The old man at the far end waved the bartender over for the third time since he walked in and sat down less than ten minutes ago. The bartender, whose name was Barney, threw the towel he’d been using to dry a set of freshly rinsed-out whiskey glasses across his shoulder with a sigh and walked to that end of the bar. “If you plan on goin’ anywhere anytime soon, you might wanna ease up a little, you know?”
The old man slid his empty glass toward Barney, and Barney poured him another crème de menthe. The old man took a drink and dabbed at his mouth with a napkin. He put the glass down and stroked his hand down the length of his long, thick white beard.
“My wife used to make grasshoppers with that stuff,” Barney said, “but I never saw anyone put it away as fast as you do.”
“It’s not an everyday habit,” said the old man. He took a long drink, leaving only a little in the glass. “I’m giving myself a treat.”
He drained the glass and set it back on the bar.
Barney grabbed the bottle. “You want another one?”
The old man waved him off. “Not yet. Where’s your men’s room?”
Barney pointed it out and watched the old man trudge toward the door in the far corner. The old man was dressed all in red, with his pants held up by a pair of white suspenders. When he walked in he’d been wearing a thick red overcoat trimmed in white fur, which was now thrown over the stool next to where he was sitting. He wore shiny black boots, and had a sizable belly that pushed against his red knit undershirt. Besides him and Barney, the bar was empty.
After a few minutes, the old man reappeared and waved at Barney for another refill.
“So what’s your name?” Barney asked as he poured. “I haven’t seen you in here before.”
“Kris,” said the old man, raising the glass to his lips.
“Ahh,” Barney said, catching on. “Right. With a K.”
Kris touched the tip of his finger to the tip of his nose.
“Forgive me for saying so, Kris, but aren’t you a little out of season?”
Kris dug into a pocket on his hip and pulled out a gold watch on a chain that must have been a serious antique from what Barney could see of it. Kris glanced at the time, then stuffed the watch back in his pocket. “Very little, but yes.”
“I mean, Christmas was two weeks ago. Isn’t it time for you to get the suit dry cleaned and go back to your day job?”
“The Armenians celebrate Christmas January 6,” Kris said. He took a drink. “The Eastern Orthodox either on the sixth or the seventh, it depends. So two weeks for you . . . a few hours for me.” He finished the glass.
“You want another?”
Kris waved him off. “Do you have any strawberry liqueur? Too much of this stuff will make you sick.”
Barney found a bottle under the bar and poured Kris a drink in a clean glass. He put the bottle of crème de menthe back under the bar and took the dirty glass to the sink to rinse it out. “Where are you coming from, then?” Barney asked, taking the towel off his shoulder to dry the glass. “What mall around here goes by the Eastern Orthodox calendar?”
“None,” said Kris.
“Then what’s got you out all dressed-up the first week of January? The Salvation Army trying to get a head start on 2009 or something?”
Kris took a long drink and set the glass down gently on the bar. “You think I’m a department store Santa Claus,” he said, staring down into the glass. “All right.” He breathed deep and pushed out a long sigh. “In 1968 you were five years old, and the only thing you asked for that Christmas was for your father to come home safe from Khe Sanh. He did, eventually, but I had nothing to do with it. There was a plastic toy astronaut helmet under the tree for you, which you didn’t ask for but I knew you would like. You poured me a glass of milk and fixed a plate of cookies, but you left them in the refrigerator so they would keep fresh.”
He looked up. Barney stared at him from the sink. He still absently clutched the glass he’d been drying, like he’d forgotten it was in his hand.
“I’m not a department store Santa Claus,” Kris said. “I’m Santa Claus.”
Barney put down the glass and the towel. He pointed at Kris and started slowly toward him. “You’re Santa Claus.”
“There really is a Santa Claus – and you’re him.”
“You got it, boy.” Kris finished his first glass of strawberry and motioned for another.
“So, you don’t visit every house on Earth in one night?” Barney asked as he poured.
“Just the ones inhabited by people who celebrate Christmas, with children who believe in Santa Claus.”
“And not just on December 24th? You’re working until the seventh of January every year?”
Kris nodded as he took up his glass. “Look at it from the perspective of someone in one of those churches that celebrates Christmas yesterday or today. Would it make much sense to you if as a child you woke up and found Christmas presents under the tree on, for instance, December 12?”
Barney shrugged. “I guess not.”
“Believe me, I wish they would all agree on a common date. I brought it up a few years ago, but it went over like an f-bomb in a wedding vow.” Kris took a drink.
“Brought it up to who?”
Kris shook his head. “Nevermind. Nobody.” He took another drink. “The Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, leaders from the Eastern churches,” he said after a moment. “Real fun group.” He finished the glass and knocked three times on the top of the bar with it. “Gimme another one of those.”
“I never pictured you drinking this much, Santa,” Barney said as he poured Kris another strawberry.
“I never used to,” Kris said. “Lately, though, I don’t know . . . Things aren’t like they used to be.”
“Oh, it’s a lot of things.” He drank. He swallowed. “I’ll give you one example. It used to be that I could make all the toys myself. Well, not me – the elves would do it, but you know what I mean. All in-house. Back then if a kid got a dollhouse or a toy train or a stuffed animal, he was on top of the world. He’d push his little wooden locomotive around all year and never tire of it. He might even hold onto it after he grew up, keep it as a memento of his childhood – or better yet, pass it on to his own children.
“Then, about a hundred, a hundred and ten years ago, something started to change. It wasn’t enough for a boy to ask for a baseball bat; it had to be a Louisville Slugger baseball bat. A little girl wouldn’t settle for a doll; it had to be the doll she saw advertised in the Sears & Roebuck catalog. It started in the United States, then spread over Europe like the plague. Now there’s nowhere in the world where a child wouldn’t rather have some cheap mass-produced toy off some retailer’s shelf than a genuine hand-made North Pole original.” Kris grinned sadly and shook his head. He looked up at Barney. “Can you imagine?”
“It’s a hell of a world we live in,” Barney said.
Kris snorted. “Too true, too true.” He held his glass on the bar in front of him with both hands. “I used to be a toymaker. Now I’m a UPS man with a magic sleigh.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Why do you do it? You make it sound so dreary and depressing. I mean, I’ve got Santa Claus sitting in my bar, for God’s sake. I should be asking you how you squeeze down all those chimneys, or what makes the reindeer fly, all those things I would wonder about every Christmas Eve when I was a kid. But I’m not even curious anymore. All I’m wondering now is why you even bother.”
Kris lifted his glass. “For the kids,” he said, and leaned his head back, draining the glass in one long glug.
“But the hell with the kids. You said it yourself, the kids are just greedy, ungrateful little bastards who only want what’s popular. Most of them don’t even believe in you, I bet.”
“Many, many still do,” Kris said.
“For now. Then they hit middle school and they start doing what I did when you walked in here: assuming you’re just some guy in a red suit who works at the mall, that you’re not even real.”
“I don’t mind that they stop believing in me,” Kris said. There was a faint smile on his face. “The one I feel truly sorry for is Jesus. He’s just as imaginary as I am, but instead of outgrowing him, people grow up and start wars over him.”
“What do you mean, as imaginary as you are? You’re sitting right here,” Barney said.
“Right. Not for much longer, though, I’m afraid.” He knocked on the bar and pointed at his empty glass. “This’ll have to be my last,” he said as Barney poured him one more strawberry. “The wife will start to worry about me before long. And Dasher gets restless if I leave him parked too long.”
“Let me ask you one more thing, and answer me truthfully,” Barney said, putting the bottle back under the bar. “Is it really worth it? To go through all this trouble for people, and then have to stop at a hole in the wall like this place for a drink on your way home?”
Kris picked up the glass and shrugged. “What else is Santa Claus going to do?”
When he finished his drink, Kris slid off his stool and pulled his red coat back on. He reached for his wallet, but Barney waved him off. “Hey, no. Really, you don’t have to. It’s on me.”
“Nonsense,” said Kris, unfolding a pair of $100 bills. He handed them across the bar.
“I can’t change this much,” Barney said, handing them back.
“Keep it,” said Kris, buckling the belt around his coat. “Call it a Christmas gift. It’s been awhile since I got you something.” He tugged on the bottom of his coat to straighten it, and started out.
Barney laughed. “Okay,” he said. He folded the bills and tucked them into his shirt pocket. “Thank you.”
Kris paused at the door. “You’re welcome, Barney. Merry Eastern Orthodox Christmas.”
“Merry Eastern Orthodox Christmas,” Barney said. By the time he finished the sentence, the old man in the red suit was through the door and gone.