Santa's Last Job
A Short Story
Things have been super busy here on my end. A few of you have reached out to me via email, asking me if I’m well, and I want to take this opportunity to say that I am—very well, in fact—and the reason I haven’t been on Substack much lately is because I’m working on a big non-Substack-related project. I can’t tell you much right now, as I don’t want to jinx it. I’ll just say that it’s big, it’s fiction, and it’s in Romanian. You will, of course, receive the English version if and when I finish the damn thing.
Today’s post is a holiday-themed short story. Believe it or not, I wrote the whole thing in one night. God, I love writing binges, but I rarely have the time for them these days.
Enjoy, and may you have the happiest of holidays! 🎄
Santa Claus’s real name was Graham Rosenkrantz. Well, technically, that was only true in the case of a very particular Santa, an old gift bearer from lonely Jollytown, Wisconsin who’d been doing the job for twenty-five years, ever since the state-wide Help the Homeless Initiative of 1998, or HTH98 for short, was established to aid homeless people in finding decent jobs and, eventually, being able to afford rent. Graham had been among the project’s first test subjects, and quickly became one of its biggest successes.
For most of the year, kids called Graham many names, none of them pretty: white trash, hobo, bum, and the one that hurt him most, the brand that society had put on him to show that he had failed it, even though it was it that had failed him: homeless. He hated the word because it was so commonplace and so insidiously innocent, making people feel good about themselves whenever they used it, instead of harsher alternatives, to describe people of Graham’s ilk, as though merely by employing the nicest word, they were helping. In this way, the “accepted” word made the homeless even easier to ignore.
He endured it all, though, because he knew come Christmas Day things would be different. On that magical day, Graham would be responsible for giving most of these kids the gift of hope. As Santa, Graham gave poor children presents their parents couldn’t afford, and sat new orphans on his lap to tell them stories. On Christmas Day, everyone loved Graham Rosenkrantz. And that was just enough.
But no good thing ever lasts forever. And so it was that on December 22, 2023, Bob Klutz, the newly-appointed mayor, sat Graham down at the huge Cocobolo desk in his exotic mayoral suite and told him the news.
“Graham, old buddy, it’s time for you to hang up the beard. Now, I’m sorry to have to do this; I know it means a lot to you, and God knows I can’t imagine anyone else in the role—you’ve been Santa Claus ever since I was a kid. But you know how it is. Gotta give it up for the younger generations. There’re plenty of kids out there with nothing going for them, bright young things who might make something of themselves if only they could get a start somewhere. I figure they need this job even more than you do.”
Graham was a kind soul, and ordinarily, he would have agreed. Unfortunately, this particular year was anything but ordinary. A few months before, during the free examination that a kind-hearted doctor in the city gave Graham every year, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. There was no hope of treatment for people like him in Jollytown, and the doctor gave him six months to live. And that, he said, was the most generous scenario.
Every day he woke up and prayed he’d make it to Christmas. He couldn’t bear to go without seeing the happy faces of children one last time. And if he were to die, he’d rather go out doing what he loved, which meant that, if he managed to survive till Christmas, he’d probably find a way to speed up the process. But until then, he promised himself he’d do his damn best to stay alive.
Now here he was, with less than a week to go until Christmas, and his prospects of donning the Santa suit one last time had just vanished.
What was he going to do now?
Winters in Wisconsin were harsh, and it was ill-advised to sleep out in the open. But the homeless of Jollytown had their own little society, and like any society, theirs had its unwritten customs. One of those was that, every year on Christmas Eve, Graham Rosenkratz would cede his warm nook on Main Street to a single mother and her children, while he helped them look for a more permanent arrangement. That was his way of giving back, and it was part of the Christmas tradition for the homeless community.
This year, he’d already promised his place to a Polish widow named Martha and her one year old son, and to back out of that promise was unthinkable. So he wandered the streets in search of some other place that could afford him a modicum of shelter from the cold. As expected, there was none to be found. Homeless people were a crafty bunch, and they made their plans for winter well in advance. The best two options he could find were sharing a piece of sidewalk with a blind black man and his farty labrador, or sleeping in an empty alleyway in the rotten part of town, where he risked being beaten by thugs and deposed of even his few belongings—in Jollytown, if an alleyway lay unclaimed, there was most likely a good reason for it. He chose the labrador.
That’s where he was, getting ready for sleep by wrestling with a blanket to get it to cover his feet as well as his neck, when the kid with the golden hair passed in front of him.
He was drawn to him like dead men to the light.
Without a word to the blind man, Graham stood up and followed the boy at a distance. He seemed lost, but not the terrifying kind of lost. His eyes lingered on the old, Italianate-style buildings to either side of him, and he moved with dreamlike slowness, as if he wanted to savour every single second. There weren’t many people out at this time of night, and soon it was just the two of them, the boy walking as if in deep water, and Graham, quite a few steps behind, no longer in control of his movement.
Suddenly, the boy stopped.
Scared he might have been spotted, Graham hid behind the corner of a nearby building, his eyes never leaving the boy. Thankfully, he seemed to have been mistaken, for the boy turned fully towards the building to his right and, after staring at it for some seconds, started walking towards it. Graham chanced a better look, and he saw that the place was a general store, and the kid was staring through its storefront window. Something on the other side of the window must have caught his eye.
He felt the overwhelming urge to get closer, to see what had so drawn the boy’s attention, for it seemed it must be something miraculous. But in the next instant, a throaty female voice annihilated the silence, and a fat woman in a dark wool coat appeared, seemingly from out of nowhere, and started berating the boy.
“I thought I told you to mind where you’re walking. You know I can’t go as fast as you, and I’ve told you a million times to stick to the path we always take. If it weren’t for your shiny golden hair I’d have lost you long ago.”
As suddenly as she had appeared, she pulled the kid by the arm and they receded into the darkness.
There was only one thing behind the glass.
It was a toy train, but that was selling it shortly. It was a fully realized miniature version of a steam locomotive, made of quality metal and boasting an intricate design. It made even Graham, who hadn’t played with a toy in sixty years and had never been on a train in his life, want to rub his fingers across its roof. The attached price tag said: $250.
Graham couldn’t imagine anyone in Jollytown, aside from the mayor himself and a scant few puppets in his entourage, ever being able to afford such a toy. Perhaps the boy had just wanted to look at it by himself, without the burden of eliciting his mother’s guilt for not being able to get it for him. Or maybe, just maybe, he believed in the magic of Christmas, in the idea that whatever his parents couldn’t afford, Santa would bring him anyway, so boundless was his love for all children. What if the boy wrote Santa a note tonight, and he’d be sitting at home tomorrow, waiting for the toy train that would never arrive?
In that instant, Graham knew that this was it. His final chance to do right by a child.
As he closed his eyes that night, the boy with the golden hair appeared before him. Although the boy in the dream stood with his back turned just like the real one had done, he could sense that an aura of goodness and happiness surrounded him. He could also tell that this boy had been through a lot.
“I need to borrow 250 dollars, sir. And I need the Santa suit, just for an hour.”
“The suit is yours to keep,” mayor Klutz said quickly, surprised by the interruption, “but what do you need the money for?”
He’d been in the middle of a business meeting, but Graham had banked on his goodwill and barged in. Without the mayor’s money, there was no way he could do this. And the clock was ticking. It was the morning of December 24.
“You know I don’t do drugs, and I’ve never drunk a pint in my life. Can you just trust me when I say it’s for something very important? I’ll bring it back to you as soon as I can, I promise.”
“Well, Graham, old buddy, I don’t know what to say. Two hundred and fifty bucks is a lot of money to just hand out, and without some kind of warranty…” Mayor Klutz motioned for his companion, a man in a sharp grey suit, to excuse him for a second and he clutched his chin between his thumb and index finger, as he often did when pondering complex political issues, then said, “Oh, what the hell. It’s Christmas. Take the damn money. But hey, don’t spend it all in one place, huh?”
Shortly afterwards, Graham was standing in the middle of the city square, chanting the boy’s description as loudly as his diseased lungs and the biting cold allowed. The toy train was tucked safely in the pocket of his red-and-white coat, and his eyes scanned the crowd for any clue, any clue at all.
“Have you seen a boy around this tall, with golden locks like the Little Prince?” he asked the passersby, and of those who didn’t outright ignore him, none had.
He was about to give up. After nearly three hours, he was cold, and feeling colder still as exhaustion overtook him, and he didn’t know how long his voice would still obey command.
Just then, he saw the fat woman again. She was alone, and dragging an overfilled bag of groceries on the ground. On instinct, Graham moved to help her, forgetting the way he was dressed. She swatted him away, prepared to yell for help, and he tried to calm her down by talking about the boy. He’d met him last night, he said, well, not really met him, but seen him, and he knew there was something he really wanted and he wanted to…
The woman squinted her eyes at him, and then, as suddenly as she’d gripped the boy’s arm the previous night, she started to laugh. She seemed to have a penchant for loudness and suddenness.
“What are you talking about, you old nut?”
“Your boy, the one with the golden locks.”
“Sorry to burst your bubble, old man, but God never blessed me with kids.”
Graham closed his eyes, unable to comprehend what he was hearing, but when he opened them again the woman was already gone. No boy…? But he had seen…If no boy with golden hair existed, whom had he followed for so long last night?
And what was the point of the exceedingly expensive toy train in his pocket?
Dejected, he walked back to his place on the sidewalk. On the way, he took off his Santa hat and ruffled it in his hands. Maybe his sadness had given the sickness strength, and it was messing with his mind. What a load of crap this all had been.
A kid’s voice woke him. It was shrill, not very pleasant, kind of like a young bird’s call. His eyes opened to see a small, close-shaved kid smiling down on him. Their eyes were black as tar pits, and one of their front teeth was missing.
“Hey mister,” the kid said, and Graham couldn’t yet tell if they were a boy or a girl, “what’s that you’ve got in your hand? Is it a gun?”
Graham looked down at himself. His left hand was clutching the toy train so hard the tips of his fingers were white.
“No, it’s…it’s just a stupid toy I bought for a kid who doesn’t exist.”
The kid turned their head to one side like a confused dog, and said “Well, I’m a kid, and I love toys. Can I see it?”
Graham laughed. He stood up and gave the kid a once-over. “What’s your name, kid?”
“It’s Graham Rose Krause, but my friends call me Grouse.”
“Nice to meet you, Grouse. I’m Santa.” His left hand opened to reveal the magnificent miniature locomotive, and the kid marvelled as the train’s chassis reflected the morning light into their gleaming eyes. “Wow, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
Well, well. What if…?
“You want it, it’s yours, kid.”
“Really. From now on, you’ll get to see it every day.”
The kid’s face lit up further, and they smiled from ear to ear, missing tooth be damned.
They shook hands with Graham, mouthing thank-you’s and I-can’t-believe-it’s, and as their fingers parted Graham could feel the kid slide something into his palm. It was a coin.
“What’s this for? Nobody ever gives Santa anything but cookies and milk.”
“It’s a chocolate coin, my last one. Think of me when you eat it, will you?”
The dog snoring into his ear woke him up at three a.m. on Christmas Day, and he remembered the chocolate coin. He took it out and slowly, ritualistically, unwrapped its golden casing. He didn’t remember the last time he’d had chocolate. He licked the coin, savouring the foreign taste, then took a tentative bite. It tasted heavenly. It made him think of those chocolate fountains he’d heard rich people had at their weddings, and that made him choke up with laughter. Those couldn’t possibly taste this good.
In the morning, the blind man called for him. He could hear no breathing, and when he got no answer, he felt around for where he knew Graham’s body usually lay. His hands went up to Graham’s neck, and he felt for a pulse. There was nothing. Graham Rosenkrantz was gone.
P.S. Graham’s not the only one who can be Santa this year. If you enjoyed the story, consider feeding some hungry kids at this link.
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