Yet another SFF World entry, this one obviously with a Christmas theme. I remember being pretty stuck on how to end it, stopping after the confrontation between the two rival Santas with no clear idea where to go. I’d like to say I was visited by three ghosts and the ending came to me in an epiphany, because it would make for a much better anecdote, but the truth is that I just thought about it for a while and came up with ending as you see it now.
“To your first pisser!”
They raised their glasses and downed their beers and whiskeys, some not even bothering to pull their beards aside first. “To your first pisser!” they echoed lustily.
Their toast done, they turned their attentions elsewhere. They loudly complained about the closet-like break room at Target, the lousy costume at Sears, the high school kids playing elves at Macy’s who spent more time flirting and getting phone numbers than helping anyone, the bastard manager at the mall who insisted on keeping the line open right until closing time. This was their nightly purge, where they shrugged off the mantle of patience and good cheer they were forced to wear all day and could indulge in the cynicism and scorn their position didn’t allow them to express at the times they felt them.
“So the kid is whizzin’ like a racehorse,” the subject of their celebration said, “and there’s Mom and Dad tryin’ to get the camera workin’. I’ll say this for the kid, he never blinked. Got through his whole list without missin’ a beat.” There was a pause, due to a long pull on a strong drink. “And without missin’ my leg!” Laughter roared in approval.
Suddenly the door to the bar opened, a chill wind blowing in as the tell-tale sound of bells tinkled through the air. All conversation stopped as four figures in red strode cockily into the room. Chairs scraped ominously across the floor as their occupants rose to confront the newcomers, who stopped and stood, arms confidently crossed, bells gripped tightly in their hands.
“Salvation Army,” someone whispered.
The bartender quickly shuffled towards the four men. “Hey now, we don’t want any trouble,” he stammered, but one of his customers pushed him aside. He liked to work the tougher stores, and would actually volunteer for the day after Thanksgiving. He had a real name, but everyone just called him Rock.
“We can handle this, Pete,” Rock said, and walked up to the group, glaring right into their eyes. “Maybe you didn’t realize it,” he said grimly, “but this is a department store Santa bar. Why don’t you bell-ringers go drink someplace else?”
The leader of the newcomers laughed. “You hear that, boys?” he chuckled. “Some chair jockey is trying to tell Santas who actually work for a living where they can drink!”
A few more Santas moved forward to stand behind Rock. “Ooh,” he said, “ringing a bell all day makes you a tough guy, huh?”
“Says the guy who sits in a chair all day hugging little kids.” Bells jingled restlessly.
Rock took a step forward and pulled aside his beard, revealing a dark red mark down one cheek. “Thanksgiving Day parade. Bad adhesive. Burned like a son of a bitch. Kept waving the whole route.” He let the beard slip back into place.
Rock’s opponent opened his shirt, revealing an inch-long scar on his chest. “Three weeks ago. Quarter tossed out of a Mustang. Must have been doing sixty.” He leaned forward, closing his shirt. “Pulled it out and dropped it in the bucket.”
A nervous murmur floated through the bar, but Rock raised a hand and all fell silent. He pushed up one of his sleeves. A circular scar stood out on the skin of his forearm. “Last Monday. Kid latched on, wouldn’t let go. Never dropped him. Even smiled for the picture.”
The other Santa just smiled. He held up his hand, flexing his wrist with an audible grinding pop. “Dislocated it at 9. Didn’t realize it until 10:30. Popped it back in and kept going until 5.” He paused. “Today.”
“Amateurs! The both of you!”
Heads turned to the short fat man sitting at the end of the bar. He never took his gaze away from his glass as he spoke. “Dislocated wrists. Bite marks. Child’s play. Try frostbitten cheeks that’ll never be flesh-colored again from too many nights too high and too cold. Try a back that won’t let you sleep at night because it hurts too much from carrying around your giant stomach. Your backside gets numb from sitting in that seat all night. You hear kids asking for the same toys over and over and over again, and you know a good half of them won’t be happy even if they get what they want. And to top it all off, you know damn well most of them won’t even think you exist anymore in a few years.”
He turned to face them now. “But every year, you do it. You put up with the aches and the pains, and not so you can stand in front of your friends and show off your scars. You do the job because it’s worth it for that one kid who really gets it. Who smiles up at you like you just made them the best promise in the world.” He pushed his stool away from the bar and stood, wiping his mouth with a gloved hand. “And if that’s not what puts you in that chair or puts that bell in your hand, well, then you’re not worthy to wear the beard.” And then he quietly walked out into the snowy night, leaving behind half a glass of milk and a plate full of cookie crumbs.
Rock stared after him, then looked up at his rival.
“Buy you a drink, pal?”
The big man nodded. “Name’s Earl. And sure.”
And with that department store Santas drank with Salvation Army Santas, and while one side still tried to out-boast the other, it was out of camaraderie rather than competition. But one Santa simply stood at the door, staring at the tiny footprints in the snow that appeared to vanish a few yards into the street. And in his mind, one thought rang out, louder and clearer than all the others:
“I still bet he’s never had anyone pee on him.”