Antonias Big Lot Christmas by Tina Wagner Mattern
I know you want to hear the whole sordid story, about how I ended up drunker than a skunk on Santa’s lap three weeks before Christmas. And about how that fiasco turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me—right?
Okay, here it is: The first rotten thing that happened was that Roger, the only great-looking guy I ever dated, dumped me the day before Thanksgiving. Aside from the fact that I was so happy to finally have a boyfriend that my family and friends didn’t make fun of, I was actually in love with him, sort of. He had some nice qualities, like award winning teeth; my friends called him Mr. Ultrabright, and some other good traits that I just can’t think of right this minute. Okay, so maybe he wasn’t the nicest guy I ever went out with; there were a few little things he did and said that were a bit hard to deal with. Like, I had to ride in his back seat when he came to pick me up; of course, he did say that that was only because he had a fantasy about being a taxi driver and definitely not because he didn’t want people to think I was his date. And then there was the weight thing…but I have to say that I would never have lost those twelve pounds if it hadn’t been for his subtle hints: pointing at my dessert and then pointing to my hips, etc.
I wouldn’t have gotten my nose fixed either, which has been a huge improvement on the balance of my facial features. Even my mother had to admit that. The implants have given me a much better self-image too; nobody can call me Titless Toni anymore. Thanks to Roger, I’ve got a pair of jugs that are so big, if I stand on my head, I’ll suffocate.
But in spite of all that, I really did pretty much love him; we had some great times on the weekends when he wasn’t busy with his friends. And so, when he told me over dinner (which I bought—again) that he thought we should see other people (meaning HE should see other people and I should go back to dating homely guys), it hurt. I was very depressed. Thanksgiving dinner sucked; when I showed up without Roger, my father just shook his head, my brother said, “Roger finally got himself some glasses, huh?” And my mother said, “I TOLD you, you should have gotten the D implants!”
It’s good to have a family sensitive to your pain.
And then I got laid off. I should have seen it coming but I didn’t. I got into work, hung up my jacket, got my tools out and Mr. Albermarle called me into the inner sanctum, as he likes to call it. I always hate going in there…the organ music is so depressing—and the smell of lilies and roses is just overwhelming. I suppose I should be used to it by now; it goes with mortuary territory and I’ve been here a year, but some things just bug you, you know? So anyway, the boss says, “Come in, Antonia. Sit down.” Never a good sign when he wants me to sit because sitting means not working and Mr. Albermarle’s tenet is, the only reason not to be doing something constructive, is if you’re dead.
I sighed and sat down on the little casket-shaped ottoman across from his desk, figuring that he was going to ask me to assist him in the inner-sanctum again, as he has for months now.
His theory is that once I spend some time helping him embalm a few folks, I’ll fall in love with the work. Never mind that I get faint when my manicurist trims my cuticles, and even watching someone blow their nose makes me gag.
I’ve finally gotten to where I can do the dearly departed’s hair without throwing up but that’s only because the folks look pretty normal by the time they make it to my service. Most of them look like peaceful, happy, if a bit surprised, life-sized dolls. I can deal with that. And the money’s good, especially considering that I only have to do the front of their hair.
But Mr. Albermarle cleared his throat and ruined the end of an already lousy week. “I think you need to take some time off, Antonia.”
I blinked up at him, “Huh?”
“You maybe need to rest up so you can get over this little funk you’ve been in for the last few weeks.”
“Funk?” The almost-love of my life has left me and he calls it a funk? “I’m fine,” I sniffled, digging in my pocket for a tissue. “Couldn’t be better.”
“Mrs. Dearborn’s daughter said her mother looked like a poodle on crack when you got done with her. And she’s not the only one; Carlos Ramirez almost had a stroke when he saw the cornrows in his father’s hair.”
“Mrs. Dearborn’s daughter is a controlling, anal-retentive shrew,” I muttered. “Her mother probably kicked the bucket just to get away from her. And Mr. Ramirez needed a lift…he looked so….so….DEAD!”
Mr. Albermarle sighed. “Now see, that’s what I’m talking about. This isn’t the Antonia I know. You’re a nice person; you just need some time off.”
“No buts, you’re on official leave of absence as of right now. Come back when you get it all worked out.”
Damn! Things couldn’t get worse.
And then they did.
My cat, Mrs. Haberschnaber, left me. Two years of tender loving care in spite of hairballs the size of ground squirrels, a growing weight problem, two-inch deep trenches clawed in my sofa cushions and her insistence on sleeping draped across my forehead, and then when I need some compassionate, nurturing care…she’s off like a dirty shirt.
What the hell? Am I reaping Karma for some rotten deed in a previous life or what?
Anyway, these undeserved plagues are what led me, at two o’clock in the afternoon, on the first Tuesday in December, to drink six bottles of beer, four of those little airline bottles of tequila and half a pint of peppermint schnapps, which I poured over a quart of Ben & Jerry’s pistachio ice cream.
The next thing I remember is deciding to take a walk to clear my head, which by then was feeling like someone had inserted a balloon up my nose into my brain and then inflated it with helium. I ended up at the strip mall a half mile from my house, where a sign in the window of the Big Lots store announced, SANTA’S HERE!”
“Santa!” I burbled, overcome suddenly with nostalgia over a memory of some classic Christmas movie with a little girl who didn’t believe in Santa and then ended up writing him a letter and getting a new house, or a dad or a nose job or whatever.
“Yay! Good old Santa’s here to save the day! Just what I need! If anybody’ll listen to my problems without getting all judgmental, it’s Santa!”
Three o’clock in the afternoon was apparently not this store’s peak shopping hour. Aside from a bored-looking clerk talking to her boyfriend on her cell phone, I seemed to be the only shopper in the building.
I staggered past the canned food aisle, bounced off the pots and pans aisle a couple of times and sat down rather abruptly in the candy aisle (I did NOT fall) but eventually made it to the back of the store where I finally found Santa Claus. He was all by himself in an overstuffed recliner next to a sign that said, Half Off All Furniture, self-consciously practicing his Ho, Ho, Ho’s. I have to say, he was trying very hard to look professional; sitting up all straight and serious in his chair, beard & mustache neatly arranged, hat at just the right angle, and all this despite the fact that there wasn’t one kid around to appreciate how ready he was to dazzle and delight them. Truthfully though, he was never going to win any awards for being the perfect St. Nick…he was too young and kind of deflated looking, like someone had let all the air out of him. It was obvious he was wearing a pretty hefty pillow under his red velvet suit. But what the hell, old and fat or young and skinny, he was Santa and I needed him, so I walked over to the “Line Up Here” sign, picked it back up after crashing into it and waited expectantly for Himself to invite me onto his lap. Santa, however, just sat there staring at me, looking rather confused.
“Hi Santa!” I called, waving shyly at him. I mean, it’d been years since I’d been to see Jolly Old St. Nick, —the whole scene was still a little intimidating.
Santa cocked his head in obvious bewilderment and cleared his throat before saying, “Uh…hello? Can I help you?”
Just the question I was hoping for! I staggered over and threw myself onto his lap, wrapped my arms around his neck and burst into tears.
“Hey!” Santa’s lap lurched, nearly launching me onto the floor but I held on and just cried harder.
To the poor guy’s credit, once he realized I wasn’t going to be easily dislodged, and I was after all sobbing all over his red-velvet shoulder in obvious misery, his human compassion kicked in, he put his arm around me and patted my shoulder. “It’s okay. It’ll be okay…really.”
“No it won’t!” I bawled, and proceeded to tell him the whole sordid story of my horrible month, getting dumped, the forced leave of absence, my cat abandoning me, my cold-hearted family…all of it in pitiful detail. When I got to the part about the boob job, I put my hands under them, lifted them up high for his observance and cried, “Look at the size of these, for God’s sake! Do you know how much these suckers weigh?”
Young Mr. Claus made a funny choking noise in his throat. But then, as I continued to weep, he recovered himself enough to gently rock me, murmuring “Okay...Okay.” When I finally ran down to only a few occasional hiccupping sobs, he dug a handful of Kleenex out of his pocket and handed it to me.
“Thank you,” I sniffled.
“No problem.” And then with a sweet attempt at lightening the situation, he said, “So, young lady…what can Santa bring you for Christmas?”
I shrugged and shook my head, “A new boyfriend? A breast reduction? Crap, I don’t know!”
Santa squeezed my hand. “Well, if my opinion counts for anything, I think anybody who’d walk out on you is a stupid jerk”
“Yeah. And I’m Santa. I know when someone’s a stupid jerk. I have a list!”
“Santa?” Suddenly a tiny voice cut into our little tableau. We both looked up to see a kid of about 6 standing over by the “Line Up Here” sign. She looked stunned and more than a little worried to see a twenty-something, red-nosed, tear-streaked woman sniffling on Santa Claus’s lap. I jumped up, shocked sober, wiped at my cheeks and pasted on a smile.
“Thank you, Santa! I’ll tell my little girl that you’ll be leaving her lots of presents on Christmas Eve.”
“Ho-Ho-Ho! You do that, little lady! Tell her I know she’s been a good girl!”
The kid looked relieved but still a little wary.
“I’d better get going,” I whispered. “Thanks for putting up with a drunken crazy woman.”
“No problem. Really,” he whispered back. And then, glancing over at the little girl who was still watching intently, he said loudly, “Watch for me on Christmas Eve! Now, who’s next?”
* * *
Things have a way of working themselves out, don’t they? I mean, especially during the Christmas season, it seems like. Anyway, by the week before Christmas, Mr. Albermarle called and told me that the Ramirez’s cousins, whose aunt died last week, wanted me to come and put cornrows in her hair. They thought I did a nice job on their uncle. Can you believe it? And my fat, runaway cat, Mrs. Haberschnaber? Turns out she wasn’t fat, she was pregnant! She showed up on my doorstep last Tuesday with three baby kitties.
I even came to terms with my family, pretty much. I decided to just accept them as they were because they were never going to change. So my life was looking up by Christmas Eve. Not to say that I wasn’t feeling sad and lonely, sitting in front of my tree by myself, drinking a non-alcoholic glass of eggnog and listening to Christmas music on the radio.
I was just thinking about turning the lights out and heading upstairs to an early bed when the doorbell rang. Now who….? I looked at the clock over the mantle—it was 9:30. Too late for UPS or FEDEX, I thought. So who else would be here at this hour?
I crept over to the front door and peeked through security peep-hole. Santa Claus was standing on my front porch! As if he knew I was peering out at him, he grinned and held up a card for me to see. I looked at it and blinked…it looked like a driver’s license. He held it up closer--my mouth dropped open. It was my driver’s license! I opened the door and Santa held it out to me.
Taking it from him in wonderment, I said, “Where---?”
“It must have fallen out of your purse when you came to see me at Big Lots,” he said, smiling.
“I didn’t even miss it!” I said. “But you brought it all the way over here for me on Christmas Eve? That’s….that’s…so NICE!”
He shrugged and said, “Hey…I told you to watch for me on Christmas Eve! Then, reaching up, he pulled off the fake beard and slid the red cap from his head, revealing a fresh-faced, nice looking but in no way stunningly handsome guy with light-brown hair and laughing green eyes. Holding out his hand to me, he said, “Hi! My name’s Dave.”
I shook it, my expression surprised and delighted, and said, “Hi! My name’s Toni. Nice to meet you.”
“So…” he said, with a very sweet, Santa-like smile, “Got any plans for New Years?”