Authors: A. L. Singer
"Look at him, Grandpa!" Ryan Harper said.
Judge Henry Harper frowned at his grandson. "Shhh!"
There. Waiting for the light at 77th Street and Central Park West. Reading a newspaper and holding a cane. It had to be . . .
He was old.
He had the beard—white . . . and
Red cheeks, too.
And he was here in New York City, going to the Cole's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Who else could it be?
Ryan was practically bursting. "Ask him!" he pleaded.
Judge Harper scowled. "Ryan, that's enough!" Looking up from his newspaper, the white-bearded man turned and smiled. Across the street, where the parade was about to start, a brass band played Christmas carols.
"See!" Ryan said. "Look at him, Grandpa!" Judge Harper laughed politely. He hoped the geezer wouldn't mind. This was New York City, and you never knew how people would react . . . "I'm sorry. My grandson thinks you're Santa Claus."
The old man chuckled. He tucked his paper under his arm and patted the little boy on the head.
Judge Harper's smile faded. That wasn't the response he expected.
The light turned to green. "Merry Christmas," the old man said as he crossed the street.
Ryan stared, rooted to the spot. "Wow!" he said. "I could have got his autograph."
"I don't know why I'm doing this." A cluster of balloons bopped Dorey Walker in the face.
She pushed them aside and walked through the crowd.
, the balloons said. The largest department store in New York. Her employer.
"I don't know
I'm breaking my neck on this stupid parade," Dorey went on. "Cole's is going to be taken over by Shopper's Express anyway. We'll all be out of work."
Her assistant's voice piped up, "They said in the paper that the takeover's not going to happen.
Myrna Foy wasn't much shorter than Dorey. But somehow she needed to take two steps for each one her boss took.
"Victor Lamberg owns seventy-five hundred Shopper's Express stores across the country," Dorey replied. "If he wants something bad enough, he gets it. We're dead."
"What if we have a really big Christmas?" Myrna asked. "Won't that make it difficult for Lamberg to buy us?"
"A big Christmas in
times? Nobody has any money. Whatever they
have will end up in Lamberg's pocket. How do we compete?"
Myrna shrugged. "Well, we're the store that brings Santa Claus to town."
"Lamberg's worth a billion dollars. I guarantee he's not worried about Santa Claus.
Dorey looked at her beeper. "It's my boss," she said. "Emergency."
The TV-control booth was only a few yards away, but Dorey practically had to fight her way through the crowd. She spotted her boss, Donald Shellhammer, huddled over a TV monitor. He did not look too happy.
"What's the problem?" Dorey asked.
"Your Santa Claus is wearing an old topcoat and a fedora."
" Dorey leaned closer to the monitor.
There was a stranger on the Santa float. He was sitting inside the makeshift sleigh and reindeer display, cracking the whip.
The white-bearded man smiled. "It's all in the wrist, you see." He pulled in the whip, picked up his cane, and stepped off the float.
On the street stood Tony Falacchi, Cole's official Santa. He took a swig from a bottle and tucked it in his waistband. "I think we're about to shove off, old dude."
The old man's smile vanished. "You were drinking. You're intoxicated."
Tony burped. "And you're a nuisance. Gimme my whip."
His hand darted out, but the old man blocked it with his cane.
"You're a disgrace," the stranger said. "Do you know how many children are watching you right now?"
"Gimme the whip!" Tony growled.
The old man lifted the cane high. "Young man, when you put on that suit, you represent something that has great meaning and significance to people all over the world. Especially to children. I can overlook a badly made suit, an unconvincing beard, and a poorly padded tummy . . ."—he poked at Tony's red polyester Santa suit with his cane, tugged at Tony's fake beard, jabbed him in the gut, then grabbed away his bottle—" . . . but I
tolerate public drunkenness. You should be ashamed of yourself!"
Can we get a cop over here?
" Tony shouted.
A nearby policeman dropped his doughnut wrapper in the trash and ambled over. He gingerly lowered the old man's cane, which was now pointing at Tony's face. "If you're not with the parade, sir, you have to get up on the sidewalk with everybody else."
"I need to see whoever is in charge and alert them to this man's drunken condition!" the old man demanded.
"Kiss my—"Tony snarled.
The old man drew back his cane—
—right into the policeman's hand. "That's enough, gramps," the officer said. "Let's take a little walk."
Silently the old man handed back the whip. He held his head high as the cop walked him to the curb.
Tony climbed onto the float. The end of the whip twisted around his ankles. He wobbled a bit as he stood up. His pants slid off his waist, revealing the bottom of his white belly-pad.
He lifted his pants but they fell again. Cursing, he yanked out the pad and threw it.
With a dull thump, the yellowish, sweat-stained pillow fell to the street like a dead animal.
"Ewww!" a child screeched.
Faces turned toward the float. Parents and children stared in horror, first at the pad, then at Tony.
Without the fake belly, his pants fell again. Laughter swelled up around him.
"Shut up!" Tony grumbled, letting go of his waist.
trilled a drum major's whistle.
The parade was beginning!
His pants around his feet, Tony bellowed, "
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!
He raised the whip handle. The whip pulled on his ankles.
Out went Tony's feet.
He flipped into the air. With a
, he landed on the sleigh floor.
Ping! Ping! Ping! Ping!
At once, the bolts holding the sleigh to the float sprang off.
Dorey Walker stood at the curb, gaping. "Oh, no!" she whispered as she watched the entire sleigh slowly topple to the street.
He was laughing. That drunken sot was lying on the street in his Cole's Santa suit and
Dorey was horrified. She hoped no news cameras were around. Cole's was having enough trouble as it was. This would be a disaster for the store's image.
Workers were lifting the sleigh back onto the float. But as far as Dorey was concerned, Tony was history. He couldn't go back up. Not in this state.
"Officer!" she called to the nearest policeman. "There was an older man on the float a few minutes ago. Did you see him?"
"Yeah, he was just here," the policeman said. "You're the Cole's lady?"
"He wanted to talk to you." The policeman pointed across the street. "That's him. In the old coat."
The old man was walking into Central Park.
A little shabby, but neat
, Dorey thought. Not a bum. He might be able to handle it. She ran across the
street, scooping up Tony's Santa hat on the way.
"Sir?" she shouted.
The man turned around.
"I'm Dorey Walker, Director of Special Projects for C. F. Cole and Company." She extended her hand.
"My pleasure," the man replied. "I was looking for you. As you probably saw, your Santa Claus is drunk."
"I know. He's created a terrible problem. Millions of kids are watching, here and on television. They're expecting to see Santa Claus—and now we don't have one." Dorey looked him square in the eye. "Would you be our Santa Claus?"
"Me? Surely there are other people you could ask."
"Sir, the parade's already started. It's you, right now, or there's no Santa in the parade. If you want, you can have the job at the store, too."
"Can I have a moment to think about it?"
"Sure." Dorey looked at her watch for a moment. "Okay, time's up."
"I'll do it—but starting tomorrow, I must wear my own suit. I'll bring it with me to work."
"A deal." She took his hand and led him back to the parade. "Now, there's nothing to worry about. Just be yourself. You'll be fine, Mister . . . ?"
"Kringle. Kriss Kringle."
Dorey laughed. "Uh-huh. Of course."
They wound their way through the crowd. In the center of the street, the workers had repaired the sleigh. Dorey helped the old man up.
She crossed her fingers. This guy could be a dud. Without a costume, without practice . . .
But something happened as he sat in the seat. His eyes seemed to dance with delight. His rounded back straightened out. And boy, did he know how to crack a whip.
It resounded like a shot.
"Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donder and Blitzen!"
was different—strong and booming. Around her, children's and parents' eyes were riveted on the old man.
Dorey was thrilled. She ran back to the TV network booth. Shellhammer was there, grinning at the monitor.
"This Santa Claus is fantastic," he said. "Did he sign a contract?"
"There wasn't time," Dorey replied. "Myrna's going to have him sign after the parade. He'll start work in the morning. The only condition he insisted on is that he be able to wear his own suit."
Shellhammer looked at her, amazed. "He has a Santa suit?"
"Apparently. If it's horrible, we'll make him wear ours." Dorey picked up her bag and slung it over her shoulder. "Okay, I've done my job. I'm going home. See you tomorrow."
As Dorey walked home, she didn't bother glancing upward to see the families gathered at their windows, watching the parade.
If she had, she might have seen one angry, bitter face gazing out.
The face of Victor Lamberg.
Lamberg had not made his fortune by being kind. He was vicious, rotten, and unforgiving. And it all showed in the pinched lines of his craggy face.
"Mr. Lamberg?" his maid asked softly as she entered his study. "Your grandchildren have arrived . . . to watch the parade."
But Lamberg did not turn around. His eyes were focused on the Santa Claus—and on the radiant faces of the crowd.
This was not part of the plan.
He nodded slightly, and the maid quickly left.
A few blocks away, Dorey breezed into her apartment. She gave the entryway a quick glance. Perfect, as always. Spotless walls, tasteful paintings, all colors perfectly balanced. Like a museum.
Which was just the way Dorey liked it.
"Susan?" Dorey called out.
She walked into the living room. On the TV, a 35-inch-diagonal freeze-frame of her six-year-old daughter smiled at her.
Dorey hit PLAY on the Handycam above the TV.
Susan's video image came to life. "Mom," she said, "I'm still at Mr. Bedford's. We can see the parade from his window." Susan's face loomed closer to the camera, and she whispered, "He's really into parades. I'm doing it for him. I'd rather watch it on TV. It's more real that way. So slip into something comfortable and come over. Oh, P.S. Mr. Bedford put the turkey in the oven." Her face leaned even closer. "He said you forgot to sew up the turkey. The stuffing'll all fall out. He told me not to say anything because he
you and wants to
At that point a man's arm reached into the frame, and the video went dark.
Dorey turned off the VCR. She frowned. If Susan thought she was going to be a matchmaker, she had another think coming.
In a small apartment down the hall, Bryan Bedford sipped his coffee as he watched the parade.
Susan Walker turned away from the window and said, "You know how much it costs to make this parade? One point six million—and it's probably a big mistake, because some guy's going to buy Cole's and turn it into a junk store."
"Where'd you hear that?" Bryan asked.
Bryan shook his head. "It's not going to happen. Two big banks came in and rescued Cole's."
"But Cole's has to pay them back, plus interest," Susan said. "If they don't sell a lot of stuff at Christmas, you can forget about it, pal."
"Well, you know what? I think you should ask Santa Claus to give Cole's an interest-free loan for Christmas."