Here they come, emerging into the Portland rainfall. They are in clumps, Santas and Mrs. Santas and Easter Bunnies, stepping off the light rail just past the water fountain at the Saturday Market. A booming megaphone draws them across the bricks in tens, twenties … their numbers overwhelming the senses. They pack together so closely, circling the geyser of water, that they appear to be changing. They merge from a scattering of cheap costumes into a caffeinated, slightly inebriated mass, all velour and fluff, filling the uneven square with undulating waves of red and white and pink.
Stuart, watching from a corner café, realizes this is what they want. They’ve joined a collective, a community of furry freaks, and this makes him shift in his seat. But then a shout from a Santa perched on the edge of the fountain, his suit matted from the spray of water. The crowd disperses, bolting down the street, running and waddling and staggering toward whatever is next.
The market is empty now. Barren, except for a few homeless people curled up under the bridge of the highway heading north out of the city. They are camped out on the damp pavement, wrapped in sleeping bags and plastic sheets, surrounded by the colorful sheddings of the Christmas collective.
Stuart’s girlfriend Tanya is late—more than an hour—so he pays his bill and steps out into the misty morning. He leaves the hood of his raincoat down. Water collects in tiny drops across his face, his end-of-the-week stubble gathering moisture like the pointed needles on a forest shrub.
He cuts through the open-air market and follows the light rail tracks, listening for the whoosh of its nose in the wet air and the grinding of the metal wheels on steel rails. But there’s no sign of the train. He may have to walk the entire way home.
He passes a single Santa on the corner, his beard askew and his eyes hovering somewhere in the distance. Beyond him stand a couple dozen more, maybe from the crowd Stuart had seen not long before, but it’s hard to tell. They all look alike to him. The clump of Santas shifts into a line—jolly fat men intermingled with other costumed creatures, and they pass one-by-one into a bar, their noses and cheeks bright and rosy, their plump bellies splattered with beer and the remains of festive cocktails.
Stuart eyes the scene. He looks for a way around the immoveable mass of holiday tidings, wishing he had taken the train back to his neighborhood. He checks his cell phone, but still no message from Tanya. So he makes his way slowly around the pulsating snake of red and white, afraid to pass through the eye of the yuletide storm. A few of the Santas look his way. Three of them shout—not sing—Christmas carols in broken harmony at him. But none of this cheers him up.
He veers away from the crowd.
What was that, he wonders? What had he almost stumbled into? He wants to go back and check it out again, to take it all in slowly, to make it clearer, to watch these distorted visions of sugarplums carefully, until the whole scene shifts into focus.
But instead he walks away, the carols fading in the background, taunting him to come back and face them man-to-Santa. Or at least that’s what he hears coming from the unruly crowd. A pair of Santas dash past him, and he looks down at the ground as he walks, pulling the collar of his raincoat up around his face. His hand instinctively goes to his back pocket, feeling the comforting bulk of his wallet, and he keeps his hand there until the two Santas disappear around the next corner.
He walks faster, but more Santas pop out in front of him. They spill onto the sidewalk from other bars and other doorways. He ducks into an alley, hoping to take a shortcut toward the safety of his apartment, but a large red-faced Santa with a black beard, natural and tatty, stares back at him. His pants are down around his ankles and the varicose veins on his legs bulge rhythmically as he relieves himself on a pile of cardboard boxes behind a music shop.
“Ho ho ho,” the man scowls at him, and Stuart turns away, but the Santa calls after him, “Merry fucking Christmas, asshole!”
Nowhere is safe today. Stuart wonders if it is the rain, wonders if chemicals or radiation planted in the clouds by the government have driven everyone mad. He pauses as he realizes he’s starting to sound like the rest of them. What would Tanya think of his paranoia? But he has no time to sort this all out now. He has to get home, back to the safety of his apartment and his two cats, where cats are cats and Christmas is like a postcard you send to your family, with a cheery winter scene on it—all sleighs and horses and shiny ornaments on a perfect tree. Not a dizzying fall down a fluffy man-sized rabbit hole.
He leaves the alley behind. He steps into the street to avoid another line of Santas waiting outside an arcade bar, with old video games like the ones he played as a kid. He imagines Santas inside with their bowls full of jelly shaking and quivering as they struggle to keep up with cartoon dancers on glowing screens and stomp on the flashing lights beneath their shiny black boots.
Stuart then passes a used bookstore and glances inside to see row upon row of old magazines. The smell of mildew creeps toward him through the open door of the slowly rotting building. The store is being crushed under the weight of the moisture that seeps into the pores of the wood, like everything else in the city. And he wonders if this will happen to him, if the rain will penetrate his brain until one day he wakes up to find himself dressed as Santa. Even now he worries about the strange urge he has to feel the soft plushness of velour against his skin.
He hears a noise behind him and turns to see a wall of red and white heading up the street toward him. Stuart tries to escape the onslaught, but it is already too late. He is cut off, his back pressed against the brick wall of a sex toy shop, bumped and jostled as the river of colorful creatures flows past him. An Easter Bunny groans as it knocks into him and mumbles, “Look where you’re standing, man,” and then the bunny is gone, lost in the crowd. The river of bodies slows but the pressure of Santas builds up behind him and pushes him forward. He is caught in the holiday riptide, dragged along toward oblivion.
He struggles for a while. His eyes dart this way and that, looking for an escape route. But all he can see is red and white, and the momentary glimpses of buildings that look familiar as he is pushed further and further away from his apartment and deeper into downtown. The drunken caroling surrounds him, the familiar but off-kilter songs burrowing into his soul. They work their way into his stomach and fill his chest with a resonant booming of sleigh bells and the soft sound of snow falling in a city of rain.
His head spins and his legs give way under him. Strong hands grab both his arms and he is carried, swaying like a bell, his beard soaked, water droplets clinging to his eyelashes. He is trapped in the bosom of Christmas, moved along by the drunken holiday cheer. He thinks this will go on forever, but then all motion ceases. The entire mass of red and white pauses mid-stride in a parking lot. He catches a glimpse of the Keep Portland Weird sign over the swarming crowd of Santas.
The hands that support him release their grip and with a gentle pat on his shoulder are gone. Stuart finds his own footing, spreading his feet a little wider to catch his balance as the crowd thins. But the parking lot is still filled with Santas and Mrs. Santas and Easter Bunnies, milling around and laughing in that wild, drunken Saint Nick kind of way. He looks around, wondering if Tanya might be nearby, drawn to this jolly mid-winter spectacle.
Someone taps his shoulder and he turns around. His eyes meet the low-cut red velour suit of a woman a foot taller than he is, the white, fuzzy fur outlining the tops of her breasts. She hands him a present wrapped delicately in Christmas paper. She smiles at him and speaks to him, but his mind is overwhelmed by the scent of pine and gingerbread and spices. She looks down at him over her dark-rimmed, square-cut glasses, her full lips glistening red in a shade only slightly darker than her velour blouse. He forces a half smile. She motions to him to unwrap the present, and he says it’s not even Christmas yet, but she’s tells him that it is always Christmas.
He slowly unwraps the present to reveal another pair of breasts, ones that are small and plastic, the nipples obscured by two plastic flies stuck there with a glob of clear glue. He uncovers the rest of the plastic body. It’s only the front half of the body, protruding from a flat platform. The half-doll is wearing a pair of black high boots pressed into slots around her legs, but otherwise she is naked. Where her underwear should be, someone has glued the head of a cartoon man, and it stares out at him from her crotch with wide bulging eyes.
He doesn’t know what to say. A strange mix of disconnectedness and euphoria washes over him. The slutty Mrs. Santa is still staring at him. He smiles, but it comes naturally this time. Somewhere deep inside him his body quivers—red and white, velour and fuzz—and Mrs. Santa leans down and kisses him on the lips, smearing her red lipstick across his mouth. She turns and disappears into the crowd. If today is real, he wonders, then where does that leave Tanya? He tries to imagine what she would look like in a low-cut red and white costume, but her face is beyond his reach. He stands in the middle of a crowd of strangers, tasting Christmas red lipstick on his lips and holding a naked half-Barbie with fly breasts and a man’s head in her crotch. Somewhere in the distance the train heads toward his neighborhood.
Short story: “In the Company of Santas” © 2014 by Shawn Radcliffe / Branáin
- Santas on the F – Santacon 2007, Flickr by Steve Rhodes, some rights reserved
- Crowd of Santas, Does Mrs. Claus know about this?, Flickr by Erin, some rights reserved
- Santas drinking at the bar, PDX Santa Con107, Flickr by Katrina Cole, some rights reserved
- Mrs. Santa Claus dancing, PDX Santa Con121, Flickr by Katrina Cole, some rights reserved