Christmas Eve, 1965
“Merry Christmas, Happy Harris! Merry Christmas, Mrs. Mongoose!”
Dozens of six-year-old faces, augmented by fuzzy brown ears and painted whiskers, smiled up at the little stage, appearing oblivious to the cameras and lights, just they always did, five days a week, week in, week out…
“And Merry Christmas to you, my Happy Hamsters, and all the kids in New York City,” answered a male falsetto voice from inside a fuzzy brown costume that did look something like an animal.
Standing next to this apparition, a compact man in green plaid suit and black derby hat wore a grin that a Great White would envy.
“And children, don’t forget…”
The tots bleated in unison, “Every day is a Happy day when you greet it with a smile!”
Hank hung his green suit on the door and set the derby down on the dressing table for the wardrobe lady. In his newsboy cap and black overcoat, he slipped past the clutch of kids waiting to be photographed with the mongoose, and out the back door into the alley.
He saw a boy at the street end of the alley stoop and pick up a coin. Approaching, Hank saw him add it to several in his palm and count. A slight child of 11 or 12, he stood remarkably straight, given the bulky bag slung across his shoulder.
Can’t get away from these kids anywhere, thought Hank. No peace even on Christmas Eve. He sighed. He had always loved Christmas as a child, the lights, the singing, the merry mood, all had infected his soul from an early age. And when he went to the theatre for the first time, he felt just like it was Christmas all over again.
Probably why I chose a life on the stage, he thought. Some stage now, soundstage full of squealing little hamsters, thousands more transfixed in Television Land. He shuddered.
But Hank couldn’t help wondering what the boy was doing there. He started to say something, then thought the better of it. He had enough of kids on the job. He was almost past him …
“Hey mister,” said the boy, “You got the time?”
“Almost twenty after five.” Hank started to walk on, then turned to ask, “You run away from home?”
“Home? Oh, the bag? No, I just…wait, aren’t you Henry Harris? I saw you on Broadway!”
“Not likely. Maybe your parents.”
“Parents? No, I remember, you’re a big star, musicals.”
“Merry Christmas, kid,” said Hank, and started east at a brisk trot. The boy followed, jogging to keep pace.
”Wait up. Walk me to Macy’s?”
“What, you need to shop? Didn’t look like you had much cash, kid. Hey, what’s your name, anyway?”
“Mickey. Money, gee, I don’t think much about that…”
The store was packed with panicky procrastinators.
“Listen Mickey, we’ve been here an hour and you still don’t know what you want.”
“I don’t see it. Oh, and I guess I can tell you. It’s not Mickey, it’s Ricky.”
“Nice to meet you again,” said Hank. They were riding up on the rickety wooden escalator. “What the heck are you looking for?”
Stepping off the escalator, Ricky pointed to a sign that said “North Pole, 3 levels up”.
“Let’s go there!”
“C’mon Mr. Harris. Ask Santa for what you want.”
“Kid, you’re old enough to know that the guy in the suit is hired by the store to increase sales. The only present I’m going to get from Macy’s is my ex-wife’s bill. And call me Hank.”
“Do you believe in anything, Hank?”
“Not in Santa Claus.”
A little boy waiting to meet Santa bawled.
“Too bad,” said Ricky.
The crying child was minded by his big sister, who snapped, “I’m bored, and it’s not my fault Santa’s a fake!”
Her little brother really wailed then.
Ricky shrugged, “Gee, I’m sure glad it’s Christmas Eve and everybody’s so happy.”
Hank winced. “No my favorite word. Excuse me a second, I can’t stand this kid screaming blue murder.”
Approaching the little boy, Hank removed his cap, sat on the floor, and grinned. “Hey little hamster, what’s your name?”
“Jeff,” he replied, wiping his tears.”
“Hey Jeff, how would you like to come to the studio next week?”
His sister made a face. “That corny show.”
“You’re corny too, sister,” Hank told her, “You just don’t know it yet. So Jeff, what is Santa getting you?”
Jeff whispered, “I don’t really believe in that, I just pretend cause it bothers Lisa.”
“Little fellow, you should be glad you have a big sister to look out for you.”
“Oh dear, is something the matter? I just went to use the pay phone.”
Hank suddenly found himself staring up into the most remarkably deep green eyes he had ever seen.
Lisa piped in, “Mommy, Jeffy’s being a brat again.”
“Am not. And I’m going to be on Happy’s show!”
“Happy? You’re Happy Harris! Lisa used to be crazy for you.”
“Thanks. No trouble, really.” He reached into his jacket pocket. “Here’s my card, your husband can call me next week and…”
“My daddy died in Vietnam,” Jeff said.
Lisa looked down. “We don’t say that to people.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Hank.
“We’re doing fine, and thank you so much,” replied their mother with an almost believable smile. “I will call. Merry Christmas.”
Ricky stood nearby. He held a red thermos in his hand. “This is what I want.”
“For coffee. I can’t to eat my cookies with milk. Sometimes a guy just wants a hot cup of Joe. Only…”
“It costs three dollars and I only have 63 cents.”
Hank reached into his pocket and came up with a five.
“Here you go. Hey, want a hot dog or something?”
“Gotta fly. I’ll pay you back though. And listen, when that lady calls next week, her name’s Miriam by the way, make sure you’re real nice to her on the phone. And when she brings Jeff to the studio, buy her a cup of tea and sit a while. She’s a great lady, she thinks you’re handsome, and she’s writing a play that could be a really big hit if she meets the right people.
“Get outta here!”
“In a minute. Lisa is going to go to law school, Jeff wants to sing and dance, just like his…just like you, Hank.”
“Poor kid. Why should I believe you, Ricky?”
“Uh, it’s not Ricky.”
“Don’t tell me it's Vicky.”
The boy chuckled. “You’re funny, this should work. Nicky, my name is Nicky. And I’m good for that five. Hey look!”
Hank turned in the direction Nick was pointing. Elves gave candy to children in line.
Behind him, Nicky called out, “Merry Christmas.”
Hank turned, but his young friend was nowhere to be seen.
Hank washed down an Oreo with the last of his hot milk. The Yule log burned on TV in front of him, while a chorus sang, “You better watch out…” He felt himself nodding and closing the box of cookies on the coffee table, went to bed.
7:46 AM, Christmas Day
Hank prepared coffee in the kitchen. He looked for the cookies. Must have left them out, he thought.
Entering the living room, he reached for the box. Empty.
“Hey,” he said aloud, certain he had not eaten them all. He lifted the box and shook.
Out fell a five-dollar bill.
Copyright 2003 by Linda Di Gusta All Rights Reserved, originally published by Carrie Berry in Gator Springs Gazette and the anthology, Quilted.