A HOLIDAY STORY
"Goddammit, get this thing off me!" The fat, bearded figure, clad in burgundy velour and trimmed with fuzzy DuPont white, kicked aside the squirming, mottled little bundle. A chocolate-smeared, towheaded boy approached Santa with care, not so sure now how pleased he is to be next in line.
I should know better than to put my Christmas shopping off until the last minute. I was at Thymeleaf Faire Mall (just off I-5, across from IHOP and Al's Jalopy Joint!), which was now a seething, sulfurous pit of anguish and resentment, ripe with the stench of corrupted human souls. This kind of thing is so much easier in the beginning of November.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" I yell, and snatch up the offending toddler. I had indignation to spare, having just gotten through arguing with some asinine sow who wanted to castigate a teller for having issued an ill-advised "Happy Holidays!" with her receipt.
"This ugly thing," Santa jabbed his white-gloved finger at it, "won't get off my jock. Brenda, tell him!" He was now appealing to the nearby rent-a-cop, a largish black woman with relaxed golden hair. But her face was stone, and she looked at neither of us.
Holding the restive child fast to my chest, I gaped at him momentarily. I know how sensitive the poor are to insults predicated on their poverty, and I am a petty being. "Fuck you, you homeless piece of shit."
He jumped from his injected plastic throne, knocking over a stunned second-grader in the process, and lunged at me, to the accompaniment of a dozen parents' dismayed cries. I feigned to turn and run from him, and when he was within arm's reach, I knelt and kicked backwards. My aim was true. I felt his kneecap give nicely under my heel. He screamed like a woman in labor. He tried to rise once, then fell back and vomited on the carpeted dais. His rich brown spew was redolent of whiskey and reconstituted beef.
I walked away, humming a Chinese folktune I remembered from some movie. I looked back only once, to note that Brenda was ignoring me in favor of calming, with the help of several elves, the panicking children and their parents.
Who knew it could be so satisfying to cripple Jolly Saint Nick?
One of Thymeleaf Faire Mall's more dubious claims to fame are its public water fountains. They were designed by a local sculptor best known for his love of methamphetamines and teenage girls. They are beautiful and inspiring -- in other words, useless. In order to drink from them one must stick one's head deep inside the beaten copper bowl and crane one's neck at a breaking angle.
I was sitting on a concrete bench overhung with vinyl foliage, rifling through my spoils, deciding who would get the Godiva chocolates and who the two pounds of Peet's (you'll know with this letter how that worked out.) I had almost completely forgotten about the infant when I turned and saw it at one of those fountains. My first reaction was to wonder at its agility: it couldn't have been more than a year old by the size of it, and yet here it was, climbing as well as any older toddler. And then my heart gave out, as I saw the trouble it was having with that gorgeous, infernal fountain.
With a hint of self-consciousness, I held the child upside-down and at the optimum angle, and dipped its head in the bowl. It lapped at the stream, practically gobbling the water. In fact, so like a nursing kitten it was that it had practically wriggled out of my two hands. By the time I knew what was going on (as though I ever do...), it was supporting itself by its own hands against the inside of the bowl, and only one calf was in my grasp.
"We havin' some trouble here?" Another rent-a-cop, this one a reedy, sleazy-looking white guy with bulging eyes approached.
I knew immediately what this looked like. "Oh, no, this isn't what you think. It's just, these fountains are so difficult to use, and she was so thirsty..." In an instant, you notice, I had settled on a pronoun at random, to be politic, and once again, senselessly prescient.
I pulled the infant out, and to my relief, it cooed happily. "Oh, yeah," he said with obvious relief. "Hey, at least someone can use these things."
"No kidding, huh?"
"By the way, great job with that Santa. Guy's a real asshole. Not exactly my style, but you got the job done."
I smiled at him. It's so rare to see friendly people so close to Christmas.
The security guard reached out an exploratory digit and made "cootchie-coo" sounds at the child. "Hey little darlin'..."
She turned to face him.
"Whoa, man! Jesusfuckingchrist!" He backed off, shaken.
"What's wrong?" I turned the infant back to me, and saw at once what startled him. "Oh."
"Sorry man. I didn't mean --."
"No, it's all right. It's understandable." At least to me, I thought better than to add. I see too many things like this.
"You have a nice day, huh?" He sauntered off and shook his head.
It was then that I decided I must see to the child's needs. I set it on my lap before me and examined it. It had the intelligent eyes of a toddler (though oddly glazed), but was little larger than an eight month-old, and completely hairless. Its skin was raw red, and shot through with many veins and arteries. It grabbed my right hand and wrestled with it, and nibbled playfully on my index finger with its two rows of translucent, serrated teeth. There was something very, very off about this baby.
There was no scent of filth, but I thought to check the swaddling. I was mildly horrified to find it consisted only of a very large pair of stained, threadbare panties -- pink. With haste, I rewrapped the child without even bothering to determine its sex.
I knew then that this child, this little homunculus, could only be the work of my esteemed employer, Doctor Castellofabrizio.
I consulted the backlit map of the mall at the information kiosk, which was surrounded by acrid-smelling skatepunks. I found the baby store. I found the mother of the child shortly thereafter, as I staggered by under the weight of new diapers and single-piece pajamas. The woman was slumped over next to a small shopping cart brimming with black plastic bags and soda bottles. She smelled of urine and stale malt liquor. I tried to wake her, but with no luck. A seared glass pipe rolled out of her hard, blackened fingers. Clearly she had freebased more than her share of Christmas cheer.
Next to her, in a pile of drab rags, lay the infant's twin, wrapped in a similar manner as mine. It was dead.
Looking back, I suppose I was fortunate that I was not stopped by the highway patrol on the return to our windswept, brine-soaked promontory: I was in such a hurry to confront my boss about this monstrosity that I had neglected to purchase a child's carseat!
I parked, and before the portcullis had even rose above my height, I had stormed through the courtyard to the elevator that serviced the black-streaked granite keep. The doctor was in his office. He had been waiting for me.
Doctor Castellofabrizio was once my lover. Or, to be more accurate, we once had sex. It made sense, in a way. It was a moment of convenience. I could never love him, and with me he had no fear of falling into any entanglements he might with a woman. His natural inclination towards heterosexuality precluded his seeing me as anything other than a possible physical outlet. Now I shudder at the memory of his touch. I suppose I'm lucky it never affected my career...
He smiled at me coolly (always coolly), "I was afraid you had forgotten our meeting."
Shit! I thought, barely conscious of the sleeping bundle I still carried, The grant schedule!
He is a tall, muscular man, pugnaciously handsome, bald but for a fringe of graying brown hair cropped close. And he has the oddest ability to turn his head in such a way that the glare off of his wire-rimmed glasses always obscures his eyes. Indeed, the only time I've ever seen his eyes was when he fucked me -- they were dark, and glittered with hunger as any man's would.
"What have we here?" He asked, and relieved me of the child. He let out a little gasp.
"I found it at the mall."
"Her," he said softly.
I suddenly wondered if the same seed that once gushed hotly onto my thigh had informed the genesis of this "girl." And I was surprised at how dispassionately I considered the possibility.
He turned to me, his face a mask of planes and shadows. "Where is the other one? The boy?"
To have been caught in a lie then might very well have meant death, our past notwithstanding. "I saw only her."
"I found what I thought to be the mother."
"She was the host. Probably the best thing that ever happened to her: she was clean for months." With that, he grasped the infant by her head and twisted, cleanly. It wasn't like the movies. At least, I heard no sound.
You might be shocked at my composure in the face of this tableau. You shouldn't be. It was just cowardice. I watched him toss the body in the translucent medical waste bin by the south wall.
Would you turn your nose up at renting from a man you knew to be a wifebeater, if your only options were a shelter or the street? You probably would. But I'm no hero.
He turned back to me as though nothing had happened -- for indeed, nothing had as far as he was concerned. "So, about the grant schedule..."
"I was holding out for five new family foundations." My voice was robotic, my stomach queasy. "I didn't want to run a report from the Raiser's Edge until I had them in there. The initial contacts were promising, though. An average of $5,000 from each."
"Send me a draft as an attachment in Excel. Nice boilerplate, by the way."
"Thanks." I rose as steadily as nerves permitted, and turned to leave.
"Oh, and Robert?"
"Merry Christmas. Candy has your bonus check."
I waited downstairs, behind a column, for almost ten minutes before he finally stepped out of the returning elevator after me. It was too good to be true: the incinerator had not gone on, and he had no time to toss anything else.
Once he was safely through the exit to the southeast tower, I made my way back to the elevator. I knew the passwords that would get me by Doctor Moore's chrome-plated, cybernetic guards. And as a nominal executive in this mad, crooked enterprise, my retinal scans would get me into the Doctor's office.
My plan was simple: to retrieve the body and bury it. I was resolved for once to do something decent. I assumed the mother (or host -- whatever), being poor and white, was some sort of Christian -- a prejudiced assumption, I know. And I am not one. But how hard could it be to dig a hole, fashion a cross, and say some sort of prayer, even if I didn't mean it?
I'm sure I cut a fine figure as I approached the nasty bin: a faggoty, paperback version of Antigone, rushing ignobly off to bury something that never should have lived to begin with.
Imagine how my heart leapt when I heard that wet slap of a tiny hand against the inside of the bin. The poor thing! She was covered in nameless, scabbled gore, and a syringe protruded from her fat little left thigh. Yes, her neck seemed broken, but she was alive!
I cradled her as gently as I could and dashed for the elevator. The whole way, she emitted the most pitiful, staccato-like cries.
I pleaded. I dealed. "Look, Abel, there's a present in it for you."
"A present?" asked Doctor Abel Gomez in his aw-shucksiest, little-boy voice. He's very good at that, even though he's in his 40s, because he will always have the body and face of a nine year-old.
At once, his face crinkled and transformed with malicious glee. "A present? From you? I'll bet it doesn't come in a box!" He screamed and cackled his best junior-mad scientist cackle.
I let him have his fun. Minutes later, she was clean and framed in a formidable, four-pillared neckbrace.
"What's that?" I asked, referring to the suspicious needle he brandished.
"It'll help her heal faster." He didn't bother explaining the scientific details. He knows I'm no brainiac. "Don't worry, babies bounce back!" He held her over the flagstone floor, cruelty splashed across his childish little face. "Wanna see?"
I take her from him. "I'll pass." However, I was hard-pressed to disagree. After seeing what some of my girlfriends have subjected their babies to, I'm almost inclined to think the little buggers fireproof.
Once again, Abel was the sweet little boy. "What are you gonna call her?"
"Oh, crap, never mind. It's the holidays. You faggots are as emotional as women. You'll think of something terribly appropriate and clever. Forget I asked."
"I think I'll call her 'Mary.'"
"Great, and when she gives birth to Christ the Lord, she can use those chompers to sever her own umbilical..."
I carried her then to his cluttered workbench, and emptied his large lunchbasket of its cheese, baguettes, and cabernet. I placed her in it with care.
"Hey, what the hell are you doing?"
"Stealing your basket. Don't worry, you'll get it back soon enough."
As I backed towards the door, he spit at me and followed me with a scalpel. "Goddamn you, I bought that at Sur La Table!"
Without flinching, I held my ground. I knelt before him, to bring my eyes level with his. I put on my kindest, most expansive face. "Abel."
He swallowed hard, and Mary and I left.
I've retired, now, to my apartments in the northwest tower. When I came in bearing the basket, the carrion eaters perched outside my window were jostling each other in anticipation of a meal. Their faces, the needle-fanged faces of old men, bobbed obscenely on their craning, red-waddled necks. They looked so forlorn when I closed the curtains...
Yes, I started this letter just to wish you a Merry Christmas. But I wanted to reassure you as well. I know you disapprove of this life, and fear for me when you hear of some of the goings-on at the Castle. Just let me remind you, the pay is decent, I get full dental, and otherwise life here has its moments. I adore Candy, and Doctor Fong and I get on well enough.
And now -- for now, at any rate -- I have Mary. I will not sleep with her in my bed, as I have no way of knowing what predatory genes Castellofabrizio has spliced into her, and I'd hate to wake up missing half a face.
I'm going to take one of those lovely cigarillos from the tin you sent me and light up. I've earned it. What a day!
I'll rock Mary now (yes, I have a cradle), and sing to her. "Oh, holy night, the stars are brightly shining..." At least, that's how I'll begin. I'll have to hum the rest -- I don't really know the lyrics.
Wishing you Happy Holidays, your enduring friend,