BY FRANK NEWMAN
A perfect disguise. Martin shuddered with trepidation as he prepared to get dressed. First the make-up. A little rouge for his cheeks. They’ll never recognize me now. Then, very carefully, he applied the gum arabic to his upper lip and chin. The beard and the moustache came in two separate pieces. He brushed the moustache out of his mouth. Next the wig. He looked at himself and grinned. On went the cap … he could almost imagine. no, he mustn’t imagine. That would upset the balance. The black boots were next. Something was missing. The white gloves. Santa just wouldn’t be Santa without them.
As he strode into the mall, his voice bellowing “Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas”, he pondered the circumstances that had brought him here. He didn’t know whether to dance or cry, so he concentrated on this job, perhaps the only job he was still capable of handling.
Two years ago, at age 39, Martin Elliot had been at the peak of his real estate career. He was making progress, big progress. As sales grew, and his ego with it, he eventually set up his own real estate agency. He attracted top agents from other firms. Initially, things went well, but then the market dropped.
Instead of coping quietly and accepting the downturn, he pushed ahead with his plans for expansion. When sales didn’t meet his need for capital, he borrowed from the bank. Then he began to buy things. A white Cadillac for himself and a red one for his wife, Ruby. A four by four truck – he’d always wanted a Jimmy. Next came a winterized cottage on Lake Simcoe. Ruby, a trained nurse, expressed concern. Martin grew increasingly angry at his staff over minor details. Periodically, he would hole up in his office for two or three days, seeing no one. The staff left for better opportunities. Sales dropped. The banks called in his loans. Martin fought back with abusive language and threats. His periods of black despair grew longer and deeper.
Eventually the cars were repossessed, the four-by-four and the cottage. He and Ruby finally closed up his office for the last time on Halloween night.
Ruby drove him home with his boxes of files. Ruby sat down and called the Within a week, they had both been diagnosed; Ruby as having high blood pressure and Martinas as having bipolar disease.
Dr. Marconi was matter-of-fact about Martin’s condition. “It’s simply a chemical imbalance. It can be controlled with a drug called Lithium. He added that the stress of Martin’s business had tipped the chemical balance and triggered the alternating highs and lows of the bipolar phases.
“Avoid jobs with stress”, was his final advice.
Finding a job was difficult. An honest man, he felt compelled to tell people he was bipolar. They’d look at him like he was a serial killer. This was hard, especially since he’d been driving a Cadillac less than six months before. Christmas was getting closer. Being unemployed gave Martin lots of time to spend with his son, Justin, who was five and in kindergarten half days. Martin tried to lose himself in his son’s games, but the burden of unemployment was a constant shadow over his every move on the game board. Fortunately, Ruby’s income was adequate to meet the basic payments on the house and for groceries, but they couldn’t last for long on one income.
He took the Santa job out of pure desperation. concerned.
Even Ruby was “You’re sure about this? We’re not that hard up.”
“I will contribute to this family,” he said firmly, “I won’t put up with anyone’s pity.”
So he took the job. Ruby was sworn to secrecy that Justin was never to know. Justin still believed in Santa and with all the other chaos swirling about him, the spirit of Santa had to be preserved. No one else was told either. Martin still had some pride. Justin was told that Daddy had found a job and that was all. Like most children, he only understood that a job is something that Daddy does outside the house. The only part Martin really didn’t like about the job was when he saw former clients and associates in the mall. Thank heavens for such a perfect disguise.
As perfect as it was, the suit was also terribly warm. The white gloves stopped the circulation of air to his body. On this particular day, one week before Christmas, he’d removed his gloves and set them on the arm of his throne. The heat, combined with the lithium, was making him feel queasy. But Santa, alias Martin the bipolar, could not afford to be sick.
Luckily, it was three in the afternoon and the mall was quiet. Only the hum of the air vents and the mwnblings of people walking by. Two figures were approaching. A mother and child. He started to rouse himself. The boy’s coat look familiar. the mother too. It was Justin’s babysitter! Martin panicked.
They stood at the foot of the platform. Justin’s eyes looked directly into Martin’s. Justin smiled. Some disguise, Martin thought, nervously motioning Justin to approach. As he raised his hand in greeting, Martin saw the emerald ring he.always wore on
his hand. Justin was forever toying with that ring. He mustn’t see it. Martin grabbed for his gloves, but they fell onto the floor.
“Let me help, Santa.” They both reached for the gloves together. Martin picked them up.
“Look, Santa, your ring! It’s just like my Dad’s.” Justin gazed at the ring in wonder. “Wow!”
Martin quickly pulled on his gloves. “Well, young fella, what would you like for Christmas?”, dropping his voice a little.
Justiri squirmed on Martin’s knee. “I’d like cash.”
“Yeah, for my Dad. He needs it for his business. He’s been sick this year, so I’d like the cash to buy him another Cadillac. He had one, but some men came and took it away.”
“HMMM. • “
“Do you know my Dad?”
Martin could feel his forehead breaking out into a sweat.
“I guess you know everyone”, Justin continued. “Is my Dad going to get better?”
“Yes, of course he is.”
“And Mummy too?”
“Mwnmy?” Martin’s voice trembled.
“Yeah, she cries sometimes when Daddy’s out looking for a job. Will she be ok?”
“Yes, she’ll be fine too.”
“Are you ok Santa? Your voice sounds a little funny.”
“Yes, it’s just a slight cold.”
“Better wrap your hands around Rudolph’s nose on Christmas eve. That should keep you warm.”
Justin wrapped his arms around Santa. Martin patted him on the back. “You will come to our house on Christmas eve, won’t you?”
“Of course I will.”
“Thanks, Santa, I knew you wouldn’t let me down. Bye.”
Justin and his sitter trudged off down the mall. Martin sat there, not quite believing how lucky he’d been about the ring. Suppose Justin puts two and two together? Still, Martin was more shocked about Ruby. How often had she been crying?
When Martin arrived home that evening, Justin ran up to him.
“I saw Santa today and you know what? He’s got a ring just like yours.” Justin grabbed Martin’s right hand. 11See your ring, Dad, his is just the same. It’s big and gold and green, just like this.” Justin stared at the ring. “That’s funny, you’ve got a cut on your thumb too.11
“Justin, time for bed”, his mother called out.
Justin looked at his Dad with a puzzled expression, then went up the stairs.
Martin sat on the bottom stair and studied his hands. They were big. He always thought they were clumsy-looking, with broad palms and short fingers. He twisted the ring on his finger. Given to him by his parents at his high school graduation, he always wore it. His parents had continually pushed him to achieve, constantly nudged at him to do better. He wore their desire for achievement like a secret brand – it was always there, burning him up, fueling him on. It had brought him to all this. Ruby’s voice could be heard upstairs, reading to Justin. The sound of his own mother’s voice, patient, but determined, came back to him. Yes, there had been good times, too. He must be careful not to let his anger block out all the past.
“Justin’s asleep”, Ruby said as she came down. “Come into the kitchen, we have to talk.”
Martin followed Ruby into the kitchen and sat down at the table. Ruby stood with her back to the refrigerator and folded her arms across her chest. “We’re going to be very tight for Christmas”, she announced. “I had a call from the bank today. That consolidated loan payment is due on the 21st. It’ll drain the account. My back pay from the nurses contract settlement won’t be paid out till sometime in January.”
“You trying to tell me something?” He avoided her glance and stared at the electric clock on the.kit9hen wall.
“They’ll be hardly any money for Christmas presents. The best we can do is get something small for Justin, but that’s it. Maybe next year things will be different.” Her voice sounded flat and worn.
“I understand, that’s ok.” Martin listened to the hum of the clock.
Martin stewed about it all the next day. How could he not provide his family with a decent Christmas after they’d put up with him through so much? He played Santa that day with an absent mind. He cursed his weakness, damned his illness. How to get some money, that was the immediate problem. As he went home though the mall that evening, a small white card in the jeweller’s window caught his eye. It read ‘Cash paid for Estate Jewelry. He glanced at the ring on his hand. It was all he had, but he made up his mind right there. When Martin walked out the store ten minutes later, he had all the cash he needed.
“Your ring, Daddy, where is it?” Justin called as soon as his saw his father that evening.
“I must have lost it at work”, said Martin, apologetically.
Ruby came out of the kitchen. you check around?”
“How could you loose that? Did you check around?”
“Yes, of course I did. It must’ve got lost in the washroom when I washed my hands.”
Ruby sighed. “Your parents bought you that ring. Perhaps if we advertise in the local paper.”
“No, it’s gone, we won’t worry about it.”
“Maybe Santa can bring you another one,” Justin added.
“We’ll have to see.” Martin tried to sound cheerful. “Time for your bedtime story.”
For the next five shopping days, Martin’s ring sat in the jeweller’s window. Often, Martin would pass by and stare. Had he done the right thing? Now that the ring was not his, he felt guilty, as if he’d betrayed his parent’s love. The ring was irretrievable now, priced at double what the jeweller had paid, and besides, Martin had already spent the money on Ruby and Justin’s Christmas presents. He rationalized he could live with his feelings if he could give his family a good Christmas.
Two days before Christmas, to his dismay, the ring disappeared from the display and was replaced by another. He had resigned himself to loosing the ring, but now that it was permanently gone from sight, it bothered him more than he cared to admit.
Ruby and Martin had cautioned Justin not to expect much for Christmas, that times were hard for them now. The worst part for Martin was seeing the resigned look on Ruby’s face as they laid Justin’s presents out on Christmas eve, two small boxes, a He-Man figure and a jig-saw puzzle. They went to bed not speaking.
At three on Christmas morning, Martin crept down to the garage where he’d hidden the presents. Working quietly, he spread them
beneath the tree. There were books and games and a castle Lego set for Justin and a silk negligee and a bottle of Alfred Sung perfume for Ruby. Finally, done, he sat back on the couch and took in the sight, feeling he was starting to pull things back together again.
Justin’s squeals from the living room woke them up at six o’clock.
“Wake up, everyone, come and see what Santa brought. He didn’t forget us!”
Ruby and Martin hurried into their dressing gowns to join him. Ruby gasped at the sight.
“How did. . .?”
Martin smiled, his eyes bright with excitement. “It was Santa.”
A few minutes later, the room was knee-deep in wrapping paper. Ruby sat on the couch, the negligee over her lap, dabbing the perfume on her wrists.
“This is wonderful,” she said, hugging him.
Justin was curiously silent. “Wait a minute,” he said. “Something’s wrong. Daddy didn’t get any presents.”
“That’s ok”, Martin said calmly.
Ruby spoke. back.”
“Justin, check behind the tree again, at the very back.”
Justin came back with a small silver-wrapped box. “It’s for Daddy.” Justin stared at the box, his eyes growing wide. 0It’s from Santa.”
“What the shoulders.
Heck? Martin glanced at Ruby. She shrugged her
The box rattled. Martin opened it carefully. Inside was his ring. He put his hand to his mouth. “But how… ?”
“Daddy, down. Santa gave you his ring.” Justin was jumping up and isn’t it great? You must’ve been really good, Santa really loves you.”
Martin sat still, holding the ring in his hands. Justin went upstairs to play.
“What can I say?” He laughed softly. “This is like that Christmas story. I don’t believe this. How did you do it?”
“Put it on,” she said, you deserve it. I knew what you’d done the moment I saw that ring in the jeweller’s window.”
“Where did you get the money?”
“I got an advance on my back pay from the hospital. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend it.”
The man with Santa’s hands carefully slipped the ring onto his finger. The stone shone brightly in the lights from the Christmas tree. He looked at his hands and the shape of his fingers. He wondered what destiny was mapped out in the lines on his palms. He looked at his hands again and wondered if they might not look a little like Santa’s after all.