Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Chapter Four

Thursday / December 20, 2007

What my mother didn’t know when I hung up on her was that our little conversation would wind up being the catalyst for my Christmas homecoming debacle. The guilt trips might not have produced her desired outcome on impact, but their residual effects would be a key factor in me getting on a plane to Florida the next day.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After I turned my phone off and returned it to my purse, I tried to clear my head and reclaim my positive feelings from earlier in the day. I pictured Fred’s smiling face encouraging me to continue with my excursion to the mall even though the thought of facing the holiday shopping crowd was making my bowels cramp.

Still, I had just about talked myself out of a funk when I came upon my second subtle geriatric messenger of the day. This one was a leather skinned homeless man with stooped shoulders in a Santa suit outside Bloomingdale’s . The suit appeared to be as old as its wearer. It had faded to a dark pink with enough holes in it that I thought it might have been used once to tame a bull. Now it hung loosely off the old man who was proffering a bright red pail with one hand and ringing a bell with the other.

I saw this as my chance to get right with God, Jesus, Buddha, Karma or whoever the case may be and erase my earlier snub of the old lady. I figured it might possibly even put my own grandparents in good graces. So I stepped over to the man, offered him a bright smile, and started to dig deep in my purse for loose change.

“Merry Christmas,” he said as I started to drop the coins into the bucket. When I reached for my wallet, his tight-lipped grin became an open expanse that showed off his yellow smile. Those few teeth that were still attached to his gums appeared at war with each other over which direction they should turn in, though none of them seemed intent on occupying the vacated spaces left by their former companions.

“I think I have a few more quarters in here,” I said to him as I unzipped the change pocket on the back of my wallet.

Maybe if I hadn’t been so caught up in doing what I thought was a good deed, I would have been more observant and possibly noted that this man’s red bucket was rusted at the edges and in fact had no signs of any recognizable charity. Or maybe I would have given a second thought to the way his gray eyes darted around nervously or the way he had positioned himself so that I was between him and the street, my hands and purse blocked from the sight of passersby.

But no. My mother’s words were still ringing in my ears so loudly I didn’t think to question the old man with a bucket standing in front of Bloomingdale’s in broad daylight. At least, not until the moment when his bony hand dropped the bell into the bucket and then reached out to grab my wrist in one fluid motion.

He was much faster than his skin and his slopped shoulders implied. By the time I realized what was happening he was smashing my wrist up against the rim of the bucket, trying to get me to drop my wallet inside.

“Be a little more generous you selfish bitch,” he sneered at me. He was close enough to spit on the collar of my jacket, which pushed me from a state of fear to a nation of anger. I gave him a swift kick to the shin hard enough for him to release my hand. With my wallet still clutched between my fingers I swung wildly at his face and managed to connect with his right cheek. He should’ve let me get my quarters out first because there were enough to knock him to the ground and send the bucket clattering off the curb.

I was proud of myself for a full two seconds, just long enough for me to turn and catch the wide, watery eyes of a little boy no older than my brother Eli who appeared to have been the only witness to my almost mugging. Of course, from where he was standing directly behind the now fallen Santa, he didn’t see any mugging. He saw a twenty-three year old, able-bodied girl deck his childhood savior with a leather wallet.

I braced myself for an inevitable scream from the little boy who I’d most likely traumatized for life. Only instead of a helpless cry, the little boy (who had clearly seen too many action movies) decided to avenge Santa’s honor. He came at me so swiftly, his little legs pumping and his head down, that I had no time to move out of the way. His little brown-haired head plowed into my stomach and laid me out flat at the edge of the sidewalk.

Another foot and I would have been in the street, beneath the tires of the afternoon traffic.

While Santa rolled around next to me with his hands over his face, the little boy stood above me triumphantly. It was only then that he decided to scream--and it wasn’t a pathetic little boy cry, either.

“SHE KILLED SANTA!” He declared with a little finger directed my way in case there was any discrepancy. His mother, who had been sitting on a nearby bench talking on her phone, rushed over with about a dozen other spectators.

With all of the air in my lungs now circulating through Boston, I found myself wholly unable to defend my honor in front of the growing mass of people. Santa’s nose was bleeding profusely, which gave his injuries a superior gore to my own tightened stomach. Add in the kid, and I got the distinct sensation that everyone thought I was in the wrong.

My eyes were starting to roll back in my head when the first police officer arrived on the scene. All I could see of him was a square jaw and a few tufts of blond hair. He checked my pulse, then Santa’s, radioed for an ambulance, then let the kid tell him what happened.

I was in the back of the police car with handcuffs on before the ambulance ever arrived. A couple of outspoken women (the kind only bred in Boston) sauntered up to the window of the car while the cop was taking statements and engaged in taunting me through the glass. Curse words and spit were hurled at equal frequency while I hung my head and squeezed my eyelids together.

Santa was eventually loaded onto a stretcher and placed with utmost care inside the waiting ambulance. The crowd applauded for him and he graciously waved back at them from inside the vehicle, then gave them a thumbs up to let everyone know he was okay. I had a different gesture in mind, but with my hands cuffed behind me, no one could see it.

After the ambulance took off, the crowd dispersed with just a few more jeers and leers in my direction. The square-jawed cop slid into the driver’s seat and caught my eye in the rearview mirror.

“Did you really deck that old guy?” He asked me.

“He tried to mug me.” The cop grinned.

“That guy was like eighty-seven years old.”

“I know, but--”

“And you probably outweigh him by twenty, th--”

“EASY BUDDY!” I shouted. “You finish that sentence and I will pop these handcuffs off and come through this cage!”

“Did you just threaten an officer?” He turned to face me and I hung my head again. Be like Fred, I thought. Less words. More smiles.

“No sir,” I said, chagrined. He turned back around and started tapping the keys on his laptop. I slumped against the backseat, visions of prison cells and orange jump suits floated through my head. With my eyes closed, I tried not to think about what would happen to Fred without me.

My nightmarish visions were interrupted by a sharp wrapping on the window. I jumped, expecting another round of curses and saliva, but instead I was greeted by the paint-by-number face of a somewhat familiar Boston TV reporter. Behind the heavily make-upped woman, a camera guy in a black trench coat aimed his lens at me. I couldn’t even hold up a hand to block my face like the criminals always do on TV.

The cop jumped out of the car and raced around to my side. I thought he was going to shoo the reporters away, but instead he opened my door and invited the crew to conduct an interview.

“Is it true you attacked Santa Claus?” The reporter asked before jamming the microphone in front of my face.

“No! He tried to mug me, I--”

“We were told if it wasn’t for the brave heroics of a little boy, you would have beaten Santa Claus to death.”

“That little boy attacked me!” I pleaded.

“So you’re accusing a brave young child who stepped in to save the life of Santa Claus of assaulting you?”

“Can you please stop calling him Santa Claus? He was just some old guy who tried to mug me!” The reporter pulled the microphone back and turned to face the camera.

“You heard it here first, folks,” she said. “The Santa Slugger not only sent the holiday’s most beloved character to the hospital, she wants all the children of Boston to know that Santa is really just an old guy who mugs people.”

“That’s not what I said!” I tried to shout before the cop closed the door in my face. He adjusted his belt and ran a hand through his hair before giving his own statement to the young reporter. She flipped her hair over her shoulder and gave his arm a playful squeeze. I felt like I was going to throw up.

By the time the cop got back in his squad car, three more news crews and two newspaper photographers had shown up at the scene.

“Apparently it’s a slow news day,” the cop said with a chuckle. I chose not to respond. He let the camera crews creep up on the vehicle while I bent over and tried to put my face between my legs to keep it off the TV.

After what seemed like hours, the cop finally put the car in drive and headed for the police precinct. Although I wasn’t thrilled with thoughts of what would happen there, I was relieved to get away from the news media.

The Chestnut Hill police precinct was buzzing with activity when we arrived. The cop was pushing me through the lobby and into the back hall when another officer--an older guy with dark skin--rounded the corner and nearly ran into us.

“Hey Jim,” said the blond cop.

“Bill,” the other cop, Jim, responded. He gave me a once over and then asked, “Is this the Santa Slugger?”

“The one and only,” Bill replied with a beaming grin. I thought about kicking him in the shin, but then I remembered where that had already gotten me.

“You didn’t hear the latest?” Jim asked. Bill shook his head, the grin faded.

“Nope, I just got here.”

“Well your assaulted Santa took his reindeer and headed for the North Pole.” Jim chuckled at his own joke. My heartbeat quickened.

“What does that mean?” I asked him.

“It means, when he got to the hospital and one of the ER doctors recognized him, he had a
sudden, miraculous recovery and ran away.”

“No kidding,” said Bill. Jim nodded.

“Turns out Santa’s actually a repeat offender,” said Jim. “He’s got a history of possession and assault--nothing real bad. Just a little pot and a few muggings.”

Vindicated didn’t even begin to describe the feeling that washed over me in that moment. I looked at Bill who looked at Jim who looked at his watch.

“Better go,” said Jim. “See you later.”

“You can let me go now,” I snapped at Bill. “And I’d like to have my purse back, please.”

The officer reluctantly unlocked my handcuffs and returned my purse to me along with the evidence bag he’d put it in. I clutched both to my chest and marched out of the police station indignantly.

If I’d felt half as brave as I looked, I would have demanded to see the chief and threatened a lawsuit. But at that moment, I really just wanted to get home and tell Fred how scared I was when I thought that we would never see each other again.