IT’S A WONDERFUL NIGHT
I love Christmas. What’s not to love? Peace on Earth. Goodwill to all people. Evan Williams’ egg nog. No other night is like Christmas Eve. There’s magic in the air. Love. Appreciation. Strangers smile and greet each other, some shake hands, some even hug. It really is the most wonderful time of the year.
Not this year, though. The air was different, thick with hostility and greed. And there I was, in the crowded grocery store parking lot, suffocating on it. Surrounded by rude, selfish, last-minute shoppers, trying to out-hustle each other to parking spaces, shopping carts, and whatever else they could pillage. The night was neither silent nor holy.
Why was I even out at the store during the desperate and dangerous irruption? That’s the question I’d been asking myself, more than a few times. It wasn’t by choice, that’s for sure. It had been a busy week. People talk about “tax season,” but when you work for the Internal Revenue Service, that season lasts for several hundred days. This evening, I had planned to stay safely at home. But Hero, my cat, had other plans for me. We were running low on her food, and she made it clear that I needed to remedy the situation. Tonight. Right this moment, if I translated her irritated yowls correctly. There was no sense arguing. I put my jacket on. I needed bananas, anyway.
I had my strategy clearly in mind as I backed the car out of the driveway. Parking lot, pet food aisle, produce department. Then, safely back home. Twenty minutes at most. Like the best laid plans, though, it went awry, and quickly. A near complete lack of visibility tripled my drive time. Traffic and drivers alike snarled. The air was a thick foggy pudding. Or, as the meteorologist had amusingly mangled during the weather forecast earlier, “feezing frog.”
The parking lot was jam-packed, as expected. Up close to the storefront, at least. Much further out there were empty spots. Nobody walks anymore. I drove toward the next county where the vacant spots were, and almost collided with a reckless driver. His glistening German automobile roared past, blasting Christmas rock, which is the worst kind of rock. I proceeded with caution, parked the Chevy and headed to the store. I could just barely see the lit sign, shining like a beacon, far off in the distance.
Quite a trek lay ahead, and no star to guide me. Nice night for a walk, I told myself. I do pretty well for a guy with only one good foot. That one nearly got flattened by an impatient driver roaring past. The parking lot had quickly turned into a black-topped battlefield. As I neared the store, daunted drivers were violently jousting with each other to maneuver into vacated spots. A fellow could die out here, I thought, not thinking that it would nearly come to that. Everyone wanted everyone else’s parking space. Tis’ the season to covet. I dodged and weaved my way to the front of the store, barely glancing at the man with the kettle and the unceasingly ringing bell.
A young woman stepped inside just in front of me. She was a case study in contradiction; dressed for warm weather or cold, depending on which hemisphere you looked at. She made sure I looked, too. It was hard not to notice her; tiny scrap of bright green skirt and long peppermint stick striped leggings. Wrapped around her northern region were two sweaters, red and green, and a striped scarf. The obvious imbalance made me wonder, was she cold, or wasn’t she? So I asked her. She curled her lip and turned her back to me. That made it a Yes. She was very cold.
Inside the store, intense shoppers harangued the unhappy workers, and filled their carts and baskets for days of excess. I kept my head down and maneuvered my way down the pet food aisle. I grabbed a bag of dry cat food and reversed field.
There was a heated debate in progress near the dairy section. Two women were arguing about milk. And soy milk. Soy Milk Lady scolded Regular Milk Lady. “Think about it,” she was saying, “It’s meant for baby cows. You’re not a baby cow!” I paused briefly to hear the rejoinder, and was not disappointed. “I’m not a baby soybean either,” said Regular Milk Lady. I sped off towards produce before the battle came to blows. I dodged a shopper jogging maniacally behind his racing cart. He looked decidedly un-jolly. I grabbed a bunch of bananas without incident, and headed to the chock-full checkout lanes.
The only thing being expressed in the Express Lane was impatience. I settled in for the long wait. A woman ahead of me had a monstrous cookie, which had no price. The woman colorfully accused the store’s staff of incompetence. A beleaguered bagboy trudged reluctantly toward the bakery for clarification. The customer’s small child was being ignored, even as he stood in the cart, leaned dangerously forward, and grabbed packages of gum off of the shelf. Odds were he’d gummed the price label off of the cookie.
Following the mother and child brats were two more shoppers. They didn’t understand the term “Twelve items or less,” couldn’t count that high, or simply didn’t care. One of them had hidden greeting cards inside a magazine, feigning ignorance when the scanner bleeped its betrayal, and the cashier shook them out. Her face turned fiery red like her hair as she clucked disapprovingly, and rang up one of the cards an extra time. I was beginning to like her.
Finally, it was my turn. Taking my money was mercifully quick. I handed Missy, the cashier, a twenty, and asked for a paper bag. That way I could carry everything in one arm, and I’d have a cat toy for later. Hero loves paper bags. The cashier bagged the cat food and bananas, and looked at me curiously. “It makes one hell of a Christmas dinner,” I told her. “If you’re not busy tomorrow,” I joked. She didn’t smile, and in fact covered up her nametag with her hand. “Thank you, Missy,” I laughed, and left.
I was feeling a bit victorious, having exited the store/battlefield unscathed, and in record time. Then it all completely unraveled. Somewhere Robert Burns was laughing and saying, “I told you so.” It had gotten even foggier, somehow. The ringing bell was louder, and more relentless. I glared at the incessant ringer, World’s Worst Santa Claus. He was all kinds of wrong, black stubble peeking out from an ill-fitting, off-white beard. His eyes looked confused and watery. He bared yellow rows of corn on the cob at me, in an insincere and malevolent smile. He rang the bell harshly in my direction. “How about giving up some of that cash?” he said, nodding at the change I was putting back into my wallet. I paused.
“Children are starving, you know,” he said in a tone that matched the mocking sneer on his face. I decided at that moment to give him nothing. Others would suffer as a consequence of his grumpiness. And now mine. “No thank you, I said, moving to pass by. He moved to block me, still ringing that dumb bell. “Nothing from you? Nothing, Scrooge?” His breath smelled like nicotine and contempt. I stepped around him quickly, deciding to leave before I invented, and then committed a felony they’d call santicide. “Hey!” he called after me, as I turned my attention back to the noisy parking lot. I turned my head back in time to catch the insult he flung at me.
I’ve found that I’m able to read lips, if a person speaks loudly enough. And he did, just loud enough to hear him call me “Scarface.” That was just wrong. It’s a birthmark, shows up when my face flushes. I was ready to flush him. I took a step forward to confront Pseudo-Santa. Then I stopped. Prison’s not for me. I don’t look good in orange. No sense letting him win. He must have realized that I wasn’t taking the bait. A look of disappointment crossed his face.
“Thief!” The loud shout startled me. The jerk in the Santa suit had everyone’s attention, kicking over the kettle of donations as I jumped back. “He stole the money!” he repeated, pointing at my handful of cash. Faces glared malevolently at me, all frowns and fangs. I saw in their eyes, not disapproval, but rather murder. They closed in on me. I realized the futility of protesting or attempting explanation. Christmas hams and turkeys had a kinder fate than that in store for me.
The frigid evening chilled even more. More and more flakes accumulated all around me. It seemed like a good time to make a run for it. It was a short run. I’d like to have claimed to have slipped on a patch of ice out on the parking lot. The truth was much more inglorious.
A scooter the store reserves for the handicapped intercepted my path. I went down hard. A dark, obese shadow fell over me. The scooter’s rider had dismounted, and stood over me. He could walk. It was a Christmas miracle!
The ugly, angry crowd moved in on my as I stood. They may have had torches and pitchforks. My attempted getaway had only confirmed their guilty verdict. I was a thief, a Christmas thief at that, and I wasn’t going to get away with it. I was surrounded. No Hero to save me. My life flashed before my eyes. I always thought I’d die in an alley somewhere. A bowling alley. A thump on my head ended my reverie. It was followed by more punches. It was hard to defend myself. And then impossible. I slipped down again. I saw a couple of familiar looking candy-striped legs. Each one gave me a few kicks. Then everyone else’s legs joined in. I heard bells, saw stars, and then, darkness.
I woke up in a shopping cart. Nightjars whirred in the darkening skies overhead. The icy metal cage left an ugly grid embossed on my smudged and swollen cheek. There was a lump on my head, blood on my shirt, and vengeance in my heart. My wallet was gone. Remarkably, no one had taken my bag of groceries. That, at least, would save me another fight when I got home. I extricated myself from the cart and wobbled dizzily back to my car. Unlike myself, it was untouched and unmarred. And there was nobody around, thankfully. I didn’t feel much like company. There were bells ringing far off in the distance, and, much nearer, inside my head. I dumped my bruised bananas and equally battered self into the front seat.
It was almost dusk as I made the drive home. My neighbor was ill-advisedly mowing his lawn in the near dark. He looked up as I passed, and promptly pushed his mower into his illuminated Nativity. It looked like Joseph got the worst of it. I know how it feels, I thought, as I parked. Inside, the cat regarded me thoughtfully. More likely, she was regarding the bag of food I carried. I fed her, and then cleaned and patched myself up as best as I could.
A memory came to me suddenly. I recalled hearing the sinister Claus telling someone after my beat down, “If he’s still here at nine when I leave, I’ll push the cart in the ravine.” And then he had laughed. Oh, had he ever. I recalled it vividly. Well. Nine o’clock, he’d said? I eased myself gingerly into my recliner to plot revenge. We’d just see who laughed last.
I woke with a start at a quarter of nine. Time for Round Two with Santa. I reloaded my wallet and hurried outside, where stood my neighbor Dave about to knock at my door. His small daughter Annie was with him. “Merry Christmas, Bax!” Dave said jovially, in an overly familiar, and more than overly “I need a favor” tone. “Could you spare us a ride to the store?” “I need some last minute stocking stuffers,” he winked conspiratorially. “And I don’t mean my feet,” he added, before I could stop him. “Aren’t you Buddhist, Dave?” I asked. He nodded yes, singing, “I’ll have a Buddhist Christmas…” It was every bit as bad as it sounds.
“As it happens, that’s exactly where I’m headed,” I told Dave. “You two can come along, if you promise to stop singing. Besides, I’ve got a paying proposition for you.” The singing stopped immediately. And so, with my grateful passengers, I returned to the store, explaining all the way. I dropped them off at the front, hiding my face from the villainous Santa, who was still on duty, still clamoring for donations. Not for long, I thought. Dave and Annie hurried inside before the store closed. I pulled away from the fire lane to park the car, and barely avoided getting into a wreck for the second time that evening. A tiny Nissan blew noisily past. Its oversized speakers were pumping out festive yet obnoxious rhythms and basslines. Christmas rap? Wow. Rap of the worst kind.
By this time, there were vacant parking spaces nearby. I chose one, parked the Impala, and waited. I rolled the window down so I could hear the incessant ringing of the bell. It kept me awake. And angry. And motivated.
Before long, I could hear a child crying, and a man shouting. The man with the bell was looking confused, holding the wallet that the other man had dropped. “Thief!’” the girl screamed. It was music to my ears. A small crowd was watching, as the older man cried out, “Give me back my wallet!”
Before Santa could hand over the wallet, it was wrenched away from him by a young man who’d decided to act. He drew back his other hand, making a fist. It was almost too perfect.
I hurried from my car as an angry mob formed for the second time in the evening, this time pressing in on the charity taker. “Hold that thief!” I said, jabbing an accusing finger. “He took my wallet earlier!” And that was all it took. World’s Worst Santa looked up in recognition, of me, and of the fact that he was in trouble. Then rough hands grasped his red and white furry jacket. A cane descended on his head. A flurry of punches and kicks followed. And then it was a blizzard. I backed away from the violent mob and got back in the car.
Dave and Annie got in shortly after. Dave asked, “How did we do?” “You two did great,” I said. “So, twenty dollars for each of us, right?’” he reminded me. The deal had been twenty to split between them. But I was laughing too hard at the mayhem I’d created to argue with him. I turned back toward the back seat. Father and daughter’s expectant faces faded and disappeared before my eyes, as I reached into my wallet…
And handed forty dollars, and my handful of change, to Santa. His eyes, smile, and brilliant white beard all beamed. And, glory in the heights above, the bell stopped ringing. The jolly man’s gloved hand grasped mine firmly. “God bless you,” he said. I felt a lump in my throat. Before I knew it, I’d hugged him. His huge, immaculate coat smelled of gingerbread and generosity.
The air cleared just then. The night went silent, but for strangers wishing one another “Happy Holidays!” I looked around, breathed it all in. There was peace. And goodwill. I smiled, and went back inside for some egg nog.