Two weeks before Christmas and the mall is crowded, my patience wearing thin, but I've gotten my shopping almost completed. I take the parcels out and put them in the boot of my car intending to go to the gift shop and pick up the last two small items I need, then have a cup of cappuccino before fighting the traffic on my way back home. But before that …
I go into the men's room and see only the mall's Santa in there. He's holding his red pants in his hand, sponging them off and trying to dry them under the electric hand drier. It's hard to concentrate on what I came in here for, because his left leg is prosthetic. I wash my hands just as I hear him say, "Oh, shit!" I turn to see he's gotten the pants back on but is struggling to get the ample padding around his waist fastened back in place.
"Need some help?" I ask.
"Please. I had some help dressing when I got here, but I can't go out to the office like this."
I can see he's slender, the part of his cheeks not covered by the fake beard youthfully smooth. I hold the padding in place for him while he tightens and closes the velcro straps. When I hand him his red coat, he glances at his watch and smiles. "One more hour, then I'm gonna get myself a stiff drink." He shakes his head. "I like kids, but I never thought being Santa was such a tough job. Some little bastard just wet his pants and mine, too."
I have to chuckle. "Occupational hazard?"
He grins. "Something like that. If I didn't need the money I'd never have done this."
As a devotee, I naturally find his leg fascinating, more so because he appears quite young and, I suspect, attractive under the fake beard. "I didn't expect you to be so young. Most Santas are older than you look."
He laughs. "They had one like I think you expected, older and fat, but he showed up yesterday about half crocked. Guess somebody complained about him being drunk because the mall manager came out and fired him. I was temp working in the store across the way so when she offered me the job at a little more money and a lot less hours, I grabbed it. Man, I can sure understand now why he got loaded." He grimaces. "Back to the grind. Thanks a lot for your help. I owe you one."
Without thinking, I say, "If you've nothing better to do after you're off, I'll buy you that drink you need."
I think fast and smile. "To hear some of your tales about kids and Santa."
He grins. "Thanks, I'd like that."
"Then I'll be in front of your chair when you close down. I'm Eric."
"Mike," he says holding out his hand. "Now I gotta run."
I finish my shopping and browse in a nearby book store until it's time. I get back to Santa Land just in time to see the 'elf' shut the gate and lift the last little kid onto Mike's lap. Mike happens to see me and winks.
When he sets the kid back down for the 'elf' to lead away, he gets up and comes toward me. "Come on back to the dressing room while I change, if you want."
He seems completely at ease with my watching him change. His leg, one of the hi-tech models, is easy to observe close up when he asks me to pull the black boot that's part of his costume from his prosthetic foot, then undresses handing me the clothing and padding he takes off.
He pulls the fake beard loose, wincing a little as the spirit gum pulls loose. He winks at me. "Tomorrow I won't use so damn much, but a few of the littler kids like to pull on it." He hands me the beard and wig. I can see now he has an angular face and thick black hair, a handsome young man.
He stands and pulls the belt in his jeans closed, then grabs his heavy denim jacket. He winks at me again. "Perfect disguise. No kid would ever think I'm Santa."
I wouldn't recognize him myself, dressed as he is in jeans, running shoes, a sweatshirt with the emblem of the local branch of the university on it, and his jacket.
"Now for that drink, I need it. Got any particular place in mind?"
"What about the Shed?" He asks, naming a small beer joint close to the campus that I happen to know caters to gay students though I've never been in it. But this is a controlled state and hard liquor is available only in state stores or restaurants whose business is over 50% food.
"If you want something better than beer why don't we go to the Western Corral and have dinner, too?"
"Can't afford it," he says straightforwardly.
I can't imagine why as their prices are low-medium, but I'm not about to give up this pleasurable association. "I think I can spring a dinner for a guy who gets his pants wet by a kid, though it wasn't my kid."
He grins. "You're on. Thanks."
He doesn't have a car, so he rides with me.
Once we're seated in the restaurant and have our Canadian and ginger in hand I ask, "Get any surprise reactions to your leg from the kids?"
"You weren't looking very closely. I put their little butts on my good leg. Only one kid has picked up on it so far and that was because he tried to kick me, cause I didn't bring him a set of blades last Christmas."
"Whatever happened to the days kids were supposed to ask Santa for toys, not give him a lot of shit over the year before?"
"Damned if I know. Luckily most of 'em don't remember that far back. It's not that bad a job, but I feel sorry as hell for the ones that ask me to bring their daddy or mother back home, things like that."
"Shame when parents break up and all."
He nods. "At least they have one parent around. That's more than I've got."
"Thanks." He leans slightly forward and lowers his voice. "Am I correct in assuming you're a dev?"
I can feel my face turning pink. He notices and grins. "It seems I have my answer."
"Yeah. Sorry to have been so obvious, but you're a very attractive package."
He raises one eyebrow. "Glad you think so. And before you ask, I don't mind when it's a good-looking guy about my age."
"You're at the university?"
He nods. "Get my MA in the spring, psych major."
"Oh? And what area is your specialty?"
"General, since they don't offer a specialization in young people. I want to work with gay kids and young amputees, I think I have a lot to offer them."
"From practical experience I'm sure you do."
"What about you?"
"I finished up my PhD in psych and started a practice two years ago. I've been lucky to get a retainer from the public schools and social service."
"Wow! That was lucky. That's the area I'd like to practice in. I've got to find someone like you to do my in-service training with next semester." He looks at me hopefully. "Any chance you'd consider it?"
"I haven't given it any thought because the U likes to put students with people who've been in practice longer than I have. They've never asked me."
"Damn, I was hoping."
"But why me?"
He smiles. "I'm sussing you out as a great guy. You're …"
He grins. "Never heard it? It's a sort of mixed meaning: discovering, coming to believe, working out in my mind. But as I was about to say, you're a dev and seem to like me, and I'm betting you're gay."
"What makes you think the last? There are plenty of straight devotees."
"You sort of smiled when I mentioned the Shack."
"Guilty on all counts," I say with a smile.
His smile gets wider. "Great. I thought I'd read you right. I like you, Eric."
I have to grin. "I'm sure glad that kid wet your pants. If he hadn't I wouldn't have met you."
Our steaks are served and we turn our attention to dinner. When we've finished, Mike leans back. "That was great! I don't eat like this very often. Thanks a lot, Eric, I wish I could return the favor."
"No sweat. It tasted a lot better because I've had great company to eat with."
"I've enjoyed it, too," he glances at his watch, "but I've got to get going. I've got to study for an exam."
"I'll drop you off, then." I'm disappointed we won't have longer together.
I cook the next day and find an excuse to go to the mall about six. As soon as the last kid is lifted off his lap by the 'elf' he comes out to go change. I ask him if he's interested in joining me for dinner again.
"You're kidding? I mean you gave me dinner last night."
"Nothing so fancy this time, just some soup I made. I'd really like to have you join me. If you have to study again, I'll understand."
"I feel like I'm taking advantage of you, but, yeah, I'd like that. Can use your help getting changed, too."
"What exam do you have this time?" I ask over our dinner.
"Advanced abnormal. I'm glad it's my last one cause I'm kind of dreading it, the prof's a stickler for the little stuff."
"Who do you have?"
I remember him all too well. "I had him, too, and I'll bet he hasn't changed his syllabus since I was in his class. Would you like me to give you a review from what I remember?"
"Would you? That'll be great. Wish I had my book with me."
"He still using…" I name the text I have.
Mike nods. "Same one. He hates the new edition."
"You're in luck; I have it."
After he's helped me wash the dishes we take our coffee into the living room and settle in. I quiz him for nearly three hours, surprised at how well he has the material down. I finally close the book.
"Relax, you're going to do well. I think I've covered most of his exam."
"Thanks, Eric. I feel a lot better about it now. I really appreciate the help, it was a lot better than trying to study in the dorm." He looks at his watch. "I've got to go. After the exam I gotta get a newspaper before I go play Santa and try to find some place cheap to stay over the Christmas break." He shakes his head. "I should of done it before now. Two days isn't very long to find a place and move my stuff."
When I drop him off at his dorm, I tell him, "I want to know how your exam went. Plan on eating with me tomorrow night, if you can stand soup again."
"Ah, man, how can I refuse an offer like that. Your soup's the best."
"Glad you like it. I'll pick you up at six."
"No need, I can walk it."
"No problem. I expect I'll need to run back to the mall." I won't, but he doesn't know that.
"Hey, Mather's exam was a snap after that review you gave me. There was only one question we didn't cover. Can you believe that old fart still classifies being gay as an abnormality?" Mike says as he's changing into his street clothes the next evening.
I have to grin. "I forgot that one, but at least he's consistent. So what did you put down for an answer?"
"That it was removed from the list by the APA several years ago and that current thought is that it's probably genetic."
"Ugh, oh. He'll probably gig you hard for that. He did me."
"If he does I'm going to my advisor and complain. They should make him retire."
"Should have years ago. Ready?"
On the drive to my house, I ask, "How'd the room search go?"
He shakes his head. "Didn't have time, they wanted me at the mall early today. I did find one ad, but it doesn't sound very good." He shrugs. "Trying to find a place is my job tomorrow morning."
He looks startled. "Why'd you say that? I gotta have some place to stay."
"You have if you want, so you'd better start packing."
"I've got a spare bed room, you can have that."
"Why're you doing this for me, Eric?"
I grin. "I'm a dev, remember? I like looking at you. Besides, I've come to like you as a person. Need any more reasons? If so, I'm considering letting you put in a request for me to be your mentor next semester. This'll give me a chance to see how we'll get along."
"Ah, damn, man." I hear a sniff and glance at him to see him wipe his eyes with his jacket sleeve.
After we've eaten I ask him if he wants to relax with a video and, when he says he hasn't seen it, select A Beautiful Thing with a purpose in mind. His side comments during the video tell me he's grasping the nuances of the story and will likely be a good psychologist for young gays. He even understands the heavy accents and some of the British slang used.
When it's over he looks at me. "I'd better get going so I can start packing if you really meant your invitation."
"I meant it sincerely, Mike, but are you certain you're going to feel comfortable with me drooling over you?"
He gives me a wicked grin. "Hey, drool away! If you're really nice I might even let you see my stump." Then his expression sobers. "You've been great to me and I appreciate it. I look at my situation like this; I could either piss and moan about it and make myself miserable, or I could accept it and get on with life. That's what I did and I'm happy with who I am. If you find me attractive all I can say is thanks, and return the compliment."
Yep, this guy's got the right attitude for counseling young people, especially amps. I like him more and more. "I have a client tomorrow morning at 9, but give me a call when you're packed and I'll come for you."
"I'm sleeping in tomorrow, so make it about 11. That'll give us about three hours before I've got to be at work, if that's okay."
"Works perfectly with my plans."
"God! I'm such a retard at times! I mean you haven't even told me what you want for the room."
I smile. "For the holiday, nothing. I'm inviting you as a guest. If it works out and you're comfortable living here, I'll expect nothing more than what it takes to cover the additional utilities. If you want to eat with me we can split the groceries and maybe some of the cooking."
Mike shakes his head. "Too little, man. You ought a get at least what I pay for the dorm."
"And that puts you in a bind at times, doesn't it?"
"Yeah, but it's fair."
"Once you're done with playing Santa you'll have more time, won't you?" He nods. "Then I think I can find enough odd jobs around here for you to do that'll cover it."
I'm suddenly grabbed in a tight hug. "I may be playing Santa, but I never believed in him until now. You're the greatest, Eric."
"Not really, just a drooling dev with a handsome one-legged stud about to move in. Hope you've got crutches, you'll look fantastic on them."
He grins. "Now how'd I get the idea you'd like 'em? Yeah, I use 'em if I'm not going out, gives my stump a rest."
"Now I'm the one can't wait for you to move in. It's gonna be hard for me to concentrate with you around."
"Concentration gonna be the only thing hard?" He asks with a wink.
"Get out of here and start packing, stud."
As I expected, he doesn't have a lot, one large suitcase, a duffelbag, and one fair sized box containing books and a few odds and ends, and the old fashioned wooden crutches. We get him moved into my spare bedroom and I leave him to get a shower before he leaves for work.
"What's this?" He asks when I toss him a key on a ring.
"Since you're now officially a resident at 1000 Pine Ridge you'll need a door key. I'm sometimes called out on an emergency."
"Ah, man," he mutters and says nothing more, but his emotion shows.
He looks wiped out when I pick him up that evening. "You don't have to be my personal chauffeur, but I sure am glad you came for me tonight. School's out and you wouldn't believe the number of sharp boned little butts I've had on my leg today." He rubs his thigh. "I'm gonna be dead before Christmas Eve gets here. From now on it's 10 to 6 every day and 1 to 5 on Sunday."
"And then you gotta load up the sleigh and make good on all your promises," I tease.
"Fuck that noise; I'm getting' what sleep I can. I sure hope you've got something left in that bottle. I was gonna get one today, but I didn't have a chance."
"Soon as we're home." I feel sorry for him he looks so beat.
The next few days I see so little of him I hardly know he's even around. He comes in, we eat, and then he hits his bed soon after. I don't ask anything of him because he looks so tired.
Wednesday evening before Christmas Eve on Friday he's more lively. "Easy day?" I ask.
"Thank God! It was mostly adults picking up stuff for their kids, I guess. There weren't that many kids." He looks thoughtful. "Had one little kid really got to me today."
"Yeah. His left arm was gone about half way below the elbow. From the way he and his mom were dressed it didn't look like he's gonna have much Christmas either." He looks at me sadly. "What the hell do you say to a kid who only wants Santa to bring him the rest of his arm?"
I shake my head. "How'd you handle that?"
"I hugged him and said Santa could do a lot of things, but that wasn't one of them. It's against the rules, but I took him inside the little house where nobody else could see and showed him my leg, and told him there are some things we can't change, but to be happy and learn to use his stump."
"He said he used it a lot. Then he said he wished he could have a soccer ball, some new jeans and stuff, and a coat for his mother."
"I couldn't have handled it better, Mike. If this were part of your practicum, I'd give you an A on it."
"Thanks, Eric. I wish I had the money, I'd get that kid everything he wants. I'd like him to have a Christmas to remember. I'm gonna get him the ball anyway. The sports shop has some for little kids that aren't too expensive, and Sonja told me she'd see I got a bonus for being good with the kids and keeping to the schedule."
"You have the kid's name and address?"
"Yeah. It's Danny Kerrick. Thought if you didn't mind taking me by there after I get off work Christmas Eve I'd take him the ball."
"I'll be glad to, or you can borrow the car. What's the address?"
He tells me and I recognize the street as being in the poorest part of town. "I know that area, Mike, so I expect they need a lot of things. What say I use my contacts at social service to get them fixed up with a food basket and, if you know his size, maybe some clothes. I usually make a donation to their Christmas fund, but this time we'll use it for him."
"Thanks, Eric, that's great of you; I really want to do this. Would you shop with me after I get off work tomorrow?"
For the first time in years I feel something akin to the Christmas spirit. "Be glad to." I want to get Mike a little something, too, so this may be my chance to see if he expresses interest in anything.
While Mike is working the next day I drop by social service and arrange a food basket to be delivered to the kid's mother. To my surprise, I find she hasn't asked for help though I know she must need it. I feel better knowing she still has pride, if perhaps misplaced. I'm disappointed that it will contain only a large chicken instead of a turkey, but it gives me an idea. With that done, I go to do my own grocery shopping.
As soon as Mike has changed, we stop at the sports shop where he buys the soccer ball then we go to K-Mart for the clothing. Mike and I are pleased to find they're having a sale. He has to guess at sizes, but a clerk who says she has a son who is also seven is a big help. She assures us the purchases can be returned if they're not the right size. On our way to check-out I see a selection of small pocket radios. On impulse I pick up one and try it, surprised at the number of stations it picks up in the store. I buy it with a couple of batteries that fit.
Mike takes off his leg as soon as we're home. "Ah, that feels good," he says as he swings on his crutches to the table for our dinner, his jeans leg folded up around his just above the knee stump and tucked into the waistband.
Just as I thought, he's even more attractive on crutches, so much so I almost let our dinner burn. "Hope you like things well done, stud, you distracted hell out of me."
He grins and sets the table. I tell him about the food basket as we eat.
"Thanks, Eric. They'll have a good dinner and some leftovers, too."
"I know, but I wish they could have a turkey. It was always traditional around our house."
"Ours, too, when I had one."
"So here's what I have in mind if you really like this kid enough. I've got a bigger turkey than usual and plenty of everything else. How would you feel about having Danny and his mother share our dinner Christmas day?"
"Oh, man, that's awesome. Can we make it really special and keep his gifts here for him to open? I could tell him the real Santa got mixed up and left them here."
"Good idea. You'd better call his mother and see if they'll come."
After we've eaten and done the dishes, he grabs the phone book and looks through the pages. "Not listed. Guess maybe they don't have one." He snaps his fingers. "It was hot in the mall and she had her coat open. She was wearing a smock from one of those gas and convenience marts. Damn! I wish I could remember which one."
"Not something you'd have reason to remember. We'll go by tomorrow morning before you go to work and see if she'll come. Let's go wrap those gifts."
We have some nice Christmas music playing on the stereo and enjoy ourselves more than I thought possible. Mike's enthusiasm makes me feel alive. I already like his attitude about most things, finding that he'll be a very empathetic psychologist with the young.
Danny's mother is reluctant to let us in the next morning until Mike tells her he's the Santa at the mall and lets her see part of his leg.
"I wondered why you took Danny into the little house. He was happy when he came out and told me Santa was different like him. Come on in."
Though everything in the living room is shabby, she's done her best to make it colorful and homey. Their tree is an old artificial table tree. Most of the decorations are homemade, some by Danny I'm certain. Mike tells her who we are and how he wants to work with kids like Danny. "I'm hoping to get Dr. Wilson for my supervisor; he's a fine man."
"Danny's a good boy. He's getting' to the age he needs a man around, but just ain't no way I can afford no doctor to help."
"I'll have some time to spend with him," Mike says, "and Eric won't mind. In fact, it would be a big help to me because if Eric's my supervisor, he'll let me use Danny for my case study of a kid with a disability." He looks at me and I nod.
"We'll see that Danny's safe and I'll bring him home each time he visits us. Mike's going to be living in my home next semester while he's in training."
She nods. "That would be good fer Danny, 'cept I work the 11 to 7 shift and he don't always eat like he should."
"It's no trouble to fix a little extra when we're cooking. He can eat with us," I say.
"That's really why we're here," Mike tells her. "We'd like to have you and Danny come to Eric's for dinner Christmas day."
"It's nice of you to think of us, but I gotta work like usual cause it'll be busy."
"But you will let Danny come?" Mike asks.
"I hate to leave him alone on Christmas, but …" her voice trails off.
"Then we'll pick him up about 10:30 and bring him home about 8, if that's all right with you." I say.
"You ain't got nothing better to do on Christmas?"
"Not at all. There's just Mike and me, and Christmas is for children. It will make ours a lot better having Danny with us."
"Well … Let me call him and see if he wants to. He's outside playing."
She goes to the back of the house and calls him. A few moments later Danny comes running in and skids to a halt when he sees us.
"Who're you?" He asks Mike.
"You remember talking to Santa at the mall?"
"Yeah! He only had one leg, just like I got one arm. I know cause he showed me."
Mike pulls up the leg of his jeans. "Did it look like this?"
"Yeah." A look of wonder crosses Danny's face. "Was that you?"
Mike nods. "I'm playing Santa this year. I'm not the real one, but I pretend like I am to help him out. He has a lot to do to get ready for tomorrow night when he visits all the good children like you."
"Did you tell him what I wanted?"
"I make a list every night and send it to him. I'll bet he's packing up things for you right now."
"I sure hope so. I wish mom didn't have to work."
"My name's Mike, Danny. My friend Eric and I want you to come to our house and spend the day with us while your mother's working. We'll have Christmas dinner and all. Would you like that?"
Danny smiles shyly. "Yeah. You was good to me."
"We like you, too, Danny. We'll pick you up Christmas day and take your mother to work then go to our house, okay?"
He nods. "Say, thank you," his mother reminds him.
"Thanks. Can I call you Mike?"
Mike pulls him into a brief hug. "I'd like that a lot, Danny. My friend's name is Eric."
I stand. "We won't keep you any longer, Mrs. Kerrick. Thank you for letting Danny come to visit us."
"I thank you. I won't worry about him none now."
Mike is so tired after playing Santa on Christmas Eve day I let him sleep in, waking him only when I've got breakfast almost done.
"Merry Christmas, Mike," I say as he comes to the table. "Sorry to wake you, but we don't have long before we pick up Danny."
He immediately drinks it down then smiles as he holds out his mug for more. "Merry Christmas to you, too."
"Ah, hah. Another morning grouch, I see."
"Kind of. I was beat last night."
"You looked it. Feel better now?"
"A lot." He watches as I pull a waffle from the iron and set it on his plate, then pass him the breakfast sausage. "Oh, man, my favorite holiday breakfast. Thanks, Eric."
"Glad you like it. It's what I always have, but I'm glad you're here to share it with me. Makes it really special."
"I gotta thank you. I wasn't looking forward to spending today alone."
We get to Danny's to find them ready. Danny runs to my car with a big smile and holding up his hand. "Look, Mike, I got a real watch!"
Mike takes his hand and looks at the inexpensive action figure digital watch. "That's cool, buddy. Bet you didn't expect that."
"Mom says I can't forget when I'm supposed to be home any more."
I take a look and smile, too. "Busy guys need good watches, Danny. You're a big boy now."
His mother smiles and wishes us a Merry Christmas as she gets in my car. We drop her off at the Quick Stop on the highway and head home. Danny's expression is priceless when he see our tree and the gifts under it.
"Haven't you opened your Santa stuff yet?" He asks Mike who is helping him out of his jacket.
"Not yet. I think Santa made a mistake with some of 'em."
Danny's eyes grow big. "You do? Who they for?"
"I'm not sure, Danny, but why don't we sit down on the floor and find out."
"Yeah!" He sits down on his heels in front of the tree, his eyes sparkling in the lights.
Mike and I sit down on either side of him, then Mike pulls a package out and pretends to look at the card. "I think this says 'Danny', what do you think?" He passes it to Danny who balances it against his chest with his stump as he looks at the card.
"Is it really mine?" Danny asks.
"Why don't you open it and see," I say.
It's the first time I've seen a small boy work with one hand and a long stump to open a large package; a beautiful sight to a dev. He opens the box and pulls out a heavy padded nylon jacket of the type that's in style with the 'cool' kids.
Mike takes it from him. "Stand up and let's see if Santa got the size right." It's a little large but Danny'll soon grow into it. The end of left sleeve dangles. Mike rolls it up until the tip of Danny's stump shows. "Hey, looks good, buddy."
"Feels good, too. Now I got a jacket like the other guys." He takes it off and sits back down. Mike points to another box. Soon we're surrounded by boxes, for Mike and I wrapped each item separately so Danny would have a lot to unwrap.
Mike gets up and goes to his room, returning with one hand behind his back. "You want to play a joke on your friends, Danny?"
Mike holds out a plastic left hand with part of the arm attached. He told me he got it from a store mannequin that had been damaged and cut it down hoping it'll fit. "Let's see if you can fit your arm in here."
Danny slips his slender stump in easily and looks at the hand.
"It won't do anything," Mike warns him.
"I can hit guys with it," Danny chortles.
"That's not nice, buddy. It's just to have fun with."
Danny grins. "Yeah."
I reach under the tree and take out a small package and hand it to him. "This one's from me, Danny. I hope you like it."
"A radio!" He exclaims and hugs me. He turns it on and happily tunes through the channels.
"Put it in the pocket of your new jacket, Danny. Get the extra battery, too, so you won't lose it."
"Thanks, Doctor Eric." He hugs me then I nod at Mike. He takes the largest package from under the tree and hands it to Danny.
The kid just stares at the soccer ball for a few moments then throws himself on Mike. "Santa did bring it!" He yells.
Mike holds him in his arms for a few minutes. "Yeah, buddy, he sure did."
When Danny is over his excitement he sits back down and looks at Mike. "Some of the guys at school said there ain't no Santa. It was you, wasn't it?"
If I were giving Mike a test of his ability, this is the toughest problem I'd give him. I wait to see how he'll answer a seven-year old.
Mike pulls him back against him and looks into his eyes. "Danny, there's no real Santa with magic powers, cause if there was he'd give you back the rest of your arm like you want, not a piece of plastic to play with. But there is a real Santa. You can't see him because he lives right in here." He puts his hand on Danny's thin chest. "People old as Eric and me call him love because he's everywhere when people show their love to someone else by giving them gifts, or a hug, or just saying, 'I love you'. That's the best gift of all."
Danny gives us both that gift with a huge smile.