Tales of Christmas Present–The Christmas Fare

Again, I have fallen short of my goal of producing three new Christmas stories this year.  This disappoints me as I’ve had a few weeks since school ended in which to work, but those weeks seemed to be more hectic than usual, even for someone who manages a large retail store at the holidays and I have, again, failed.  I would eventually like to put these and a number of other Christmas stories in an anthology with the “nice” stories on one side and the “naughty” stories on the other.  That, however, will require me to write a bunch more.

Maybe some day.

In the meantime, here is the one I sorta finished.  I didn’t really have a chance to polish it much, so I apologize for any ugly writing.

Lastly, I would like to wish anyone reading this a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

(Author’s Note:  You can follow the exact route taken in this story, and see everything mentioned, on Google StreetView.  Every landmark mentioned is really there.  My apologies to anyone (read Jennifer) who thinks it’s too heavy handed—I just ran out of time.)

The Christmas Fare

“Merry Christmas,” Jimmy said as his passengers stepped out of the cab. They smiled and waved at him through the window as they started up the sidewalk along Fifth Avenue. Bundled against the blowing snow, they walked briskly away, the man and the woman each holding one of the little girl’s hands as they disappeared into the night.

Jimmy pocketed the cash they gave him, including a generous tip, into the inside pocket of his coat. While he was parked, he checked the back seat to make sure the small family hadn’t left anything. Passengers were always leaving something behind and he didn’t relish the idea of chasing them down in this weather at the end of his shift.

Aside from a few wet footprints on the floorboard, the seat was empty and clean, the shine from the Armor-All he sprayed on it that morning still relatively intact despite eight hours of butts sliding in and out. Jimmy took meticulous care of his cab, inside and out, and he valued the days he didn’t have to clean out spilled Starbucks or pools of vomit. On those days, he would spend hours scooping, cleaning, disinfecting, and returning the interior of his cab to its regular, pristine condition. A clean cab was a profitable cab, he knew, and no one in all of New York had a cleaner cab than Jimmy Barnes.

Tonight, he was especially glad to have little maintenance to do to the cab. It was Christmas and, even if he did have to spend it at the hospital, he wanted to be with his daughter.

He flipped off his duty light and prepared to pull out onto Fifth when the back door opened. Sighing in frustration, he turned to tell the passenger that his shift had just ended, but that he could call another cab to…

A man sat in his back seat. Wearing a familiar red suit and a long, white beard, he looked at Jimmy with bloodshot eyes, a ragged bag and a belt lined with tiny brass bells in beside him on the seat. Drunk, Jimmy thought, but something in the man’s steady gaze made him doubt his gut. Regardless, he couldn’t tell a guy dressed up in a Santa suit to get out of his cab.

“Where to, Santa?” Jimmy asked.

“LaGuardia,” the man said, barely above a whisper.

Jimmy nodded, turned on the meter, and pulled out onto Fifth. He drove along in silence for a few blocks, but when he turned onto 79th, he couldn’t help himself.

“LaGuardia, huh? Taking a plane back to the North Pole.”

In the dark cab, Jimmy couldn’t see the man, but he heard a weary chuckle from the back seat.

“Something like that,” the man said.

Jimmy stopped at the light at Madison. Light traffic, mostly cabs like his, splashed through the slush in front of him. New York had seen its first white Christmas in several years and, while it was good for the season, the five or six inches of snow had kept millions of hearty New Yorkers at home with their glasses of eggnog rather than braving the elements. His business, the cab business thrived in such weather, though, so he didn’t mind.

Glancing in his rear view mirror, Jimmy could see the man in the back seat. He slouched against the door, his weary gaze seeming to stare into the darkened windows of Serafina.

“You okay, buddy?” Jimmy asked as the light turned green and he crossed Madison.

The man seemed to snap out of some deep thought and looked at Jimmy. From the glow of the streetlights, muted by the falling snow, he could see the man smile, the corners of his white moustache turning upward.

“Yes,” he said. “Just a little tired. I’m not as young as I used to be.”

“None of us are, my friend. None of us are.” Jimmy caught the yellow light and turned left onto Park Avenue. “I guess I’d be tired, too, if I had delivered toys all around the world last night.”

Again the man chuckled, a deep, throaty sound that embodied the weariness in the man’s eyes. “Like I said, I’m not as young as I used to be. And there’s a damn lot of kids in the world.”

“Well, you don’t have to explain it to me, buddy. I only have one and that’s more than enough,” Jimmy said. “In fact, as soon as I drop you off safe and sound a LaGuardia, I’m off to see her for Christmas.”

“That’s good,” the man in the back seat said. “Fathers should be with their daughters at Christmas.”

“Yeah,” Jimmy agreed. “I had to work late last night—picked up an extra shift—and then turn around and work again today, so we haven’t even had Christmas yet.”

“I’m sorry to keep you from getting home.”

Jimmy dismissed the apology with a wave. “Don’t worry about it. I’m not even going home. My daughter’s in the hospital, so I’m going there.”

At 85th, Jimmy waited behind four other cabs, watching the snow fall on the barren trees to his left. His thoughts drifted, as they often did, to Riley. Only when the car behind him honked did he realize the light had turned green and he could go.

“I’m sorry about your daughter,” the man said. Jimmy had nearly forgotten about him in his mental wanderings and he started at the voice. “Nothing serious, I hope.”

Jimmy never told passengers about his daughter and it surprised him that he was doing it now. Even so, when he opened his mouth to tell him that his daughter would be fine, he said something else entirely.

“Cancer,” Jimmy said, shocked to hear it spill from his lips so casually. “Not the fatal kind, thank God, but the kind that takes a long time and a lot of money to fix.”

Jimmy looked again in the rear view mirror and locked eyes with the man. He couldn’t see them well in the dim light, but he could see something else beyond the weariness. He could see sympathy, as though the man had reached through the partition and given him a reassuring grasp of his shoulder. To Jimmy, it felt as if the cab had filled with the compassion flowing from the dark eyes set deep beneath bushy white eyebrows, so much that Jimmy felt he couldn’t breathe from drowning in it.

“I’m sorry,” the man said, and Jimmy knew he was.

Jimmy turned right on 96th, drove past the library and stopped at the light on Lexington. Across the way, even the Starbucks was closed, the people normally lined up out the door left to make their own coffee. More cabs criss-crossed in front of him and when the light turned green, he drove on. He guided the cab through the slush and turned left onto the ramp for FDR Drive. He merged onto FDR and looked out through the snow at the black band of the East River to his right. After Riley’s diagnosis, he had come down to the river and thought of throwing himself in, of letting the water do what it would with him. But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t leave Riley to face her sickness alone.

“It’s okay,” Jimmy said. “I mean, it’s not okay, but it is what it is, you know? Riley—that’s my daughter, Riley—has been a real trooper through everything. To be honest, I think she’s been the one keeping me going instead of the other way around.” He took exit 17 to take the Triboro Bridge (damn those government types who wanted to call it the RFK—it would always be Triboro to him) and slowed down to navigate the slippery bridge. There were more cars here and he was careful to leave a good deal of space between himself and them. He breezed through the E-Z Pass lane at the toll booth, as thankful for that bit of technology as he was for the machines the hospital used to keep Riley alive as she endured surgery after surgery.

“She was only nine when she first got sick. At first, the doctors just said she had the flu or something, gave her some antibiotics, but it kept coming back. Finally, they ran a bunch of tests on her—the first of many—and came back with the words no parent wants to hear. Cancer. Now, understand, it’s just me. Riley’s mom ran out on us when Riles was just two and both my parents are dead, so it’s been just me and her forever. So, the doctor comes out and tells me my little girl has cancer…well, I just lost it. But damn if I didn’t have to find it again pretty quick. They took me back to see Riley and I held her while the doc explained what was going on and what was going to happen.”

Jimmy took the ramp for I-278 as his mind went back to how scared he was. It was right after that first talk with the doctor that he had gone down to the river. Even as his mind returned to it, he saw the sign posted next to the highway. “Life is worth living” it said, along with a number to call for people who want to debate the issue. Jimmy had not called the number. He hadn’t needed to. He only needed to think about his little girl, scared and alone in the hospital, to know that life, his life anyway, was indeed worth living. If only because she needed it to be.

Up ahead, flashing blue lights on the left side of the road marked a wreck. Jimmy slowed to a crawl as he approached and saw a white Nissan with the front end smashed where it had collided with the median. Gotta slow down in the snow, buddy, Jimmy thought.

“And Riley’s been great, just amazing, through the whole thing,” he continued. He still had no idea why he was telling this random passenger about Riley, but in doing so, Jimmy felt a weight lifting from him. He talked to strangers all day, every day, but almost never said anything of consequence. He commented on the weather, on the sites of New York, on news both local and national, and on whatever sport his passengers liked, but he never talked about his personal life. At least, not until now. “Every day, no matter what the doctors or nurses say, no matter how bad she feels or how sick she is from the poison they’re giving her to kill the cancer, she stays positive. Keeps her head up like nobody’s business. Even when I know she wants to give up, wants to just roll over and go to sleep, she keeps fighting. She’s strong, my Riley. Stronger than me, anyway, and I’m not afraid to say it.”

Jimmy glanced in his rear view mirror, but could see nothing in the darkness of the back seat but a silhouette in the headlights of the car behind them.

“I think she thinks she has to be strong for me. Doesn’t want me to see her cry. I’ve gone in sometimes after a shift and can see her red eyes and the damp spots on her pillow, but when I walk through the door, all the tears are gone. She won’t let me see them. Not a drop. I think she knows, deep down, that if I see hers, she’ll see mine and I don’t think she can handle seeing me cry.”

Traffic picked up as they neared the airport. Another wreck, this one on the off ramp to Astoria, made Jimmy let his foot a fraction more off the gas.

“And, you know, it’s hard,” he continued. “It’s hard because her mother ran out on us and it’s just been me and her. Just me and her. Every cut she’s had, every toy she’s broken, every math problem she couldn’t figure out, it’s been daddy to fix it. And I have. Even on a cabbie’s pay and with the bills piling up, it’s been daddy fixing things for her so she can have what she needs, even if it’s not what she wants. And, dammit, she doesn’t want much. Never asked for a goddamn thing in her life. She’s the most grateful kid—no, the most grateful human being—I’ve ever met. And let me tell you, pal, I’ve met a lot of damn people in this job.”

As he passed the exit for Brooklyn and Staten Island, I-278 changed to Grand Central parkway and Jimmy realized two things. First, he realized he was crying. Great tears poured unchecked down his cheeks and dropped onto his chest. The second thing he realized was that he didn’t care. He had not told any of his feelings about his daughter’s illness to anyone because, well, he just didn’t have any else to talk to. And if he couldn’t tell it to Santa, by God, who could he tell? Even as it was painful to give speech to the worries that had dogged him for years—that he wasn’t a good father, that he wasn’t a good provider for his daughter, that maybe she’d be better off with someone else—he felt a weight lifting from him in the telling.

“I mean, she’s just so damn strong,” Jimmy went on. “Riley. She’s just so strong and she makes me so proud and makes me want to be strong, but I’m . . . I’m just not strong. Not that strong. I put on a good face for her, but that’s all it is. Acting. And you wanna know the worst part about her? She’s so strong, she makes me feel weak. Everyone at the hospital tells me how strong she is, how she takes her treatments like a champ and tells me how proud I must be to have such a strong little girl, and I am, but sometimes I just wanna, you know, scream at them. I wanna tell them, yeah, she’s strong, but her dad’s a fucking coward who can’t pay his bills and doesn’t know how he’s gonna tell his strong little girl that her daddy couldn’t afford to buy her Christmas presents this year. And I can’t tell her that. I can’t tell her that because she’ll think it’s her fault. Her fault that her daddy is a shmuck who never went to college and drives a shitty cab around and can’t make ends meet. I can’t tell her that. Even if it’s true.”

By the time he reached the airport exit, Jimmy could barely see the road through his tears. He drove the cab up the ramp at a crawl, easing it into the sweeping curve that became Central Terminal Drive. Finally, he pulled up to the curb in front of the terminal and shifted the cab into park.

Jimmy wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt and turned around to face his passenger. “Look, pal, I’m sorry I—“

The man dressed as Santa Claus still sat in the back seat. Eye closed, the worn sack pulled over him like a blanket, he snored quietly, too low to be heard over the traffic and slushy roads.

Jimmy wanted to scream. He wanted to get out, throw the man onto the sidewalk, and, Santa suit or not, beat the shit out of him.

The feeling faded just as quickly as it came. He knew the guy probably couldn’t help falling asleep. He’d looked on the verge of collapse when he got in the cab and Jimmy couldn’t blame him for nodding off, no matter how much he wanted to. Besides, Jimmy still felt better having told the tale, still felt the burden lifted from his shoulders, even if the guy hadn’t heard a word of it.

“Hey, buddy,” Jimmy said, knocking on the Plexiglas partition between the front and back seats. “Hey, we’re here.”

The man opened his eyes and blinked at Jimmy.

“Hey, we’re at LaGuardia. Time to fly on back to the North Pole.”

Santa, still blinking, sat up and looked around. “Indeed we are.” He pulled three twenties from a coat pocket and handed them to Jimmy.

Jimmy pocketed the bills. “Thank you. Need any help?”

The man shook his head as he opened the door. He held up the empty sack and winked at Jimmy.

“No,” he said. “I’m traveling light tonight.”

“Well,” Jimmy said. “You have a Merry Christmas. What’s left of it, anyway.”

“Oh, I will.” The man winked again, closed the door, and disappeared into the crowd of people milling about in front of the terminal.

Jimmy shifted the cab into drive and pulled away from the curb when sound from the backseat made him pull back into the curb, drawing a long horn blast from the cab behind him. He shifted to park again and turned to find the belt with the rows of tiny brass bells lining its black leather still in the seat.

Grabbing the belt, Jimmy threw open his door, nearly getting run over by a limousine in the process, and ran after the man dressed as Santa. He weaved through traffic on the sidewalk just as easily as he could in his cab, but saw no sign of the red suit. He went into the terminal and looked around with similar luck. He asked a few airport security guards if they had seen a man dressed in a Santa suit.

“Yeah,” one of the guards chuckled, “He flew by here last night. Buzzed the tower and everything.”

“Maverick!” the other guard yelled, drawing strange looks from people walking nearby.

Jimmy gave them both the finger as they laughed and went on with his search for another twenty minutes before giving up. The belt still clutched in his hand, he walked back to the cab. He opened the door and tossed the belt inside, drawing a small cacophony from the bells. Only when he slid in and buckled his seatbelt did he see the folded note card atop his dash just above the steering wheel. Jimmy picked up the card and opened it. It was unadorned, the script written in a plain, bold hand.

Check your trunk.

Jimmy got out of the cab again and leapt to the back of the vehicle. He fumbled with his key for a moment before plunging it into the lock and opening the trunk.

Dozens of wrapped gifts of various sizes filled the trunk, all bearing tags with “For Riley” written in the same bold hand, surrounding a black leather briefcase. With trembling hands, Jimmy flipped the latches on the briefcase and opened it.

Stacks of neatly banded one hundred dollar bills filled the case. To be sure, Jimmy pulled one of the stacks out, keeping it below the rim of the trunk to be safe, and flipped through the bills with his finger. His hands shook violently now, and he struggled to return the band to the case.

Atop the stacks of bills lay another card. Jimmy picked this one up and nearly dropped it when he read it.

Tell Riley to have a Merry Christmas. And you have one as well. SC.

SC. Santa Claus.

Jimmy barely found the strength to shut the trunk lid. When he did and returned to the driver’s seat, he had to hold onto the cab for support and then slid into a sitting position. Instead of driving away, he sat parked against the curb and sobbed into his hands for a half hour. If anyone saw him, wondered what he was doing crying in a parked cab at LaGuardia, no one asked.

And then Jimmy did something else. Beginning in the pit of his stomach where, for so long, he had carried the worry of supporting his daughter, a laugh rose through him and burst from him like water from a geyser. He laughed until his sides hurt and he gasped for air, leaning over into passenger seat until he could stop.

Finally, after nearly an hour at the airport, Jimmy started the car and pulled away from the curb, heading for the hospital and his little girl. His strong Riley. His daughter, who would have Christmas after all.

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