Don stepped into the painted plywood Santa hut and rolled his neck from side to side to loosen the kinks. He pulled off the scratchy white beard and red hat combo and pushed his chin onto his chest and felt the relief.
The last day of the month-long season was always the worst. The outfit weighed a ton and smelled like a locker room. His wrists were sore from the constant bell ringing.
He nudged aside a Styrofoam Rudolph, stacked two cardboard elves in the back corner and dragged the broken leather chair to the center and sat.
He had planned to remove his boots but the gravity of fatigue anchored him, eyes closed and head resting on the chair’s crown.
This was not just the last day of this holiday season, but his own last day, perhaps ever, of dressing as Santa Claus and ringing bells, handing out candy canes and shouting “Merry Christmas” until his throat was raw.
What had started as a desperation part-time job a decade ago had become an annual gig which he proudly enjoyed.
Now there was no joy.
It wasn’t just the loss of the department store that stilled the corner, he knew.
In his forty years, he could not recall such angry times, even during war and hard times. In his decade as Santa he knew that people found him, heard the bell. They seemed to understand we were all in the same times together, good or bad.
But now even as they dropped a few coins in his red bucket there were fewer smiles and even fewer mumbled words of cheer; giving had become some grudging duty.
Sitting, relaxed, he took two deep breaths and closed his eyes.
He felt his body swaying as the rhythmic ding-dong of his brass bell echoed in riffs of four or five rings off the stone and glass all behind him, filling silent space when the traffic had calmed but lost in the roar as it moved again. He imagined the bell’s ring was the call of a winter song bird hidden in a bare tree across the street in the park, a plea to an absent lover. Find me. Find me, find me; I am here.
Did he sleep?
He bolted up and blinked to clear his vision to find a petite young woman in a white wool coat and paisley scarf handing him a coffee cup.
“Tea with honey, correct?”
He blinked twice more and glanced around the sidewalk.
“Sure. Wow. Do I know you?”
“May I sit?’ she asked.
He offered her his chair, pulled over a wooden crate/Christmas gift and took the tea. “Please.”
He fumbled with the tab on the cup lid and took a sip while staring puzzled at her sweet, round face.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” she asked.
“I’m sorry, Miss. All the years I’ve done this … but the tea?”
“I was fifteen. We had just move to the shelter…”
His face brightened. “Yes. At the community center, your mother and a brother, right? The director had asked me to spend a little extra time with you, but I don’t remember the circumstances. You just seemed so out of place.”
Her smile faded. “We were newly homeless, the first night.”
“Of course. Didn’t mean to pry.”
“You were the saddest Santa I had ever seen, so I got you a cup of tea with way too much sugar to make you feel better. You said you liked honey with tea.”
“I didn’t realize…”
“It was your eyes. Santa was supposed to be jolly with bright happy eyes and a deep laugh and was supposed to make everyone feel better, even when they were homeless. But your eyes were dark and your voice was anything but jolly.” She touched his hand. “I mean I was a kid, but I thought you had a broken heart. I had seen my Mom’s face when she was hurt. To a kid, Santa’s not supposed to have a broken heart.”
“No,” he shook his head. “Well, yes and no.” He hadn’t thought about. It had been ten years. “I knew I had broken someone else’s heart.”
“That’s why you gave me this, isn’t it,” she said as she reached into her coat pocket and displayed a small, wooden carving of a woman in a yoga pose. “I learned later it is a warrior pose. You were going to give it to her, right?”
“What? My goodness. May I?”
She handed him the carving. He ran a finger over the smooth wood.
“Yeah,” he said, “I didn’t know anything about yoga but I saw this carving and thought it represented what she was: Strong, sassy, determined.” He wiped his eyes. “I thought it might have fixed things, I was so dumb. She was something, giving, smart, loving and I managed to make her feel … I don’t ..”
“Probably? Try absolutely. She told you to go away, right?”
He stared into the street with a pained face, gut punched; the truth hurt.
“Been there,” she said. “Both ways.”
“Yeah. I didn’t want that anymore,” nodding at the carving. “I knew it had some other meaning. I guess I thought you’d figure it out.” Then irritated, “Why are you here? You should go. I don’t want this back.” He tried to stand.
“You can’t have it back. This carving saved my life.”
She took a breath and composed herself. Her voice wavered. “We were homeless for a year and then moved often. I was a geeky, poor lonely girl. But at the worst times I’d pull out the yoga girl and feel strong. Look at her.” She held up the carving, legs bent, arms outstretched. “She is both taking in strength from the world, and casting power into it. I was a kid. You were Santa Claus. I figured you gave this to me for a good reason.”
“Why are you here? Not just to find me.”
She smiled. “I moved back. I just sold my company to a conglomerate. Now I can do what I was meant to do, help homeless families.”
She removed a business card from her bag.
Patricia Jean Thompson. Yoga Girl Cosmetics.
“Organic, plastic free, no animal testing,” she said. “I was leaving the bank when I saw you and knew immediately who you were.”
He shook his head. “I’m glad it worked out for you, I’m no hero. I’m a bum. The reason I remember all this is that I hurt someone deeply. I remember more about that than I do about helping you.”
She folded the carving back into her pocket. “The thing about pain is that it can be healed. The thing about kindness is that it happens. It’s medicine. It doesn’t need to be healed. It’s the cure. For me you’ll always be Santa Claus teaching a lesson about giving.”
She pulled five hundreds from her purse and slipped them into the top of the collection bucket.
“The season’s also about forgiving, even ourselves,” she said. “You should try it.”