held out her hands. I smelled cinnamon.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“It’s for you, Santa. I made it.”
Carefully as possible, since I couldn’t feel much with my green fleece gloves, I lifted the gingerbread man from her little hand. It had a satin ribbon hanging from a hole poked through his head.
“Oh. It’s an ornament!”
She nodded and bounced on my knee.
I couldn’t help but laugh. “You made this for me?”
“My mama helped. We made ‘em at school. I figured since you give everybody gifts all the time that maybe you could get one for a change.”
“That’s very nice of you. What’s your name?”
“And what do you want for Christmas, Olivia?”
She shrugged. “I got a bunch of stuff under the tree already.” Then, she leaned close to my ear and whispered, “But if you have any extras, I wouldn’t mind another Barbie doll.”
“I think I can manage that.”
We smiled for the elf/photographer as she snapped the picture. Olivia bounced off my knee, and I said, “Don’t forget your candy cane.”
She took it from me, grabbed her mom’s hand and started skipping away.
Before they got inside the Hallmark, she turned around and yelled, “Hey Santa, Merry Christmas!”
I waved and yelled back, “Merry Christmas, Olivia!”
That night, I went home and put that little ornament on our tree. It still smelled wonderful, like the stuff Sally used to bake this time of year. At least she seemed stable and slept peacefully in her bed. I leaned over the rail and kissed her forehead.
I sat down in the recliner beside her, and I knew she couldn’t hear me, and wouldn’t understand much if she could, but I told her all about Olivia and her gift to Santa.
When I finished the story, I sat back with my cup of decaf and got my second gift of the night.
Sally smiled in her sleep.