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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

T. Fox Dunham: Bless Your Heart, Babbo Natale

95_ym_blessyourheartbabbo_hlyon.jpg
Art by Hillary Lyon 2022

Bless your Heart, Babbo Natale

 

T. Fox Dunham

 

 

 

Vinny 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 tradition.

          Vinny hit 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.  

Vinny 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.

          A dusty 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.

“Santa? What the fuck?” Bobby said, sucking on a tiny candy cane.

“You’ve been a naughty asshole, Bobby. Making me look for you. You know what day it is.”

“Come 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.”

“What?” Vinny said. “Not even a Merry Christmas?”

“Oh yeah. Hey. Merry Christmas.”

“Fuck 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.”

“How long have you been playing Santa anyway?”

“Since 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?”

“Christmas gives people the blues,” Bobby said.

“You’re gonna be blue if you don’t got it.”

“Aww. 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.”

“All 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.”

          “Don’t you 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.”

          Bobby’s 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?

“You 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.

“Yo, Mikey,” Bobby called to the bartender and pushed forward his glass. “How about another of these?”

          “You got cash?” Mikey asked while working a tap.

          “Where’s your 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.

          Mikey fixed 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.

          “Tell Sara and Tommy to ask Santa for a new dad,” Mikey replied, then set down the drink and sprinkled nutmeg on the sallow surface.

          “Doesn’t he 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.”

          “Let’s take 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.       

          “The fucking 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.”

          “You got your car?”

          “Parked on the street,” he said. “Wait . . . now that I think about it, I don’t remember shit.”

          “Shut the 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 tonight.”

 

#

 

          After Bobby 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.  

          “Sorry. Santa’s sitting in my passenger seat—and he’s armed and shit. It’s making my IBS act up.”

          “Listen, do this for me, and we’re even,” Vinny said.

          “Thanks, Santa!” Bobby said. “My soul’ll fly free in heaven tonight without an earthly debt to tether it to men of darkness.

          “What the fuck?” Vinny said. “I’m sitting right here. Men of darkness?”

          Bobby turned 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.

          “I didn’t mean nothing, Vinny. Just poetry. Useless poetry.”

“Look, 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.

          “I was upset,” Bobby said. “You were going to ruin my kid’s Christmas over a vig!”

          “You don’t have any fucking kids.”

          “Yeah. But you didn’t know that at the time.”

“I 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 my pop.”

          “I don’t 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.”

          They drove 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.

“Pull off to the side here.”

Bobby did as ordered and turned around the side of the building then parked by a pile of rusty filing cabinets.

          “What you got in that truck anyway?” Bobby asked.

          “Consoles, 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 generous spirit.”

          “Nice,” Bobby said. “What’s your taste?”

          “It’s Christmas, you heathen,” Vinny said. “There you go again.”

          “Sorry. You guys just always take a taste.”

          Vinny 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.

          “I’ve not seen any more than four. They talk a tough game. You know, like we used to when we were kids.”

          Vinny smiled. “So, they don’t know shit.”

          “Gun-shy hounds,” Bobby said.

          “Are you heavy?”

          “Yeah. I 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.

If they did this right, it would be fast. It wouldn’t take much.

 

#

 

          Vinny spotted 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.

          “Holy shit,” the chained punk said, looking up from the back of the truck.

          “You kids 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?”

          Vinny paused, having delivered the cue. Nothing happened.

“I 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.

          “You’re 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.

          Abandoned by 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.

          “Fucking 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 velvet pants.

          “First time I ever fired a gun,” Bobby said, running around to the passenger side.

          “No shit, Rudolph!”

          Vinny backed the U-Haul out, spun around the building to drop Bobby off at his car.

          “Yo, Bobby,” he said.

          “Yeah Santa?”

          “You could have left me back there. Why did you stick your neck out? They would have whacked me out.”

          “I thought 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. Never hurts.”

          “Not 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.

          “Shit,” the 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 weather.”

          “I wouldn’t 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.”

T. Fox Dunham lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with his wife, Allison. He’s a cancer survivor, modern bard, herbalist, baker and historian. His first book, The Street Martyr, is under production by Throughline Films, and he’s also contributed to official Stargate canon with a story published in the Stargate Anthology Points of Origin from Fandemonium Books. Mercy, a horror novel about his battle with cancer, is available from Blood Bound Books. More information at tfoxdunham.com & Twitter: @TFoxDunham


Hillary Lyon is an illustrator for horror/sci-fi and pulp fiction websites and magazines. She is also founder and senior editor for the independent poetry publisher, Subsynchronous Press. An SFPA Rhysling Award nominated poet, her poems have appeared in journals such as Eternal Haunted Summer, Jellyfish Whispers, Scfifaikuest, Illya’s Honey, and Red River Review, as well as numerous anthologies. Her short stories have appeared recently in Night to Dawn, Yellow Mama, Black Petals, Sirens Call, and Tales from the Moonlit Path, among others, as well as in numerous horror anthologies such as Night in New Orleans: Bizarre Beats from the Big EasyThuggish Itch: Viva Las Vegas, and White Noise & Ouija Boards. She appeared, briefly, as the uncredited "all-American Mom with baby" in Purple Cactus Media’s 2007 Arizona indie-film, "Vote for Zombie." Having lived in France, Brazil, Canada, and several states in the US, she now resides in southern Arizona.  https://hillarylyon.wordpress.com/

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2022