There's no seasonal holiday I love more than Christmas, so why are tears running down my cheeks as I place the last ornament on my expensively decorated tree? Primarily because I have no one to enjoy it with.
Many would say I have it made, a pleasant looking, young and successful professional man. Many would envy my income which is more than adequate to let me enjoy my generous leisure time which is filled with books, music, and travel whenever I feel an urge to see something new.
To offset some of the emotional isolation from the season that I feel, for the past three Christmases, I have volunteered with others from our organization as Santa's helpers at the mall. The mall management prefers adult males as kids can - and do - get unruly at times. Our mere presence is usually enough to maintain a semblance of order. This year's Santa is perfection. He's fairly tall, rotund, has a perfectly groomed white beard, wears a male version of granny glasses, and, best of all, loves children.
With school out for the holiday, there's a continuous line of kids waiting to sit on Santa's knee to express their heartfelt desires, though a few cynics would call it rapacious greed. The mall manager, being quick to seize any merchandising advantage, has placed a voice-activated computer in Santa's house and equipped Santa with a wireless microphone. As each child, accompanied by a parent, whispers his wants to Santa, the printer connected to the computer grinds out a copy that one of Santa's elves covertly hands to the parent. I never fail to be surprised at how many parents thank us, saying it has saved them money and unhappiness over an unwanted gift.
For two or three days now I have noticed a grubby little ragamuffin, who must be no more than eight years old, hanging out by the rear corner of Santa's house. Constantly on his face is an expression of longing, allied with fear. The one time I slowly walked nearby, the child vanished so swiftly it would have given a magician notice. With the economy in the mess it's in, thanks to incompetent national leadership, there are any number of children who exhibit some need. I'm aware they could likely use help, but they also have at least one parent with them. It's this urchin that I feel a deep desire to help, but how can I when he lets no one get near him.
The mall will close at six Christmas Eve. I'm at my post by noon, having had an early lunch. Kids are scarce, the shoppers being mostly parents picking up lay-away and Santa Claus for their kids. I tell the other two men who are helping me to go on home for I believe I can handle the few kids who might come to see Santa at this late hour and I also know that they have families waiting at home.
Santa has taken a restroom break and has just resettled himself on his throne when the urchin sidles inside the fence surrounding Santa's land, keeping a wary eye on me, then looks up. "Please, can I talk to you?"
"Ho,ho,ho, of course you can young man. Climb up here and tell Santa what you want him to bring you for Christmas."
I quickly slip into Santa's house from the back and switch off the printer. I can hear what he's saying through the tiny speaker in the laptop computer.
"Why don't you tell me your name, sonny."
"It's Toby. Please, Santa, I just want someplace warm and safe to sleep at night, and some good food to eat. I wish I could have a warm bath and some clean clothes to put on." I hear him begin to sniffle. "What I really want is somebody to love me."
By now I'm shedding a few tears myself, glad I don't have to try to answer him. I'm wondering how Santa will handle this. He and I talked together a few times on our breaks, so he knows how I feel about the holiday. Then I hear him say, "Son, you've given old Santa a tough job. I do believe I might have a solution for you. Tell you what; first, you go to the men's room and wash your face and hands real good, then you take this money get yourself something to eat and drink. Be sure you come back here at a quarter to six." I sense Santa's broad smile and know that I'm going to be involved in someway in whatever solution he's cooking up in his head. He says, "Now make sure you come back when I told you, or my Christmas magic won't work."
I'm back at my post just in time to see Toby racing toward the restroom corridor, a look of delight on his face. He disappears, but almost instantly I heard a child's voice scream, "Santa, help!"
I race towards the corridor only to see a security guard dragging the struggling child out. I immediately plant myself in front of the guard and demand, "What do you think you're doing with that child?"
He smirks. "Been trying to catch him someplace where there's no people around all week. People don't want kids like this hanging around; they're just lookin' to steal somethin'."
"If you don't turn Toby loose, I'm going to steal your job."
The guard looks astounded. "You know this kid, Sir?"
"I do. He got dirty playing, so I sent him to wash up and then get something to eat until I get off. I'm one of Santa's helpers, in case you haven't noticed." I reach down for Toby's hand. "Let's go get your burger and drink, Son."
Toby gives me a tiny smile and grabs my hand firmly. I walk with him to the food court and order him a chicken sandwich and milk. Order in hand, I lead him to a table from which I can see Santa, seat him, and tell him Santa will be waiting for him when he finishes his sandwich.
As I sit down on one of the steps leading up to Santa's throne, Santa gives me the first genuine smile I've seen from him this season. He's jovial and conceals his real feelings, but I have been able to tell it was all an act; an almost perfect one, but an act nevertheless.
"I had you figured for a good type, Ken. I hope you're gonna make that kid real happy so he'll believe in me. Even the little kids are doubters nowadays."
I feel an unaccountable burst of happiness when he says this. No, I have no concept of it being more than a few days of comfort for Toby and pleasure for me, but I'll do my damndest. "Hold the fort, Santa. I've got a little last minute shopping to do."
On a few occasions, I had covertly followed the kid around as he looked in stores. It was in Target that he'd lingered over clothing until a clerk ran him out. I was lucky enough to find the same clerk trying to straighten out the piles of clothing. She remembered the kid and estimated his size, rather accurately, I thought, until she added that she had a child about the same size.
Unbelievably, she remembered which shirts and jeans he was drawn to. I had her add a pair of dress slacks and a dress shirt to the other shirts and jeans. Underwear and socks, then a pair of popular sneakers, or whatever they're called now, and a pair of loafers completed my list. Oh, yes, I almost forgot the warm jacket.
Passing a toy store on my way back to Santa, I saw the one remaining remote controlled car, it had been used as a demonstrator so I got it cheaply. After buying a few more little things I think he might like, I stop at Radio Shack to buy additional batteries for the car. Seeing no one waiting at Santa's throne, I quickly moved to the exit nearest my car and placed the purchases in the boot of my car and return to my position until this last hour is up.
As promised, Toby returned just as the manager signaled that we could leave. Few people remained in the mall.
"You make any magic, Santa?" Toby asked expectantly.
"I did! I really did." Santa replied. "This nice helper of mine is going to take you home with him so you can have a real Christmas, Son."
"Really?" He exclaimed. "Everything I asked for?"
"That's right, and I bet maybe a bit more, 'cause I come to see all good boys and girls tonight after they've gone to sleep."
Santa nodded. "You, too, if you'll go home with my helper so I'll know where to leave your Christmas. He's a nice man and you'll like being with him for Christmas."
"Oh, thank you, Santa. Some of the other kids say you're fake, but I know I found the real one." He gives Santa a kiss on the cheek, then scrambles down and takes me by the hand.
"Ready?" I ask.
He nods happily.
"Son, want to tell me why you're not at home?"
He sniffles a few times, then says, "I ain't got one. Those people the woman from some kind of service put me with don't want me. They beat me all the time for nothing. Like if I talked too loud. I tried hard to be good, but they was never happy and just beat me more, so I run away."
"How long ago?"
"'Bout a month I guess. It was a long time ago. There's this little room in the mall. I guess they've done forgot 'bout it, cause nobody never come in there. I found some blankets and stuff in that big trash bin and made me a bed. It was warm."
"Where did you eat?"
"Where you bought me the sandwich. I grabbed stuff offen trays before they was picked up after people got up and left. A few times I got to wash some in the restroom, but the guard hung around there too much, like today."
Toby looks at me questioningly. "Is you really one of Santa's elves? 'Cause you're tall."
I can't help but smile. "I may not be a real elf, but I do help Santa every year. Now I have you to help because Santa promised you I would." I turn into the parking garage of my apartment building and stop in my numbered space.
He says nothing, but I'm amazed that his head hasn't fallen off from all the turning it does as he tries to take in everything. Its motion slows as we enter the lift, only to begin again when we enter my flat. I'd swear he's never before seen a Christmas tree, for he appears entranced once I switch the lights on. I let him look at the ornaments before taking his hand to attract his attention and show him to the guest bath. Assured that he will bathe himself well, leave him and go down to retrieve the remainder of the purchases from my car. Once his Santa is hidden away, I start to prepare our dinner.
The chicken casserole needs forty-five minutes or so in the oven, so I remove tags from the new clothing and start the washer. I have left out a terry-cloth robe for him to wear until time for bed.
He eats far more than I expected, then leans back, pats his slightly protruding stomach and says, "That was really good, Mister Ken. Thank you."
"I'm pleased that you enjoyed it. You can go watch TV while I get the dishes in the washer."
"Let me help." He proceeds to pick up his plate and glass and carefully takes them into the kitchen, placing them on the drain-board. I have brought in mine, so with nothing more to help me with, he goes into the living room and turns on the TV, finding a Christmas movie that is just beginning.
I move his new clothes to the dryer, then join him until the movie is over. He helps me take his dry clothes into the bedroom he's to use and, as I fold each item, places it carefully in the drawers of the chest. I hold out a pair of pyjamas. "Go to the bathroom, then get ready for bed." I smile at him. 'Santa won't come until you're asleep."
"He's come already," is his response.
"What do you mean?"
"I got good food to eat, a nice place to stay for Christmas, a warm bed to sleep in, some nice new clothes, and somebody who cares about me. That's more than I asked him for."
Seeing his happy expression, I hold out my arms. Instantly he's wrapped his arms about me, hugging me as tightly as possible. I return his hug then kiss him on the forehead. "Maybe he still has a surprise for you, Toby, son. Now crawl in bed and go to sleep."
"In a minute." He drops to his knees by the side of the bed and mumbles his prayers. I hear him say distinctly, "If you can, Lord, make it so I can stay here with Mister Ken forever. Amen." He slips between the covers and I lean down to give him a goodnight kiss.
I fix the drink I've been wanting, put some Christmas CD's on the system, and sit looking at the tree while I ponder his prayer. I'm really torn, for I've already succumbed to his enchanting personality. He said he was beaten so much he ran away from the foster home in which he was placed. I'm no fighter, but I'd love a few minutes alone with those people. I'll see how the next few days go before I call my lawyer, a former classmate.
I check to see that he's asleep, then go to my car and bring in his Santa Claus. I hang a Christmas stocking filled with goodies of various sorts from the mantel above the fireplace. I have a gas log fire more for atmosphere than heat. I'll light it before he gets up tomorrow. Placing the other items I bought for him under the tree, I switch off the lights and take myself to bed.
I'm awakened by a voice shrill with excitement. "He did come! Just like he promised! I knew he was the real Santa." He takes my hand and tugs. "Come see, Mister Ken, please."
"Let me go potty and wash up then we'll see what Santa brought you, okay? You go get washed up, too."
Toby is just an ordinary looking child, not exactly ugly, but certainly no beauty, however the look of joy on his face when he sees the few presents under the tree transforms him into a radiant being. "Look, Ken, Santa did come, just like he promised."
I put my arm around his thin shoulders and hug him close. "It looks as if he did and I'll bet they're all for you. Why don't you get down there and see."
"But they'll be yours," he protests.
I shake my head. "No, I have already opened the gift I always get from a friend, so all those have to be yours. Go ahead, Son."
He drops down on the floor and pulls out a gift and reads the card. "It is mine!" He shouts and hugs the gift to his chest. I didn't ever get any before."
He slowly opens the wrappings and lifts up the warm jacket, with a smile. More quickly he opens the rest of his presents. The car is the last to be opened as I had placed it well back under the tree. His expression is one of shock then he starts to cry.
"Don't you like it, Toby?" I ask.
He lifts his tear stained face to look at me. "I wanted it so much, cause I saw the man in the mall making one like it run. I never had anything this nice to play with before. I'm so happy."
"Let's eat breakfast, Son, then you can run it all you want."
Half an hour later he's having the time of his life and chortling in glee.
Me? Yes, I got a second and very unexpected gift from Santa that Christmas. That's why I'm now sitting surrounded by people in the auditorium watching my son Toby graduate from high school. He's an honour student and the joy of my life. He is well worth all the legal finagling it took to make him my son and more.