I had a story published last December 26th in Saturday Night Reader’s Online Magazine, and since they are now shut down, I wanted to share the little Christmas tale again this year. I was sad to learn they were shutting down when I heard the news a few months ago. I was lucky enough to have a few stories published there and two in their print magazines.
I hope you all enjoy, and Merry Christmas to you and your families!
Never too Old
I won’t say that I never believed in Santa Claus because I can distinctly remember waiting for him as a child. I would convince myself that I could stay up all night then hear the reindeer and sleigh land on our roof. Of course, I would fall asleep within minutes and there would always be presents under the tree when I woke.
Then life happens and we all eventually realize the impossibility of such a man, and it becomes kitschy and absurd.
I wasn’t much of an afternoon drinker but I always met a few colleagues for a couple of beers before the holiday break every year. We had just finished a round while discussing the previous night’s football game and reminiscing of our college years. I told the gang I would get the next ones and stood to go to the bar.
As I approached the counter, I noticed a man sitting by himself, his fingers intertwined around a pint of beer, head tilted down. I’d been a psychologist for many years and I typically didn’t like to interfere with people off the clock, but something drew me to this man. Everything about his posture hinted at depression, so I sidled up beside him and rested my hands on the bar top.
“What ales you?” I asked, grinning like a fool at my bad joke.
He turned his head up and stared at me with piercing, pale blue eyes. He looked much younger than I had originally thought. He just had what I referred to as Steve Martin Syndrome – premature white hair.
“Pardon me. I used to be a bartender and that was one of my classics. My name’s Stan, can I buy you a drink?”
“Hello, Stan. I’m…Nick. Sure, have a seat,” he replied.
I gestured over to my table but my friends were engrossed in some old story or another and didn’t even notice my absence.
I sat down and ordered us a couple local lagers. Nick nodded his thanks. I could tell that he wanted to talk about something so I decided to prod him into it a little bit.
“Crazy weather we’re having, hey? Will the snow ever stop?” I asked.
“Snow has never bothered me, to be honest. Lots of it where I come from,” he said.
“Where’s that? Canada?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“What do you do, Nick?”
He closed his eyes and slowly opened them and turned to look at me. “I run a factory – do everything from manufacturing to warehousing to logistics. Even have a small courier business.”
“Wow, you do it all, hey. What sort of line are you in?”
I wondered if he worked for one of the big guys ̶ Hasbro or Mattel maybe. They would be large enough to not outsource all of those steps.
Before I could say anything, he started again. “I’m tired of it. You know how it is. You give your life to something, and no one seems to care. The Head of the Union is constantly badgering you for better conditions, more money, fewer hours – as if those guys have many options where we are. I should never have let them start that union. It’ll be the end of me.”
I watched him and could see the visible stress he was under.
“Nick, are you sure that is all that’s wrong? I know Christmas is a tough time of the year for a lot of people,” I interjected.
“My wife…she’s been distant lately. She says all I do is work and the stress puts me in a bad mood so I tend to snap at her when we are spending time together. I think I need to just shut everything down, for good. This job is thankless anyways. No one cares anymore.” He paused and took a long drink from his glass.
It was always good to get a patient to talk about their issues, and usually once they started, they couldn’t help but get them off their chest.
“Didn’t you say there weren’t many options for your staff where you live? What would happen to the town if your manufacturing plant shut down?” I asked.
“Of course I’d thought of that,” he replied.
“You say you make toys. Think of how many kids would be upset if you stopped making them. It may feel thankless but you don’t see the children’s faces as your toys make it into their houses. And think of the staff…don’t they have families too? I see this a lot and truth be told, you need to take a step back. Maybe hire a CEO, and go on vacation with your wife ̶ somewhere warm and away from all the snow.”
He drank the rest of his beer and got off his stool. He flashed me a smile, and I saw a twinkle in his eyes that was missing when I first sat down.
“Stan, let me ask you something. Was there ever a toy you really wanted as a child that you never got?”
It took me no time to answer because I could never forget that soldier toy I asked for every year, but never got it. My parents wouldn’t let me have anything with guns. “Lt. Jack,” I said quietly.
He nodded, shook my hand and left out the door, letting a cold breeze make its way across the bar.
I woke up that Christmas to my little boy and girl jumping on our bed, telling us to come see all the presents Santa left. We opened gifts with our coffee and the look of joy on our children’s faces as they were spoiled once again was everything a father could hope for. When we were done, my wife handed me something and told me it was stuck in the middle of the tree. I opened it and saw a vintage Lt. Jack action figure staring back at me.