The skinny old guy sitting in my office was saying, “I don’t have no family, so long hours on a holiday don’t bother me any. You can count on me, I been a Santy for oh, lotta years, lotta years. Different stores, parties, what have you. Schools. Got sick a while back but that’s all over and done with. If you got an opening, well, I hope you’ll give me a chance.”
The small, scraggly bearded character, 70 if he was a day, sat in the chair in my office that morning. I’m looking at him, making, you know, an appraisal.
I’m not fond of this part of my job, hiring part-time people for seasonal work. Regular store hires, you know, full-time people it’s different. They have a resume, or come recommended or, you know them… I don’t know. You get a feeling. Part timers–you can get burned. I’ve been burned a lotta times. Lotta times.
One year, hired a guy, spittin’ image of Santa Claus. For the workshop display we run in the store for families. Guy sat right there where this guy is sitting, told me all the places he’d been Santa, the big stores, the awards… I mean he was like the Lebron James of Santas, you know? Looked perfect.
Then, we start getting calls. Parents, the police… Cops said this character was chatting up the kiddies and getting all kind of personal information, addresses, travel plans, using it for burglaries. He was a freakin’ criminal! But sitting out there, wearing the suit, the jolly cheeks, everything, he was… well, very convincing.
He’s in prison now.
I’m just saying, you can’t be too careful because today all bets are off. Sad, but true.
So when this little guy comes in to answer the ad, first thing I’m thinking, and I’m ashamed to say it, the first thing I peg him for is a homeless guy looking for a quick buck. He had whaddyacallit, duct tape holding his sneakers together. That’s kind of a red flag.
But he’s persistent. Before he comes in for the interview he’s waiting quite a while, chatting up my secretary, Ruthie. Ruthie’s not the warmest human being. I wouldn’t trade her for an army, she gets more done than anyone I ever had out there, but she’s just not a people person. Suddenly I’m hearing this noise, I thought, I swear to God I thought it was an animal trapped in the vent or something. It’s Ruthie–laughing.
That was a first.
I ask him in. His name’s Heywood. I look at his resume, which isn’t a resume per se. It’s just some store names printed in ball point pen on a sheet of brown paper. Some of the stores are shuttered–out of business. Some I never heard of, some others I barely knew. There’s a photo attached, but it’s such a long shot, Santa sitting in a chair in a store, somewhere, black and white. Could be anybody.
Usually the pros come with a color headshot, you know, like they’re a celebrity. Not this character.
“Got sick a while back but that’s all through. If you have an opening, well, I hope you’ll consider me.” His eyes are kinda milky, pale, a spotty bald head glistens underneath some wispy strands of white hair. He’s seated in front of my desk and I’m finding myself skooching forward and raising up a bit so I can even see him, he’s so low down in the seat.
“Look,” I finally say, after he makes his weary pitch, “we have a very busy season ahead, okay? Very busy. I would estimate over 40 kids a day when we get close to Christmas. It’s not a cake walk. I won’t lie to you, it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting for me, you know, just watching! For a guy–I’m just being honest–for a guy like yourself who is getting on… I just want you to seriously consider what the… work load would be like, you know?”
This doesn’t discourage him. “Naw, see, I do this alla time, alla time. I know the job. It’s tough sometimes, but it’s a big privilege, way I look at it. I don’t take no breaks when the line is long. Nobody likes waiting in line in the holidays, and them mothers get tired. No, I know what I’m in for and I got no problem with any of that.”
I can see I’m not getting through to him. My father in law, Morris, who used to run the store told me some advice one time, he said, “Glenn, sometimes you just gotta pull the trigger.”
“Mister Heywood”, I say to this skinny old guy, “I’m not going to lie to you, we have some pretty high insurance premiums. Plus I got all kinda headaches with the lease running out soon, they want to tear down this building, so, another possible problem I don’t need, you understand? I just don’t think it’s gonna work out for you to do Santa this time. Thanks a lot for coming in.”
I didn’t look him in the eyes when I say this, I just get real busy with some papers on my desk. As soon as I could see he’s standing up to leave, I glance up at him again. His eyes are kinda moist, but maybe they had been all along, who notices?
Everybody’s eyes get moist, right? It’s normal.
So, Heywood exits the building, then suddenly Ruthie is in my doorway, arms crossed, like she’s spotted something suspicious entered in the books.
“You aren’t hiring Mr. Heywood?” She does that thing with her eyebrow, too, in case the folded arms aren’t enough.
“He’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.” I say. “ Anyways, he’s old, like, OLD. Kids on his lap all day could cause a, whaddyacallit, an embolism.”
“He’s a kindly old gentleman trying to help out.”
“Help out? I’m helping him out by sparing him from this job. Could kill him.”
Ruthie walks in, sits down where the old man just left, like she’s trying to explore his point of view. “He wants to get out of the house and do something constructive.”
“Well, I’m sorry, I just can’t have that distraction.”
The other eyebrow goes up like a railroad crossing.
“He’s not the only candidate, right? I should at least meet more guys,” I say.
“There ain’t no more guys. He was it.”
“It’s early,” I say. “I’ll wait until the end of the day, see what choices I have.”
Slowly, as always, she is bending me to her will.
“Alright,” I say, feeling like an underfed bull being appraised at a cattle auction.
By 4:30 p.m. there’s nobody one else waiting, no messages, no inquiries, no choice. I tell Ruthie, “Okay, looks like you got your wish. Call Heywood, tell him we need him tomorrow, first thing.”
Ruthie makes the call. Before she leaves for the day, she says, “When he was here earlier? Mr. Heywood? He asked me about that little plant on my desk.”
“The little one, the dried out one you gave me last year. He was admiring it.”
Ruthie holds up the plant. “Just look at it now.”
So, Jack Heywood, age unknown, shows up the next morning dressed in a Santa costume that looked like it had been stripped for parts and reassembled. It was, like, fifty shades of red. Some pieces, like the shoulders, were so faded they might have been out on a lifeboat or something. Other sections were bright… it was a crazy quilt Santa suit.
Which was fine. But his build, his weight, his whole architecture was… I dunno. It just wasn’t what I thought the job called for. I say to Ruthie, “Can’t we stuff his costume with something? Look at him– he looks like he couldn’t hold a chicken on his knee. Kids today are kind of on the chunky side.”
“He’s a poor soul,” Ruthie says.
My unspoken personal nickname for Heywood becomes “Scrawny Claus.”
The section of the store devoted to Santa’s workshop is small, but has access to a wide side aisle, so if anyone shows up, they won’t be blocking access to the items we need to move this season to stay in business, Glue Stiks, refrigerators, Flaming Hot Cheetos.
My son in law, Neil sets up a comfortable Santa chair, puts up some decorations, some holiday signage. Decorating is not my strong suit, but he’s great at making a little look like a lot.
My daughter, Rachel, is wearing tights and a Peter Pan hat, to run elf interference for Santa, wrangle the kids, should any appear.
Our new Santa, Heywood, toddles over to the chair and carefully eases his bony behind down on his throne. I swear he’s winded after this minor activity, and it’s only 9 a.m.
I’m thinking at this point that this whole Heywood thing was a bad idea.
The day starts slowly, customers filing in, some kids, mostly grownups. I have work in the office, so I’m off the floor most of the day. When I come back out, I check up on our Santa, and what I see stops me so fast my shoes squeak.
I jog back upstairs. “Ruthie? Who’s the new Santa?” Where’s Heywood?
“What are you talking about?”
“He’s gone.” I say. “Somebody else is in the chair. He looks much more like what I had in mind, fat and jolly, good color… not a problem, I just didn’t expect him. You hire him when? At lunch?”
Her eyebrows both reach for the sky like startled pickpockets.
We both go back down to the floor together.
“There,” I say, “who is that?”
Ruthie peers at the Santa who has, somehow, got three children perched on his knee and is cradling an infant besides. Everyone is smiling. The parents are glowing, shooting photos with their phones. Whoever he is, he’s a hit. I pray he’s not grilling the little ones for passwords and PIN numbers.
“That’s him, that’s Heywood!” says Ruthie.
I look closer. “Oh my God! It is Heywood!”
The man has gone thru a total transformation. His cheeks are rosy, he seems… bigger, fuller. Even his suit looks better.
Then I notice the line. It’s out the door. Families, as far as the eye can see. People I’ve never seen before, no locals.
Out the door and into the parking lot.
That’s a first.
Heywood works all day and into the night. Maybe he took a break for lunch, dinner; I didn’t see it.
Our sales were very healthy. Very healthy. I hated like hell to go on the PA and announce that we were closing in 15 minutes.
Best day of the year!
I run into Heywood in the employee locker room. He was getting into his street clothes. He looked robust, taller, younger. But you could see it was the same guy, the same eyes, you know?
“Heywood,” I tell him, “you did a full day today, that was amazing! And, you ah, you LOOK unbelievable. What’s your secret?”
Heywood looks kind of sheepish. Pulls on his duct taped sneakers, sticks the boots in a big grocery bag with the rest of his costume. His costume suddenly looks mottled again, faded in places.
“I just love what I do,” he says. Then he groans a little as he stands. He seems suddenly smaller again, more slight. Older. When he turns back around to face me, I see clearly the guy that toddled into my office the day before with the shabby resume and the pale eyes. He was like a roaring fire in a fireplace that was fading into glowing embers.
“Same time tomorrow?” he asked.
“Hell, yes,” I said. I know a good deal when I see it. What am I, an idiot?