Yesterday I saw someone I thought I recognized. We were out, the four of us, going through the motions of a slow week-end’s routine: food shopping, getting supplies for our many animals, a stop at Home Depot for some household something-or-other that will probably get lost before ever being used. We ate lunch, laughed, argued. It was a pleasant afternoon.
In the supermarket I saw the person in question: a heavy-set, I guess mid-to-late 50s gentleman. He was pretty short, maybe five foot six. He wore thick, mealy brown pants and a dirty, untucked plaid shift, buttoned to the top. He was in a winter jacket far too small for his body, and his boots were the classic shit-kickers of someone from out of town. He had a bushy beard, brown with patches of gray, and his bleary eyes squinted through little round glasses. I knew this man. I am convinced that I knew this man. I had definitely seen him someplace before.
There is a liquor store next door to the supermarket, one that I go into enough to be recognized by one of the counter employees. We are not on a first name basis, but we smile at each another, and occasionally crack jokes about the weather. They do not know my regular purchases, and this, if nothing else, is encouraging about our familiarity, because hopefully it still means that we are as yet merely locals. Thinking back for a moment, I became convinced that I had seen the man in question while shopping in the liquor store on more than one occasion. Perhaps this had more to do with a suspicion that the man was drunk than with any specific memory. He smelled pretty bad: stale cigarettes, Listerine, flavorless gum, and the strong juniper odor of gin.
I excused myself for a moment and told my wife that I was going to pick up a bottle of vodka next door, and that I’d be right back. She glared at me, but said nothing. I raced out the door, peered in the window of the liquor store, and recognized my acquaintance.
“Hey!” I said, dashing through the doors and rubbing my hands free from the cold.
“Hi there,” she said. She paused. She nodded over toward the wall. “Sold out of 750 milliliter Absolute over New Year’s. Don’t get more in until Tuesday,” she was a fine business professional. Shit, I thought to myself, annoyed that they did not have what I wanted. Then remembered that she wasn’t supposed to know this either.
“That’s okay,” I said. I wandered over to the vodka wall and grabbed another brand anonymously (and not some outrageously over-priced Grey Goose or Cirac–if you are mixing your booze with something, why pay for quality?)
As she rang me up, I hunched over the counter, trying to sarcastically whisper. “Hey,” I said. “Did you see some old guy here earlier? Short. Pretty fat. Long gray beard–”
“Santa Claus?” she said.
“You mean Santa Claus at the S——– Mall?”
And I remembered. “Yeah.” A pause. “How did you know who I was asking about? I barely said anything.”
She smiled. “I guess I’m getting to know how you think, —–.”
I gaped at her with horror, but she wore nothing other than a friendly smile. “See you later,” she said knowingly.
“Have a nice day.”
I went back towards the market and there stood Santa Claus, outside smoking. I peered toward the entrance. My family was still inside. I have not smoked since before my children were born. I asked the man if he had a spare. He ruffled, snorted, pulled out a crumpled pack of unfiltered Pall Malls, and handed me a broken half.
“Thanks,” I said. He grunted and flared up his Zippo, offering me a light.
After another awkward moment I nervously stumbled, “Cold today.” I put on a shiver. I had no idea what to say to him, which was all the more upsetting, because I usually believe myself to be a pretty good interviewer. But what did I want to know from this man? What could he possibly tell me?
“Cold don’t bother me,” he said. He took the other half of the cigarette he gave me, and lit it with the end of the one he was about to flick away.
“How was your Christmas?” I asked, figuring there was no reason not to get straight to the point.
He huffed. He stared at his smoke. He sighed. Then he grew contemplative. “Whatis dat?” he asked, nosing toward my brown paper bag. “Vodka?”
I nodded. He held out his hand. I handed it over. After he took a long pull and then wiped his mouth off with his beard he said, “It was pretty good, I guess. Busy. I mean, Christmas is the busiest day of the year.”
“Yeah, it is for some.”
“I got . . .” he began. He stumbled. He started scratching random itches. He looked me right in the eye, evaluating whether I was naughty or nice. Then he smiled. He moved closer and spoke, now, in a more confessional tone. “I hate the little fuckers. I been . . . I been doin’ this for almost twenty years. I used to love it . . .” His tone grew mournful. I stared at him. He sounded like he was about to cry.
But he suddenly got angry. “Buncha spoiled little shits, that’s what they all are any longer! Gimme an iPhone, Santy Claus! Gimme a some game it’ll cost my parents a fortune to keep me playing! Gimme! Gimme more!”
We both nodded, smoking in silence. Santa Claus took another pull of the vodka. When he offered it back, I shook my head. “Happy New Year,” I said. He smiled. He held out his hand. We shook.
I considered asking him why he thought I knew he was Santa Claus, but avoided this, figuring that his annual time of celebrity had only just passed, and that he deserved to revel in his last few moments of fame.
“Thanks,” he said, tipping the bottle again. He walked away without another word.
Back in the market my wife was looking angrier than ever. She was waiting in line and was without any means to pay for our groceries. She was tapping into her phone and my own was buzzing. “Where the fuck were you?” she growled. “Didn’t you get my texts?”
“Sorry,” was the only meaningless thing I could think to say. She continued to glare at me, looking me up and down. “Where’s the fucking bottle?”
“I gave it to some drunk I was talking to outside.”
“You’re an asshole.” I handed her the credit card.
“Go get another,” she said without looking at me. “I need a drink.”
Back at the liquor store the woman smiled at me and shook her head. “Finished already?”
I had nothing left to say. It has already been a very long year.