Santa Claus and Merlin

by Meg Smith

In memory of David “Doc” Cote

In memory of David “Doc” Cote A December wind blew snow against people walking along the sidewalk from an apartment complex to a nearby plaza with a department store.

The street lights were decorated with strands of colored lights and red tinsel. Joseph stared through the haze of snow, as if trying to extract cheer from them with his yellowing eyes. The wind pushed through his thin coat. Joseph walked stiffly toward the plaza, to wash up at the store’s restroom. Inside the store, music played -- Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing “The Little Drummer Boy.”

Joseph remembered them singing on television. Each looked like he didn’t want to see the other moving into his neighborhood. Joseph knew not to stop and look at the festive displays. But the one in front was impossible to miss, with canisters of cookies. The display also caught the attention of a small boy. He stomped his feet, pointing at the display, screeching. His mother tried to hush him. “We have sugar cookies at home.” They were about to pass Joseph when the boy halted. The woman tried to urge him on, catching his mittened hand. The boy stared at Joseph’s long, grayish-white beard, and exclaimed: “Santa Claus!” The woman tugged his hand again, giving Joseph an apologetic look. The child yelled, jogging in place, “Santa Claus!” Joseph leaned down. The glimmer faded from the boy’s eyes.

“That’s right, I’m Santa Claus. And if you don’t stop misbehaving -- I’ll bring you a stocking full of shit!” The woman smothered a laugh. The child began to cry. Deftly, the woman swept up the child, walking on, the shrieking child under one arm, his limbs flailing. A while later, Joseph saw the woman headed to the exit -- a short, artificial tree under one arm, and the flailing, still-shrieking child under the other. Joseph did not stay long. He needed to get back to his place, under a bridge of an overpass, near the turnoff to the plaza. Waiting for him was Melchior.

Melchior also wore a long, gray-white beard. “Here ya go, stinker,” Melchior said, offering Joseph part of a roast beef sub. “The girl who gave me this said she’s going vegan.” Joseph chuckled. “People always need a reason.” Joseph spent part of the day standing at a nearby crossing, outside a pharmacy across from a church. The church, stately in guilded paint, was once known as the First United Baptist Church. But two years earlier, it had become Iglesia Pentecostal de Dios. On Friday nights, the church lit up, and joyous music and clapping echoed from inside. When the service ended, the congregants would stream out, singing and talking, and would give Joseph and Melchior coffee, pastries, and sometimes, Bibles, and an urge to join in next time. Passersby on foot or in cars might give a little money, but also, bottles of water, partially-eaten candy bars, and one time, a whole head of broccoli. Joseph told Melchior about the kid who mistook him for Santa Claus. Melchior chuckled gruffly. “Some kid thought I was Merlin! I told him he’d better be good, or I’d turn him into a platypus!” They both laughed hoarsely. Melchior said, “The mom told me not to call her kid a swear!” They laughed again, more hoarsely, and more loudly. A slight figure materialized near them. Patti, a teenage girl, lived nearby. She had black-died, spiky hair, black eyeliner and a black jacket, which did not keep her warm. She shivered defiantly in it. “Hey,” she said, handing them cigarettes. Patti was smart, quick, and they knew a lot about her. She complained about her stepmother’s plot to send her to a boarding school. “My father did that to me,” announced Joseph. Waving his arms broadly, and gazing around, he said, “Behold the fruits of my success.” Cars splashed in the melting snow. “You were a deejay once,” Melchior prompted him. “Shhh, old timer. Patti’s too young to know what that is.”

Patti wore a backpack. With an appearance of indifference toward their banter, she slid off the backpack, unzipping it to reveal two warm, fleece blankets.

“Where’d you get those?” demanded Melchior, but they knew.

Patti was pilfering from her father and stepmother -- as a protest, and to help her new friends.

“You need ‘em more than they do,” Patti declared.

She held them out. “Come on! It’s not like they’re gonna drive past and see you guys with these. She’d never shop at Top Store.”

Each man took a blanket.“It’s you we worry about,” said Joseph. “Stealing’s not a good way to start in life.”

Patti shrugged. She lived the life of a teen who could afford the luxury of rebellion, and they knew it, and they knew she was barely aware of it.

“If I were you,” Melchior said, “I’d cut your father and stepmother a little slack. Didn’t you say your father’s been widowed a year now?”

“Yeah.” Patti looked down at the sidewalk. “I miss my mom. This’ll be the first Christmas without her.”

“Well,” Joseph said. “If things get to be too much, you can come hang out. I promise you we’ll be here.”

They all stood quietly for a moment.

Patti gave them each a high five and said, “I gotta split. Can’t miss dinner, you know.” Then she said, “Sorry. I know you guys would probably kill for dinner in a warm house.”

“Well, maybe not kill,” said Melchior, winking at Joseph.

“No,” Joseph agreed. “But I did rob a store once. Made off with about a hundred dollars wortha Twinkies.”

They all laughed. Snow fell lightly around them.

Joseph and Melchior spent the night in the basement of the church.

The pastor let them in.

The pastor’s name was William Irizarry, and he was 30, but to Joseph, he looked 17. Always dressed in a suit with neatly-combed hair, Joseph had never once seen him unsmiling.

Any given night, a half-dozen men, and a few women, slept in the neat church basement, rising before the sun.

No one objected to their presence. They were welcome as a matter of policy.

Not the employees at the nearby pharmacy, or the residents of the apartment complex, or the family who ran a coffee shop next door and often left a pallet of extra donuts and pastries in a container next to their trash receptacle.

In the morning, Joseph, Melchior, and the others went there.

The owner’s daughter, Mina, came out with coffee.

Thus nourished, they went off for the day’s rounds.

The hours passed, with occasional trips to the nearby McDonald’s and gas station or the department store to use the facilities.

As darkness approached, Joseph and Melchior met, under the overpass, near the shopping plaza.

Melchior looked grim.

Before Joseph could speak, Melchior said, “Patti ain’t coming back.”

“What makes you say that?” But Joseph knew it, too.

“Friend of hers, Burt. Or Bart. Works at the gas station.”

Melchior waved an arm unnecessarily at the gas station, across the street. “I went over there ‘cause I had to go to the can. Said Patti came in there this morning, sobbing her eyes out. She’s leaving for that boarding school or wherever her family’s sending her. Wanted him to tell us. As soon as she can, she’s gonna make a break for it.”

“Sure she is,” Joseph said.

“Good kid,” said Melchior. “But she don’t know the world the way she thinks she does.”

“Nope, she don’t,” Joseph agreed.

A young couple passing by stopped and offered them cigarettes.

That night, in the church basement, Joseph lay on a long, hard wooden bench, clutching a bright orange cushion.

The room functioned as a nursery.

From the hallway, and various function rooms, Joseph heard the others, breathing in their sleep. Some snored, some coughed.

One lady, Doris, slept with her chihuahua, Frida. Frida would sneeze, followed by a whimper. The sound carried in the darkness.

She’s damn brave, Joseph thought of Doris. She had once cut a kid who tried to jump her. And God help anyone who tried to hurt Frida. Doris had a special knife for that.

In the street light that threw shadows around the dark space, Joseph could make out a bulletin board, with construction paper balloons, each with a child’s name written on it: Mark, Beatrice, Julie, Leatrice, Jose, Peter, Gina.

He shifted, and, hiding his face in the cushion, wept.

An image of Patti flashed, and then blurred in the darkness.

Within a few days, Joseph and Melchior accepted that Burt or Bart had spoken the truth.
Patti was gone.

They knew when someone was gone for good, even if they weren’t sure where, or how.

With the nearing of Christmas came an urgency.

Traffic picked up to and from the shopping plaza, the gas station, and the pharmacy.

But it was going too quickly, for the most part, to stop and part with money, food or cigarettes.

“Next year, let’s apply for jobs as Santa Claus,” Joseph said one night, as the traffic began to taper off, and the ghostly quiet they knew so well set in. “Hell, we got the beards.” Melchior said, “If we last until then.”

Joseph sputtered. “Okay, Merry Sunshine.”

They walked along the street, toward the church.

Joseph’s stomach began to gnaw and churn. He said, “I’m stopping by the donut shop.”

Before Melchior could answer, Joseph was on his way there.

Melchior muttered. “There’s nothing there,” but he followed.

A sound made his heart hammer and every vein in his body pulse was a raw panic.

“Holy hell,” he rasped.

They were both standing by the container, where the donuts were normally placed.

The lid was askew, and a cry, almost feral, came from within.

They lifted the lid, which slipped from their half-numb fingers and clattered on the asphalt.

“Goddammit --” Melchior said.

But Joseph was looking inside, transfixed.

The light gleamed in a pair of small, wild eyes.

A baby was crying, wriggling in a towel.

Stiffly, Joseph leaned over, and picked up the wailing bundle.

He clutched it to his tattered coat.

Joseph looked toward the street, and then hurried to the curb.

“What’re you doing?” Melchior yelled.

Joseph clutched the baby with one arm, waving the other frantically.

A red, low-slung car, with music thumping, pulled over.

The sound was so loud, a hat sitting on the back of the car lifted slightly with every thump reverberating from the back speaker.

A young man with a thin moustache was driving.

There was a pretty girl in the front seat, and a young couple in the back, shouting and laughing, gesticulating toward the curb.

They were shouting over one another, and then shouting at Joseph, unified in a roar.

Melchior watched, speechless. Joseph fumbled his way into the backseat.

The young people in the back pushed against each other in a heap, to give him room. Joseph gestured toward the curb, and they pushed in even more.

The driver cut the sound system, and silence fell.

“I know someone,” the girl beside him said emphatically.

Clutching the baby, Joseph yelled out at Melchior.“Come on, you damn fool!”


© 2021 Meg Smith

Bio: Meg Smith is a writer, journalist, dancer and events producer living in Lowell, Mass. USA In addition to previously appearing in Aphelion, her fiction and poetry have appeared recently in Dark Moon Digest, Raven Cage, Dark Dossier, Blood Moon Rising Magazine, Sirens Call, and many more. She is author of five poetry books and a short fiction collection, The Plague Confessor. She welcomes visits to