The King of Santa Claus
by Weston Ochse
Watching her was like watching a Chinese movie dubbed by an invisible woman. When she talked, it was as if her mouth moved slower than her words. At first Andy Dean thought she was slow, maybe even slightly retarded. But the more she spoke, the more he paid attention. It wasn’t until his second beer that her mouth and her words came in synch. The whole time he’d found himself staring at her mouth, trying to discern the problem. When the words snapped into place, so did his vision and the curve of her jaw went from square to Baudelaire. It wasn’t love, but rather puppy lust and it bothered him. After all, he was forty and she was eighteen. He’d done the algebra and no matter how many times he’d run the problem it had come back as wrong.
Still he stayed.
Tonelli’s was a mainstay in Horsham. It boasted pizza, wings and endless waterfalls of local and imported beer. Like most places in and around Philadelphia, they honored the cheese steak sandwich, from the Italian with peppers and onions to the South Philly Special with Cheese Whiz. Specials on Tuesdays were thirty-cent jumbo wings and dollar drafts of Yuengling Lager, or Lager as the locals called it. He’d made the mistake of calling it by its full name once, indicating to everyone within earshot that he wasn’t from around there, stigmatizing him as an outsider.
“Another?” she asked.
He stared at her mouth and the way it made the word.
She must have been used to examinations such as his, because she smiled to let him catch up.
“Yes,” he said. Then he nodded, his head an echo to match hers.
“She’s gonna be something someday,” the King of Santa Claus commented from the next barstool.
“Someday?” Andy let the word run out.
“She’s too young, man. Even I have my limits.”
Andy sat back and looked openly at the King of Santa Clause. The man’s real name was Pierce Yoder. Larger than life at three-hundred pounds, he wore an open-collared white shirt under a dark blue suit. His meaty fingers wrapped around the stem of a martini glass. Until now, the King had been the epitome of a hard drinking, bar joking chauvinist. The reversal seemed out of character.
“What are your limits?” Andy asked.
The King grinned like a child caught in a lie. “Eight to eighty, blind, crippled or crazy.” He laughed and took a sip of his martini. “I guess she isn’t too young after all.”
”You try real hard to be an ass,” Andy said.
“It’s something I’m good at,” the King replied.
Andy thought of a lot he could say in response but decided to leave it be, instead resuming his watch on the waitress. She stood about five feet. Her blonde hair was pulled back to reveal elfin ears. Like all the waitresses, she wore a hoodie that showed the name of the bar, but did little to show her figure. But he wasn’t interested in her figure. At least he didn’t think he was. And he wasn’t willing to dissect his emotions to find out.
He took a drink of beer and set it back on the counter. As he did, his wedding ring tugged at his finger as if it weighed a pound. He was a happily married man. He’d never cheated on his wife and had never sought out a venue from which to cheat. Yet the girl still drew him. He watched as she headed to the back for a break and a piece of pizza.
“Went to a strip club last night,” the King said. “After our conversation, you had me thinking.”
Like only two strangers could, the King had opened up and told Andy about how he no longer loved his wife and was waiting until his kids graduated college before divorcing her. Andy had told him how lazy and selfish that was and asked him if he wanted the example of his relationship to be the exemplar his kids grew up to recognize as the norm. The King hadn’t had an answer for that, and had left the bar with a faraway look into his eyes. Instead of the horizon, however, he’d sought the first strip club, to glorify his own inadequacy in the shadow of young wieldy flesh.
“Sometimes thinking can be dangerous,” Andy said. “Did you do anything about that?” Meaning did he talk to his wife.
“Naw. I just watched for a while. I got home at nine and told the wife it was an accident that made me late.”
“Did she believe it?”
The King of Santa Claus gave Andy a look that was filled with self loathing. “I just don’t know anymore. And frankly, I don’t care.”
They sat and drank in silence for a few minutes. The manager came around, glad-handing the bar and stood beside the King’s stool like a supplicant.
“Pierce, we need a Santa for the giveaway. Can you get one?”
Andy had noticed the fliers and the signs on the giant plasma TV over the bar announcing the giveaway the week before Christmas. Santa was supposed to be there, and not even a ten-year-old, chubby-cheeked child would be more disappointed than a sports enthusiast if there was no Santa to hand deliver the plasma screen TV prize.
“A real beard Santa?” asked the King.
“Sure,” the manager said.
“The season’s started. I’d have to pull one off the job so it would be double cost and travel.”
The manager grinned. “How much can it be?”
Andy had already heard the answer earlier. The King of Santa Claus provided Santas to more than 400 malls in the four state area of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. He also provided Leprechauns during Saint Patrick’s Day and Easter Bunnies during Easter, but Christmas was by far the biggest money maker for him, hence the moniker.
“On average, a real beard Santa can pull in $18,000 during the season.”
“How long is the season?”
“Damn. For that I’d grow a beard.”
“If you did, it would save you about five hundred bucks.”
“That how much you’re going to charge me?”
“For a real beard Santa? Yes.”
“Then how much for a fake beard Santa?”
The King of Santa Clause gave the manager the same steely-eyed glare that Dirty Harry had made famous: Feeling Lucky, Punk? Then he relaxed. “Listen, why don’t you just find some fat guy and shove him in a suit like this was a church group or an office party? It’d be cheaper for you. I mean I could get you a fake beard Santa and charge you a hundred bucks, but you could probably get one for twenty and a dozen wings if you tried.” The King chuckled. “Hell, there was a time I’d do it for that.” Then he added with a wink and a nudge to Andy, “I might do it tomorrow if I have the conversation with my wife this one wants me to have.”
Andy wasn’t pleased to have become part of the King’s business dealings, but in the long run, it didn’t matter. He was only passing through, spending two days in the area to finagle a new pretzel wholesaler from one of the dozen local pretzel makers.
But he wasn’t free.
“I’ll have another,” he said, “and Pierce is buying.”
The manager raised an eyebrow and the King laughed. Soon Andy had another beer in front of him. He sipped it, promising himself that this would be his last. When he woke in the morning he had to call his boss and let him know that the best he could get was seventy cents a dozen on the pretzels, a full nickel more than the arrangement they’d had before and a dime more than their price break. Either they’d have to find some other place, or Andy would be finding another job. So Andy needed to drink responsibly. Not to mention ne needed to call his wife, if nothing more than to tell her that he loved her, the cell phone equivalent of a 3000-mile-good-night-kiss.
“I’m a dream merchant. I rent happiness and good cheer,” Pierce had said earlier, trying to explain his philosophy.
“Why rent and not sell?”
“Selling has a sort of permanence to it. You can’t buy Christmas. Even if you could, who would want it all year around? What I do is rent something people want for a specific period of time.”
“Like the Pimp of Christmas,” Andy said.
The King frowned for a moment, then broke into a well- what-do-you-know grin. “You could say that.” He nodded to himself and took a drink. “You could definitely say that.”
“Then the Santas are like your hookers.”
“Come sit on my lap, baby.” He laughed.
Andy spread his hands. “There really isn’t much difference.”
“There is one difference.” The King held up a finger. “One is legal and the other isn’t.”
“Plus one is real and the other isn’t.”
“Don’t kid yourself. There’s nothing real about a hooker. Her magic is as fleeting as Christmas, but with a lot fewer ornaments to take down when the season for greeting, or the date, as you were, is over.”
“You’re saying that Christmas isn’t real? I would have thought you believed in all of that.”
“Oh, I believe. I believe that it’s as real as a sunrise. It’s as three-dimensional as a rainbow. It’s better than scratch-n-sniff, smell-o-vision and shag carpeting. Oh, it’s real all right.”
“Then what do you mean that it isn’t real?’
“Is a sunrise real? Can you touch it? Is a rainbow real? Can you feel it?” He leaned in close to Andy. “There is no pot of gold, you know.”
“Christmas is all about a feeling, the same way a hooker is.” He slapped the bar. “You were right. People expect things from a hooker. They want her to be safe. They want her to be beautiful, all prettied up like she’s something special. When a man has a hooker it’s like a Christmas tree, a present with all the anticipation and ultimate letdown all rolled into one, only it doesn’t have to be once a year. Really, Andy, Christmas is the same. It’s a feeling of anticipation, wrapped up in giving, with a little greedy bow on top. Both involve getting and giving based on a ritual of mutual need.”
“The Pimp of Christmas.” Andy chuckled. “It has a ring to it.”
“Sure, if you’re in the hood. Now you know why I go with the King of Santa Claus.”
Andy was thinking about the odd comparison of hookers and Christmas when the girl came back, chewing what was left of a piece of pizza. Her mouth moved around the bite in the same off-kilter manner that she talked. Truly, Andy was trying not to stare, but he couldn’t help it.
“Want to taste it, too?” she asked.
Andy blushed, and for a forty-year-old man that was something. He shook his head and kept from answering by filling his mouth with beer. He looked the other way, as if the mound of chicken wings that was just delivered to the guy next to him was more important.
But eventually his eyes drew him back. As he watched her laugh at a colleague, he realized who she reminded him of: Bridget Fonda. Not the Gun Model Hooker Bridget from Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown movie who spent her best screen time being bent over the sofa and fucked by Robert De Niro, but rather the straight, normal girl from Single White Female who was the unwitting and hapless victim of psychopathic Jennifer Jason Leigh. The shape of the mouth, the sly smile, the dead eyes were all like Bridget.
In the end it was the dead eyes that saved him.
Those same dead eyes that Bridget Fonda had made famous.
“Why don’t you try and see if you still got it?” the King teased.
Andy didn’t want to. He wasn’t sure if it was because he was afraid that he’d lost it, or that he was afraid that he hadn’t. He was reminded about the old adage about lassoing a wild bull. It wasn’t so much that lassoing it was the problem, but rather what you’d do with it once you had it. Looking at the girl, there was a part of him that wanted to have her, but another broader and deeper part of him didn’t want to do what he must if he was to catch her.
He should have left then and there.
But the King of Santa Claus ordered them another drink.
“Looks like Christmas in here,” he said to no one at all.
She made the rounds of the people at the bar, then began to wash glasses in the sink, putting her once again in front of Andy.
“Did I hear you say you were going to community college?” he asked.
“Yeah. Going to MonCo, Monroe County.”
“What are you studying?”
“Psychology, but I don’t want to be a doctor.”
“A therapist then?”
She looked at him then. Not like he was a customer, but something else. “Yeah. Therapy. I’d love to do something with music or art.”
“She’s a terrific singer,” the King said. “On karaoke night she burns the house down.”
“I think that’s really creative. You don’t hear much about that kind of thing.” Andy didn’t know what he was talking about, but she didn’t seem to notice. He was trying to keep the conversation going by sheer force of will. “Therapy with art and music has got to be on the cutting edge.”
She was looking at him again in that way that meant he wasn’t just a customer. She was called away for a moment. Before she left, she asked, “You staying across the street?”
Andy nodded and watched her walk away.
“That’s what I’m talking about. You could have her if you wanted,” said the Pimp of Christmas.
Andy sat in stunned silence. He picked up his beer and set it down again. She could be an early Christmas present.
She passed him, smiling as she headed to the kitchen. A Bridget Fonda smile with dead doll eyes.
Andy stood and slipped into his jacket.
“Where you going, man? She’s yours.”
Andy stared wide-eyed at the King of Santa Claus. He turned to go.
“You don’t even know her name,” the King said.
But Andy ignored him. He hurried out of the bar and was across the street before he could change his mind. He didn’t want to know her name. He didn’t want anything more from her than the memory of her smile and the idea that he could still lasso a bull, even if he no longer knew what to do with it once he caught it.
Soon he was on the telephone talking to his wife and imagining her eyes, wide and full of life, as she laughed and told him about her day. He closed his own eyes and allowed the Bridget Fonda smile to drift away like a lasso made of smoke.
Weston Ochse is the author of more than 20 books. He’s won the Bram Stoker Award for First Novel and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for his short fiction. A graduate of National University’s MFA program, his fiction has appeared in anthologies and magazines such as the Cochise College Review, the Tampa Review, and Soldier of Fortune Magazine. He lives in Southern Arizona.
Image source via Creative Commons.