Monday, December 21, 2009

A Little Clockwork Christmas Cheer, Mark Finn-Style

Call me old fashioned, or even sentimental. I miss the old days when we all had to contribute a Christmas story. So, since I was feeling festive, I decided to write one. It's all part of the larger project, but I hope for some of you it's a fun thing.

Now, without any further ado, allow me to present...

Sailor Tom Sharkey and the Christmas Savages

I was feeling pretty low in December, 1914. Kate was gone, and I was all alone, and it just wasn’t feeling much like Christmas, what with everything going on. Bar troubles, mob troubles, political troubles, you name it, I had it. Even managed to work up a good-sized gambling debt, betting on the horses. Not a very merry Christmas, I can tell you that.

I mostly kept to myself, but even loners get thirsty, so I spent some time in the bar, sipping whisky and eating pickled eggs. It was no kind of lunch or dinner, but with Kate gone, I didn’t have the energy for much else.

It was in this general state of configuration that Charlie Murphy came walking into the bar, his nose up, his eyes all crinkly, like he was smelling something. Politics, most likely. Murphy was the leader of Tammany Hall, which meant that he controlled the Gas Light District, and it also meant that he controlled me. At least, he thought he did. Or, more appropriately, I thought he didn’t.

Anyway, he comes walking in and gives me that stiff-upper lip look, and holds out a beefy hand, and says, “Tom, how’re you doin’, lad?” He was peering at me over the tops of his eye glasses, and made him look like a scolding Bishop.

“Getting along, Charlie,” I replied. “Buy you a soda?"

“I’ll pass,” he said, his expression unchanged. Teetotaler, he was, and he was a professional at it, to boot. An Irish teetotaler. That’s practically unchristian. “Listen, Tom, I know you’re stretched thin right now, and I’ve got a wee favor to ask that can put you right again.”

There wasn’t much that Charlie Murphy didn’t know, and I resented him keeping tabs on me like he did. Then again, I knew he kept tabs on most of the Irish celebrities in town. Political insurance, he once called it. That and his “wee favors.” I finished my whisky and signaled Prong-Head for another one. “Not another political appearance? Election season is November, Charlie.”

“This one’s different,” Murphy said. “Personal appearance. An orphanage. St. Ignatius’ Home for Wayward Souls,” he smiled, indulgently. “You’ll be the guest of honor. And I’ll pay you fifty bucks.”

“Remember when I used to get a thousand clams, just for walking in the door?” I asked.

“Those days are long gone, Tom. Ye’ve only got your reputation, now. So, what do you say? It’s for the children.”

I just knew he was setting me up for something, and I told him so, and he said, no, he wasn’t, and so I said, what’s the catch, and he said, he’d have some of the boys with me to pass out literature for Tammany Hall, and otherwise all I had to do was hand out presents and make a quick fifty bucks, which didn’t begin to cover my debt, but I told him okay, anyway, because fifty bucks is fifty bucks.

It was only after I said yes that he started piling on the conditions. “So, I’ll bring the Santa Claus suit over to you later today—”

“Belay that,” I said. “Santy Claus? I can’t be no Santy Claus.”

Murphy looked shocked. “Why on Earth not?”

“Just look at me, Charlie. I ain’t got the circumference to pull it off.”

“There’s padding in the suit, Tom,” he explained in that convalescing way of his that always made me want to sock him. “And a beard,” he added, cutting short my next objection. “Don’t worry, Lad. It’s the full package.”

“I still don’t think it’ll work,” I grumbled.

“Well, that’s as may be, but I’ll bet the kids will be so distracted by what we’re bringin’ ‘em that they won’t even notice you’re not the genuine article.” He smiled, and clapped me on the back. “You’re doin’ the Lord’s work,” he said.

“Don’t think so much o’ yourself,” I replied. He let that go and left me to my pickled eggs.

A couple of hours later, one of Murphy’s cronies brought a large package which turned out to be my Santa suit. I tried it on, and after I rolled up the cuffs on the jacket and the pants, I gotta admit, I looked a lot like the Old Gent. “Haw Haw Haw,” I said, and the crony pointed out that it’s actually “Ho Ho Ho.” I told him I can’t laugh like that because I’ll sound stupid and besides, these kids won’t know the difference no how. He gave me a look and was about to say something when a blast from a truck horn told us it was time to make the gig. He handed me an envelope with five tens in it, and I stuck the money down into my boot for safekeeping.

Seamus McInnery was driving the truck, and he give me a big hello when I jumped up into the cab. We talked about boxing as he drove the truck up the narrow streets. The other crony, who introduced himself as Duffy, just sat there and smoked. During a natural pause in the conversation, I remarked, “This is an awfully big truck for a bunch of presents for orphans. What’re you givin’ ‘em, anyay?”

Duffy grinned and Seamus laughed. “Oh, there’s a buncha dolls for the girls and baseball gloves and balls for the boys, but that’s not what’s in the truck,” Duffy said.

“Okay, then, what’s in the truck?”

Duffy started chuckling. “Charlie didn’t tell ‘im,” he said to Seamus.

“No, he didn’t,” Seamus said. Catching my murderous look, he wiped the smile off his face and said, “Tammy.”

“Stop the goddamn truck!” I bellowed.

“Aw, Tom, don’t be like that,” said Seamus. “Think of the children.”

“Yeah, Tom,” said Duffy. “They’re countin’ on an appearance from Santa. You wouldn’t want to disappoint a whole orphanage, now, would you?”

“You put me on the bill with a live tiger!” I hollered. “I don’t play second fiddle to jugglers, because I can’t do it myself, women who sing in real high voices, because it makes my teeth hurt, and any animal bigger than a dog! And Charlie knows that, too! I’ve been shanghaied by politicos! Now, let me out or I’ll cream the insides of this truck with your whisky-soaked brains!”

Duffy started to talk some more but Seamus motioned him quiet and pulled the truck over to a stop in front of a large church. “Okay, Tom, here you go.” He set the brake and opened his door. “Come on out, Sailor Tom Sharkey!”

“Well, finally, Seamus, you’re showing the proper feudal spirit…” I slid out of the truck and jumped to the ground, and landed right in the grip of a stooped-over old priest with glasses so thick I could’ve ice skated on them. “Oh, Tom Sharkey! Bless me, St. Peter, I can die now and go to heaven! It’s really you!”

“Yuh…yuh…” I tried to say something, but the old Hymn Flinger bowled right over me. “When they told me that this year we’d get a visit from St. Nicholas, and not only that, but it was the world-famous Tom Sharkey, I knew my prayers had been answered!” He grabbed my hand in his, and it felt like I was holding an assortment of chopsticks. “Father Gilligan, Mr. Sharkey. And may I say, I’ve been a fan of yours ever since you set foot in San Francisco, lo, these many years back. I listened to all of your fights on the radio and I even waved at you during the St. Patrick’s Day parade after your fight with Jeffries, and son, you looked right at me and waved back!”

I stood dumbfounded in the wake of all these personal revelations. I’ve heard people gush before, and I’ve talked to priests, but this was new to me. Most religious types throw up a crucifix when they see me, boxing being what it is. “It’s nice to meet you, Father,” I said, retrieving my right mauler. “Now, if you’d be so kind as to call me…” That was about as far as I got when an unpleasant thought stole over me. “Say, what’s the name of this church, anyhow?”

“St. Ignatius’ Home for Wayward Souls,” said Father Gilligan, beaming with pride. “And a more spirited and enthusiastic lot of children you’ll never meet!”

I turned in a wrath on Duffy and Seamus, but they just pushed a giant bag of toys into my hands and said, “Come on, Santa. You’re up, first. We’ll bring the tiger out after you. First billing, and all that.” Duffy smiled at me, and I made the instant determination that after this job was over, he’d be the one I punched first, even though Seamus was the one who played that dirty trick on me. “All right, you thick-headed Micks,” I growled, “Get in there and help me distribute this loot.”

“Why, sure thing…Santa,” said Duffy, and then he laughed. Seamus held the door open and I stalked through it with Gilligan following after me, blathering like his life depended on it.

Gilligan led me down a hallway and into a small choir room. “Now, the children are all inside the chapel,” he explained, motioning to the door to the right. “I’ll go around the long way, and come in from the other side. You listen at the door, here, and then I’ll introduce you.”

“Okay, then what?”

“Well, you’ll come out and wish the children a Merry Christmas and maybe say a few things about how they have all been good little boys and girls. You know, be Santa Claus. Then we’ll distribute the presents and you’ll wish every boy and girl Merry Christmas. Can you do that?”

“Merry Christmas,” I repeated. “Yep. Merry Christmas!”

“Good,” said Father Gilligan. He stepped around me and nearly sprinted out the door, looking like a question mark with legs. I checked my hat and my beard in the mirror, and pushed on the padding a little bit, just to make sure I was appropriately jolly. Then I heard through the door, “Say Hello to Father Christmas!”

I looked around. Father Christmas? Was this a variety show? Who the hell was that? I thought I was going on first? The kids were clapping and yelling, but I couldn’t hear the opening act. Then they died down and Father Gilligan said, again. “Father Christmas!”

More clapping and shouting. Then nothing. I leaned in on the door, listening for Father Christmas, but couldn’t hear anything. Maybe it was a deaf-mute show.

“Hello? Santa Claus?” It was Father Gilligan.

“I’m in here!” I bellowed.

“Will you come out and greet the children?” He sounded upset.

“Okay,” I said. I threw open the door and strolled out onto the raised area where Father Gilligan stood. “Haw Haw Haw!” I said.

The children were quiet. They were all looking at me, their eyes wide. Maybe fifty of them in all, some of them real small and a few looking like teenagers. They just stared at me.

“Merry Christmas!” I said.

I couldn’t understand it. No reaction. Weren’t children supposed to love Santa Claus? It was a loveless room I was in, that’s for sure.

“Er, Santa, was there something you wanted to say to the children?” Father Gilligan prompted.

“Oh, yeah. Merry Christmas!”

“Was there anything else?” he said, pointedly.

“Um…Merry Christmas?”

A little kid in the front row, maybe eight or nine, said, out loud, “Last year’s Santa was a lot taller.”

“And fatter,” said the kid next to him.

Now the old Bead-Counter was getting flustered. “Have the children all been GOOD this year?” he asked.

“Merry Christmas!” I said. I could tell he wanted me to say something else, but for the life of me, I didn’t know what. And I couldn’t stop saying “Merry Christmas,” either. It was like being on the Ferris Wheel at Coney Island. It’s fun until you get up to the top, and then you get all woozy, and then you come down, but then you go right back up again.

I could feel my face getting red, and I was two seconds away from tearing these false riggings off, when Seamus and Duffy appeared behind me and said, “Okay, kids, who wants a present from Santa?”

The children all made shuffling motions and began filing dutifully up the stairs to receive their hand outs. Every time I handed the kids their present, I said, “Merry Christmas,” and after a while, the kids were saying it, too. Some of them said it before I said it, and some of them said it at the same time I said it, and some of them just chuckled as they snatched their ill-gotten loot out of my hands. None of them said thank you. A few of them tried to start a ruckus by pulling on my beard, or telling me I wasn’t the real Santa. I threatened that kid with a beating and Father Gilligan pulled him aside when he started crying. The fellows were looking at me like I’d done something wrong, but it wasn’t my fault that the kid couldn’t be civil, was it?

Eventually, we got the presents distributed, and Seamus and Duffy were throwing Tammany Hall buttons and hats out at the kids. Father Gilligan held his hands up for quiet and I took the cue and said, “And so, children, let this be a lesson to ya. Be good and kind and Santa will bring you stuff. But act up and cause a fuss and Santa may just hand you a beating! Merry Christmas!”

Father Gilligan’s mouth was moving, but nothing was coming out. Duffy and Seamus were nowhere to be found. The kids were all looking at me, suspicious-like. What a bunch of ungrateful savages. All dressed up in their orphan clothes, looking at me like I was some sort of monster. Who brought them presents? Me, that’s who.

Finally, Gilligan found his voice. “Let’s thank Santa, children,” he said in that prompting way that grown-ups talk to kids. The little savages started clapping, feebly. I heard that one kid in the front say, “Short and dumb. Some Santa Claus.” I started for him, but Father Gilligan pushed me back into the choir room.

“I’ve an idea,” he said. “Why don’t you change into your regular clothes, and then we’ll introduce you to the children so they will know who you really are? I think…that would explain a lot,” he said.

“Fine by me, Father,” I said. I was tired of playing Santa, anyway.

Gilligan hurried back out into the chapel, and I looked around for my clothes only to remember that I didn’t bring any spare duds with me. Resigned to my fate, I sat down in on a piano stool and took off the hat and beard so I could catch a breeze. Then I heard an eruption the likes of which nearly knocked me off my stool. The kids were going nuts.

I went to the door and opened it a crack. Sure enough, there was Duffy, standing in front of a tiger cage that just barely enclosed Tammy, the official mascot of Tammany Hall. She was just a cub when they got her, maybe a dozen years ago. They took her to all of the rallies and political fund-raisers, and she got pretty used to crowds of people. But that was then. Now she was older, and a lot crankier. But they still kept wheeling her out for public events. They just made sure she was well fed, first.

Well, Duffy was standing there, telling the children all about Tammy, and what kind of tiger she was, and how much she ate, and stuff like that. And, get this, the kids were eating it up! Some days, it doesn’t pay to be me.

Duffy was explaining that Tammy wasn’t feeling too well, but if the kids wanted a closer look, they could form a line and each child could come stand by him and that way they could see Tammy real good. Those kids got into line like they were being horse-whipped, each one pushing and poking someone else, jockeying for position. I watched as, one by one, they approached the spot where Duffy was, turned pale, and then quickly walked away. But they seemed to like it, too. Maybe that’s what was missing in my Santa act; an element of danger.

I was mulling over the prospects of who someone like Santa Claus could fight when I noticed a small girl, one of the little smart arses who questioned my authenticity, was staring at the tiger with a strange little smile on her face. She stepped closer to the cage, and Duffy, thinking she was fleeing the scene, motioned for the next kid to come up. But she didn’t turn and go the way the rest of the children. Instead, she spun and headed for the back of the cage, on the opposite side.

Tammy’s tail was sticking out of the cage bars, flicking to and fro, lazily. She stood there, apart from the rest of the group, staring at it like she was in a trance. “He’s not sick,” she finally pronounced. “He just wants to play.” And so saying, she reached out and grabbed Tammy’s tail with both hands and pulled like she was fishing for marlin.

A few things happened all at once. Gilligan, finally seeing where his young charge was, screamed “No, Mary Alice!” Then Duffy, who saw what Gilligan saw, said a word you’re not supposed to say in church. Tammy, who was just minding her own business, roared and kicked both of her legs backward and pretty much shattered the cage door. The children, upon hearing the roar and the crash, screamed bloody murder as a group, and damned if that didn’t really upset Tammy, who wasn’t used to such goings on. She gave a little jump, and then the top of the cage sorta buckled, and the next thing you know, there was a tiger loose in the church.

Tammy leapt out of the ruined cage and landed in a full stretch that looked an awful lot like she was fixin’ to pounce on the little girl who’d done the tail pulling. Father Gilligan was hollering bloody murder, trying to get Mary Alice to run to the edge of the platform whilst the rest of the kids ran like hell for the doors in the back of the chapel. Mary Alice, in fact, was the only thing in the room not moving. She stood there, eyes locked on Tammy. I could see the muscles in the big cat’s back legs bunching up.

“Aw, hell,” I said, and bolted out of the door onto the stage. I had enough time for one really stupid thing to do, and so just as Tammy’s back legs left the ground, I grabbed her tail with both hands and jerked her back down to the ground, away from the girl. As the cat yowled in pain, I skidded to a stop in front of Mary Alice and kicked her in the direction of Father Gillian. She howled too, but I had my eyes on Tammy and, strangely enough, she had hers on me.

“Santa Claus kicked my bottom!” Mary Alice bellowed. “I just wanted to pet the big kitty!”

That was too much for me. I whipped around and said, “Listen here, you little biscuit-grabbing…”

The children screamed again, and this time, I knew why. I spun back around, but Tammy was in mid-air. I tried to put my guard up, but my arms got tangled up in the floppy Santa suit, and by then, I felt all five hundred pounds of that mangy tiger slam me into the wooden floor like I was a paper doll. My hands were on her throat, holding her head away from my neck, but her front and back claws were just gutting the Santa suit, literally. Stuffing flew everywhere, and I dimly heard the children scream, “The cat’s killing Santa!” I’m still not sure if they were horrified or cheering the cat on. Either way, the padded suit was the only thing that saved my life.

I finally got a leg up under Tammy’s ribcage and kicked her off of me. She tumbled once and then righted herself with a snarl, and I knew I was in for the fight of my life.

“Come on, Tom!” shouted Father Gilligan.

“Get the kids outta here!” I yelled back. “If she’s tangling with me, then she can’t eat any of your little savages.”

“Tom, don’t be stupid!” yelled Seamus. “Duffy’s got a tranquilizer gun. He’s getting it right now!”

“You don’t be stupid!” I said. Tammy was coiling up for another leap at me. “She’s gonna kill us all before that dumb bastard gets back!”

And right then, Tammy pounced, but this time, I was ready for her. I dodged to the left, away from her, but I hadn’t counted on her reach. One set of claws raked across my ribs, and I felt the claret pouring forth, free and generous. The cuts didn’t even hurt, which scared me a little bit. They were razor sharp, and she didn’t even get a solid blow. However, the blow she got was enough to knock me down and she lunged for me. I gave her a mouthful of boot in return, and Tammy stripped it off my leg like a fat man eating chicken. In a second, she’d destroyed the boot, and I took that second to get back on my feet.

Tammy smelt the blood, and she regrouped, licking her lips. I was in trouble. She circled me, slowly, and I tried to keep facing her while holding my cuts together with one hand. That wasn’t going to work real well. One more leap and I was done for. So, I abandoned the defensive posture, which was never my style, anyway, and squared off. Tammy made a hissing sound in her throat. She gathered herself up on her haunches and launched at me like an orange striped cannonball.

I had my fists up and cocked, and I met her in mid-air with a swing that had every ounce of my beef behind it. My whole arm went numb, but I also felt and heard something crack and Tammy gave a most peculiar yowl and dropped to the ground. Damned if I didn’t break her jaw! She writhed and hissed, her back legs kicking out in her pain, and I felt a little sorry for her. I mean, she was just doing what came natural, after all. And would it have been so bad if she’d eaten a couple of the orphans?

Duffy and Seamus ran up around this time, and while Seamus dragged me off the stage and away from the cat, Duffy wept and howled bloody murder that he was gonna kill me. I stood up and told him to bring his lunch, and also that rifle, because he was gonna need it. Then the blood loss sorta got to me, along with all the beer I’d drunk, and I sorta passed out.

And that was pretty much that. They moved me to Father Gilligan’s office and I laid there, bleeding out, until the sawbones arrived and proceeded to stitch me back together again. Duffy and Seamus doped up the tiger and took her to the zoo, where they told them she’d never recover from the broken jaw, on account of the fact that she was pretty old. They put her down, and Duffy cried like a little girl. Naturally, Murphy blamed me for the whole thing, like it was my idea to introduce a tiger to a bunch of feckless orphans. He demanded that I pay for the tiger, and I told him to go pound salt up his ass and pay for my medical bills, instead. And by the way, the boot that Tammy stripped off my leg was the same boot that had my fifty bucks in it, so he owed me that, again. Murphy declined to reply. And that pretty much ended my association, if there ever really was one, with Tammany Hall. What Murphy did to me later, I’m sure had everything to do with me breaking his prize tiger. But that’s another story for another time.

Father Gilligan wrote some very nice things about me the following Sunday, and the whole church prayed for my speedy recovery. I sent him an autographed picture, and he replied by bringing around little Mary Alice, who was suddenly my biggest fan. I showed her my scars, and she showed me the scab on her knee she’d received when she tripped and fell, running out of the church. She thanked me, gave me a hug around the neck, and read to me the card that the kids made. It was a hand-drawn picture of Santa Claus holding a tiger over his head. I kept that in the bar, stuck in the corner of the big mirror, for years. I don’t know if it was a mistake or someone was trying to be clever, but underneath the little drawing on the front was the name, “Santa Tom Sharkey.”

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