1st Place – February 2020

It’s Not Important

by Gary Christenson

Raising my glass of red wine, I saluted a picture of my wife and daughter. A car crash killed them three days after I took the photograph. Obsessing over the drunk driver made my bleeding ulcer pain skyrocket.
After finishing the bottle, I kissed the picture and cried.
I stumbled into my bedroom but paused to stare at a full bottle of sleeping pills sitting on my dresser. Contemplating the long sleep of death, I mumbled, “Not today, but soon. It’s almost time.”
The next morning, I hauled myself out of bed and rode a New York subway downtown. I punched the time clock at Macy’s and took the elevator down to the basement lockers. Off came the street clothes and on went the fat pads, red Santa suit, black boots, white beard and white wig. I wanted to dump my personal misery into the changing room trash barrel. I sighed, because it’s never that easy.
“You ought to cut back on the booze. You look like hell.” Gregory Zucker, my boss, had the people skills of a toad.
“Just allergies boss. I had one glass of vino last night and went to bed early.”
He frowned at me and shook his head. Zuck didn’t believe me and I didn’t care. I’m his most charming Santa, even hungover, and in a few days it wouldn’t matter.
Children lined up with smiling mothers in the corner of Macy’s they named Santa’s North Pole. I sat on Santa’s throne, smiled, asked questions and made promises to children. A tiny cutie in a red dress climbed into my lap. I asked, “What’s your name?”
She smiled and said, “I’m Cherry. How come your nose is red?” Her eyes danced with joy, brown hair fell to her shoulders and her two front teeth were missing. She spoke like a tiny cartoon character.
“I just arrived from the North Pole where it’s cold. That’s why my nose is red, like Rudolph’s. What do you want for Christmas?”
“A Barbie Doll and an iPad. Please, Santa! I really want them.”
“Have you been a good girl?”
“Yes, except I put corn flakes in my brother’s bed a couple times after he pulled my hair.”
“Santa will do his best. Now run along and behave for your mother.”
“Thank you, Santa.”
Every two hours we closed Santa’s North Pole, and I guzzled black coffee to keep my eyes open, even though it irritated my ulcer. I didn’t care. Pain radiated through my gut and reminded me I was alive for at least one more day.
Twenty children waited in line when I returned. A little blond girl, maybe six years old, stood by herself near the end. She waited patiently, not fidgeting.
The next child sat in my lap. “What’s your name, and what do you want for Christmas.” I varied the routine with each child and moved the line trying to please everyone. My next break could not come soon enough.
Moments later the little blond girl climbed into my lap and examined me with clear blue eyes. I felt like an open book under her gaze. No parent stood beside her. “Where are your parents?” Macy’s rules required a parent accompany each child inside Santa’s North Pole.
“My parents aren’t here. Don’t worry, Macy’s management won’t mind. Aren’t you going to ask me what I want for Christmas?”
“What’s your name?”
She hummed, smiled at me and refused to say.
“Well, little mystery girl, what do you want for Christmas?” Her knowing smile melted my grieving heart. I thought of her as Girl X.
“I want you to be happy. That’s my Christmas wish.”
“That’s unusual. Most children want a bicycle or an iPad.”
Another darling smile. “Not me. I hope you grow beyond sadness and find happiness again.” Girl X wrapped her arms around my neck and hugged me.
My chest warmed from her love. My ulcer stopped hurting for a moment. “What did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t say. It’s not important.” Her eyes stared into my alcohol saturated soul without judgement. How did I know she didn’t judge me? Talking with Girl X became stranger every minute.
I told her, “You’re an unusual little girl.”
“Is that what you think I am?” Her enigmatic smile haunted me as she climbed down from my lap. “I’ll watch over you, Santa.”
The next child, a small boy, chattered about what he wanted for Christmas, and Girl X disappeared into the crowd. I pretended to be interested, but I wondered about Girl X the rest of the day.
That night I drank half a glass of wine and slept better than any night since my wife’s death.
***
A week later I changed into my Santa costume in the basement. Zuck glanced at me and said, “Glad to see you’re laying off the sauce.”
I smiled and took the elevator to Santa’s North Pole. My voice sounded robust as I greeted shoppers.
Near the end of my shift Girl X stood alone at the end of the line. I rushed through the other children’s Christmas requests and hustled them back to their busy parents. Girl X crawled into my lap and said, “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
She kissed my cheek, gave me a hug, and told me, “Sleep more and avoid wine. It makes you feel sorry for yourself, and that’s not healthy. You need to let go of past sorrows, live in the present, and forgive everyone, especially yourself, to create a blessed and healthy future.”
I stared at her, mouth open, at a loss for words.
Girl X smiled. “Be grateful for your gifts. Remember me at Thanksgiving.”
I sat on Santa’s throne, speechless. Once upon a time I spoke with an ancient Buddhist monk who had eyes like hers. That memory is crystal clear.
She climbed down to the floor and said, “Santa, be good.” A heartbeat later she disappeared into the crowd.
***
Months later I saw Girl X and her mother walking ahead of me on a busy New York street. I ran to say thanks, but it wasn’t her. My smile of anticipation drooped into a frown of disappointment.
***
I practiced daily gratitude rituals during the new year. Every month my attitude improved. The bottle of sleeping pills went to the dump with the trash. By the time I ate Thanksgiving dinner, I had transformed into a new person. After kissing the picture of my deceased wife and daughter, I raised a glass of green juice in honor of the strange little girl who miraculously helped me rediscover my life path. My healthy body enabled me to live pain free. The ulcer had healed, which astonished my doc. I woke every morning anxious to embrace life.
The fading sunlight beaming through my dining-room window played tricks on my eyes. For a moment Girl X smiled at me from across the table. She looked like a child but acted old and serene.
It must have been my imagination because she wasn’t there.
***
I still miss my wife and daughter. That feeling never goes away.
Every day I’m grateful for their love and the years I enjoyed with them. I thank Girl X, whoever and wherever she is, for helping me understand gratitude and experience my life in a new dimension.

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