by Paula Gail Benson
This holiday short story was first published at writerswhokill.blogspot.com.
I had put it off as long as I could. To finish my retirement paperwork required either my Social Security card, which was packed away somewhere, probably in a box in the attic, or evidence I had applied for a replacement. When I was employed thirty years ago, I didn’t have to show the card, but now, after all that time working and paying taxes with the number, my employer needed proof it belonged to me.
Here I was, firmly imbedded, a cog in the system and ending my career with a final act of obedience to governmental control. The locally owned office supply company where I had progressed from young man with a future to relic slated for the recycling bin had been bought out by a national franchise, and would no doubt keep rolling along with a new spoke to replace me in the wheel.
Already, it had been one of those regrettable days even though the morning was young. I came out to my car only to find the electric company cutting down the small trees in its right-of-way, which in essence took all the autumnally colored foliage from my back yard. The head of the tree destruction crew could hardly keep a straight face talking with me. He kept glancing at my cap. I had worn the bright chartreuse and forest brown knit cap with ear flaps my wife, Lydie, had given me for my birthday. It reminded her of my favorite movie character, that Quaid brother who played the crazy flier in Independence Day, but it also kept my balding head warm in the chilly weather.
She put it on me just before I left the house. Placing a cool hand on each of my blushing facial cheeks, she told me, “Tommy Lesley, the aliens may have taken you on their space ship, but inside you’ll always be just a good old guy with a hero-martyr complex.” Then she gave me a kiss. The day had such potential until I walked outside.
After losing the fight over trees that were in no way tall enough to fall on power lines, I drove down the street and a black cat ran in front of me. In town, I discovered the federal building’s public parking garage ticket machine was out of order, but after taking a turn around the block, I saw an attendant fixing the machine. She printed out a ticket for me and told me to come park in one of the reserved spaces next to her booth. My day seemed to be looking up.
As I approached the federal building, I saw a group of day care kids playing on swing sets and slides in a fenced area. Someone walked up beside me. I heard a male voice say, “Man, what a great cap.”
I turned, expecting sarcasm, but the African American gentleman before me was one up on me. His short, bristling, gray beard hung like cropped Spanish moss on brown rusted stone. On his head, he wore a thin red Santa cap with sparse white trim and a single gold bell at the point. His brown suede jacket looked a size small with bulging pockets. He gave me a smile as he bent to let his back take the brunt of the wind whipping around the building.
“Yours isn’t so bad either,” I said. “Aren’t you a little early? Thanksgiving’s not until next week.”
“I always make a trip over here the week before Thanksgiving, because that’s when my son’s office starts its toy drive,” he replied. “I like to help get the ball rolling. You know, it’s always easier to encourage others to give if a few toys are already in the hopper.”
Beneath his right arm, he held a teddy bear I hadn’t noticed since the bear nearly matched the color of his jacket. A woman leaving the building walked toward us. He reached to remove his hat and called to her, “Mighty nice coat, ma’am. Looks real warm and elegant.”
“Thank you.” She returned his greeting and kept walking.
He kept a half ring of gray hair around the base of his skull, but I could see he probably wore a hat for the same reason I did–to cover a naked scalp. He put it back on and we headed into the building, stopping immediately inside to hear the instructions about passing through the metal detector. I’d purposely stripped down to carrying the bare essentials, remembering my last visit, but the man had to keep returning to empty his pockets. They held a bag of jacks, a glittering yoyo, a whistle on a neon string, and a small silver snowflake pin in a box.
“Gotta be stocking up this time of year,” he said, laughing.
“We need you to put the bear in the container, too,” the security officer told him. “To run it though the detector.”
“Certainly. Did you ever work with my son, Andre? Andre North?”
“No, sir. I don’t recall that name.”
“Used to work here in the federal building. Taking that bear to his office’s toy drive.”
“That’s nice. Now just step this way so I can check with the wand.”
Before letting him through, security also located some loop earrings and a bracelet, both in Christmas boxes.
As for me, I was admitted without issue.
We parted at the elevator, me to the eleventh floor while he disappeared around the corner. Surprisingly, my wait was minimal. With the paperwork I needed in hand, I returned to the ground floor in a half hour. Just in time to come face to face with a competitor, Charles Eloff, who worked for Scott and Sons Office Supply.
“Tom,” he greeted me. “Is what I hear true? Your shop’s being bought out by Modern Marketplace?”
I could barely say yes before he wanted to know if I would be staying on. I told him I’d gotten a retirement incentive package. I didn’t tell him my boss was selling out because Modern Marketplace had agreed to put his nephew in charge of the office it acquired.
“Listen, Mr. Scott is coming into town today for a birthday celebration. He would love to steal someone with your skills out from under Modern Marketplace. You haven’t signed a noncompetitive clause, have you?”
I hadn’t. We talked for a few minutes, and I had a tentative appointment to meet with Harris Scott in half an hour to talk about a new career with Scott and Sons Office Supply. My mood had improved considerably.
As I headed for the door, I noticed the man in the Santa hat was in front of me. “I see we made it out at the same time,” I said, trying to be cordial.
“Yes, we sure did. You’re the man with the good looking cap.”
I stopped to put it back on. “Like you.”
“Wonder if I might ask you a favor?”
My defenses were alerted. Working downtown, I was used to fending off panhandlers. I hadn’t expected it of this man, but then, you never know.
“You see, I need to get back to my house to meet a friend who wants me to help with his yard. My wife brought me downtown, but she had just taken her diuretic–you know, she has trouble with her legs swelling–and when she takes her medicine, well sir, she likes to stay near the accommodations, if you know what I mean.”
I kept walking. “Un huh.”
He kept up with me. “I have five dollars for the bus, but it won’t come for a bit. Might you be driving?”
I hated to admit it, but it was clear I was heading to the garage. “Yes.”
“Could I impose on you for a ride? I’m just behind the Midlands Tech School, not too far.”
“I know where you mean, but my office is just a few blocks away. I’m expected at work.”
“That’s fine. I don’t mean to cause any trouble. I can just wait.”
I looked at the man. Like me, a more than middle-aged guy in a weird hat. Who was I fooling? I’d felt a ray of hope in Eloff and possibly Scott being interested in me, but probably it would be an opportunity for them to gloat instead of offer me a job. Nobody was looking for me at my own office. In a month, I’d be gone from the office supply business and no one would miss me. I’d watched this guy in the Santa hat go through the metal detector in front of me.
Obviously, he wasn’t carrying a gun or it would have been discovered. It would take me twenty minutes to drop him off and then get back to work. My wife Lydie knows me too well. Inside, I’m just a guy with a hero-martyr complex. “Okay, I’ll drive you,” I said to him.
“Thank you. Thank you so much.”
We walked to the garage. The attendant charged me seven dollars for parking. The man offered me his five dollars, but I wouldn’t take it. In the car, as we were driving toward his house, he made a point of introducing himself, “I’m Mr. Claude North. Live on Faith Street. Be pleased if you ever wished to visit.”
“Thanks, but I know that’s just a cover.” I glanced over to see a crinkle develop between his eyebrows.
“Beg pardon?” he asked.
I looked back at him and smiled. “I saw all those toys you pulled out of your pockets. I wouldn’t have been surprised if you told me you were Mr. Claus instead of Mr. Claude. I know an alias when I hear one.”
He chuckled in response. “Yes. Wouldn’t you know my wife’s maiden name was Sandra Pole?”
We both laughed at that. Then, he continued, “I live in a neighborhood with people of a different complexion from mine, if you know what I mean.”
“You mean like my complexion?” I asked.
I could feel him looking over at me. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him shake his head. “No. You’re tan and healthy. Like you been working in the yard or playing golf. Folks in this neighborhood are a couple shades paler. Took them a while to get used to my wife, son, and me.”
I nodded, not sure how to respond.
“Wanted to be there so my son could go to the tech school. He did well, too, in criminal justice. Had a clerical job with the Department of Justice, but hoped someday to join the F.B.I.”
“Yes, sir. The missus and I miss him something awful. He was our only one.”
“I’m sure you must.”
“He was the one to start the toy drive. His office keeps it up every year in his honor. That’s why I always go on the first day.”
“Yes. We used to go to the Baptist Church across the road there.” He pointed. “It’s a white congregation, you know. Shook people up real good when we first started coming, but after they saw we just wanted to worship like anybody else, they treated us like any other members. Even offered the place for my son’s funeral.”
Though we’d been bantering around, I hadn’t been focused on what he had been saying. I’d been thinking about my poor old retiring self, so his words surprised me. “Your son passed?”
“Yes, some time ago.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you.” For a moment, he seemed lost in thought. “Andre finished high school,” he continued, “and then went for a stint in the Marines. Good training for him. Loved that Toys for Tots program they had. That’s why he started the toy drive in his office. He also belonged to a reserve unit. Was one of the first responders for 9-11. Lost him while he was helping out in New York, but not from the rescue or recovery work. No, he got killed in a taxi accident.”
Although he spoke quietly, matter-of-factly, I sensed a deep undercurrent of pride in his words. Then I began to wonder what it must have been like for Andre to grow up as Mr. Claude North’s son–how it must’ve felt for the young man to attend an all-white church with his folks. Andre must have learned from his dad how to become a man who would start a Christmas toy drive.
Neither of us spoke for a moment.
“Did you have it there at the Baptist Church? The funeral, I mean,” I said, breaking the silence.
“No. No.” He paused a moment, then continued. “Andre was such a good soul. Liked to do for others. Told me in his last call from New York that being able to contribute gave him a sense of worth at a time when we all felt so helpless. That’s how my wife and I keep going now–you know, trying to find a way to contribute.”
Unable to come up with an appropriate response, I just nodded.
“From his time in the Marines, he qualified for burial in a military cemetery. We took him to Beaufort since the one in Columbia hadn’t been started yet. Thought he’d like being near the coast.”
“I’m sure he would.”
“Yeah. Andre always was patriotic, and loved the ocean. The neighbors, they were kinder to us after we lost him. Went to leaving gifts on our porch. Never had any tags or anything saying who left them. Wish they had. I always like to thank those who do for me.”
He gave me some directions and before long we pulled up to a small gray house. “Now, you feel free to come by and visit anytime. You’ll remember the name, won’t you? Mr. Claude North.”
“I’ll remember that’s what you told me, but I already told you what I thought.”
“Santa Claus.” He laughed, and the words “jolly old elf” came to my mind. “You’re a funny one,” he told me. “Don’t you lose that fine cap, you hear?”
As Mr. Claude North walked toward his front door, I saw a woman push aside a curtain and look out. She had gray hair, blue eyes and a creamy white face with the happiest smile. I drove off, thinking about the neighbors bringing anonymous gifts and figured it was their way of saying thank you to the Norths for all that family had given, to the community, the country, maybe even the world. I decided I had enough evidence to believe in Santa Claus, even though the government needed my Social Security card to believe in me.
You can check out all of the Christmas short stories that have gone up this month, and the ones going up yet over the next week, in our Terrific Tales section. There will be more mystery and pet Christmas stories.