[Image Credit: “Broke Neck Santa” by Abigail Curtis]
Replacing the hash browns with French fries on his scrambled egg/taylor ham platter, made Matthew feel like he had eaten a proper dinner. He hadn’t been to the Colonial Diner since he used to come after soccer practice as a kid. He had every opportunity to, considering the apartment he had been living in for the past six years was right up Northern Parkway. He pushed his cleaned plate further up the counter, towards the muffin and pie case in front of him.
“Excuse me…?” Matthew waited for the waitress to finish with the vanilla egg cream she was making.
“Yes, what is it hon? You want some dessert?”
“I might, I’m just gunna step out for a cigarette. Be right back.”
“Okay dear, I’ll save your spot.”
“Thank you,” Matthew patted both his breast pockets to check for cigarettes and wallet, and headed towards the front entrance.
Matthew released the first drag with vigor. It was a cold December night, and he quickly regretted leaving the house in just a sweatshirt. As he clasped and unclasped his fingers in an effort to warm them, he noticed a rotund bearded gentleman lighting a cigarette. He wore a red tee shirt, suspenders, and a weathered, beige Bass Pro Shops cap. This man looked somewhat iconic, but the source of his infamy didn’t dawn on Matthew right away. The man swayed side to side as he eased down the handicap ramp, and closer to where Matthew was standing.
“Damn temperature can’t make up it’s mind,” the man said.
“Yeah, it was pretty chilly in the afternoon, warmed up right at dark, and now it’s down again,” Matthew kept taking peeks at the stains on the man’s cap as he spoke.
“Well when I left Southern Delaware earlier it was forty-three, went as high as forty-seven when I hit Jersey, now I’m guessin’ it’s back down quite a bit.”
“Got it. What brings you to New Jersey?”
“Had to get my beard bleached out,” the man gently tugged at his dingy white beard.
“You couldn’t do that back in Delaware?”
“Nah, I got a girl in Hawthorne who’s been doin’ it for me every year since I can’t even remember when.”
“Got it,” it finally occurred to Matthew why this guy looked so familiar, but he was too embarrassed to address the elephant in the room.
“Plus, all the malls and youth centers in this area pay me the best.”
“Right, of course,” any doubt Matthew had of what this guy did for a living was out the window after he heard that. Now he wondered what he did for work during the rest of the year.
“I also like to make a lot of stops here in the Northeast, ‘cause they comp your meals, lodging, and gas money. Southeast is pretty good that way too,” as the man yawned and stretched his arms to the sky, Matthew noticed his pack creeping up above his chest pocket…he smoked Lucky Strikes.
“Yeah last year was a busy one. I drove from Delaware to Alabama in a rental car, from there flew all the way up to Montreal, then made it back home Christmas night by nine. By the time I nuked my dinner and ate, the kids couldn’t wait any longer to give me my gifts. I think my Christmas celebration actually wrapped up on the twenty-sixth.”
“Damn man, well at least you got to spend some of it with your family,” Matthew saw that the man’s cigarette had stopped burning, so he offered him a light.
“Thanks, hey you got any little brothers or sisters?”
“Uh, yeah, I have a little sister, but she’s twenty-five.”
“Oh okay, well take down my home number anyways,” the man called out the ten digits to Matthew.
“Okay, it’s in. Who do I save it as?”
“Cool man, thanks. Hey good talking to you, hope you make out okay this season.”
“You too, man.”
Matthew sat back down in his seat by the counter. He gazed down at his phone screen, and mulled over dialing Santa’s number. He said it was his home number, and Matthew knew he wasn’t home, would his wife pick up? He said he had kids, maybe a bright and cheery Santatoddler would welcome his curiosity. Matthew wondered what he even hoped to accomplish in dialing the number of someone he had just finished a conversation with minutes ago. He figured it was natural to be curious about a fixture of most kid’s imaginations, including what would happen if you dialed his phone number. Matthew hit the green dial icon, drew a deep breath, and waited…his heart raced faster with every reverberating dial tone, and after the fourth one, the machine sounded off: “HO HO HO, MERRY CHRISTMAS! Sorry, can’t get to the phone right now, but if you say all your prayers, and listen to everything Mommy and Daddy tell you, I’ll do my very best to get you everything you want on your list…(coughing)…leave a message after the jingle bell!” Matthew waited for the ‘beep’, but it never came…not that he would’ve had the courage, or the nerve, to leave Santa a voicemail. He supposed as much as Santa wanted to remain resolute about his position as a childhood icon, he also didn’t want an exorbitant number of children rattling off endless lists of toys and gadgets. Matthew figured that any kid who knew they were leaving Santa their Christmas list over the phone would be so over the moon that they wouldn’t even realize their message wasn’t being recorded.
“How about that dessert, hun?” The waitress said under weighted breath.
“Umm, no thank you, just the check please.”
The following Monday at Glenn’s Tire Supply, Matthew found himself behind the same counter, leafing through the same 1996 John Deere tractor manual, wearing the same pinstriped jumpsuit he’d worn each weekday for the past six years. His jumpsuit hung loose over his bony frame, and was stained never with motor oil like the mechanics in the garage, but with whatever condiments he chose for his lunch. A man walked in, leaving his car running right in front of the adjacent garage door, and brushed the freezing rain off of his pea coat.
“I got a slow leak in my front-left tire, gonna need the car back by Wednesday,” the man didn’t make eye contact, in the way that appeared arrogant, not nervous.
“Yes sir, we’ll do our best to have it patched by Wednesday. We will call you if it will be
any later than that. Name?”
“John Berrard…look I gotta run, kid. My wife just pulled up and she’s driving me to a meeting in the city. Here’s my card.”
“Okay Mr. Berrard…happy holidays,” the words stumbled out of Matthew’s mouth. The man didn’t even acknowledge the comment, his wife’s car pulled up in a hurry, and he hoisted himself into the passenger seat. He pointed an index finger towards the lot’s exit and was gone. Matthew glanced at the business card: John Berrard CFO, Jensen & Lynch Traders. He placed the card in the drawer below the cash register, where all the numbers of busy people belonged. Seeing as business wasn’t exactly booming today, Matthew stepped out back for a smoke. He called up his mom.
“Matthew? I’m just texting Sylvia right now, can I give ya a call later?”
“Uh, yeah sure. I just wanted to see if you were still gonna pick me up at LAX before Christmas.”
“Yeah, yeah, don’t worry Matt. Did Sylvia send you any pictures of Natalie’s recital yet? She’s playing the third wise man. Dennis gave her one of his old cologne bottles as frankincense.”
“That’s adorable, ma. I’m sure she’ll send me a couple pictures,” Matthew knew she wouldn’t.
“Okay, good good. Listen, I’ll catch up with you about the flight later in the week, but I’ll say so long for now.”
“Ok, bye ma.”
Matthew punched out on the outdated, beige time clock, and closed up the shop. As he turned the key in the lock he reminisced on the days his boss would sit with him for the last few hours of the shift. Glenn always had a story, sometimes from his distant past, but he didn’t even need to dig that deep most of the time. Matthew remembered Glenn’s ‘incident’ in the supermarket, where he was so busy bracing himself for the cold outside the automatic door, that he lit his cigarette before exiting and set off the smoke detector. He said he hadn’t moved so fast across a parking lot in years. Now his stories were being dispensed upon his newborn granddaughter at bedtime. Matthew pulled his hood over his head, lit a cigarette of his own, and began walking his usual five blocks home. He held the cigarette between his thumb and index finger, so that the raindrops would bounce off of his hand, and not absorb into the burning paper. He walked up the sopping wooden stairs to his apartment above the nail salon, and let himself inside. He put on a pot of coffee and a Tame Impala album, he stared at his phone screen as he waited for the coffee maker to beep. He leafed through his contacts absentmindedly, thought about calling his high school buddy, Brandon Sampson. He decided against it when he recognized how much the thought of such a pursuit made his mind race. He carefully scrolled down to the next contact, and left it highlighted…it was Santa’s number. He dialed it, this time with much more conviction than the time he called at the diner. Matthew saw it as only natural that the thought of calling Santa Claus was a lot less daunting when compared to dialing up an estranged high school buddy he used to smoke synthetic weed with. The phone rang once, twice, three, and finally four times, and Matthew’s anticipation was greeted with the same jolly yet sort of dismissive voicemail. He listened to the whole thing, and hung up the phone, knowing there would be no opportunity to leave a message. He regretted not asking more questions about Santa’s life, like if his wife agreed with his busy holiday work schedule, or if his kids missed him while he was off making stranger’s kids feel taken care of. Maybe they were really proud that their father was Santa, maybe they bragged about it to their friends at school. Or maybe they knew from an early age that Santa wasn’t real; only the Santa impersonators you see in malls.
Perhaps Santa’s kids were the cynical fourth graders who rained on their classmates’ parade, and revealed that all their presents are really in mommy and daddy’s closet. The coffee maker sounded, and Matthew pulled himself up off the futon to get a mug.
The weekend came quicker than usual, and Matthew woke up with the sudden inspiration to go Christmas shopping. He called his mom to try and pick her brain as to what Sylvia might want. As the phone rang he thought about how she probably would like something kid-related. But Natalie was already spoiled rotten, and frankly Matthew didn’t have the funds for a swing set or a pony. He got his mom’s machine, so he hung up, dropped a few ice cubes into an old Dunkin’ Donuts cup, and filled it to the top with leftover coffee. Matthew got on the bus at the stop nearest his apartment. He sat in the rear corner of the bus, as he always did…he liked that he could see everyone in front of him. As the bus eased forward, Matthew noticed a young father and son coloring in the front of the bus. Each had a coloring book of their own, and Matthew appreciated that the father didn’t hover over the kid’s work and give out pointers on color choices or how to stay inside the lines. This was a shared creative endeavor, one of equality, where both parties acknowledged they were having fun together through focus and quiet. Matthew thought back to his dad; they had always understood each other like this. Matthew remembered little league games where other dads yelled with beet-red faces and sweaty tee shirts as their clumsy kids rounded the bases. Matthew’s dad just watched, and shrugged his shoulders and made a goofy face at his son every time he struck out…which was frequently. He wondered why dad just took off that night. Matthew recalled the image of a young Sylvia crying into mom’s arms on the living room sofa. Matthew remembered how ice-cold his bare feet felt standing in the hallway, waiting for mom to turn around. When they got a little older, mom would tell them daddy was adventuring; Matthew never liked to think about an adventure without any company. Out the corner of his eye, Matthew saw the neon red sign for the Garden State Plaza. He sprung up and got to the front of the bus just before he missed his stop.
The mall was crowded, which surprised Matthew, as he had always thought most people got their gifts the day before Christmas. He weaved in and out of heavy pedestrian traffic, dodged strollers, cut in front of slow-walkers, but finally slowed down himself when he realized he had no idea what store he was even trying to get to. He began to embrace his aimlessness, and peered in any store window that caught his attention. His muscles relaxed and his mind emptied as he gazed at spotless leather sneakers, welcoming recliners, and puppies hopping through straw and shredded newspaper. Eventually his path opened up to a sort of crossroads, with a mall directory and a large peacock fountain in the center. He noticed a long line of children rounding the corner of the fountain, so he followed it in curiosity. He saw that all those bickering, noisy children were waiting for their opportunity to meet with Santa. And there he was, sitting proudly atop a poorly constructed wooden rocker, which was clearly dragged over from an adjacent storefront seating area. Matthew began to wonder if there was any chance that the Santa before him was the Santa he had met at the diner. He had said that Jersey paid for his travel accommodations, and considering that the Garden State Plaza was like, the mall, of the whole state…maybe it wouldn’t be that farfetched to think it was him. Matthew cautiously walked up to the back of the line of children and parents. The line moved forward quicker than he expected; he ran his hand over his stubble, wishing that he had shaved before he left the house. Parents and grandparents, both in the line and in the surrounding area, began giving him obvious side-eye. As some of them looked his way, and subsequently whispered into their spouse’s ears, Matthew began to sweat. He fiddled with the contents of his pockets, and he could feel his eyes begin to bulge. He felt an assertive tap on his right shoulder…it was Mall Security.
“Excuse me sir, is there a reason you are waiting on this line?”
“I’m trying to talk to Santa…” Matthew’s throat felt dry as he spoke.
“Well since you’re not accompanied by a child, and the couple over there told me they could smell the cigarettes on you from way over there, I think it would be best if you went on your way,” Matthew gazed over at the couple the security guard had pointed out. They sneered at him, arms folded and brows furrowed.
“No, no, you see, I think that this particular Santa might be an old friend of mine, and I never would have gotten on this line if I didn’t have a strong gut feeling that that was the case, and…”
“Come along sir, believe me you’re not the first creep we’ve come across this winter who says he knows Santa…Let’s go,” The guard grabbed Matthew’s arm, and pulled him away from the line.
“I really just need to see him, I need to see if he remembers me, if it’s really him then he’ll explain, he’ll say he knows me, c’mon man,”
“Sir, it is within my power to prohibit you from returning to this mall, and we both know you don’t want that…come along.”
Matthew finally gave in, and let himself be dragged off by the guard. He lowered his head in shame, and as he did he heard a few resounding claps in succession. He looked up at the couple that had outed him, and watched as they just stared at him, slowly clapping. Other parents joined in, and before long the mall echoed with hands clapping in rhythmic unison. The children supplemented the punishment with cheers of their own…mainly high-pitched screams, but peppered in were some cries like, “Loser!”, “Psycho!”, and “You’re getting coal!” The security guard walked Matthew by the arm, all the way to the bus stop. Matthew sat down on the bench beneath the glass cover, and lit a cigarette.
The following weekend Matthew wasn’t waiting for a bus, but a plane. He was flying out of Newark Liberty International, to LAX to meet his mom, sister, and her husband and daughter. Matthew’s mom flew out to L.A. six years ago, for a first date with her online boyfriend, and never came back to Jersey. They broke up within a year, but mom chose to stay put when a very pregnant Sylvia, and a newly transferred Dennis came to live nearby. Matthew always felt more at home in the environment he had grown up in. But lately the distance between he and his family was wearing on him. He’d spend his downtime eating in the fast-food joints he ate at in high school, taking cigarette walks in the neighborhoods where he and his childhood friends used to play, or leafing through the back-issues of skateboarding magazines in the town library. This pull to the familiar was all the reason Matthew had needed to stay put. But now more than ever, sitting alone on an airport bench the week before Christmas, with a half-eaten Cinna-bon in his lap, Matthew didn’t feel quite at home. He drew in a deep breathe, rolled up his sleeve, and let out a sigh as he stared at the tattoo on his forearm. He had gotten it back in high school, on a late-night in the city with his friends. His friend Tyler got ‘Get Money’ inked on the back of his calf. On his bicep, Brandon had gotten the silhouette of a shapely woman holding a rifle and a booze bottle. When it was Matthew’s turn to tell the tattooist what he wanted, his two friends asked him why the hell he wanted the Tropicana logo permanently drawn onto his arm. He told them it was because his favorite rapper mixed his vodka with it, but it was really a tribute to his father. His dad started every morning with watered down OJ and Tums. He was never a fan of coffee, and said he got all the energy he needed for a full day with a cold morning shower, and a tall glass of juice. Matthew scratched at the faded ink of the straw poking out of the orange.
He slept for most of the flight, and woke to the pilot’s announcement of their arrival in ‘bright and sunny Los Angeles’. Matthew grabbed his backpack from the overhead compartment, swung it over his shoulder, and stood patiently in the aisle. This was always his least favorite part of flying: standing there, everyone on the plane equally impatient to get out into the bright sunshine that mockingly flooded the small windows in the dim cabin. Matthew heard a baby crying in the front of the plane, and as if an answer to prayer, the row of people in the aisle began to trickle forward. The same shuffle of weary travelers on every crowded plane, subway, or train on earth; every cog in the wheel putting one foot in front of the other until they could break free into a full sprint…and subsequently light a much needed cigarette. Matthew walked through the airport and called his mom, who said she’d be there when he landed.
“Hey honey, I’m at the Uber and Taxi pick-up area…do you know how to get here?”
“I, uh…yeah I see the sign, I’ll be by you in a minute,” Matthew hung up and took the escalator leading down to the exit.
“Matty! Merry Christmas, honey. Isn’t the weather just gorgeous out here? When are you gunna move out here like your sister?” Matthew’s mom said, shifting the car into drive.
“Umm I don’t know ma…maybe soon…yeah weather’s great,” Matthew lowered the window as he spoke, and stuck his arm out.
“So Sylvia and Dennis are at the house waiting for us, they’re trying out a new appetizer on us, we’re in for a treat,” Matthew’s mom patted his forearm, and Matthew rubbed the spot as if injured.
They got to the house and little Natalie was already waiting for them on the front steps. She ran up to the parked car and pressed her lips up to Matthew’s window, inflating her cheeks like a pufferfish. Matthew laughed to himself and tapped at the window. He got out the car and gave her a hug and a kiss on the head.
“You’re finally here! What took you so long?!”
“I been busy with stuff, Nat,” Matthew scratched his greasy hair, knowing she’d seen right through such a reply.
“Come in the backyard and see my new toy…it talks!!!”
“Is it a human?!”
“No, BETTER!” She grabbed Matthew by the hand and led him through the fence. It was an inflatable dog about the size of their shed. Matthew watched as she deliberately walked by the dog’s collar. The collar flashed red and green momentarily before the dog uttered what sounded like a recording of Dennis’ voice: “NONE SHALL PASS!” Natalie giggled to herself and said,
“Uncle Matty! You try!”
“I’m too fast for Fido over here!” Matthew dropped his backpack in the grass and sprinted past the dog’s collar.
“NONE SHALL PASS!” Screamed the dog, and Natalie giggled.
“I see you’ve been acquainted with Fred,” Matthew looked up from the cigarette he was lighting to see Sylvia standing on the patio in an apron.
“Yeah Fred is pretty cool, I guess Santa dropped off an early present. How’s it going Sylvia?”
“Going great, Dennis got promoted again, Natalie is psyched for Christmas, Mom and I took up yoga together, all good stuff.”
“Glad to hear,” Matthew lit his cigarette.
“Ok, well good to see you Matty, I gotta help Dennis finish with the spring rolls, we’ll catch up more over dinner.”
“Uncle Matty…why do you still smoke cigarettes?”
“I dunno Nat, why do you still eat candy?”
“Because candy RULES!”
“Well cigarettes rule too.”
“But they give you cancer, don’t they?”
“Sometimes…if you smoke enough of them. But ya know if you eat enough candy you could get diabetes.”
“Doesn’t Aunt Cecile have that?”
“Yeah, she really likes candy…she actually really likes cigarettes too. But I tell ya what she probably got the diabetes from doing both together. So promise me that you can continue to eat candy, so long as you don’t smoke cigarettes. And I’ll keep smoking cigarettes, so long as I don’t eat candy.”
“Sounds good to me! High five!” Natalie jumped up at Matthew’s extended palm in excitement.
“Good stuff, now let’s see if Fred will let you cartwheel or somersault past his collar.”
“Matty you don’t want to try one of our spring rolls?” Sylvia said, less concerned of her brother’s missing out, and more keen on drawing attention to his picky eating habits.
“Nah, thanks though…” Matthew looked down at the cheeseburger on his plate, which Dennis had thrown on the grill specifically for him.
“Still not open to foreign cuisine, huh? You still go to BK a lot when you’re back home, I assume?” Sylvia said, leering across the table at Dennis, as she placed a small amount of salad onto Natalie’s blue plastic kiddie plate.
“Well actually, hamburgers originated in Germany, if I remember correctly…that counts as a foreign country. Guttentaag!! Right?!” He said, patting the top of Natalie’s curly hair.
“Right!! Daddy can I have a cheeseburger too?!”
“No, honey, you’ll have a spring roll. And if you can eat two, then you can have two vanilla tootsie rolls after dinner,” Dennis poured a tall can of Guinness into a tall glass as he spoke.
“Okay Daddy, but I think I will have just one tootsie roll tonight.”
“And why is that, sweetie?”
“Uncle Matty said candy gives you diabetes.” The only sound for a few moments was Matthew’s teeth penetrating the bun of his burger.
“Nat, honey, Uncle Matty was only joking. You won’t get diabetes from two little tootsie rolls, ask your mother,” Matthew’s mother elbowed Sylvia in the hip.
“That’s right honey, you won’t get diabetes on my watch,” Sylvia said as she put down the salad bowl, and took her seat next to mom.
After dinner the whole family did as they did each weekday night: watch Jeopardy and
listen to Dennis yell wrong answers at the television set, then correct himself after Alex Trebek
revealed the real answer. Matthew held out his right hand as Natalie strung an orange friendship
bracelet around his wrist. Matthew’s mom and sister leafed through women’s clothing catalogs
and pointed out ideal picks to one another.
“Still with Glenn at the tire shop, Matty?” Dennis asked, waking Matthew from a half-sleep.
“Yeah, yeah, actually I am.”
“You know, they’re hiring in payroll at my office. It’d be like desk work, kind of what I’d think you’re still doing now…answering phones, stuff like that. Course you’d have to move out here and live with us.”
“Uhh, thanks Dennis, but I’m doing okay back home.”
“I don’t know how you still call that dump home, Matty,” Sylvia said, drawing the page of her magazine closer to her eyes.
“You haven’t even been to my apartment, Sylvia. So I don’t really think it’s fair of you to judge.”
“Well, maybe not your apartment, but I know from years of experience that Jersey is in fact a dump.”
“C’mon Syl, be easy,” Matthew’s mom whispered, touching her arm.
“No, it’s true. I don’t know how he can just wander around that cesspool of a town for all these years, and not give a damn about us. Ya know Matty, you could have it real good out here with us, but no, you bide your time over there like some apathetic zombie.” Sylvia took another sip from her wine, and Matthew’s mom grabbed Natalie by the hand and took her to bed.
“Oh, and it’s okay for you guys to just pick up and leave our home behind. Come out to the land of gluten-free and quasi-spirituality, to take a stab at trying to forget!?” Matthew’s lower lip began trembling.
“Don’t resent us for living our lives, Matty. You’re on pause. You’ve been on pause for a long time now,” Sylvia actually made eye contact this time.
“Well I’d rather be on pause than blindly hitting fast forward!”
Dennis turned off the tv before Final Jeopardy, “Okay guys, let’s just take a break from each other for the rest of the night, remember, we’ve still got Christmas to get through.”
Everyone in the house went to bed early that night, except Matthew. He stayed in the backyard drinking hard ciders and smoking cigarettes one after the other. He scrolled through his phone, trying to find the cheapest, and soonest, possible flight back to Jersey. The urgent riffs of the thrasher metal he was streaming seemed to exacerbate his doubled vision. He stared at Fred, who looked conceited as fuck, standing in the middle of the yard like some cartoon guardian. He resented the loyalty and admiration that was spoon-fed to his big goofy face. Matthew swigged his cider and went back to browsing airline sites. Allegiant had a Christmas special for $299, so he jumped at it, and filled in his information. Just as he was ready to confirm the flight, a rabbit hopped past Fred’s collar, and the inflatable cried out, “NONE SHALL PASS!” Like some cinematic cowboy in an impromptu bar fight, Matthew instinctively smashed the butt of his beer bottle against the edge of the patio table, and approached Fred. He got right up in his face, brandishing the broken bottle back and forth over the sensor.
“NONE SHALL PASS!”
“NONE SHALL PA…”
“Yeah, who’s bein’ funny now, ya fuckin’ mutt?!!”
“NONE SHALL P…”
“Yeah, you like bein’ fucked with too huh?! HUH?!”
Matthew stopped taunting Fred momentarily, and ran his index finger across the jagged, sudsy edge of the broken bottle. He humored the idea of popping the fuckin’ dog, and shutting him up for good. He thought of Natalie for a moment, and stared up into her bedroom window; the light was on, and she was staring back. Matthew’s hand dropped the bottle into the grass, and the other reached back into his pocket for his phone. He sat cross-legged in the dewy grass, and leafed not through airfare, but his contact list. He heard the dial tone sound once, then twice, and after the third ring a soft-spoken woman picked up.
“Hi, um, I’m looking for Santa Claus, is he around?”
“Yes, actually he just got in. Who may I ask is calling?”
“Tell him it’s the cigarette smoker from the Colonial Diner in Jersey.”
“Well then, hang on a second please.”
Matthew’s fingertips dug into the sod, then loosened up when he heard Santa coughing as he neared the phone.
“Yeah, Santa…It’s Matthew from the diner, I smoked a cigarette with you when you were passing through Jersey to get your beard bleached.”
“Yes, yes, I remember you. How’s the holiday season goin’ so far?”
“Well, not great. I’m in a bad way right now…got a little drunk tonight.”
“Well, boy, you’re in good company.”
Danny Landers is a skateboarder and writer from Ridgewood, NJ. He graduated from Ramapo College of New Jersey in 2018, with a bachelors in literature and creative writing. His work has been featured in the Spring 2018 issue of Trillium.