by Rod Lundwall
He was the mall’s only Santa — the only Santa they wanted. His eyes had the “gleam” and he cared. The kids and parents sensed it. Both waited hours to see him. That didn’t seem to matter. They always left smiling with a warm, positive memory to comfort them during difficult times.
He insisted on calling the children by name. Consequently, he wore a small earpiece. His helpers would pronounce the children’s names as a whisper in his ear. Some criticized this, but he would counter with a “bah.” Names were important. Knowing them opened doors and hearts. With another “bah” he refused to recommend toys from one of the big retailers, not even for commission. It broke his heart that half the kids wouldn’t get anything they were asking for. So, he infected them with his smile, as they did him.
It had been a very long day. The mall seemed to be crawling with bag snatchers. He saw the homeless escorted back into the cold. He observed forgotten and lost children. There had been plenty of fits and tantrums. He witnessed all sorts of family arguments. A toddler had been placed on his lap just in time to empty his bladder. The little boy’s lip quivered as a shocked and embarrassed mother apologized profusely. Both received hugs and candy canes and then Santa jogged off for new pants.
The line had grown impatient and hostile. He felt it too. He had gotten 20 requests in a row for a gift he didn’t believe in. It seemed everyone wanted to commit virtual murder. Requests were coming from ever younger children. Even girls were giving up sweet pleas for Barbies in exchange for hand-held WMDs. Kids had always played at war, reenacting the age-old battle between good and evil. They chose sides, but were always happy when it was their turn to be the good guys. Many games totally eliminated the purpose of the struggle. Morality free conflict, killing for sheer fun, delight in wanton destruction and gore — not to mention the vulgarity and lewdness — had become popular. He did his best to dissuade kids from participating in the gladiatorial games, much to management’s chagrin. He didn’t care though. He was Santa, not an arms dealer. Depression hung heavily on the trees around him.
Then there was little Marta. His sour mood quickly evaporated. He had seen her yesterday. She was 6 years old and had a beautiful gap-filled smile. She wanted just one thing: a new baby doll with eyes that opened and shut and made baby noises. She wanted one that was brown, like her. She had giggled while his belly shook with the pure pleasure of her request.
Despite protests from her parents and a two-hour wait, there she was again. She held a doll, not at all like the one she had asked for. It was pink, hard skinned, faded and had painted-on eyes and stiff, yellow hair. It was obviously not new or expensive.
“I don’t need that doll,” she said, climbing onto his knee. “I got this one from my class party.”
“Wouldn’t you like something else?” he pleaded.
“No, but thank you,” she replied.
Reaching into her coat pocket, she offered Santa a homemade cookie, wrapped in a sincere and radiant smile.
“I know you like cookies,” she said.
He tearfully took it, making a big show of its consumption. Every “delicious!” and “thank you!” seemed to magnify the gleam in Marta’s eyes. With a heart-felt hug he sent the girl on her way, feeling, once again, ready for the endless line and each child within it.