Jerry Jones was gassed. Hair standin' up on one side. Eyes floatin'. Silly, crooked grin.....Speck of foam in one corner. If he wasn't posin' with a bunch of kids, I would have laughed.
"C'mon, Dick, " he slurred. "Take the picture. And be sure to get my good side."
"I'm tryin', chuckles," I said. "It ain't a magic camera." Framed the photo to cut off Jerry's head and snapped the picture. "There.....Your best side."
"Thanks," takin' the camera. "I'm gonna use this for my Christmas cards. Hey, kids," he burped, "who wants to see Santa?"
The group of urchins ran off with a stumblin' Jerry Jones, hollarin' and laughin'.....The kids seemed happy. 'Cept one. A little blonde girl stayed back. Pretty. Too pretty for such a sad face.
"How do, Diamond?" Skitch.
"What say, pal?" Takin' my friend's hand, I lost track of the girl. That quick. Gone.
Skitch snorted. "Pourin' eggnog and hot cider for a buncha millionaire football players and their wives? Couldn't be happier."
Shrugged. "Could be worse, Dorothy. Would ya rather be scrubbin' puke off of Old Man McGinty back at the bar?"
"Wish I could get Old Lady McGinty to stop throwin' up on him," smirked Skitch.
I grinned. "Stop stickin' your finger in her White Russians."
"Guess I shouldn't complain," Skitch interupted. "Tips are better here. Somebody actually put the keys to a Ferrari in the jar."
"Had to be Free," I surmised. "Saw him tossin' singles at Jean Jones, and sayin' 'Dance for me, Oprah! Shake that bisquit!'." Shook my head. "Mook's got issues."
"Gotta give the old bird credit," I continued, "hasn't lost her giddyup."
My friend scratched his ear and rubbed the back of his neck. Knew the signs. Either had somethin' on his mind, or was about to throw up. Hopin' for the former.
"C'mon, Mary. Out with it," I prodded. The words, not the bile.
My friend's tall, lanky frame hunched as he searched for the right words. "Was just in the other banquet hall checkin' out Santa."
"Your mom.....As Father Christmas? Really?"
"The other Santa took a powder at the last minute," I explained. "Jerry brought a lot of kids here from all over the city. Be a helluva thing if there weren't no Santa." Shot Skitch a cold stare. "Besides, Ma needed the dough."
Skitch shook his head. "In all the Christmas movies I've ever seen, Santa has never had a cobra tattooed on his face." Then he added before I could respond, "Did notice she trimmed her beard for the part. Nice touch."
"Careful, buttercup." Skitch can get away with that. Ma always said she had two sons. The one she gave birth to, me.....And her favorite, Skitch. Sigh. Just glad to be in the mix.
"You're mom waved at Romo's boy, Hawkins, and the kid passed out."
Shrugged. "Did the same thing the first time I saw her. Screamed, pissed on the doctor and blacked out. The faintin' slacked off by the time I was four."
"Alright," Skitch moved on. "Forget Santa for a minute. What's the deal with the elves?"
"You mean Cocoa...Jasmine...and Candi? They're friends of mine," I explained.
"Part of the Christmas show at Capt. Lou's Jiggly Hut."
"Let me guess," Skitch began. "They work at the inn?"
"Nah. Three French Hens." I could see the skepticism in Skitch's eyes. "They're great gals. Cocoa's pre-Med and Jasmine's pre-Law."
"And what's Candi?"
"Pre-nup." I leaned closer to Skitch and whispered out the side of my mouth, "She's my favorite. Gonna hit the town after she's done here."
"The town, huh? In other words.....the bar."
"Maybe." Rubbed my chin and looked at Skitch hopefully.
"Yeah, Diamond," he conceded. "I'll float ya a tab."
Slapped my friend on the back. "The bar it is, then."
"On that note," Skitch sighed, "I'll take my leave. Break's over anyway."
"Later," I said to his back as Skitch walked away. Could see him smilin'. Even from behind. Skitch appreciated continuity. Good thing. Cause I have no idea how to be anybody other than me. And there was no where better to be me than Skitch's Place. Nothin' like the comfort of familiarity. Nothin' like pals.
Looked at my watch. Frowned. Held it to my ear. Nothin'. That's the last time I lift a watch from a blind guy. Ran a hand through my hair and shrugged. Grab a quick snort and meet up with Candi. Should be ready soon. Stopped after a step or two. The little blonde girl.....Sittin' in a corner. Alone.
Walked over to her, hands in my pockets. She sat with her knees pulled to her chest, starin' at a piece of uneaten pumpkin pie.
"Hey, munchkin,' I said cheerfully. "Mind if I join ya?"
No response. Well, she didn't say no. Lowered myself to the floor. Knees creaked. Made an old man noise and settled in.
"I see you picked the pumpkin pie. Nice choice. For a wierd lookin' thing, pumpkins sure taste good." She didn't budge. "Aren't you even gonna try it? It's real yummy."
Pushed the plate away with her toe.
"Well, I'm gonna give it a whirl since you're not eatin' it." Took a bite. Made a face and spit it back on the plate. "Yuck! Tastes like reindeer poop!" Corner's of her mouth raised slightly. "That's funny to you?" I said playfully. "Watchin' me eat poop?"
Her smile got a little bigger.
"Wanna tell the funny man your name?" Smile faded. "Mine's Diamond." Again, no response. "Don't know how we can be friends if I don't know your name."
Had her for a second. Then she was gone again. That blank stare tried hard to spoil her pretty face.....It failed. Beautiful child. Sad. Tried several more times, to no avail. She seemed to sink deeper into her funk. Felt like cryin'.
"Alright, sweety," I resigned. Sometimes people just need to be by themselves. I should know. "I'll let you be." Reached over and brushed a strand of blonde hair from her face. "If you change your mind, honey, I'll be around."
As I started to get up....."Why does Santa hate me?" Her voice was soft and frail.
Thank you. "What was that, sweety?"
"Why does Santa hate me?" Kept starin' at the floor.
"Santa doesn't hate you, honey. What makes you think that?"
"Other kids got what they asked for." Her voice got stronger as she spoke. "Joshua got a airplane. Darla got a talking doll. Kenny got a football. A real football." She raised her feet off the ground. "I got these."
"They're very pretty shoes." They were. "Prettiest shoes in the whole world, I'll wager."
"S'not what I wanted."
"Well, what did you ask Santa for?"
She didn't say anything for a minute. Then, "My brother."
Huh? "Sorry, sweety, I don't understand."
"My brother went to sleep and didn't wake up." She looked at me for the first time. Blue eyes. Filled with confusion and fear. "Now I'm in the shelter by myself."
Poor kid. No wonder she's depressed. Guess her brother was the only thing she had goin'. When that gets taken away, she turns to the one guy she thinks can help.....Santa. What does he do? In her mind, Santa turns her away. Probably thinks he's no different then everybody else. Too young for this. Doesn't deserve it.
"I'm so sorry." I was.
"I miss my brother."
Christmas. Can raise your spirits and break your heart. At the same time. "You know," I lifted her chin, "I lost someone close to me a long time ago. A little girl. Almost as pretty as you. I felt alone and scared. Was sad for a long time. I missed her very much and thought nothin' would make me feel better."
"You don't look sad."
"I'm not anymore." Took her hand and gently placed it on my chest. "Feel that?" She nodded. "As long as my heart is beatin', she'll always be with me. It's her way of keepin' me close and lettin' me know she'll always be there." Smiled at her. "Try it."
She pulled her hand away and hesitated before placin' it on her own chest. She closed her eyes and held it over her heart for what seemed like an eternity. When her eyes opened, the fear was gone. The confusion was gone. Just the blue eyes of a beautiful girl.
"I feel him."
"And you always will, honey."
She replaced her hand with mine. I nodded. I felt him, too. Reluctantly pulled my hand away and wiped a tear from her face. "Looks like the other kids are gatherin' their things," I said. "You should probably get scootin', munchkin."
"I guess." Before I could get up, she threw her arms around my neck and hugged me tight. Hugged her back---just as tight---and whispered in her ear. She walked a few paces then stopped and turned back. "I love you, too.....Santa," she said with a smile and ran after her friends.
Skitch wandered over as I was gettin' up. "Candi asked me to tell ya she'll be out in a few minutes." Saw me starin' after the girl. "Who was that?" he asked.
"A new friend," I replied.
"Damn, Diamond," he gasped. "She's the spittin' image of....."
"I know," cuttin' him off. Didn't need another reminder.
Put his hand on my shoulder. "You OK, Dick?"
Ran a hand through my hair and looked around the room. Jerry Jones sat in a chair balancin' an empty glass of eggnog on his forehead. His wife, Jean, was in a conga line with Doug Free and what appeared to be three bus boys. Ma was holdin' mistletoe over her head and chasin' Romo around the buffet table. Was about to escort a pretty, young gal to a bar full of laughter and friends. Everything was as it should be.
Put my hand over my heart and smiled. "Never been better, pal. Never been better."
Just wanted to say Merry Christmas, everyone. Hope your holidays are safe and full of joy.