The first time I ever saw Sheila, I couldn’t stop looking at her. Long and lean, she was striding purposefully past me with her eyes fixed on something in the distance. It only took a moment before she had passed, but I kept my eyes on her as she moved away.
The kid on my lap bounced up and down, jerking my attention back to him.
“Santa, I said I want a magic tuna, toy soldiers, and a blaster game,” the boy demanded.
I’ve got a four-year-old son of my own, and I thought I knew a little bit about kids’ toys, but I’d never heard of a magic tuna. “All right, Timmy. Is there anything else?”
“Tommy,” he corrected me. “I thought Santa Claus knew everything.”
“Smile for the camera, Tommy,” I told him, “and don’t forget to take a candy cane on the way out.”
I glanced at the line of children waiting to enter Santa’s Toyshop. It wasn’t really a toy shop; it was a big chair for Santa to sit in, with a Christmas tree, two large wrapped boxes, and a basket of candy canes. An older woman dressed as an elf stood nearby with a camera in her hand, and the area was separated from the rest of the mall by velvet ropes.
A little girl climbed up on my lap next. With long, brown curls and a sweet smile, she was about the same age as my son. She kissed my cheek and said, “I love you, Santa. My name’s Mary.”
“I know, sweetie. What do you want me to bring you for Christmas?”
She told me about a doll, a dollhouse, and a toy horse. She smiled for the camera, thanked me, and collected her candy cane.
I reached up and scratched my chin, careful not to disturb Santa’s beard. Of course, I wasn’t the real Santa Claus; I was just one of his helpers, and that year was the very first time I had done it. The former mall Santa had retired, and my friend Otis, the mall manager, had asked if I would be interested in the job. I never thought of myself as Santa, but I love kids, and during the Christmas season, I could always use a little extra money. So I put on the red suit, climbed into the big chair, and welcomed the children. For the most part, it was a fun job.
I saw Sheila later that evening at the food court. Still dressed as Santa, I had gone there on my break to get something to drink from the lemonade stand. I paid for my drink, turned around, and nearly ran over Sheila.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you,” I said quickly.
“Really? I thought Santa saw everything.” Her smile revealed teeth like pearls. She had the darkest eyes I’d ever seen, and she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring.
“You were behind me.”
“What? No eyes in the back of your head?” She bent down and picked up something from the floor. “You dropped your straw. I’ll get you another one.” Taking one from the dispenser on the counter, she held it out to me.
“Thanks. With this beard, a straw is a survival tool. I just love this lemonade.”
“I take it you don’t have lemons growing at the North Pole.”
I shook my head sadly. “Not a one.”
“I have to get back to work. Have a good evening, Santa.”
Once again, I watched her walk away. Her black hair flowed down her back like a waterfall, and the rest of her rear view was just as good.
It was a weeknight, and the mall crowd was thinning out. My shift was over about an hour before the mall closed, and I went back to the locker room to remove my Santa suit.
Otis was there. “I see you met Sheila.”
“The woman you were talking to at the lemonade stand, Sheila Bulwar. She manages The Carousel, a shop that sells earrings, perfume, and other girly stuff, at the east end of the mall.”
“Oh. We didn’t really share life stories.”
“Maybe not, Mitch, but she seemed to like whatever you shared. She’s been working here for two months, and the only time I ever saw her smile was when she was talking to you.”
About fifteen minutes later, I saw Sheila again. I had left my red suit in my locker with the other two Santa suits the mall had given me, and I had changed into my street clothes.
I’m always careful to change out of my Santa suit before picking up my son at the mall’s Playcare center. Kevin still believes in Santa, and I wouldn’t want to create any confusion between the real St. Nick and myself.
Sheila was at the childcare center when I walked in. She was helping a little girl into her coat.
“Put your arm in the sleeve,” she directed the girl.
Her daughter appeared to be the same age as my son, with the same black hair and dark eyes as her mother.
“Hi,” I said pleasantly as I passed them.
Sheila glanced at me, muttered, “Hi,” and hurried her daughter out the door. She was completely different from the woman I had met at the food court. I wondered if I had done something to upset her.
Kevin came bounding up to me. “Dad, I drew you a picture.” He handed me a sheet of white paper with a brown blob in the center.
“Wow. It’s a—” I waited.
“Dinosaur,” he supplied.
“It’s a nice dinosaur,” I assured him.
“It’s supposed to be scary.”
“It’s very scary. We’ll hang it on the refrigerator to scare everyone who sees it. Now get your coat. It’s getting late.”
“Will you read me a story before bed?”
“I will if we have time.”
Kevin ran to get his coat.
In the car on the way home, I asked Kevin about Sheila’s daughter.
“Her name is Heather,” he told me. “I like her. She’s nice.”
We had time for two of Kevin’s favorite stories that night before he went to bed. Afterward, I tucked him in and kissed him goodnight.
The only problem with working as Santa Claus was the time I had to be away from my son. Two hours each weekday evening and six hours on Saturday didn’t sound like much, but sometimes it felt like all the time in the world. Luckily, Santa wasn’t expected to work on Sunday, and the job only lasted for four weeks.
Kevin was in a hurry the next morning. He gobbled his breakfast and urged me to eat faster.
“What’s the big rush?” I wanted to know.
“Grandma is taking me on a field trip to the monkey factory.”
“The what? Oh, you mean the Monterrey Chocolate Factory. I forgot you and Mom were taking the tour today. Okay, I’ll hurry.”
When we got to my parents’ house, I helped Kevin down from the truck, and he ran to the front door.
“He’s really excited about the chocolate tour,” I told Mom.
She nodded. “We’ll bring you back some of those truffles you like.”
“I’ll be looking forward to them.” I kissed my son and my mother goodbye and headed out to work.
I’d been so lucky that my mom was happy to take care of my son. A retired elementary school teacher, she had taught Kevin to read letters and simple words by the time he was three. She took him on field trips to places like the zoo and the chocolate factory. Occasionally, even Dad went with them. Mom and Dad are two of the reasons that my son has turned out to be a happy child.
I work as a landscape contractor. I own the business, designing and building gardens, recreation areas, serene spaces, and any other types of outdoor spaces that my clients want. Most of the time I do pretty well, but between Thanksgiving and Christmas, business can get pretty slow. That’s why I figured Kevin would have a much better Christmas if I worked part-time at the mall.
When I got back to Mom’s that day, Kevin couldn’t wait to tell me about the chocolate tour.
“ They’ve got big barrels of chocolate,” he explained. “I wanted to jump in and roll around. Did you know they have white chocolate? I tasted some, and it’s my favorite.”
“I like it, too, but we have to go home right now and have dinner before I go to work at the mall.”
“You can stay for dinner with us,” Dad suggested. “I made a pot roast.”
My dad is the best cook. He didn’t have to say another word to convince me to stay.
“Dad, what do you do at the mall?” Kevin asked over dinner.
“I’m Christmas help. This time of year, they hire a lot of extra people to help around the mall.”
My son wasn’t fooled by my answer. “But, Dad, what do you do?”
“A little bit of everything. Whatever they need me to do.”
He seemed satisfied with that answer.
After I dropped Kevin off at Playcare that evening, I was on my way to the locker room when I passed Sheila in the mall.
“Good evening,” I said with a smile.
“Hi,” she mumbled, barely looking at me.
I saw her again later, and that time, she was a whole different person. I was taking my ten-minute break at the food court when she walked up, said hello, and told me her name was Sheila. Of course, I was dressed as Santa Claus.
“Can I buy you a lemonade?” she offered.
I accepted her offer, and we sat at a table together.
“How’s your job going?” she wanted to know.
“Not so well tonight,” I admitted. “The last boy I talked to was about eight. He looked like an angel, dressed in a suit and tie for his picture with Santa. After his picture was taken, he kicked me in the shins and said it was for forgetting to bring his BB gun last year.”
Her laugh was low and musical. “I guess that was one of the perils of the job.”
I suffered a worse peril on Saturday morning. The first child who approached me was a girl of about three. She seemed very nervous and kept a death grip on her mother’s hand.
Her mother led her toward me slowly, trying to persuade the girl that Santa wouldn’t hurt her. “Come on, Tina. Remember, we talked about Santa Claus? You’re going to tell him what you want for Christmas. Tell him you want a Betsy doll,” her mother said and set the girl on my lap.
Tina’s bottom lip trembled, but she said nothing. Maggie, the photographer, stepped forward to take Tina’s picture. Tina stiffened, and I thought she might burst into tears. But she didn’t cry. Instead, Tina opened her mouth and threw up her breakfast all over me just as the camera shutter clicked.
Her mother rushed forward. “Oh no. I’m terribly sorry. Tina, how could you throw up on Santa?”
That was the moment when she burst into tears. Her mother snatched her off my lap and rushed away with her.
“I guess she won’t want that picture,” Maggie joked.
I looked down at the damage. Tina had sprayed me from head to toe. She even left chunks in my beard.
There were horrified looks on the faces of the children who had lined up to see me.
“It’s all right,” I told them. “I’ll just go and change my clothes.”
“Do you have to go all the way back to the North Pole?” one boy asked.