THAT TIME OF YEAR

A car nearing the end of its life pulled into the parking lot of the strip mall. The car came to a stop in front of a store with a sign reading “Fine Wine and Spirits.” The driver turned off the engine. He was an older man with a days’ growth of white whiskers. The man reached into the pocket of his black cot and pulled out a typed list. He looked at it and put it back in his pocket.

Chimes rang as the door opened. The cashier looked up to see the man enter. 

“Need help with anything?”

“No, I’m fine.”

The man took a basket from a stack next to the door. He headed to the back of the store where a sign read “Discount Wines and Spirits.”

He searched the shelves for the cheapest wine. He settled on ‘Dregs’, the label of which featured a hand reaching out of a grave to grab a bottle. The man placed several bottles in his basket. Next he checked out the spirits. ‘Shit House Bourbon’ caught his eye. He smiled at the picture of an outhouse, complete with half moon, on the label. He looked at the price and the proof. Both were reasonable. He placed several bottles in his basket.

The cashier looked at him and his choices. She looked like she wanted to say something, but only asked. “Will that be cash or credit?”

“Cash.”

The cashier rang up the total. The man pulled a few bills from his wallet, handed it to her and waited for his change. While she was bagging the man’s purchase, the cashier said, “You know you could buy a lot better drinks for just a little more.”

“I know.”

The man loaded the bags in his car and drove away. A few blocks later he pulled into another strip mall that had a dollar store. He went inside and came out again ten minutes later with several rolls of gift wrapping paper and a few rolls of clear tape. Shopping was done so he drove home.

When he reached his apartment building, the man pulled into the lot. He unloaded the bags from his car and carried them up the stairs to his apartment. Once inside, he put the bags on the floor of his living room, hung up his coat, and sighed. He took the note from his coat pocket with him as a reference.

The living room was sparse as was the rest of the apartment. There was a television of moderate size perched on a dusty stand, an armchair, a sofa and not much else. The old man spent the next hour sitting on the floor of his living room carefully wrapping each bottle, color coding them so he would know which was ‘wine’ and which was ‘bourbon.’ 

When he was finished with wrapping the bottles, the man went to his bedroom. He opened the closet, pushed away pants and shirts hanging from a rod, and bent down to retrieve a tattered suitcase. He took the suitcase to the living room and set it on the sofa. The man reached into his pants pocket and pulled out an overloaded key chain. He searched through the keys until he found the smallest one. With it he unlocked the suitcase. He opened the case and pulled out a fluffy red and white suit, a wide black belt, a pair of boots, a red and white pointed cap, and a folded brown sack. He opened the sack and carefully placed the wrapped bottles inside, cushioning them with wads of newspaper. 

He cleaned up the leftover wrapping paper from the floor, and stored it away for next year.

He shined the boots. He picked mothballs out of the cuffs of the suit, gently ironed it and went over it with a lint roller. He tried the suit on to make sure it still fit. It was roomier than the prior year. A pillow did the trick. Satisfied, he undressed. He put the red and white suit on a hanger and hung it in his coat closet. 

He always shopped early, before the rush. Less eyes on him, and less stress. He was ready for the big night. All he had to do was wait for his beard to grow in more.

On Christmas Eve he loaded the sack and the suit and all the trimmings into his car. He drove someplace quiet and out and sight, and changed. Then he made his rounds.

He was a subcontractor. Only worked the season. He had never applied for the job. He’d been recruited, a call from the blue, a convincing voice, a reasonable financial offer. It was all under the table. No taxes. The best way for him since it didn’t mess up his social security or taxes.

Every year he was mailed a list of names, gifts and approximate address. He was paid by the hour plus expenses. He kept track of his hours. He held onto all his receipts, sending copies to the boss for reimbursement. It helped him get through the winter. A little hustle in the fall, a little risk on Christmas Eve. He had been lucky so far. No injuries or arrests.

He had been a social worker once. Maybe that’s why he had been selected for this. The ‘clients’ on his list were not always easy to find. They were transient. Denizens of alleys, dumpsters, tent cities under highways. The world had forgotten them, or tried to forget them. The big boss remembered them, at least at Christmas time.

The first name on his list was Nathan Chase. The address was an alley behind a restaurant. The restaurant was closed on Christmas Eve. That made things easier. He found Nathan where he was supposed to be. 

The man was wrapped in a dirty blanket and appeared to be sleeping. His eyes opened when the old man tried to put the gift down beside him. Nathan grabbed the package, “What’s this?”

“Merry Christmas,” the old man said in his jolliest tone.

Nathan undid the wrapping paper. He held up the bottle of Shit House Bourbon and looked at it.

“What’s this mother fucker?” he growled. “Last year you gave me a dime bag.” 

Nathan did not offer to give the gift back. Instead he opened the bottle and took a swig,

 “It’s been a rough year for everybody,” said the old man.

And maybe, the old man thought, You weren’t as nice this year as last year.

After a few swigs the guy was more mellow. “Oh well,” he said. “I guess it’s the thought that counts.”

When he was a child the man playing Santa had been taught that there was good and evil and no in between. That truth had been beaten into him in Sunday school. He had learned all the rules and tried to live by them until life taught him the rules were sometimes warped, twisted, and did not fit the world or any sense of justice. He had learned there are many grades between good and evil, and there are blends of good and evil. The big boss seemed to have come to the same conclusions. The boss still had a “naughty” and a “nice” list, but he also had a “not very naughty but not very nice” list, a “naughty and nice list,” a “neither naughty nor nice” list, and so on. There were no saints on the old man’s list. There were no demons either.

The night went on. He occasionally heard gunshots, but they were in the distance. Sometimes he had trouble finding a client. The home office sent him updates on his phone. He got the job done. He got home just before dawn and went to sleep. 

When he woke he found a gift in the living room under the small plastic tree he set up every year. It was a new remote for the television and some cash. A gift and a bonus for a job well done. He tried out the remote. It worked. He watched television and ate leftovers until it was time for bed.

The day after Christmas he took the suit to be dry cleaned. When he got it back he folded it and put it back in the suitcase with mothballs for the year. He copied his receipts and filled out his payroll records. He mailed the documents to the PO Box in Las Vegas used for cover purposes. A few weeks later he received an envelope in the mail. It contained twelve fifty dollar rechargeable debit cards and several gift cards to supermarkets and clothing stores. A brief note said, “Thank you for a job well done. Looking forward to working with you next season.” It was signed, “S.” 

The old man did not worry what the S stood for. Satan or Santa, demon or demigod. It all worked out enough, or so he thought. He hoped he would be asked to work again the next year.

— Joseph Farley is the author of two story collections: For the Birds (out of print) and  Farts and Daydreams (Dumpster Fire Press). A novel, Labor Day, is available from Peasantry Press. His poems and stories have appeared in Lummox anthologies, The Writing Disorder, US 1 Worksheets, Home Planet News Online, Schlock, Horror Sleaze Trash, Mad Swirl and other places.