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[ Chapter 4 ]
Thursday / December 20, 2007
What my mother didn’t know when I hung up on her, was that our little conversation would actually 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 wound up being a key factor in leading me to get on a plane to Florida the next day.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
After I turned my phone off and tossed it into the bottomless pit of 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 suddenly making my bowels cramp.
I had just about talked myself out of my 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 heavily worn suit appeared to be as old as its wearer. It had faded to a dark, bubble-gum hue with enough holes in it that it might have been used at one time 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 rusty bell with the other.
Still trying to stay positive, I saw the old man as my chance to get right with God, Jesus, Buddha, Karma or whomever the case may be, and erase my earlier snub of the blue-haired lady. I figured it might even put my own grandparents in someone’s good graces, which would be well worth a bit of my loose change. So I stepped over to the man, offered him a bright smile, and started to dig deep in my purse for a few coins.
“Merry Christmas,” he said as I began dropping some change into the bucket. When I reached for my wallet, his tight-lipped grin became an open expanse that showed off his yellow smile. What few teeth that were still attached to his gums appeared at war with each other over which direction they should turn in, and 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 buy time 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 of my situation. Maybe I would have noticed that this man’s red bucket was rusted at the edges and bore 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 manner in which he had positioned himself so that I was between him and the street, such that my body blocked my hands and purse from view.
But no. My mother’s words were still ringing in my ears so loudly that I didn’t think to question the old man with a bucket standing in front of the west entrance of the mall in broad daylight. At least, not until the moment when his bony hand dropped the bell into the bucket and reached out to grab my wrist in one fluid motion.
He was much faster than his skin and his sloped shoulders implied. By the time I realized what was happening, he was smashing my wrist up against the jagged 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 left 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 hard with his right cheek. He should’ve let me get my quarters out first because there were enough in there 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 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 of terror from the little boy, who I’d most likely traumatized for life. But instead of a helpless cry, the little monster (who had clearly seen too many action movies) decided to avenge Santa’s honor. He came at me so swiftly, with his little legs pumping and his head down, that I had no time to move out of the way. The crown of his 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 my limp body 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, just in case there was any discrepancy. His mother, who had been sitting on a nearby bench talking on her cellphone, rushed over with at least a dozen other spectators.
Since all of the air in my lungs was now circulating through the Boston streets, I found myself wholly unable to defend my honor in front of the growing mass of people. Even worse, Santa’s nose was bleeding profusely, which gave his injuries a superior gore to my own sore abdomen and bruised wrist. 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, a blue uniform, and a few tufts of blond hair. He checked my pulse, then Santa’s, radioed for an ambulance, then allowed the kid tell him what had 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, hoping maybe to return to Justin Timberlake and that deserted island.
Santa was eventually loaded onto a stretcher and placed with utmost care inside the waiting ambulance. The crowd applauded for him as he offered a gracious, royal wave from inside the vehicle, then gave a powerful thumbs up to establish that he was okay. I had a different gesture in mind for him and the crowd, 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,” I retorted. The cop grinned.
“That guy was like eighty years old.”
“I know, but—”
“And you probably outweigh him by twenty or thirty—”
“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 and gave me a stern look. I hung my head again. Be like Fred, I thought. Less words, more smiles.
“No, Officer,” 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. I shut my eyes again and tried not to think about what would happen to Fred without me.
My nightmarish visions were suddenly interrupted by a sharp rapping on the window. I jumped, expecting another round of curses and saliva, but instead I was greeted by the heavily made-up face of a somewhat familiar Boston TV reporter. Behind the big-haired woman, a camera guy in a black trench coat aimed his lens in my direction. With my hands cuffed behind me, I couldn’t even raise an arm to block my face like the criminals always do on TV.
The cop jumped out of the car and raced around to my side of the vehicle. 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 snatched her microphone back and turned to face the camera.
“You heard it here first, folks,” she said assertively. “Boston’s now infamous Santa Slugger not only sent the holiday’s most beloved character to the hospital, she wants all the children of the world 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 own flaxen locks over her shoulder and gave his arm a playful squeeze. I suddenly 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 on the scene.
“Apparently, it’s a slow news day,” he said with a chuckle. I chose not to respond. He let the camera crews crowd around my window while I bent over and tried to put my face between my knees to keep it off camera.
After what seemed like hours, the cop finally put the car in drive and pulled away from the curb. While I wasn’t thrilled with the possibilities of what lay ahead of me, I was relieved to get my innocent mug away from the news media.
The 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 caramel skin and a cherubic face—rounded the corner and nearly ran into us.
“Hey, Jenkins,” said the blond cop with a tip of his head.
“Dawson,” the other cop responded in kind. Officer Jenkins gave me a once-over, his eyes flickered with recognition. “Is this the Santa Slugger?”
“The one and only,” Officer Dawson, my captor, replied with a beaming grin. He slapped a thick hand on my shoulder like he’d had to chase me down and wrestle me into custody. I thought about kicking him in the shin, then remembered where that had already gotten me.
“You didn’t hear the latest?” Jenkins asked. Dawson shook his head. The grin faded a few notches.
“Nope, I just got here.”
“Well, your assaulted Santa took his reindeer and headed for the North Pole.” Officer Jenkins chuckled at his own joke. My heartbeat quickened.
“What does that mean?” I blurted. Dawson cut his eyes at me, but said nothing.
“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 Officer Dawson. Jenkins nodded evenly.
“Turns out Santa was a repeat offender,” Jenkins informed us, folding his arms across his chest. “He’s got a history of possession and assault—nothing real bad. Just a little pot, some public drunkenness, and a few muggings.”
Vindicated didn’t even begin to describe the feeling that washed over me in that moment. I looked at Dawson who looked at Jenkins, who looked at his watch.
“Better go,” said Officer Jenkins. “See you later.”
“You can let me go now,” I snapped at Officer Dawson once Jenkins was gone. “And I’d like to have my purse back, please.”
The officer reluctantly unlocked my handcuffs and handed me the plastic evidence bag in which he’d placed my purse. I clutched the sack to my chest and marched out of the police station indignantly.
If I’d actually felt half as brave as I looked, I would have demanded to see the chief immediately and made some serious threats of 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 might never see each other again.