Managed to finish this before Christmas, which is kinda surprising. Here's the previous entry.
The first day back was the worst. Joyce greeted him. Her elf costume was draped over her forearm and her elfin face was stripped of purpose. She was a woman born to play an elf. Carl could not imagine her frolicking on a beach or strolling into a supermarket.
Joyce was stooped over herself inside Santa’s plywood house, accent lights bouncing around her nose and cheekbones and creating grotesque shadows against her skin. The accent lights, which from the outside made the windows of the false house glow with warmth, created a ghoulish horror inside, distorting everything within.
“So you’re here again,” Joyce said.
Carl bent himself almost in half and bumped his way through the door. “I’m here again,” he replied. Closed the door behind him.
“The roof is lower this year,” observed Joyce. “They must think we both got osteoporosis this summer.” She removed her civilian clothing. “Why are you here?” she asked.
“Why are you?” Carl, not yet readjusted to the vision of a bra-and-panties Joyce, busied himself by examining the quality of his velour Santa suit. He checked the suit for holes, for frayed edges. For patches of the cloth worn into a shiny finish by repeated friction.
“I love working with children,” Joyce replied. She slammed herself into her elf tunic. Then she dropped to the floor and began fighting with her green tights. “You don’t.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“You,” Joyce said, “don’t say a lot.”
Quick note: Irene no longer believed in Santa Claus. It’s a delicate thing to believe in something like Santa so it takes very little to shatter the belief. She never saw her grandfather again. His fake beard and uneasy laughs--not to mention the lack of a parrot among her gifts from Santa the previous year--cinched it. She was done with the whole business of being intentionally good. One day, she told Tangie, “It sucks to pretend. I just am.”
Tangie replied, “Okay.”
“I never wanted a parrot,” continued Irene. “Can’t take them for a walk.”
Each day Carl took his place on Santa’s throne, surveyed the fake cotton plains of Santa’s domain, and greeted each child passing through the flimsy fence gate. Each child was a disappointment, just as each parent was a disappointment. Not Irene, he’d think to himself. Not Tangie. Not Irene. And no, not Tangie.
Nights, Carl crashed onto his bed to watch TV. Coughed up various items of random colors from putty green to blood red.
Sometimes he stared at his telephone and pretended to call his daughter. Explained to her once more the reasons he’d done what he’d done. He also took out the picture. Carl knew the picture without looking at it but looking at it over and over made the picture genuine. The picture: he was sitting there and Irene was sitting here and there was Tangie at his elbow, her arm wrapped around Irene’s waist. Behind them shadows wandered into clothing and coffee stores, blurred from movement. Frozen in the foreground were Irene and Tangie and himself.
“I took the job to meet my granddaughter,” Carl admitted to Joyce one night just before Christmas Eve.
“Let me guess,” Joyce said, crammed into a corner to work on her tights, legs like rabbit ears on an old Zenith waving around to get the right angle. “You’re dying.”
Not even his doctor had admitted that much. “Not yet dead. Not yet.”
“And you aren’t welcome to Christmas dinner.” One of Joyce’s legs caught a tide and her foot slid home.
“Daughter doesn’t want to see me.”
“You’re doing this for yourself.” Joyce worked her other leg into the tights, then bumped her butt forward while hoisting the waistband to her belly.
Carl brought his velour pants up to his shins. Then: “No. I just want to make. You know. Amends. Meet my granddaughter. Make my daughter feel loved, be in her life.”
Joyce, sealed in her elf suit, got up out of her corner spot in Santa’s house, bent forward to avoid striking her head against the plywood roof. She said, “Bullshit.”
Carl sat down to pull on his boots. “I’m dying. Things should be made right.”
“Whatever. You did this for yourself.” Joyce, stooped, looked through her eyebrows at Carl. “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but if you took this job to meet a granddaughter and connect with your daughter, it’s a selfish thing. There are kids out there who, you know, believe in you.”
“I’m dying,” Carl said again.
“So are they.”
A half-hour later, Carl, on his plywood throne, greeted a young boy. Joyce dropped the boy into his lap, and they conversed for a bit until Joyce slipped behind the camera and snapped a picture. Then the boy was gone, a young girl taking his place. A flash from the camera.
At the end of the day, Joyce said this to Carl: “You gave them a memory. It lasts or it doesn’t.”
That night, Carl took out the picture of Irene and Tangie. He looked at himself, dressed as Santa with the fake bushy white beard and the aggressive eyebrows, the soft maroon pants and coat, the lopsided maroon cap.
Tangie’s arm was around Irene, and both of them smiled with bright toothy smiles. Tangie was on her knees beside Carl, and leaning slightly against his chair, while Irene sat on Carl’s thigh with most of her weight supported by that arm slid around her waist. To both the girl and the woman, Carl was just Santa Claus, a prop for Christmas, no more real than the shadows behind them passing into a clothing store or a gourmet coffee shop.
He was also a memory for them both, and a memory for them to share.
Tangie had, and would always have, an identical copy of the photograph, maybe stashed away in a box or pasted into an album or scanned onto the computer or secured with a magnet onto the refrigerator. Maybe framed on a dusty shelf. Maybe pinned to a cubicle wall.
Somewhere, Tangie had a picture Irene and herself, smiling for the camera. Tangie's arm was wrapped around Irene's waist. And Irene, balanced on Santa's thigh, also smiling.
He had given them that moment.
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