Friday, December 15, 2006

Past and Presents

It wasn't a dream. He really was looking at a drunk, half dressed Santa Claus sitting on the other side of the train car.

"O... kay." That convinced him; he'd finally lost it. All the running, all the killing, all the nights of sleeping in alleys and the back seats of unlocked cars. Insanity had managed to catch him before the Order could. He hated Christmas, always had. Such a horrible time of year. He never got what he wanted and he never understood why people pretended to be so happy when they were really just making themselves miserable with the stress of the holiday.

And there, on his doughy ass in front of him, was the posterchild of everything wrong about Yule.

The grizzled looking old lush looked over at him, one eye slightly larger than the other. His green-gloved hand around a bottle of something cheap and nasty, he looked like a rejected ad campaign for Bad Santa. Something even Billy Bob Thorton found too tasteless to print... which was saying a LOT.

"Whaa you lookin' at?" The words were so badly slurred, Matt was convinced at first the man was speaking some sad, monosyllabic foreign language with no redeeming qualities. A painful audial blight... like French.

Matt answered truthfully once he translated the bum's vowel movements. "What am I looking at? Truthfully, I have no bloody idea."

The slovenly Santa waved the bottle at him. "You tryin' ta be funneh?"

Matt shook his head, huddling up in his corner to stay warm. "The irony of a besotted Kris Kringle asking a fellow bum if he's trying to be funny is just too rich." He chuckled at the old man's foolishness. "Besides, I doubt I could tell you any jokes you'd understand right now."

The drunk grumbled and took another swig. "Arrogant bastahd. No respect fer yah elders."

That was more surreality than Matt could take. He was cold, he was tired, and now he was in an insult contest with Jack Frost's drinking buddy. "Look at yourself, you bum. Just what in the world is there about you I should respect?!" He hadn't meant to yell, but there'd been so much so fast these days, he couldn't stop the emotional flood. No way in Hell he was going to get lectured by some old piece of train trash like this!

Matt expected the man to get pissed off. He even expected the sot might try to get up and come at him. He was walking a thin line here and he knew if, but he didn't care. What was a pickled hobo in a red, white, and spattered dirt-brown coat going to do? Throw up on him? There wasn't anything this human flotsam could do that he couldn't handle. Nothing.

Except cry. Matt stared in mute shock as the old man began to weep. False Santa beard hanging below his salt-and-pepper real one, the Santa practically folded in on himself and bawled. Huge, shuddering sobs racked his too-thin frame under the bulky, stained costume. He was talking between ragged breaths, but Matt couldn't make out the words.

All sense of superiority fled Matt in a regretful sigh. He groaned, standing up and crossing the car to where the man was sitting, and leaned down within arm's reach. "Hey. I'm..." Matthew Engel never apologized; it just wasn't something he did. Not once in his living memory had he said he was sorry about anything. Not one damn thing, even when it had been his fault. But here he was, watching a man dissolve into tears before him because he'd mouthed off like... well... an arrogant bastard.

Before he could say the words, the old hobo shook his head and looked up. In the moonlight streaming in from the half-shut door, Matt could see trails of moisture on him half-grey cheeks. "Ain't nothin', boy. Ain't nothin' you should respect in me. Ah ain't nothin'." The words were still slurred but Matt understood him easily this time.

"Don't say that." Matt put a cautious hand on the Santa's shoulder. "You aren't nothing. I shouldn't have said that."

The hobo lifted his bottle again, not to sip at it but just to wave it in the air between them. "Wah not? You was right. I cain't even play fuggin' Santee Claus onna streetcorner. They fired me and they shoulda! Fuggin Santee Claus gettin' drunk onna job... Ahm jus' trash."

Matt winced, hearing his own thought come out of the old man's mouth. "No. That's not true. Surely you..."

"Surely ah whut?! You see dis outfit o' Santee Claus?" The man tugged at his jacket with his free hand.

Matt nodded but didn't say anything.

"Well, ah only got dis 'acause ah ran away when dey fired me! Ah ain't been warm in so long and dis coat was so nice. Ah stoled it! I ran off and kept it! Santee Claus is a thief... an ah did it right in fronta sum kids!" That provoked another weeping fit while Matt just watched.

He cringed again. He'd been so upset about having to get new shoes because his weren't in the best of shape while this old man was freezing to the point of stealing a Santa costume. The concept of how messed up Matt's priorities had been hit him full in the face. It was literally like a punch to the soul.

"Where..." It was hard for Matt to come up with words right now. "Where are you heading, old man?"

The Santa wept a while more before answering. "Ah was thinkin' ah'd ride to Knoxvul and try fer another train goin' south. Ah wanna git somewhere warm."

Matt nodded; at least the man was aware enough to know he needed to get out of the cold. Drink hadn't addled him too badly.


He blinked for a second before asking the hobo, "Excuse me?"

Another wave of the bottle, this time at his chest under the dingy grey puffball buttons. "Name's Clyde. Not 'old man'."

Another wince. Was he really just that much of an ass? Matt hadn't even thought the term would offend. Sighing, he stuck out his hand. "Matthew."

The man looked up at him like he was holding a hundred dollar bill. Or a fifth of whiskey. Running his tattered green glove on his red wool pants, Cylde reached up shakily and took his grip, completing the gesture. Shaking it slowly, he added, "Pleased ta meetcha."

"Likewise," Matt said. Surprisingly, he meant it.


Many hours later, the horizon out the box car's door started to turn lavender. Between shared drinks of gin, Matt and Cylde had talked about everything from family and friends to where America had all gone wrong. Clyde was firmly convinced that when Nixon had been thrown out for doing what every president before or since had done, the country had gone to hell. Matt couldn't disagree, even though he hadn't been alive then.

Clyde regaled him with how he'd come to be in this sorry state, starting with the Department of Veteran Services cutting off his benefits as part of Bush's new "streamlined Defense budget". Without a monthly check, medication was the first thing he lost. Then his house. Then his car. Everything had fallen apart after that and he'd been a vagabond ever since.

His family lived in Wyoming, Clyde said, but they didn't want him. His son was a politician and a washed-up old drunk like what his father had become looked bad on the Society page. "Ah dun care anyhow!" he told Matt. "Ah didn't take charity frum good folks when dey offered it an' ah'm sure as hell not taking charity frum mah useless son now even if'n he'd give it!"

"Besides," he said to Matt with a conspiritory whisper, "ah think hesa queer. Ah blame his mom fer that." He and Matt shared a long, warm laugh over that one.

For more than an hour now, Matt had been telling Clyde about the past few months of his life. It might have been the gin moving him to reveal so much or just the simple, human need to lighten his misfortunes with another living soul. Surprisingly, Cylde had been an excellent audience, not once scoffing even at the crazy shit Matt was talking about.

When he reached the end of his story. Matt chuckled softly. His spirits really were lighter. "Thank for listening to all that, Clyde. You must think I'm crazy, right?"

No answer. "Cylde?"

Still no answer.

Matt looked over at Clyde, leaned against his shoulder and staring quietly into the dawn. No motion. No breath. Nothing but silence and a small, happy smile over a rat's nest of a cheap white beard.

Matt shifted so he could lay the old man down gently. With one hand, he closed Cylde's eyes for the last time. With the other, he wiped small drops of saline off his own face. He sat for long while, just looking down at the corpse.

Then, saluting his momentary friend with the last of the rotgut liquor, he swigged it back and rested the bottle under Cylde's arm.

"Thank you, Santa," he told the body softly. "You may not have given me what I wanted for Christmas this year..."

He turned his face towards the warmth of the sun.

"...but you definitely brought me what I needed."

1 comment:

Erisraven said...

Wow. Just wow. That was beautiful.