I shared my favorite memory from my brief Santa career last week, but I have one more, one I wish I could forget.
I worked the evening shift mostly – five to nine, five to ten the last week when they bumped the store hours out. But on Thursdays I didn’t have any afternoon classes, so I took the one to five shift.
It was slower in the afternoon. Seeing Santa is a family activity, so the Moms would wait until Dad got home, and Santa traffic picked up around six. We’d get some afternoon traffic. Girls from the high school just west of the river who knew college guys were playing Santa and who wanted to sit in Santa’s lap, a trickle of Moms with kids. It tended to be slow in the afternoon, though.
One afternoon was very slow. I should have been reading my Kant, but anybody who’s tried to read Kant knows why I wasn’t. Sunny day, not too cold, though it was cold all season that year. I remember looking out the window and seeing a slightly dumpy woman walking with a young man with obvious disabilities. I grew up with a retarded younger brother – not supposed to use that word anymore, I know, but that’s what they called it back when I was growing up, and that’s how I remember it. Anyway, I knew the gait, knew the flapping hands, knew the slack, low-toned features. The mom and the young man would look over at the Santa Hut, and the young man would smile and they would start toward it, then he would balk, his hands would fly to his face in a jerky spasm and they would flap there, and the two of them would walk away. Every few minutes, I’d see them go by again, repeating the routine.
I remember thinking, “Jesus, lady, please don’t bring him in here.”
And then the door opened and there they were. The kid (I knew enough then and certainly know enough now to realize that he was, always would be, a kid) was about my height, probably more than my weight. He had the kind of low-grade beard you’ll often see on disabled adults; the ones who can’t learn to shave themselves and don’t tolerate being shaved by others. His eyes shone with unfocused intensity; his smile was full and loose and sloppy. He said “Santa.” Shouted it, actually, and not clearly, though I won’t try to replicate the slurry, guttural sound. His mother stood in the door beaming. He walked toward the chair with his arms out, and I realized he wanted a hug.
I did not want him there. I did everything I could to hurry the visit along. Where my interactions with the children during my tour had been expansive and warm – I really did, still do, like kids – with this poor soul I was cool, sterile, monosyllabic. He didn’t care. He talked about his school. He talked about his family. He talked about his dog and his brother and his Dad’s new car and their tree and about how he was going to make cookies for me all by himself and did I want milk or egg nog. He never asked for a thing.
In that abrupt, transitionless way that many of the disabled have, he stopped, hugged me again, jumped up from my lap and trotted toward the door. His mother grabbed his arm to stop him, to keep him with her, the way in years since I have so often grabbed my own Autistic son’s arm. I didn’t want to look at her. But she said “Thank you,” and said it without accusation. “Thank you so much. This means so much to him. He gets so excited it’s hard to even get him to walk in here.” And she smiled, and it was a true smile, and she turned with her son and she left.
I looked out the window and saw them heading back toward their car, the boy half walking, half bounding in a sort of shuffling skip. At the verge of the lot, I could see a gaggle of kids from the high school. They were looking at the mom and the son. I couldn’t tell what they were saying. After they passed the Mom, one of the kids imitated the bounding skip and they all laughed. They, too, were headed toward Santa. And I sat alone on my paltry throne among my false plastic subjects feeling small and hard and cold, stunned at my cowardice and lack of generosity.
All of us, I suppose, have moments we’d like back. I have far too many. But that’s never far out of the top five.