When you're sixteen years old you might think your dad is cheap. But is he, really?
It wasn’t my fault! Really!
My dad is a cheap bastard. It was his fault. He doesn’t see it that way, but then, we don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. That’s probably what happens when you’re 16.
He doesn’t think he’s cheap. He thinks he’s building character. My character. Isn’t it fun, listening to these know-it-all old guys telling us to do things they never wanted to do when they were kids and acting like it’s for our own good? Not! If it wasn’t good for them at 16 back when everyone was poor and all members of a family had to pitch in more, how the hell is it good for us now when everyone is affluent? Well, in our economics class I keep hearing about what an affluent society we are. I’m sure not affluent!
And that’s what led to my latest set-to with my dad. Affluence. His versus mine. I had none, he had plenty, and I needed some for Christmas presents.
“Dad, how much are you giving me for buying presents this year?” I asked over breakfast. I was having eggs, bacon, microwaved hashbrowns, toast and milk. He was having a piece of toast.
“How much do you need, Gav?”
“I think $200 would cover it.”
I didn’t get a response right away. Well, that’s not exactly, on-the-nosey true. There was a response, just not one about my $200. But I guess blowing hot coffee through your nose counts as a response, and it probably isn’t all that much fun, and having to change clothes just gives someone who’s already not in the best of moods time to contemplate more than their navels. Which isn’t always good for the contemplatee. Or his $200.
When he came back into the kitchen tying a different tie, wearing a different shirt, and with a less convivial look on his face, I knew this was not the time to pursue my question. I should wait till the evening when he was unwinding on his third martini.
I guess, if I want to be honest, he almost never had a third martini. It wasn’t often he even had a second. When he did, you knew he’d had a bad day at work and so you steered clear of him as much as possible. The trick was to catch him when the liquid in his glass was down to the level of the three ice cubes. That meant he’d downed over half of the drink and was just beginning to mellow out. That was when it was safe to begin a conversation with him if the purpose of it was to wheedle something you wanted out of him.
I’d wait till this evening. You don’t live with someone for 16 years and not know them.
Unfortunately, that works both ways.
“Gavin,” he said, standing with his back to me, popping another piece of bread into the toaster. I guess finishing his first piece, sodden with nose-filtered coffee, wasn’t going to happen.
“You’re 17 now. You can be earning Christmas money during this vacation period. Stores need extra help. It’s easy to get a job. Then, instead of sitting around the house all day for three weeks, you can be seeing what the working world is like if you don’t have a college degree, you can ease up on the parental exchequer, you can experience the world of retail enterprise and see if you have any interest in it, you can learn how to get along with a boss, you can earn—”
I cut him off there, interrupting his soliloquy. It wouldn’t get any better, the longer he went. He’d merely get more and more wrapped up in what he was pontificating about, more and more enthusiastic about it, and before you knew it, he’d have completely sold himself on my getting a job! Me! A job, for crying out loud! On my Christmas vacation break!
This wasn’t the time to argue, or protest, or anything else, or even complain about him having made me a year older than I was, which he did whenever it suited his cause. It was time to escape. I’d get the money later. Out of Mom.
So that didn’t work. Don’t you hate it when they double-team us? As I say, they know me as well as I know them. Dad spoke to Mom and they had their battle-faces on when I looked at them over dinner. I didn’t bring up the subject of Christmas money. I knew it was the wrong time, wrong place, and wrong people. I wanted person, not people. But it was not to be. I did everything possible to avoid the subject, but they were like attack dogs. And so, to make a long story short, a long story full of wailing and cursing—well, that part happened when I was alone in my room—and getting nowhere with puppy dog eyes or digging my heels in, or even threatening to get them nothing for Christmas because of lack of funding—I didn’t quite understand why they laughed about that—I was in the personnel department of Collier’s, talking about a stock runner’s job.
“Even Christmas Eve?” That was me, discussing the work schedule.
“Yes, but we close early that evening so our people can enjoy the night with their families.”
“Yes. 6 PM.”
She was an old, uptight grouch. No humanity in her at all that I could see. Why someone like that should be in Personnel I couldn’t fathom. No nonsense, no sense of humor, no grace or gratitude that I was in her office offering to help them out during their busy season.
“Oh. Well, I get the weekends off, don’t I?”
She laughed, but the laugh cemented the idea she had no sense of humor. It was that sort of laugh. And the two days I never got off were the weekend days.
I switched the subject. “I can wear jeans and a tee shirt, can’t I? I mean, if I’m just carrying boxes around?”
“Pressed khakis, a long-sleeved shirt with a tie, and, if they’re presentable, we permit sneakers so you can move faster. We prefer laced leather shoes, but we’re very lenient at Collier’s.”
Have you ever worked for a retail store during the holidays? My advice? Don’t.
There are crowds all day long, walking and standing in the aisles, and when your job is to restock shelves, bring requested items to sales staff working behind counters, rearrange displays and stuff like that, having that congestion is a pain in the patootie.
Especially when your boss was Mr. Fitzsimmons. Mr. Fitzsimmons was about 25-years-old and had just finished college with a degree in something—I had no idea what it was so I can’t remember it well enough to try to write it down. Obviously, whatever it was, it wasn’t something where they needed to hire recent graduates, and so Mr. Fitzsimmons was two things: not working in the field he’d studied, and angry. The two might have gone hand in hand. I never did get to chat about it, or anything else, with Mr. Fitzsimmons. As I said, he was 25. And insisted he be called Mr. Fitzsimmons no matter where he was or what the situation was. If I’d happened on him in the men’s room when he was just shaking off, it would still be Mr. Fitzsimmons. That tells you all you need to know about Mr. Fitzsimmons.
He was tougher on me than the others. I figured out why. I was the youngest there by far, and was temp help. Some of the others would be there after Christmas and Mr. Fitzsimmons probably would like to be on somewhat good terms with them. He obviously didn’t feel that need with me. Too, it might be fair to say that they knew the job better than I did and so were more efficient. Like they knew where Lady’s Lingerie was located. I didn’t, and had no desire to. But the fact was, they could take a box of unmentionables to Lady’s Lingerie and be back to pick up and deliver a crate of routers to Hardware before I could get a small container of odd-sized nose rings to Costume Jewelry because their stock was running low. I guess everyone wanted a new festive nose ring for Christmas.
I was run ragged for two weeks. Only one to go. I was proud of myself. I’d been yelled at, ridiculed, berated and criticized every day, six days a week. Yeah, I got a day off once a week. I used it to soak my feet. Running through blockades of ferocious customers all day long is tiring work, fatiguing for the body and numbing for the feet.
This week I was working nights. Well, not really nights. They called it the afternoon shift. The store closed at 9 PM. For the afternoon shift, I came in at 3:30, worked running stock out into the store to where it was needed till 7:30, took a half hour food break, then back to running around the store saying, “Sorry,” and “oops,” and “oh, excuse me, ma’am, I didn’t mean tot bump you so hard; can I help you pick that up?” till closing. That’s when the real work began: restocking all the shelves and departments and sprucing up the place for the next day’s opening. Mr. Fitzsimmons—I never could figure out his hours; he seemed to always be there, always behind me, scowling and yelling and being a real SOB—never seemed to be off. When I was there, he was there. I had the impression he worked 16-hour days.
It was mid-week when he came into the commissary where all the staff ate on their breaks.
I put down my sandwich, wondering what I’d done wrong this time. I didn’t know if I was developing any character on this job, but was aware of my thin skin getting thicker. I looked up at him and said, “Mr. Fitzsimmons.” I’d learned that his name was Fred and the other stock boys called him Freddie behind his back. I longed to call him that myself. I would, I’d pledged to myself. On my last day.
“I need you for a different job tonight.”
“OK. What is it?” Mr. Fitzsimmons and I didn’t hold long conversations. He was always in a rush, and I liked to spend as little time with him as humanly possible.
“John called in sick. I think he was drunk and in a bar. Paul’s already on OT and I have to relieve him. We’re in a rush tonight and I can’t use one of the other stock boys. Taking you off restocking, we might even gain efficiency.”
You can see why he wasn’t a favorite of mine, why my face didn’t light up in an adoring smile whenever I caught a glimpse of him coming my way.
“Who’s John?” I mumbled. I didn’t want this to be the John I thought it might be.
“You know. Santa. You’re the right height for the costume. We can stick in some padding.”
“But I can’t be Santa. He’s old! And anyway, I don’t much like little kids. Besides, John’s ho ho hos are bass notes; mine would be tenor. Who wants a tenor Santa Claus?”
“Start getting undressed. Marci is bringing the costume down. She’ll be here in a minute.” He ignored my whining, per usual. He looked at me and began tapping his foot.
“Here? Get undressed here?”
He didn’t like having to reconsider anything he’d already said, but I figured I had a pretty good point. There were several other employees eating there just then, men and women.
“OK. Locker room. Let’s go.”
“I’m eating dinner!”
“Dammit. Let’s go. The line’s long out there and Paul’s OT commitment is up in—” he checked his watch “—six minutes. Come on. Move it!”
So I put my sandwich down, took a quick drink of my Coke, and got up. He was on his phone, telling Marci where to meet us, then doing his customary half walk, half sprint through the store to the men’s locker room.
“Now, undress,” he commanded.
I assumed, as Marci was on the way, and as Marci was a nice, cute twenty-something girl, that didn’t mean to the skin. So I took off my tie, my shirt, my shoes, and my trousers, then stood there in my boxer briefs, my somewhat too-revealing boxer briefs, the ones that more or less displayed my package, and waited.
Marci rushed in after a perfunctory knock. I liked Marci. She was Mr. Fitzsimmons’ assistant. She had the patience of Job to work with him all day. But she smiled a lot, and had always taken the time to be pleasant with me.
She took a quick look at me and blushed. Then she managed to talk to Mr. Fitzsimmons the rest of the time I was barely decent without resting her eyes on me again. As I said, she was nice.
Mr. Simmons took the costume from her and handed it to me and told me to put it on. I quickly pulled on the pants. They were the right length, but two of me could have fit in the waist.
Marci had brought a roll of cotton batting along with the suit. She got busy with scissors and safety pins, and quicker than I thought possible, had filled out the waistline of the pants so they almost fit. The suspenders would hold them up and I wouldn’t look like a beanpole in a barrel.
The black boots were next. They were too big, too, but Marci stuffed batting in and they at least weren’t going to fall off.
She wrapped more around my chest and I put on the coat. Then they both fit the white beard around my face and set the tasseled hat on my head.
I was ready to go. I looked in the mirror and saw how ridiculous I appeared, but Mr. Fitzsimmons was more anxious about getting Paul relieved than what effect I’d have on the kiddies, so shooed me on out.
There was a back hallway to where we had to go. This way, Santa didn’t have to wander through the store getting attacked by the kiddies. Paul was relieved, Mr. Fitzsimmons gave me a one-minute summary of how to be a Santa and push the expensive items we sold, and I was on stage.
A few minutes earlier I’d been eating my dinner by myself in the commissary. Now I was playing Santa to a store full of kids and smiling parents. I was unprepared. I’ve never been the most gregarious guy around. To tell the truth, though I don’t like to admit it, I was just a little bit of a nerd. Not a lot! Just a little. But this wasn’t a job I’d have picked had they offered it to me at double my salary. Being in the Stock Department was fine. I had minimal contact with people. This was maximum. Kids, parents, the photographer who was taking the pictures and getting rich, his assistant, all these people were talking to me all the time, and I was trying to make sense of it all.
I was frazzled in the first ten minutes, ready to throw in the towel after twenty, but then, as it was now dinner time, the crowd thinned. There was no longer a steady stream of little girls and boys, sitting on my lap and whispering in my ear. I could relax and breathe.
That only lasted for about a half hour. Then came the crowds again. The kids now were older. Instead of three, four and five and weighing less than 50 pounds, now I had kids of six and seven, and even the occasional, very naïve if you ask me, eight, and they were heavy. And, just like the littler kids, squirmy.
Have you ever been a 16-year-old boy? One with something squirming in your lap? One who has had to put up with this going on for a half hour nonstop? Are you with me here? Well, I had a problem. A very physical problem from a very physical source, and it kept getting worse.
Luckily, the pants and the batting covered up most of it. Certainly so with the lighter kids. The heavier ones, though… The problem, this personal problem I was having, was to me kind of critical. I mean, who’d want a kid to get off their Santa-style lap, go to their parents and say, “Santa was prodding me pretty good, Daddy, right in the butt, and I don’t think it was a candy cane.”
So I was sort of worrying about that when my worries suddenly got a lot worse. I saw who was next in line.
You know how high school boys, freshmen and sophomores especially, can behave? Some of them, a subspecies if you will, can be real cut-ups, clowns, wiseass comedians. And a group of those were standing in my line. I could overhear them because they were loud, as that type often are. They think they’re God’s gift to the community. They aren’t, but try to convince them of that. They think everyone loves them!
They were coaxing and wheedling and convincing one of their group that he just had to go up and sit on Santa’s lap. That they had to have a picture of it for his Facebook page. And the boy was resisting but not all that hard. He was laughing and shaking his head yet continually moving forward as the line shortened.
Then he was next.
I need to take a brief respite from this tale to explain some things. Not because I want to. Heavens no! It’s because this doesn’t make much sense unless I do. It’s just that…
Well, I’ve held off as long as I can. See, I might be gay. I haven’t really admitted that to anyone, especially myself. But I might be.
I do look at the boys at school. In the halls. In the cafeteria. In my classes. In gym. Really closely in gym. And the locker room before and after. Really, really closely.
I’m a junior. I’ll be 17 in May. Which means I’ll be 18 when I graduate. Like most seniors. But, in high school, there’re all sorts of kids and all sorts of maturity levels. Again, being horribly honest, I’m not all that mature. Either physically or mentally. I sort of relate to the sophomores more than my fellow juniors. And I’ve spent more time looking at the sophomores than the juniors. They seem more in my league. They are a little smaller, a little softer, a little, well, cuter.
I hadn’t dated at all. I wasn’t that interested in girls. They sort of scared me. I didn’t know how to talk to one. When I’d tried, they’d made me feel stupid, and got me tongue tied. They’d had this knowing looking in their eyes—knowing what, I had no idea, but they sure looked like they knew something—and they’d laughed, too, and it seemed they could have been laughing at me. Who could tell, with girls? Boys were easier to understand.
And much better looking.
OK, so this is me beating around the bush. I need to come out with it.
The kid next in line was a sophomore in my school. There were only two high schools in the town, so it wasn’t too surprising that if a pack of school kids was there, those kids happened to be from my school. Or that I knew who they were. The thing was, though, the kid who was about to sit on my lap was one I’d done a lot of looking at. He was, to me, about perfect. Long brown hair that curled and framed his face. He was boyish looking, younger than his age, and smiled a lot. His eyes sparkled. His complexion was clear, his skin beautiful. I’d seen all this, and seen how he fit in with his friends. He seemed, well, very nice. He was never aggressive, never sarcastic or rude. Just a really nice kid. And beautiful.
I’d spoken to him once or twice. Spoken to him like, “Was that the late bell?” and “Sorry, but could you hand me that pencil I dropped?” kind of talk. He’d said a few words to me, too. His voice was light and raspy and made me… Well, he’d spoken to me, too.
OK, I had a thing for this kid. And he was about to sit on my lap, a lap whose padding had been squashed flat, and if I’d been hard from 7-year-olds wiggling around when sitting on me, what would this be like?
The other kids with him were looking around, looking at each other, teasing and laughing and such. This kid? He was looking at me. And I thought—I was probably imagining things—but I thought, maybe I saw recognition in his eyes.
I turned to the photographer’s assistant. “I need a bathroom break,” I said, got up carefully, turning sideways as I did, my front leg forward to provide cover, and exited to the rear.
I sat in the break room, willing my libido, if that’s what it was, to relax. I couldn’t be away for more than ten minutes, but I thought those kids would be gone by then. Sophomores don’t have much patience.
It was getting late, and the crowds had dissipated. I hadn’t seen any of the kids in line after the high school group. Maybe Mr. Fitzsimmons would relent and close up the Santa shop early. But Mr. Fitzsimmons was a by-the-book kind of fellow. I doubted he’d ever do anything quite so reasonable.
My time was up. I got up and like a man on the way to the gallows, walked slowly to the back of the throne, then stepped through the curtain, looking immediately to where the line formed.
I almost breathed a sigh of relief because the kids were gone. Almost, because what remained was one kid. The kid. He’d waited. His friends had left, and he’d waited.
The photographer’s assistant waved him forward. Relaxing the libido may have worked to an extent, but watching him walk up the ramp to my throne, knowing he was going to sit on my lap, picturing him whispering in my ear—his soft breath caressing my cheek—the relaxing had done no good.
I tried. I shifted my weight, I moved my legs, I did everything I could think of in the two seconds I had, but it was to no avail. The kid arrived, sat down, immediately rose and shifted his weight and sat down again slowly, very carefully, and then laughed and laughed. I was blushing furiously, thankful my whiskers covered over half my face.
“Gavin?” he whispered in my ear. The whisper and the soft breath, and the realization he knew my name did as much as his slight sliding movement with his soft bottom to keep me maximally bothered.
“Derek,” I answered.
“Should I tell you what I want for Christmas?” he asked, his smile lighting up the room.
I didn’t know what to say. He knew I was hard. Yet he was still sitting there. Moving. What was I to make of that? He wasn’t a tease. He was a nice kid. So rather than saying anything, I looked at him. Looked into his eyes. They were alive, bright, shining, happy.
So I said something that I thought was inspired. “Sorry about the lap.”
He laughed again. “I like it!” he said, then got up, looking down at my lap as he did. Then, the cheeky bastard gave me two thumbs up and walked away.
Dad asked me how I’d enjoyed the job after it was over and done. I told him I had mixed emotions. He told me most people felt that way about their jobs. He asked me if I regretted taking it. I thought about that and then somewhat sheepishly shook my head.
He grinned. “Father does know best, you know,” he said, then laughed as he walked away.
Don’t you just hate it when your dad starts gloating, and at your expense? I do. I really do.
The problem was, when I bought presents for Mom and Dad from the money I’d earned, and spent some time wrapping them, then watched them open them and the smiles on their faces, well, it felt different, somehow. I knew I’d worked, and worked really hard, for the money to buy those gifts, and somehow, it made a difference.
And then I had a horrible thought. Was this some of that character Dad had wanted me to build. Oh my God! I hoped not! I was way too young for that!
It was awkward, going back to school, knowing I’d meet up with Derek. But he made it much easier than I’d thought it would be. We had the same gym class. He’d been the reason I hadn’t been hating gym this year. We showered after gym. I always managed to be in there at the same time Derek was. Of course, I couldn’t spend much time looking at him there. If I’d have done that, then what happened at Collier’s would have come as no surprise to him.
But, when I was all dressed, that first day back, and ready to go to my next class, Derek met me just outside the locker room door.
“Here,” he said. “This is for you.” Then he handed me an envelope and walked away.
I watched him go and then started to open the envelope but caution prevailed. I had no idea what it was but just thought I’d wait. And wait I did, till I got home that afternoon. I went up to my room, sat down on my bed and opened the envelope.
I took one look, then another, and began to laugh. The photographer, for some strange reason, had taken a picture of Derek just as he was sitting down. Or, rather, just as he was suddenly standing back up. The expression on his face was, to put it lightly, shock and awe. Only he and I could know exactly why he looked like that, but the shock I could see in the photo was hilarious.
The picture wasn’t all. He had included a card. On it he’d written, “If this is what you’re like sitting down, I think we should get together and see what’s what lying down together, and without all this annoying padding.”
And he’d included his telephone number.
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