Here’s the second of this year’s Christmas stories. It’s short–shorter anyway than what I normally do–but it only needs as many words as it takes to tell the story.
THE COFFEE SHOP
The sole customer at the Crossroads Diner sat at the counter, both hands holding a steaming cup of coffee. He wore a thin, ragged coat, little protection against the harsh weather of northwestern Minnesota that, even now, was beating with wintry fury at the front windows. The rest of his clothes, from his worn out workboots to his threadbare jeans to his holey flannel shirt, gave him the appearance of a drifter, someone fallen on hard times. Beneath the curtain of his long, brown hair, he stared at the black liquid as though he might divine some truth from the tiny ripples created by the slightest touch of his fingers.
The man was not alone at the diner, but he might as well have been. A young lady stood at the far end of the counter, eyeing him with suspicion. She had not spoken when he came in, no smiling “Merry Christmas” or chestnut comment about the weather. She had simply stood there, silently awaiting his order, and seemed relieved when he sat down and said only, “Coffee”.
He was still on his first cup, even though the sign by the front door advertised free refills.
The door of the diner opened, allowing a blast of cold air into the small space. Snow swirled in to settle on the tables nearest the entrance and napkins blew free of their wire holders in imitation of the flakes. The woman kept her eyes locked on the man at the counter for another second, then spared a look at the newcomer with anxious eyes.
He was short and round, shorter and rounder even than most of the people who portrayed him in malls and parades around the world. His hat was not pointed, but was instead squarish, like a hunter’s cap, with flaps that he had tied to cover his ears, and a deep burgandy instead of the common cherry red. The entire suit, top to bottom, was lined with thick, gray fur that matched the color of his thick beard.
Santa wiped the snow from his eyes and looked around the diner. He smiled, the beard twitching slightly, and stomped the packed snow from his boots before making his way through the tables to the counter. He sat down next to the other man, took off his coat, and looked down at the young woman.
“Coffee,” he said, and she complied, pouring him a cup and placing it in front of him. She started to walk away, but he said, “Leave the pot, if you don’t mind.”
She did, plopping a towel on the counter between the two men and placing the hot decanter atop it.
“That’ll be all for now, I think,” Santa Claus said to the young woman. “Can you give us a bit?”
She nodded, staring at him in wonder, and backed away into the kitchen.
When they were alone, Santa took a sip of his coffee, then said, “How have you been?”
“Oh,” the man said. “hanging in there. And you?”
Santa took another sip of his coffee. “The same, always the same. Licensing agreements and merchandise contracts and royalty payments and drama with the elves and the PETA people complaining about my unethical use of reindeer.” He gave the man a wry grin, his eyes twinkling. “Every year gets a little tougher.”
The man chuckled. “Tell me about it. The polls—if you can believe those things—say I’m fading in the public consciousness, and I can see why. With the Muslims and the liberals and the scientific community all taking shots at me, it’s a miracle anyone remembers me at all.”
Santa set his coffee mug on the counter. “And I certainly don’t help matters. I’m the very symbol of your problem.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” the man said.
“No,” Santa replied, “it’s true. Go into any store in this country right now and what will you find? Me. Santa hats, Santa stickers, Santa-shaped chocolates, plush Santas and animatronic Santas playing a saxophone.” He put one hand on the man’s shoulder and, with the other, pointed at himself. “I don’t even play the saxophone. I can barely play the bass guitar the missus bought me ten or twenty years ago.”
The man smiled, despite himself. “I’m pretty good on drums. Maybe we should start a band.”
“You’re missing the point,” Santa said. “Here I am, the very emblem of commercialism, my chubby ass everywhere, and where are you in amidst my sea of merchandise? I tell you where—nowhere—and I’m a big part of the problem.”
The man looked at Santa. “This is really bothering you, isn’t it?”
Santa bent down over his coffee cup, looking embarrassed. “Well, I am Saint Nicholas. Despite appearances, I do have my priorities straight.”
“I know you do, old friend,” the man said, patting Santa’s back.
They sat again in silence for some time. When both of them had finished their coffee, the man looked up at the clock above the grill.
“You should probably head out,” he said. “You still have half the Western Hemisphere to go.”
“I suppose so,” Santa said, sliding down off the stool. He started for the door, but the man reached out and grabbed his shoulder.
“Look, I don’t blame you, and you shouldn’t blame yourself. You’re not the cause of this mess, just another product of it. You think Thomas Aquinas or Mother Theresa want your responsibility? And, if you really think about it, you really do represent what is right about this season, what it’s all about, even if the message gets a little mixed up these days. Generosity, kindness, faith—all of these things you bring to the world are what we have in common. Except I have to do it without the elves and reindeer, of course.”
The man smiled and Santa, pulling on his coat, smiled back.
“I guess you’re right,” Santa said. “As always.”
“Of course I am.”
The man reached into his coat and pulled out a worn leather wallet, but Santa grabbed him by the forearm.
“No,” Santa said. “My treat.”
“No buts,” Santa argued. “You can pick it up next year.”
The man put his wallet away. “If you insist.”
Santa reached into his coat, pulled out a silver money clip, and peeled two twenties from the thick wad of bills it held.
“Business has been good,” Santa said, his cheeks turning a shade of red that had nothing to do with the cold.
Santa made his way to the door and opened it. Snow swirled in about him and he breathed in deeply, closing his eyes. A second later, his eyes darted open and he looked back at the man still seated at the counter.
“I almost forgot,” Santa said. He reached into another pocket of his coat and pulled out a small, wrapped box with a silver bow on top. He weighed it in his hand for a moment, then tossed it to the man.
“What’s this for?” the man asked.
“It’s for you,” Santa said. “After all, it is your birthday.”
With a sly smile, Santa went out into the storm, closing the door behind him.