The boy in the Pennywise the Clown tee shirt and bright green running shoes looked as though the last thing he wanted to do was sit on Santa’s lap. Maybe he’d already caught on that Santa was fake news but was afraid to admit it to his mother. At least Roy Talman assumed the attractive, dark-haired woman who was pushing the boy forward was his mother.
Roy didn’t believe in Santa, either, except as a paycheck. This was the only job he’d been able to land after getting dumped by the private college at which he’d taught for the past nine years, and there was no question he looked the part: a ruddy face with a snowy white beard (that when last seen was salted chestnut brown), and a beer belly. Roy was 57, but could pass for 70. Acting wasn’t required.
Shooting the dark-haired woman a look that he hoped communicated, My shift is nearly over, so tell your kid to crap or get off the pot, he saw the boy finally shuffle toward him. The kid was about eight, Roy guessed, and brown-haired, but with the most amazing blue eyes he’d ever seen. He came close enough for Roy to reach down and gently ease him up onto his lap. “Hello, son, what’s your name?” he said as merrily as he could at 7:57 in the evening, knowing twelve guys named Sam Adams were home cooling their bubbles.
“Jacob,” the boy whispered.
“How old are you, Jacob?”
“All right, Jacob, what would you like Santa to bring you this year?”
The boy said nothing for several seconds, during which time Roy glanced again at the mom, who merely shrugged. Finally Jacob uttered, “Nothing.”
“Nothing?” Nothing will come of nothing, Roy thought, reciting a line from King Lear, which was what he thought he would be doing at the age of 57. “Why not?”
“I don’t deserve any Christmas presents.”
“Oh, now, Santa doesn’t believe that.”
Dropping his jolly Santa voice, Roy said, “C’mon, Jacob. Whatever you did that’s bothering you, it can’t be so bad that you don’t deserve a Christmas present.”
“Look at me, son,” he said, gently, and the boy lifted his head and turned those incredible blue eyes on him. “Tell Santa what you did that was so bad.”
“You won’t be mad?”
“I won’t be mad.”
Jacob took a deep breath and said, “There was a girl named Suzie who lived next door.”
Turning his eyes into fearful lasers, he added, “I killed her.”
“The kid said what?” Mary Anne Selden, the manager of Slayton’s Department Store, shouted.
“That he’d killed his next-door neighbor,” Roy repeated. He was now out of his padded red suit and into his street clothes.
“Oh, come on. These are kids, for Chrissake! They’re liable to say anything.”
“This one didn’t strike me as a liar. He seemed genuinely upset.”
“We are not paying you to be a child psychologist. We are paying you to say ‘Ho ho ho,’ and remind the kids to visit the toy section with their parents before they leave.”
“Can I at least take a peek at the Nice List?”
“To contact the mom, maybe?”
The “Nice List” was the brainchild of Gene Tuck, the store’s marketing director. There were two oversized, ornate books, one labeled “Nice” and one “Naughty,” in which the kids could sign in and leave their addresses. Naturally, a few would sign the “Naughty” book, leaving a fake name and address like Skid Marx, 69 Wetfart Street, then spend the next week bragging to friends about their wit. Most, of course, put their personal info into the “Nice” book; info which would later be used for direct marketing purposes.
“You’re not going to let this drop, are you?” Mary Anne said.
“You weren’t there,” Roy countered.
“You’re right, I wasn’t, because I’m not old, fat, or have a white beard.”
Wait ten or so years, he thought, but said nothing.