Friday, November 23, 2012

Black Friday

by Colleen Sutherland

(Note:  I've returned to my series of depressing Christmas stories intended for those readers who really hate the holidays.  By next year, I hope to have enough for a collection.) 

“What can you do well?”

The caseworker at the Schmallen County Human Resources office wasn't all that much interested in Jackson's answer but she had a form to fill out. She had been talking to unemployed old guys for years. He had been looking for work at her office for two years. They both played the game. He had seen her before but doubted she remembered him.

“I was good at stuffing Twinkies,” Jackson said.

“You're kidding, right?”

“No. That's what I did for thirty years. Just stuffed Twinkies.”

“Not much future there. They closed the last plant this week down in Tennessee.”

“I know.”

“Maybe you should look into training for something else.”

“I've already taken two re-training courses. The feds won't let me sign up for another. Even with new skills I never get past the first interview.”

The caseworker stared at him. “Maybe if you presented yourself better.”

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“Dress better for one thing.”

“I have one good suit that I save for interviews. I'm sure not going to wear it out when I come down here every week.”

“OK, but how about getting a haircut and shaving off that beard.”

It was a luxuriant growth, his beard. It was deep brown, full and curly, a thing of beauty. He trimmed and combed it daily. “They can't refuse to hire me because of a beard. It's unconstitutional.”

“No, they can't give that as a reason, but they'll sure as shooting hire someone clean shaven instead of you and say he's more qualified. And face it, you're not all that qualified for much of anything. So, tell me, do you anything else well?”

“I grow a great beard. That's about it.”

“If it was white, you could work as a Santa and get seasonal work. Too bad.” She finished the form, handed it to him and crossed his name off her list. “Next!”

Jackson thought about that Santa business that night. When he tried to sell his house after the recession hit, the realtor told him she would have better luck if he got rid of the stuff that his mother left behind when she croaked. All the old sofas, the lamps, and above all the piano she played when he was growing up. When the furniture was gone, the memories were gone, and the house never sold anyhow. The realtor had used the furniture as an excuse. She was a lousy realtor, that was all. The bank took the house away from him. He thought about that piano at Christmas.

Same thing with the beard. The caseworker used it as an excuse. If he shaved his beard all that would remain would be his weak chin and the scars from a couple of knife fights when he was a kid. It wouldn't help.

If the beard was only white, she said, but he could fix that. With his next welfare check he bought a bleaching kit at the dollar store. He locked himself into the john at the Shell station. People pounded on the door from time to time, but he kept going until his beard and hair were white. He did look like Santa. He even had a beer/Twinkie belly to go with it.

The next day, he put on his good suit and began to make the rounds of the malls. He carried a bottle of mouthwash with him and gargled before each stop to make sure there was no residual beer smell. The malls already had their Santas, it seemed. It wasn't until he came to the Save-a-Bunch that he found his job.

“Yeah, our regular Santa croaked from a heart attack. His kids called an hour ago. All the other Santas are booked. So tell me, do you like kids?”

“Love 'em,” Jackson lied. There were probably more than one little Jackson bastard around but he never stayed around to find out. But he could stand poop and slobber if it meant a paycheck.

“Great, you start tomorrow a week from tomorrow during the Black Friday sales.”

“That's a Thursday. And it's Thanksgiving.” Jackson planned on going to more than one church for free meals that day.

“Yeah, well we're starting early this year, just like the rest of 'em. Some of 'em are open all day Thanksgiving but we let our employees have dinner first.”

“Good of you. What time do you want me there?”

“Before we open the doors, say 4:00 pm. That'll give you time to get settled on the throne before we open at 6:00.”

“Any instructions?”

“Just ask the kiddies what they want for Christmas, and here, push these toys.” The manager handed him a fat brochure. “Memorize what's in our catalog, especially the high end stuff. Smile for the camera. Then the elf gives 'em a candy cane and their photo and they go on their way.”

Jackson had seen Santas in movies so figured it would be easy enough. “Just smile and let 'em go. Got it.”

“One more thing, no drinking, no smoking, and above all, no swearing.”

“Where do I get my Santa suit?”

“You don't have one? All the Santas have their own suits.”

“Mine's in the cleaners.”

“Well, rent one then. Your responsibility, not ours.”

Jackson cadged some money from the collection pot when he went for the free dinner at the Salvation Army. Then he slipped his hand into a woman's purse on the bus and managed to get another batch of bills without her noticing.

He rented the suit for a week, figuring after that he could buy his own.

“Bring it back clean,” the guy said. “No deposit though, we trust our Santas.”

He perused the Save-a-Bunch catalog at the homeless shelter. “Can you believe this crap?” he asked his bunk mate.

“Some high end products there,” the guy said. He used to be in retail sales. “Hey, if you can get some of this stuff, we could put it on e-bay. I've got a Hotmail account down at the library. Good scam.”

“Circle the good stuff and I'll see what I can do.”

Jackson was supposed to be at a seasonal employee meeting but he figured that was mostly going to be about stocking and working the cash registers so he called in and told the manager he had another booking for a Santa gig. “Got to strike while the iron is hot, man!” he told him. The manager said fine but to stop in for his employee ID. It slipped Jackson's mind but then he figured the Santa suit was ID enough.

That afternoon Jackson was full of the Assembly of God Thanksgiving dinner and feeling mellow. He even arrived early but that's when he found out about Black Friday and crazed women. When he got off the bus, there was a line that stretched all along the mall front and circled behind it. There were even four tents pitched at the front of the line. Armed security guards were directing traffic.

Jackson headed for the front door but two women emerged from their tent and screamed at him. “Get to the back of the line, you moron!”

“I'm Santa Claus,” Jackson said. “I'm going to work.”

“Old trick,” said a security guard. “There's already two Santas in line.”

“Ask the manager, he'll tell you,” Jackson insisted.

“Like the manager ever works on Black Friday,” the guard said. “He's too smart for that. Besides, where's your employee badge?”

Jackson circled around the mall, passing the other two Santas. Their beards were fake, but they weren't bad. He tried knocking at the back door,” but no one answered. If they had, they wouldn't have known him anyhow.

Jackson went back to the front and waited the two hours before the door opened. Then when the lines started to move, he rushed in, using every blocking move he learned in high school football.

The women he pushed aside cursed him, pulling at his Santa suit. He felt the back rip, then they tore at his pants which began to slip down, revealing his dirty jockey shorts. He pulled them up his pants and began to run toward the sign that read “Santa's Castle”. Unfortunately that took him past a roped off electronics cart manned by a wild eyed employee, just a kid who had never been exposed to women shoppers. He handed out the cameras as fast as he could but a woman in her late 60s crawled on hands and knees past a crowd of thirty shoppers and under the rope barrier to snag a box from the cart. As she crawled out she pulled a Wii game off the bottom rack of a cart belonging to a young woman. The younger shopper got her camera, turned around and accidentally nudged the man standing behind her. She began to apologize but he shoved his cart very hard right back at her and into her very pregnant belly.

The next woman in line already had a full cart but the other shoppers were screaming at store security that she had not been in line at all. She had followed Jackson in and was stealing from other carts.

“Fuck you,” the woman shouted back. “I'm not going anywhere.”

The shoppers attacked her. It was a melee of security guards, irate shoppers, and Jackson who somehow got shoved into the middle of the mess. Someone pushed him and he landed flat on the electronics cart. He crawled over it, sticking a camera in his pocket and a Wii game under his arm, and kept crawling until he made the castle.

“Where the hell have you been?” The three elves snarled at him and pulled him to his feet.

“He's all ripped up.”

“His shorts are showing.”

“Shove him on the fucking throne.”

“Don't swear” Jackson said. “It's not allowed.”

The elves hustled Jackson onto his carved wooden chair and tucked his costume around him. As far as he could tell the three elves had been selected for shortness and pert breasts. None of them were smiling.

Dazed, he looked around him at the gingerbread castle. There were five kids waiting for him.

“Hurry,” a mother shouted. “We need the photo then we can get back to shopping.”

Jackson shoved his loot under the throne. “Send the little darlings on” he said, straightening his cap.

“And what do you want for Christmas?” Jackson said in as deep a bass as he could manage as the first approached his royal presence.

“I want my damn photo taken for my Grandma so she'll think I'm still fucking cute and send me something fucking decent this year.” The kid was at least ten. He climbed on Jackson's lap and grinned at the camera. Jackson stared, too, stunned. This was not what he had in mind.

The elves took the photo, pulled the kid off Jackson's lap, handed him a candy cane and yelled “Next kid!”

The next kid pulled his beard...hard...and rattled off a long list of thirty or forty toys before he was dragged away.

“Don't take all day. Hurry them along,” whispered an elf. “First time you've done this?”

Over the next hour, Jackson was punched, kicked, screamed at and drooled on. It was around the thirty fifth kid that Jackson cracked.

Then a little darling swore at him, bit him and kneed him in his privates. Jackson shook the little punk, put him over his knee and gave him a good paddling. The mother rushed in to rescue her precious son, the elves screamed for security and Jackson was dragged away, looking frantically under the throne, but somewhere along the way, one of the mothers had absconded with the Wii game and camera.

“I'm going, I'm going,” Jackson said. The security guards waved him to the back door and went back to the melee at the front of the store. He grabbed two baby dolls, a laptop computer and a teddy bear on his way out but a shopper and her daughter saw him.

“Mommy, mommy, Santa Claus stole things.”

Jackson gave them a finger as he ran for the door.

He would gotten away except for those ripped pants that fell down and tripped him up. The police were there already because of the fights at the front of the store and hauled him away in a police car filled with fractious shoppers who were shrieking at the cops, Jackson and each other.

The kid's Mommy filmed the whole thing on her cell phone. Jackson wound up in the county jail for the holidays, but the food was good and he was interviewed for the evening news because the video went viral. He was a hero to the rest of the inmates, the Santa in the slammer. He enjoyed the notoriety.

The judge caught it all on Facebook on Christmas Day as he helped his grandchildren with their new computer. He threw the book at Jackson. For shop lifting, ruining a Santa Clause costume and exposing himself, Jackson got six months in prison and two hundred hours of community service.

Worse, the judge ordered him to shave off his beard.

(Wade Peterson and I will be signing our collection of short stories at Sissy's in Seymour, Wisconsin on Dec. 15 at 3:00 - 5:00 pm) 

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