Bless your Heart, Babbo
T. Fox Dunham
pulled up the U-Haul
outside of Vinny Senior’s—his dad’s old club—and parked it in the alley so he
could watch it from the bar. The grey sky threatened to dump a foot onto
Lancaster any minute, so he jumped out of the truck and hurried to catch the
snake before he slithered into some hole on this holy eve. Mikey, the
bartender, had tipped him off that the guy was here, probably figuring Vinny
would be busy making his yuletide deliveries. Everyone in the city new about
the slick pavement, slid, forgetting that he was wearing these ridiculous
novelty boots and grabbed onto the sideview mirror. Once he had his footing, he
searched the Santa costume for working pockets—most of which were just strips
of fabric sown onto the vest. “Fucking fugazi elf suit,” he said and finally shoved
the keys into the velvet pants. Before heading into the club, he scanned the
street for junkies and noted a group of punks standing off Duke Street who were
all mutually watching something on a phone. Anywhere else, he wouldn’t just
leave a truck full of video game systems—consoles, games, controllers worth a
total sixty-nine thousand dollars and fifty-eight cents based on current market
prices, all generously donated from department stores, the Elk’s club, car
dealerships, furniture stores and most of the other businesses in their
territory. He just had to take care of something in the club, would only be
gone a few minutes, and besides, everyone in Lancaster knew not to disrespect
his dad’s old club, especially on Christmas Eve. They’d been doing this
tradition since he was a kid. To disrespect it would be like throwing stones at
the stained-glass at Saint Matthews, though he wouldn’t put it past some of
these new kids. They didn’t give a shit about the rules or tradition. He didn’t
when he was their age.
slipped into the club
through the backdoor and remembered all the times his mother had sent him into
this filthy hellhole to drag his pop home, usually staggering all the way
through the snow. He couldn’t sell this hole fast enough. This would only take
a minute. He’d know by Bobby’s eyes if he had the vig. Thirty seconds later
Bobby would be headed to the Lancaster Hospital with a broken rib for some
merry morphine and Vinny would be back on his way to the Queen Street Community
Center to spread love, joy and these expensive gizmos that made him feel old
and obsolete to the poor and unwashed—an annual tradition started by his pop to
show the serfs that they ruled with benevolence.
plastic pine tree blinked and winked with only half its lights working. The
jukebox played The Rat Pack singing carols. Deadbeats, fleeing their
families—or their empty shitholes—filled the tables, nursing wine. And he
spotted Bobby sitting at the bar drinking some yellow sugary shit out of a
martini glass. Vinny sat on the stool next to him and kept an eye through the
window on the U-Haul.
What the fuck?” Bobby
said, sucking on a tiny candy cane.
been a naughty asshole,
Bobby. Making me look for you. You know what day it is.”
on, Vin’,” Bobby said then
gulped down the remainder of his eggnog martini. “I pay up on the vig this week
and Bobby Jr. and Lisa get fucked by Santa. That shit scars a kid for life.”
Vinny said. “Not even a Merry
yeah. Hey. Merry Christmas.”
you,” Vinny said and took
his eyes off the truck for a moment to look at an exhibit of framed photos
hanging above the whiskey shelf: his dad wearing the Santa suit year after
year, passing out gifts from an old sack to bewildered kids standing with their
terrified pops—most who owed him money. Still, the guy never had to break a
leg. They called him Gentle Vinny Senior, except on Christmas Eve when he
insisted everyone called him Babbo Natale. “Everyone wants a free pass
cause it’s the holidays.”
long have you been playing
my dad . . . you know. Took
a bath.” Philly police had found his dad frozen solid off Penn’s Landing one
year when the city was setting up the Ferris Wheel for the Winter Fest—another
reason he hated this time of year. “Why the fuck am I telling you that?”
gives people the
blues,” Bobby said.
gonna be blue if you
don’t got it.”
Come on, Vin’. What about
. . . Bobby Jr. and Lisa? Hey. I screwed up. I admit it. I’m weak as piss. But
don’t punish my kids for it.”
fucking week, guys have
been pleading their kids. Finding out there’s no Santa Claus is gonna fuck them
up—psychological. Best they grow up now and learn what a shitty place the world
is. It’s not my fault their father’s such a fucking loser.”
got a fucking heart, Vinny Junior?” Bobby said and tugged at the three black
hairs growing out of the that black rubbery blob growing out of his right
check. “Your dad had a heart. Family meant something to him.”
comment stabbed an icicle through Vinny’s chest. That’s what Mary had said to
him before she walked out, calling him a heartless thug. He had a heart. He
gave alms to the bums and junkies camped out on Queen Street when loose change
rattled in his pockets. Every Sunday, he dropped a wad into the basket at St.
Matthews and tonight he wore this ridiculous suit to make a bunch of kids
happy. He even put on the shitty beard, even though his pop had died with a
severe case of crabs frozen on his fat ass. Did anyone wash this shit?
made a deal. You don’t have
to be so insensitive. . . Now you’re crying in your beer cause you ain’t got
nothing under the tree for your kids. Trying fucking appreciating what you got!
And being a better father.” Vinny considered walking the fuck out into the
alley and whacking him with the .357 he kept in his shoulder holster under the
red velvet shirt. He never left the north pole without it.
Mikey,” Bobby called to the
bartender and pushed forward his glass. “How about another of these?”
cash?” Mikey asked while working a tap.
holiday spirit?” he said, plucking at that dead and crusty lump of flesh
growing off his cheek. Vinny tasted a mouthful of the clams he had for lunch
and had to look away before he vomited.
the green elf hat that was falling off his head, delivered the beer then
started making a martini. “If I don’t see some cash tonight, you are barred.”
“None of you
want my kids to have a happy Christmas,” Bobby said.
and Tommy to ask Santa for a new dad,” Mikey replied, then set down the drink
and sprinkled nutmeg on the sallow surface.
mean Bobby Jr. and Lisa?” Vinny asked, pulling up his red velvet pants.
“Right . . .
my nephew and niece,” Bobby said. “It would break their hearts to see their
favorite uncle in the hospital on Christmas.”
a walk,” Vinny said, trying to think of a way to compel the loser without
getting blood on the suit, when lights flashed through the bar window. The
U-Haul engine started. “Those fucking animals,” he said, as they watched the U-Haul
pull out of the alley. Some punk with a face chain gave him the finger through
the passenger side window.
balls!” Bobby said and finished his eggnog martini. “That’s the boys from
Santa’s Sleigh. They’re a metal band. I’ve made some deliveries to their club.”
the street,” he said. “Wait . . . now that I think about it, I don’t remember
hell up and drive,” Vinny said, reaching under his vest but not showing his
piece. All you ever had to do was reach. “You’re going to light my fucking way
plucked two tickets off his windshield, they got in and pulled out onto Duke
Street. The fucking tourists turned the one-way streets into parking lots,
believing they got an exception to traffic ordinances if they put their
blinkers on. Light snow fell on the city of Lancaster, blanketing a layer of
sleet that had fallen earlier in the morning, and Vinny could feel the front
tires slip. “Turn down Cherry Street,” he said. “You drive like my fucking Nonna.”
Bobby did as commanded and cut through western Lancaster, heading for Manheim
Pike. He knew if those kids got the truck back to their base, they’d divide up
the loot right away then ditch the U-Haul, and he really didn’t want to
disappoint the kids and pay for the damn truck.
Santa’s sitting in my passenger seat—and he’s armed and shit. It’s making my
IBS act up.”
this for me, and we’re even,” Vinny said.
Santa!” Bobby said. “My soul’ll fly free in heaven tonight without an earthly
debt to tether it to men of darkness.
fuck?” Vinny said. “I’m sitting right here. Men of darkness?”
too fast onto 222, and the car’s ass spun out into the other lane. He threw the
wheel and straightened the Buick out before turning left onto Manheim,
following a salt truck that slithered up the highway towards the river.
mean nothing, Vinny. Just poetry. Useless poetry.”
back at the bar, what you
said is kinda digging at me.” Man, that crabby-beard really started to itch
now, but Vinny didn’t feel right taking it off. What if a kid saw a guy in a Santa
suit without the beard? He didn’t want Bobby to be right about him.
upset,” Bobby said. “You were going to ruin my kid’s Christmas over a vig!”
have any fucking kids.”
you didn’t know that at the time.”
don’t make the rules. You
borrow. You gotta pay. If you weren’t desperate, you’d go to a bank. Did you
ever think about the risk to me? The chance I take? I gotta trust you to shy
you. I trust a lot of guys. And every one of them breaks my heart and says I’m
the villain. But I don’t want to be the villain. I want to be Santa Claus like
always like myself,” Bobby said. “I make bad choices, you know? I take it out
on people. I’m sorry. You’re the man. You’re a fucking god. You’re the best
‘made guy’ Santa who ever burned a saint card in his hands and sang Rudolph the
Red Nose Fucking Reindeer.”
for about fifteen minutes, hitting every patch of black ice and slush on the
road. Finally, they crossed over the Susquehanna River, driving through dense
fog that buried the Lehigh Valley, settling into its rivers and streams,
beclouding the villages of rowhouses, shops in the town squares and little bars
on the roadside. Bobby turned off 72 and drove along the riverbank, by the John
Little Restaurant and into a complex of derelict factories. Vinny could make
out fresh tire tracks in the fresh film of snow that led up to a small building
that had been converted into a rave.
off to the side here.”
did as ordered and turned
around the side of the building then parked by a pile of rusty filing cabinets.
got in that truck anyway?” Bobby asked.
games, controllers worth a total sixty-nine thousand dollars and fifty-eight
cents based on current market prices. The truck is full of good will and a
Bobby said. “What’s your taste?”
Christmas, you heathen,” Vinny said. “There you go again.”
guys just always take a taste.”
beckoned for him to get out, then they snuck around the building and sized up
the battlefield. The metal band didn’t have anyone on lookout, probably figured
no one knew where their lair was. They were too young to understand that the
underworld of a city operated like a corporation, and it was all connected—one
big happy family. Bobby, like most of the gamblers and junkies, got pulled into
side operations to pay their tabs, doing shit like delivering stolen goods. After
that, they’d sell you out. Vinny chalked it up to a learning experience and
wondered if any of the punks would live long enough to learn from it.
“How many in
the band?” Vinny asked.
seen any more than four. They talk a tough game. You know, like we used to when
we were kids.”
smiled. “So, they don’t know shit.”
hounds,” Bobby said.
keep a .32 under the seat in case someone doesn’t want to pay.”
“I wonder if
they still believe in Santa,” Vinny said then explained his plan.
did this right, it would
be fast. It wouldn’t take much.
two kids up in the truck while one more pushed a handcart inside the small
garage connected to the club. They passed around a joint, celebrating their
score, making his life easier. Vinny knew he couldn’t take on all three. He
might have been able to take one out before the other two cut him down, and
anyway he preferred to do this without leaving any bodies and drawing heat down
on his crew. He’d been the one who was sloppy, pissed about playing Santa,
pissed that he had to take over the role that his father had done every
holiday, leaving him and his mother home alone on Christmas Eve. No. He had to
be smart about this.
“Ho ho ho!”
he chanted, stepping into view in full Santa costume, keeping his piece at his
side out of sight.
the chained punk said, looking up from the back of the truck.
have been very naughty. Do you know what Santa does to naughty children?” Two
of the punks broke down laughing, jumped out of the back of the truck then
walked towards him. The one wearing a Misfits T-shirt clicked his tongue as he
walked. The third clung onto the handcart and watched the show. “You got any
cash? How about a toke?”
paused, having delivered the cue. Nothing happened.
said, do you know what Santa
does to naughty children?” He waited, but still nothing happened. That
motherfucking mutt had probably taken off as soon as Vinny had walked away. Why
not? He wasn’t going to survive this. Losers like Bobby possessed an uncanny
survival sense, and Vinny had trusted him. Never trust a guy who owes you
money. Christ. It was fucking amateur night.
going to get your arse thumped, Father Christmas,” the Brit said, grabbing a
crowbar. He could see they carried but weren’t interested in shooting—not some
drunk Santa that had wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time. They
might have whacked him after, but right now they just wanted to have a little
fun. Young guys always got off on power over the weak, usually cause their pops
made them feel so helpless.
Bobby, he considered reaching, but he knew he didn’t have a shot. It’s not like
he was an expert marksman. In his business, the moment you pulled your piece
was the moment you failed. He considered just running for it when a bullet hit
the side of the truck. He nearly dove to the ground. Two more shots fired, and
the kids ducked. That’s all he needed. Vinny fired at the concrete floor, and a
bullet ricocheted and hit one of the punks in his arm.
wanker!” One of them reached but dropped a ridiculously heavy .45. The other
two inexperienced little shits just ran, and the third soon followed while
clutching his arm, racing out towards the river. Bobby jogged into the garage,
huffing and puffing after a short sprint, and Vinny grabbed the keys out of the
I ever fired a gun,” Bobby said, running around to the passenger side.
the U-Haul out, spun around the building to drop Bobby off at his car.
have left me back there. Why did you stick your neck out? They would have
whacked me out.”
about it,” Bobby said, wiping the snow off his windshield. “But now you owe
me for once. And you’ve taught me the value of always having a taste, Santa.
Vinny said, putting the truck into drive. “Babbo Natale.”
On the way home,
Vinny thought about
what Bobby had said and stopped off at a warehouse in on the edge of the city
before heading over to the community center. He drove the U-Haul around back
where two excited volunteers helped him unload.
Widow Foley said, wearing a tight green dress. Vinny made a mental note to ask
her out after for one of those eggnog martinis after they gave away this shit
to the kids. “We were beginning to think you weren’t coming because of the
do that to the kids,” Vinny said. “I’ve got a heart, you know.” He unlocked the
U-Haul and pushed up the hatch. “Forty-five thousand dollars and thirty-six
cents worth of video game shit. All for the urchins.”
“Bless your heart, Babbo Natale.”