Nick was a generous man – tall and broad-shouldered – but not fat. Never fat. And he sure as hell wasn’t jolly. He was often mistaken for a homeless man or a veteran. His white beard and oversized clothes didn’t help in that regard, and he was called gramps or pops by people who didn’t know any better. Hipsters called him old timer. He never corrected them. There was nothing to correct.
Across the lamp-lit street, a lady screaming broken English was holding a pack of cigarettes. He was a dollar short and the ATM wasn’t coughing up anything willingly. It was that dark time of year when everyone was stingy, and the machine was wholeheartedly on board.
He kicked it. He ran his fingers down each sticky button. He swore into the camera, but the mechanical teller remained unconvinced.
“You piece of shit.” He kicked again.
“Rough it up! I think you can take it!” said a pithy voice behind him.
He stopped. Black water splashed from racing taxi tires, and Nick slowly peered over his shoulder. “It’s got nothing left to give. Find another one.”
“And yet you’re still trying with this one,” said the man. “You never give up. Good for you!”
That face – the pithy one – popped around his arm, sniffing its dripping nose. “Coming up short, I see. Well, ’tis the season to be empty, I suppose.”
Nick wrenched his black coat tighter around his shoulders and turned to leave. That face stepped right in front of him.
“You look cold and destitute,” said the face. “You look homeless, too, and that’s a shame. Can I buy you a coffee?”
“No you may not.”
“A coffee and a chat – that’s all I ask. Surely you can agree to that,” he said, sniffling again. “The air is crisp! The sun is down! It’s a time to get excited! A time to be generous, am I right? I’m nothing if not generous. And this is my favorite time of the year!”
There was nothing exciting or generous about the man. He was dressed in a long camel-colored coat, leather gloves, and brown tweed slacks – business-y and not exciting. His brown hair and trimmed beard were as stiff and unmoving as the wallet strapped to his ass. He looked like an average Joe with a lot of spare change to count.
“I’m disinterested, son. I’ve got nothing to share.”
“That can’t be true. You look ample of spirit. And your cheeks are pale and your nose could use a good reddening, too. Maybe not coffee. How about something to put a little jingle in your bells? I know a place that serves one hell of an eggnog. Coffee or nog, pick your poison.”
This suddenly not-so-average Joe was going to pester him regardless of how he replied, and since Nick had nowhere to be, he agreed.
The restaurant was a block away. They walked in silence. When they reached the door, they were welcomed and waved inside. Take your seat at a stool, said the waving hand, enjoy the fire in the corner and the one about to coat your tongues and fill your bellies.
The not-so-average Joe shrugged off his coat, draped it over a stool, and sat. Nick kept his coat on but joined him.
“New York City on the very first day of winter …,” said not-so-average Joe. He rubbed his hands together as a wide smile showed off his pearly whites.
Nick cleared his throat. “You dragged me down here to talk about the weather?”
“Everyone talks about the weather; it’s how we relate. Cold enough for you? They say we’re gonna get three inches … I’ve always preferred a little more than that, but I don’t judge.” He sniffed his nose.
The bartender silently approached him and then stood, waiting. “A scotch and Coke for me, and for my white-bearded friend here, an eggnog – heavy on the bourbon; he’s having a rough night.” The bartender nodded and shuffled away. “So how are you getting along here? Good? Not good? Should I introduce myself? Maybe I should.”
“You seem to lack basic manners. I’d expect nothing less from you than a rude introduction after ordering me a drink I don’t want.”
“Well, why didn’t you say something?!” Not-so-average Joe sniffed his nose and straightened his silk houndstooth tie. “Doesn’t matter. I’m the one paying for it, so I’ll order exactly what I want. You’re penniless so you don’t get a choice. That’s how this works.”
“I guess I’m not your guest. Or is your head so far up your ass that you’ve forgotten how invitations work?”
The man hissed and smiled as a glass of eggnog dropped to the bar. Nick stared at the cinnamon stick threatening to poke out his eye if he took a hasty sip.
“They are festive, are they not?” said the man. “It’s the holiday spirit. It’s in cinnamon now. Did you get the memo? Who needs benevolence when you have pumpkin spice?”
Nick took a swig and licked his lips. “I take it you know who I am.”
“I do indeed. But I’m curious as to why right now – when it’s your time to shine – you’re Scrooge-ing around downtown. Shouldn’t you be galavanting around a mall this time of year? Playing with your toddler followers? Changing a couple diapers?” He gulped his drink.
“Charity’s dead. What would be the point of galavanting?”
“For fun.” He smiled. “And Charity’s not dead. Give her a couple more days. When people start scrambling, she’ll come back. Probably strapped to a goat in Africa, but she’ll come back. Imaginary deadlines bring out the best in people – you know that. Hey!” He snapped his fingers and the bartender returned.
“When do you get off?” asked not-so-average Joe.
The bartender glanced at Nick and murmured to himself. “Not ‘til four. Why?”
Not-so-average Joe grumbled and dismissed the bartender with a wave. He turned back to Nick. “What do you do on Black Friday, anyway? Do you hide? I always imagined you hiding in a darkened theatre or behind the dumpsters at a porn shop – I don’t know why. Please tell me you go shopping for your Secret Santa.” He chuckled to himself and sipped his drink. “You should hang around malls. They’re dying too. This new generation loves photographs. You should get on board with that. They’re all lonely fuckers with a shit-ton of dogs. Go to a mall. Pose with some fucking dogs. Make a mint selling holiday dog shots to childless millennials looking to piss off mom and dad. That’s still in your skill set, I think.”
Nick coughed and scratched his chin through his thick, yellowing beard. “Am I supposed to know who you are? Because I’ll be damned if I’ve ever seen or heard of a pissant like you. You’ve heard of me, of course, because I’m actually notable. What the hell are you?”
“I’ve heard of you because you’re an old fucker. I’m an old fucker too, but I didn’t get the same press as you until – good fucking god – the sixties? Then wham again in the eighties. I’m settling in nicely now since the Boomers are dying off and they fucked up their kids so badly.”
Nick ignored him and wiped the pale cream from his own mustache. “I’m listening if you’ve got something worthwhile to tell me, otherwise, I think I’ll be on my way.”
“I know you’re listening to me regardless of what you say. You’re fading away. But you don’t have to fade away. You just have to reinvent yourself. Loosen your rules a little bit.”
“I’ve already loosened my rules, and I’ve been reinvented over and over and over again. I’d rather fade into jolly fat postcarded oblivion than fight my way back into the minds of people who don’t deserve what I have to offer.”
“Big words for a big man, and bah humbug to you, too. You don’t mean any of that, Nicky.” He finished off his scotch and Coke and ordered a second while Nick chewed on the cinnamon stick. “When the sun gets low, you and I offer very similar escapes, you know that?”
Nick sighed. The heat of the restaurant was gathering around his neck. He yanked open the collar of his coat and leaned on the bar. “Similar in what respect?”
“At one time you offered relief from the darkness. You were a rope when everyone was drowning in death. Food stops growing, sky empties, people are stuck wallowing inside, and you come bearing gifts – how sweet of you. You offered that tinge of hope. You let the people know that they weren’t alone and that the sun just might come back if they’re good. And look at all these pretty presents, you’d say!” The not-so-average Joe laughed, tapping his palm on his forehead. He then swiveled on his stool to look out the window. “And now look at them – shuffling around in their peacoats and fancy scarves. Still hungry, still cold, and even more empty than they were hundreds of years ago. They could use your generosity now more than ever, and they choose to ignore you.” He chuckled, glancing at Nick’s sneer. “Laugh, fat man, it’s funny!”
“Similar in what respect?” repeated Nick.
The man scowled mockingly and turned back to the bar. “I offer them what they can’t find elsewhere: stability within the gloom of their own minds. I relieve them of nightmares. I let them get up in the morning. I allow them to pretend to be normal for just a little bit longer. I give them the ability to cope in the greedy little world that they themselves created.”
“For a pretty penny, of course,” mumbled Nick.
“Of course, a man’s gotta eat. You and me, we aren’t so different, you see? It’s just that what you do comes from here.” He fist thudded against Nick’s chest. “And what I do comes from here.” He shook his cupped hand under his own chin and then snapped back a mouthful of nothing. “My way’s easier, so I win.”
“You’re a plague.”
“Now that was a naughty thing to say. Here I’m being nice – I gifted you that refreshing beverage and you lob names at me? It’s no wonder the people love me more. You’re rude as hell.”
“Don’t confuse habit with love, you little shit.”
“They can’t live without me. There is no purer definition of love, Nicky.”
Nick shook his head and drained his glass, casually glancing around the room: two exits and a set of doors leading to the kitchen. He had options if things headed too far south.
“Getting antsy?” asked the man. “I can treat that. First one’s always free.” He grinned.
Nick traced the lip of his empty glass. “What do they call you?”
“I’m a man of many names, like you. Pharma to my friends. Bill to my followers. Hefty Bill to my long-timers.” He snickered. “Not as hefty as you, though.”
“I prefer little shit.”
“You’ve obviously never met Tech,” laughed Bill. “More eggnog?”
Nick shook his head, his fingers now strumming the bar and his eyes focused on the red and green bottles lining the wall behind the busy bartender.
“I will give you something,” said Bill, “The kids. Even I think it’s fucked up what they’re doing to them. We won’t lie to little Jimmy. That’s wrong, they say. So the kid grows up knowing nothing about you. And then he turns eight and can’t sit still so they introduce him to me instead. I mean, good for me, obviously; I get a lifelong follower. But hell, it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth ... I guess it’s not that bitter.”
“Man’s gotta eat,” mumbled Nick.
Bill smiled and clapped him on the back. “That’s the spirit! I knew you still had a little gumption left, you cynic.”
Nick turned to glare at Bill’s smug grin.
“Don’t let me get under your skin, Nicky, Jesus Christ. You’d think you would’ve grown a thicker hide after all these cold winters.”
“Your end is nigh, little man. They didn’t have you two hundred years ago. They won’t need you soon enough.”
“Keep telling yourself that, Nicky. Hey, if it makes you feel any better, suicide rates don’t go up in the winter. If anything, people are more likely to off themselves in the spring, so blame the Easter bunny. Then again, people drug themselves in the winter; maybe that has something to do with it. A lot of cold, lonely nights to suffer through ...”
Bill snickered, checked his buzzing phone, and stood, sliding on his coat. “Everyone wants a taste of me when the lights go out, and I can’t say I blame them. I’m fucking delicious.”
Nick rose to leave. Bill grabbed his shoulder, pressing him back onto his stool.
“Another eggnog,” Bill called to the bartender. “More bourbon this time, and two cinnamon sticks – a little extra spirit for my new sad friend here.”
He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his coat and set them on the bar. “Cancer sticks,” he said, tapping the pack. “Merry Christmas, Pops. And don’t forget to smile. ’Tis the season to be jolly!”