Don Herald shares a Christmas memory. His his short fiction and memoir work is published online in the UK, Canada and the US.
The Road Less Traveled
This is a personal story. It happened quite a few years back, but it has an appropriately seasonal theme. I may not have all the details quite right – sometimes my memory plays tricks on me – but the bare bones of it are true.
It was the last week of November. As I was wandering around our large suburban mall I had no particular destination in mind. I thought the food court might be the perfect place to hang out and engage in some serious people watching. So that’s where I headed.
I was sipping from a warm can of Diet Coke when I noticed him.
He was sitting over in a corner, deep in the shadow of a scraggly Christmas tree with only about half of its slowly blinking lights actually working. Maybe it was because I’ve read far too many spy novels over the years, but I immediately realized he was pretending to read a large mall flyer but in actual fact was watching me over the top of the page.
So I tried an old spy trick of my own.
I deliberately looked away from him but used the reflection of the nearby HMV store window. I could see him still watching but with even more intensity.
Unsettled at all of the man’s odd behavior, I got up and headed down toward the Sears store. On the way, I paused in front of Laura Secord, pretending to consider what type of dark chocolate I was going to buy. A quick glance confirmed he was indeed following me. But he was also pretending to be window shopping while trying to keep me always in sight.
Over the next half hour, I lead him on quite a wide-ranging, zig-zag tour of the mall.
I even tried spending some time in the Victoria Secret outlet, admiring but of course, not touching, the many lacy bras and panties. He didn’t follow me into the store. Thankfully, he disappeared. When I could take no more of the withering stares and obvious whisperings of the VS sales clerks, I stood as tall as I could. Looking straight ahead, I walked confidently out of the store, winking knowingly to the stern looking manager who had been slowly working her way toward me.
Outside the store, there was no sign of my stalker. I decided to quickly leave the mall. But first I needed to make a brief pit stop at the men’s room.
Standing at the urinal, I was congratulating myself on how professionally and efficiently I had given him the slip. But then there he was. Standing at the very end of the row, smiling over at me.
OK, this was now too weird. I quickly washed up and headed into the mall again. I decided to go directly to the Security desk and report the man’s stalking behavior. I’d let them handle it while I made my timely escape out to the car.
I was about thirty feet from the Security desk when the man tapped me on the shoulder.
“Excuse me, sir.” His voice was raspy, and he gulped noisily for air with each phrase. “Can I speak with you privately for just a moment?”
With a firm grip on my sleeve, he expertly guided me away from the Security desk toward a cluster of four chairs and a table.
“If you just give me a few minutes of your valuable time, I have a business proposition for you. One I think you will be very interested in hearing. First, let me clarify. I’m not a stalker. I’m not a weirdo.”
He pulled a seasonally appropriate red and green lanyard out from under his jacket. Hanging from the end was a photo ID. It looked like your average passport photo, only far worse.
“James O’Connor. I work in the mall as their Human Resources advisor.”
He held out his hand. I made a show of ignoring it.
“What can I do for you, James?” I replied with as much frosty cool as I could muster under the circumstances.
“Well, I won’t beat about the bush with what I have to say.” James O’ Connor hesitated as if choosing his next words carefully.
“I think you would make a great Mall Santa” enthused James.
“Your white beard is great. You have a Santa type voice the kids would love. Given that little hide and seek tour you just took me on around the mall, your patience must be amazing. They’re the perfect qualities we’re looking for in our Santa.”
He paused for a breath, then resumed with even more enthusiasm.
“The pay is great. We could work out the hours that fit best with whatever it is you do in real life.”
As an apparent afterthought which he hoped would be the deal closer, he blurted out “And we supply the red suit, belt, hat, bells and black boots!” He glanced down at my feet. “I’m certain we have your size.” Continuing with his list, “And of course, we provide all your elf helpers. We give you the works.”
James arched his bushy eyebrows higher than anyone I’d ever seen do before. He waited for my answer.
Well, I would be less than honest with you if I didn’t say that James’ offer to become that year’s Mall Santa was quite flattering. Perhaps I could even write a best-selling book about my Santa experience.
But as politely as I could, I declined James’ offer. As an afterthought, perhaps to soften my refusal, I apologized for behaving like an ignorant dork for my earlier behavior and comments.
Before James could protest, I slipped back out into the mall and disappeared into the throngs of overly eager, early shoppers.
Since then, every year as the Christmas season approaches, I find myself wondering what would have happened had I taken the red road less traveled and become the Mall Santa.
Now that I’m retired, I’m thinking that perhaps I should give it a try.
I know that all these years later, I’d look even better in that red suit!
Don Herald writes about interesting characters and situations he meets in his daily life or unexpectedly stumbles upon in his over-active imagination. His short fiction and memoir work is published online in the UK, Canada and the US. A retired social work consultant, Don is also a popular oral storyteller and performer. His published stories can be found at -www.donherald.blogspot.com.