In the stool next to mine is a man with a blood red suit, furry white trim. He orders eggnog and says, “Gotta stay in character.” I think he’s talking to me. But I don’t know. I don’t look up from my pint.
Only a special breed of loser congregates in bars on Christmas Eve. The sort without family or friend or sense of tradition. One rung up from hermits and vagrants. Our only consolation, the bed—or futon, or cot—to which we’ll eventually retire. That and alcohol.
The man orders a second eggnog. It’s thick and milky-yellow and looks pretty much the same way it will when it comes back up. “You the Macy’s Santa?” I ask him.
“No.” And I can smell the bitterness in his words, even over the brandy. He pulls at the silky beard hanging from an elastic band around his neck. It snaps back hard. “That's the major leagues, dude. They only hire Santas with real beards. A year long commitment for a five-week job.”
I nod in sympathy. The clock reads five past eight. Happy hour’s gone and I’m not one to pay full-price. Even if it is the holidays. “Take it slow,” I tell Saint Nick. “Rudolph’s the one with a red nose.”
And he laughs but his belly doesn’t really shake. Total second-string Santa.
* * *
From the bar, I take a scenic route home. So cold out, the air is almost unbreathable. You have to suck hard to get anything and it burns your lungs like a kid’s first drag on a cigarette. The week-old snow has either turned into some sort of soft-serve mud in the gutter or a slick, well-trampled layer of ice on the sidewalk. Twice I nearly slip and brain myself. These extra-few blocks, I’m not walking for exercise. What I want is to hit up the market, grab more drink.
The big glass door is bordered with multi-colored lights. Has been since Thanksgiving. I push through and walk to a cooler in the store’s rear. There are clear bottles and brown bottles and green bottles and slapped across are labels in every color. Add to this the glimmer of Christmas lights.
I allow myself a minute of window-shopping. In the spirit of the holidays. But really, I haven’t any option. I grab a forty-ounce bottle of malt liquor and turn towards the counter. There’s a reason every other commercial is for Bud Light but you never see one for malt liquor. Cheap brew with high alcohol content, that sells itself.
Waiting to pay and some guy enters talking all loud into his cell phone. Everything is, “Do you want me to pick up some milk?” and “I’ll be home in a few honey.” When he passes, I see his scarf is Burberry, tag facing out. So he makes more than you. He claps his phone shut and sidles to the counter. Of course, he’s buying a sixer of some micro-brewed winter ale. Labels on the bottles, very festive.
I pay partway in change. When I move for the door, the micro-brew guy says, “Hey buddy, enjoy your Christmas.”
I mumble something like, “Fuck your mother,” before almost eating it on a patch of ice.
* * *
In space—I’ve been told—No one can hear you scream. Well New York—where people commute underground and work high in the air and live one stacked on another on and on—New York sure-as-shit ain’t space.
So sitting on my couch, sipping my bottle, it’s really hard to hear the weatherman on the news tell me Santa’s slay has passed over Ottawa. My neighbors are yelling. About responsibility. About money. About drinking too much and screwing too little. Then three blessed beats of silence before, “Get your ass back in bed or I’ll tell Santa to fuck off.”
Tomorrow maybe—just some hours from now—maybe they’ll cheer up. Over torn wrapping paper and Tonka trucks and waffles with sausage. I think, if I wake early enough, I can listen to them come together on Christmas morning. And how creepy that would make me, I’m embarrassed by the thought.
Tired and drunk and looking forward to New Year’s, when getting blitzed is a mainstream custom. Roll my empty. Uneven revolutions until it clanks against the far wall. Slouch. When I fall asleep, Santa has just been spotted above Boston.