Christmas 2020: Warmth

It’s been a long time since I started doing this little tradition — a new short story every Christmas. And it hasn’t always been easy. This year in particular, with so much going wrong in the world, it’s been very difficult to find the inspiration and the emotional fuel to write. I didn’t know for sure if it would happen this year. But somehow, it did. It’s my own little miracle, the way it always does. The germ of this story came to me about a week ago. The story itself took shape in about an hour. That may be why I think it’s good. The best stories, in my experience, are the ones where you aren’t fighting to get the words out… they’re the ones where you just peek into a world that’s already there and share it with people.

So Merry Christmas, everybody. I hope you enjoy your gift. It’s something that, in 2020, I think we all need a little of…

WARMTH

Jim was in the small lounge area the mall provided for the seasonal employees, eating a sandwich from the food court. Deena Stuart had been working with him for weeks now, this gargantuan man, the tallest person she had ever seen in real life. She — like everyone in the world — knew the basics of his story, where he came from, how he came to be, but seeing him in person was still strange. Seeing him eat a sandwich like anybody else was stranger still. She sat at the table across from him, poking a fork into her salad, and smiled. He returned the smile, but neither of them spoke at first.

“It’s permissible to ask, you know,” he finally said.

“Sorry. It’s just… I figure you must be sick and tired of answering questions all the time.”

“I appreciate the concern my dear, but in my advanced years I have found it far more practical to simply say what’s on your mind rather than pretend it isn’t.” His eyes met hers and, although she suppressed a shudder at the notion, she saw no malice in them. “Go ahead.”

“Well… What do people call you? I mean, I know you go by ‘James Pratt’ now, but that’s not your real name, is it?”

“It is the name on my driver’s license, my passport, my credit cards,” he said. “It is real enough for the government.”

“I’m sorry, I meant–”

“I know. That’s fine. What you really want to know, I believe, is why I decline to use my father’s name.”

“I guess so.”

“It is perhaps the question I am most used to. My father rejected me. Most resoundingly. And although I have grown wise enough to realize my response to that rejection may have been out of order, why would I choose to take the name of someone who wanted no part of me?”

“I guess that makes sense.”

“Thank you. No, Jim Pratt will suffice. It gives honor to men who did far more for me than my creator ever did, and I have grown quite accustomed to it.”

“Okay, fair enough.” She returned to her salad, hoping the warmth in her cheeks wasn’t too obvious to his ancient eyes… eyes which, she tried not to notice, were still trained on her.

“I must say, I’m surprised.”

“By what?”

“Your question. I’ve heard it many times, of course, but considering the circumstances of our mutual employment, I confess, I expected you to ask me why I was here.”

“Well… I mean, there is that. You’re one of the most famous people in the world.”

“Indeed, for deeds both famous and infamous. And while many good people — such as yourself — have accepted me as part of the same natural world that birthed you, there are still others who have not. How many of our patrons, do you suppose, would panic and flee if they realized who I was? How many would contact the media, would protest in the front of the shopping center, would–”

“Get out the torches and pitchforks?”

For a second, Deena was afraid her joke had gone too far, but after a moment of shocked silence, the wrinkles at the edges of Jim’s eyes crinkled and his mouth pulled up into a smile. His laughter boomed in a way that no doubt would betray his location to some of the children outside if the hustle of the mall the week before Christmas wasn’t loud enough to drown it out.

“Precisely, my dear, precisely. Oh goodness, see what I mean? Isn’t it preferable to be able to say what’s on your mind rather than dancing around the situation?”

“Yeah, it is,” she said. She ate a little more, watched him return to his sandwich, would have been content to end the line of questioning there, but…

“Why do you do it?” she asked.

“Young lady, do you really want to know?”

“I think you really want to tell,” she said. “I don’t think you would have brought it up if you didn’t.”

“Miss Stuart… you are in college, is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Psychology major?”

“No.”

“You should be.” He took another bite from his sandwich and chewed. With his beard off, she could see the muscles in his jaw and neck work, how they rippled past a seam, how the tissue all connected and was pieced together. The work was flawless, almost a perfect construction, with only the inevitable telltale signs of patchwork betraying Jim’s true nature. His creator may not have been much of a father, but what he did, he did masterfully.

“My life, Miss Stuart, has been a cold one. My father decided immediately upon my birth that he wanted nothing to do with me. I found myself attached to a kind and loving family at one point, but they too spurned me upon discovering how I had… well, in modern terms, I suppose I was technically stalking them. In fairness, their reaction may not have been undeserved.”

“I guess not.”

He picked up a napkin and brushed some crumbs from his lips. “The last time I saw my father was on a ship in the arctic. We had pursued one another there, each intent upon our mutual destruction. And many believed that we were successful — it was not until some decades later that it became known to the world at large that I had survived our encounter. By then, Mr. Whale’s film had become wildly popular, you see, and I thought it would be safe to reveal myself, that I would finally find acceptance. I was… regrettably incorrect.”

“What are you talking about? People love those movies — they love you.”

“They love the idea of me, my darling. They love a tragic beast they can stamp into lunchboxes or turn into a Halloween mask. But when faced with the reality… well, I don’t know how much you know about my life in the last half-century, but there were many difficult times. You have a kind face. You seem to have a kind heart. Not everyone can claim the same.”

“There have always been ignorant people in the world.”

“And there always will be, but there are also good people, fine people who stand up and force the world to count everyone. I admire such people. But I, my love, am a demographic of one. There is no one else in the world like me, no one to stand up for me except for myself.”

“And people don’t like it when someone stands up for themself, do they?” 

“In over two hundred years of life, dear, I assure you, that has always been a constant.”

She shook her head. “I guess I never thought about it. I mean, racism, sexism… we can see that anywhere, but you–

“At first, I accepted the derision. After all, it was not entirely unjustified, was it? There is blood on my hands, as anyone who read Madame Shelley’s book knows. But that was so very long ago. I regret it. I have attempted to atone for it, and even in a court of law, I was judged to have served an adequate sentence for my crimes.” He sighed, another process — like eating — which drew her eye to the necessary imperfections in his form. “But there will always be people incapable of forgiveness. Their coldness is, in many ways, worse than my father’s. He had the defense of having to deal with something the human race had never seen before. But there are few people left in the world who remember it before I was a part of it. What’s their excuse?”

“How can people still hate you? I mean… knowing what they know?”

“People know what they wish to know,” he said. “But it is in the past few decades that the chill has truly begun to set in.”

“How?”

“About ten years ago, I was in Los Angeles. It was one of those periods where it again became fashionable to attempt to profit from my story, and while I may not be able to stop all the retellings, I can at least attempt to ensure their accuracy. While there, I was befriended by a film producer and her husband. We became quite close. We would dine at restaurants together, attend the theater, visit all the fashionable functions. After several months, one day I decided to visit their home unannounced. Their son — he was perhaps eight years old at the time — greeted me at the door, and the mother promptly hid him away. She tried to hide the fear and disgust in her eyes, but it was there. And when I heard his father in the next room berate the child for opening the door and telling him to ‘disinfect’ himself…”

“Oh my god.”

“Yes. I realized, then, just how public all our many adventures together were. There was no place without an audience, no place without a camera. Until that day, I was not even aware that they had a child.”

“Jim, that…”

“Sucks?”

“That’s what I was looking for.”

“I was born in an age without electronics, without film, without recording devices. Even simple photography was in its infancy. Now we live in a world where deeds that go undocumented may as well not have even happened. The vipers this world have unleashed are the coldest of all. A public bigot may be a bigot, but at least he is honest. Some, I have discovered, may even be reasoned with. But an individual who claims open-mindedness, when in fact they merely want to signal to the world how ‘open-minded’ they are… That is a type of frigidity the arctic itself cannot match.” 

“I had a roommate like that in college. She chose her boyfriends based on how ‘generous’ it would make her look when she posted their pictures online.” Deena chuckled. “The best day ever was when this guy with Multiple Sclerosis told her to get lost, he wasn’t there to get her Fake Internet Points.” She and Jim shared a laugh at that.

“The lovely irony is that so many of the people out there will share a picture of me after they leave and have no idea what they’re sharing,” he said. “The parents, anyway, the children don’t care either way. They sit on your lap and tell you they’ve been good and tell you what they want and tell you they love you. That or they cry and urinate. And even that isn’t so bad, as it is genuine. Everyone in the world knows who I am. The children are more impressed by the man I pretend to be.” He smiled. “I wonder, sometimes, if any of the parents I see today are children who sat upon my lap when I first started doing this. I wonder if they’ve continued to behave themselves, as they promised me they would back then, or if they’re simply like everyone else who wants to show the world that they’re good, instead of genuinely being good. But in those moments, you know, it doesn’t matter. When I sit in that chair and hold the child and have my picture taken, it’s entirely real. Children have no guile, Miss Stuart. It is one of the many ways in which they are superior to the rest of us.”

He glanced at the clock, then reached for the beard and hat on the chair next to him. “Our break time is almost up, love, we had best make ourselves presentable.”

She picked up her own hat — green, contrasting his bright red, but carefully shaped to not disguise the pointed ears she wore. “You still haven’t really answered the question, though, Jim. Why, out of everything in the world you could be doing… why this?”

He smiled at her. “My darling Miss Stuart, I thought that would be clear by now. I do not know that ours is the coldest world imaginable. I don’t even know if I hope that it is or that it is not. But I do know this.”

The white beard covered the seams on his neck and jawline perfectly. The mustache seemed to change the shape of his features, and when the hat was placed upon his head this giant of a man took on a wholly different persona. Although his eyes were never unkind, it was only in full costume that Deena saw them twinkle.

“In all the icy years of my life, this task I have chosen to undertake once a year is the first time I have been truly warm.”