Fiction: Too Late for a Lot of Things

too late for a lot

Read More: A short interview with Josh Denslow

Santa’s Workshop is off I-88, a few miles past the casino boat. It’s around the corner from that massive junkyard where Tina got the fender for her Honda Prelude after the accident she had where the guy in the other car died. She’s constantly asking me what I think he’d be doing right now if she hadn’t killed him. I told her she didn’t kill him, that he was the one who was drunk, but you know how girls are.

I have a million ideas better than a year-round Christmas-themed amusement park, but Santa’s Workshop actually exists and all of my ideas are trapped in my head. I’d love to say that this place is a failure, but it’s not. Kids come here in May and get off on the orgy of Christmas that we serve them. Parents let their DNA run around without supervision even though most of the employees are imagining them charred and at the bottom of a pit. Maybe not charred, but at least maimed in some way.

There’s a candy cane merry-go-round and a spinning sleigh ride that grinds through a decade of hardened pre-pubescent vomit. There’s a small indoor ice skating rink and a giant slide with fake toboggans. But the biggest ride is Escape from the North Pole. It’s a roller coaster that climbs up a slate mountain and the children, safely strapped into their harnesses (if Lance isn’t drunk), learn that a hairy ape has taken over Santa’s workshop while Santa is out delivering packages on Christmas Eve. Then they are sent over the first drop and through a loop, all the while trying to find Santa Claus. The main conflict with the ape is never resolved.

I’d be a great roller coaster attendant, but since I’m not tall enough to ride the ride, they won’t let me be in charge of it either. Instead I get to wear a felt green jumper and matching pointy hat. Which is what I’m doing right now as I walk around the park grounds making myself available for photo opportunities. My black shoes curl up over my toes where a small bell hangs. I get on my own nerves as I walk, though I’m quite popular with the kids and their parents. I hate all of them, but I particularly hate the ones that are taller than me. Which these days seems to be more than half of them. They must feed the smaller children to the bigger ones.

Two young girls in jeans and t-shirts run up to me giggling. Don’t ask me how old they are. Somewhere between five and thirteen. Their mom trudges behind them, the camera already poised in front of her.

“May we have a picture with you please?” one of the girls asks. I even hate when they’re polite.

Their mom has thinning brown hair and some stress wrinkles around her eyes. She’s looking at me like I’m a vending machine. The girls sidle up to me and she snaps the picture.

One of the girls runs off immediately, but the other stops and stares.

“Merry Christmas,” I say, hoping the words burrow somewhere deep inside her and fester for the seven months remaining in the year.

“Why are you so small?” Big innocent eyes.

“Okay, honey,” the mom says and pushes her daughter on her way. “I’m sorry about that.” Her doughy arms hang at her sides. “She’s just never seen someone like you before.”

“Like me?” I’d punch through a hundred babies to make her eat her words.

“She knows you’re not a real elf. But you know. Someone small like you. It’s not something you see every day.”

“Really?” I swallow. “I do.”

She rubs her hands on her thighs and takes a step backwards. “I’m sorry my daughter offended you.” She turns abruptly and follows her kids.

At least she didn’t call me a midget.untitled
I’m four feet, seven and a half inches tall. I don’t have any of those out-of-proportion midget appendages, and I don’t waddle like a duck. I have a smooth face that I maybe have to pluck a few hairs out of every couple of weeks. I look like an angel in my Santa’s Workshop costume. Or like a child star. But I’m twenty-three years old.

I have a half-hour break so I decide to find Tina. She works over in Gumdrop Alley, which is where all the prize games are. She runs the Reindeer Roundup. Plexiglass reindeer streak by on a conveyer belt and the kids try to knock them over with bright red balls. Tina says by the end of the day, the balls are so sticky from the kids’ hands that she doesn’t even want to touch them. Plus she’s been pegged a few times, which I figure is their way of hitting on her.

She must look like a model to them. Five feet, ten inches tall. Wavy blond hair that collects on her fragile shoulders. A narrow face accented by two trusting eyes. She’s always reminded me of a stork, but in a good way. What you don’t notice right away is the acne scars on her cheeks. Her yellow teeth. Her flat chest. Most people don’t pay attention like I do.

I know if I were taller, we’d be an item; there’s a lot of chemistry between us. I can’t change the genes I was handed, though, and that puts me at a severe disadvantage.

Tina leans against her booth, not a kid in sight. She’s wearing a red and green wool dress, and I desperately want to feel the sweat collecting on her thighs. “Some kid grabbed my ass,” she says.

“Finally. A smart one.”

“He was dared to.”

“How do you know?”

“I heard them talking about it so I leaned over into the prize bin for longer than I usually do. Wanted to give him a chance.”

She has this way of spreading her legs apart and bending slightly at the knees when she talks to me. It probably knocks off about four inches but she still towers over me.

“You’re doing it again,” I say.

She straightens her legs and pulls her shoulders back. She’s like a goddess. “You know, if you stopped seeing yourself as short, everyone else would, too.”

“Life’s not that simple. Besides, in my mind, I’m eight feet tall.”

“I don’t believe you for a second.” She tosses one of the red balls into the air and catches it.

“You remember which kid grabbed you?”

“If I saw him again.”

“Maybe you could point him out. I’ll tell him Santa has a boner right before it’s his turn to sit on his lap.”

“You in Santa’s Cottage this afternoon?”

“Yeah. With that fucker.”

We have alternating Santas. One of them is a guy named Norman who keeps to himself. Puts in his time and then goes straight to the bar. The other is Charlie, and he’s a real prick. Actually thinks he is Santa Claus. Got busted for breaking into his neighbors’ apartments and dropping off presents for their kids. Luckily no one pressed charges or he wouldn’t have his job anymore. The worst part about it is that I seem to be the only one who doesn’t like him. In fact, I have a sinking suspicion that Tina has a thing for him and it tears my insides apart.

“I was thinking about Driver again,” she says. That’s what she calls the drunk driver that died on the hood of her car after he catapulted through his windshield.

“I thought you weren’t going to do that anymore,” I say.

“This was just a random thought. I was watching a group of boys throw balls and it occurred me. He would never work here.”

If I could somehow become that guy, Tina might actually date me. Not the dead version of him. I mean the version that she created in the year after the accident. The better she made him, the worse she felt about his death. She was also creating an unhealthy standard for all other potential suitors.

“Sorry, I got a couple of turds approaching,” Tina says. She’s always calling kids turds even though she wants one of her own. I suspect it’s because she already has a cool name picked out for it. I can’t remember the name, though. Something with an ‘R’.

“Can I get my picture with you?” one of the kids asks, his eyes glazed over as he attempts to OD on sugar.

“I’m on break,” I say, feeling the phlegm lodged in the back of my throat and the ten years of smoking finally shredding my voice enough to make me sound menacing.

He laughs.

Kids are lined up around Santa’s Cottage, past the point where it looks wholesome and toward the back where the machinations of the theme park are exposed. Generator boxes, a couple of frayed wires, and a janitor’s closet with a door that still doesn’t close after Lance kicked it in when he couldn’t find the key over a year ago.

Every single kid in line tries to get my attention. I keep my head down and plunge through the Employee’s Only entrance, my shoes jangling loudly. Charlie stands in front of the men’s room straightening his beard. As opposed to other Santas I’ve seen, he’s not really fat. He’s broad-shouldered and muscular, sort of how I wanted to turn out. Like he could play Hercules or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s son. Plus, he’s a respectable five feet, eleven inches.

“Help has finally arrived,” he says with faux joviality. He turns his back to me and shakes his shoulders, the loose Santa suit sagging around his hips like a turkey neck. “Zip me up.” He squats so I can reach all the way to his collar, and I wish I could tighten it around his throat until it cut off the flow of oxygen.

“We got ourselves a madhouse out there,” he says when I’m done. “A lot of boys and girls trying to be good this year.”

“You sound like a retard when you talk like that.” I grab a few of the big Styrofoam Christmas presents and carry them into the next room. The train is already on and chugging its way around the track mounted below the ceiling. Gingerbread man standees line the walls and glowing plastic candy canes illuminate the room. I place the packages around the rickety wooden chair where Charlie will sit. He refers to it as his throne but you won’t catch that word rolling from my mouth.

There’s another elf already manning the entrance door; this guy named Monty. He’s six feet, two inches tall and has a horrible twist to his spine. He refuses to shave or look savory on any level so management usually sticks him at the door to Santa’s Cottage in an ill-fitting elf costume. The kids take one look at him and think twice before doing anything fucked up. Monty has been here longer than any of us, and there’s a rumor that the twisted spine happened on the job. With that kind of job security, I don’t think I’d bother giving a shit either.

“Don’t forget to announce me,” Charlie calls from the back room, and Monty snickers.

Problem is, if I don’t do it, Charlie will go to management and say I’m not a team player. All management cares about is us being team players. It’s written in block letters in the break room. WE’RE ALL ON THE SAME TEAM.

Monty throws open the entrance and sunlight barges in.

I clear my throat. “Here comes Santa Clause, here comes Santa Clause,” I sing. Charlie steps into the room, his hat askew, his beard perfect. “Right down Candy Cane lane.” My dignity seeps out of me like last night’s burrito.

The kids cheer.
The last kid exits the room, and Monty follows him out and shuts the door. Monty never helps us clean up. Charlie gets to his feet and says “That was great.”

I flip the switch for the train and the twinkling lights.

“Doesn’t the sight of all those children cheer your heart?”

“Actually, they look like dollar signs to me. Each one adds a little more to my paycheck on Friday.” I lock the entrance and walk toward the back.

“You have a bad attitude, you know that,” Charlie says, his face flushed. “Here you have a chance to make a real difference in their lives and you crap on it.”

“Do you think they remember you five minutes from now? They’re on to the next thing as if you never existed.”

Charlie pulls off his beard and stuffs it into the front pocket of his Santa suit. “Here’s what I think. You’re jealous of me.”

I know where this is going.

“You want to be as tall as me. You want the kids to look up to you, not down on you. You want to be Santa Claus. You want to be me.”

You know how when you look through a telescope and you can only see that one small part of the sky and the rest is outside your vision? Everything else disappears and I only see Charlie and his unibrow and his inflated nostrils.

A yell rips through my throat, and I charge him. My feet pound past the wrapped presents and fake gumdrops lining the walkway. Halfway there, I realize I have one of the tall lighted candy canes in my hands. I guess I’m planning to hit him with it.

Charlie looms in front of me. I can tell he doesn’t know what to do. I’m only steps away when I’m suddenly pushed backwards, as if Charlie has a force field around him. The candy cane smacks into my face, and I land flat on my back. All of the air in my lungs heaves out at once and my fingertips go numb.

I stare at the tinfoil snowflakes hanging from the ceiling. The silence feels wonderful, as if I slipped into bed for the night. A rhythmic slapping sound breaks the silence. Charlie’s head hovers above me and I realize he’s clapping, a large grin on his face. “That was a hell of a show, Keith,” he laughs. “God, I wish I had that on video.”

He kneels down and puts his face directly in front of mine, and I can see his stubble and a patch of blackheads on his nose. “Don’t fuck with me. Midget.” He stands up and kicks me in the hip. I groan and roll onto my side.

After I’m sure he’s gone, I slowly lift myself onto my hands and knees. The candy cane lies next to me, snapped in half. But I see the problem. The power cord stretches from the bottom and down the walkway to a hole in the floor where it is still plugged in. Damn thing ruined my plan.
My body aches as I pull off my elf costume. I can barely lift my legs to get them into my jeans. A few other workers come into the changing area, but no one says a thing to me. If I was back in high school, someone would be making cracks about how small my clothes are, or how I have to shop in the children’s section of the store. But everyone is broken at Santa’s Workshop. We tend to leave each other alone.

My palms are still shaking with rage. I know Charlie goes to Sparky’s every night after work for a beer. By the time I have my shoes on, I’ve made up my mind. When he walks out of the bar, I’m going to hit him with my jeep. Maybe not the most eloquent plan, but it’ll do the trick.

Almost everyone from Santa’s Workshop is at Sparky’s tonight. I see all of their beat-up trucks and rusted foreign cars. I don’t see Tina’s Honda and that mellows me out a bit. The ‘S’ in the neon sign over the door is burnt out, but it’s been that way for years. Most of the time, we just call the place Parky’s. The bartender is a huge black guy named Tyrese, and I’ve had at least a hundred dreams where I morphed into him and picked up Tina in my huge arms and carried her away from Santa’s Workshop forever.

I turn off my jeep in the back of the dusty parking lot. A slight breeze filters in through a hole in the soft top. A few years ago, someone cut through it and stole my cds, and I never bothered to repair it.

For a second, I’m tempted to abandon the plan and get a drink at the bar. Then I picture Charlie’s head exploding under my front tire, and I decide to wait. I pull my notebook out of my front pocket and flip to the back. I mostly use it to write down directions or lists of things to get at the store or the names of new people at work. But on the last page, in the smallest writing I can muster, I’ve made a list of all the things Tina admires about Driver. All the things I can’t seem to be. Confident, Funny, Successful.

I write – Doesn’t work at Santa’s Workshop – at the bottom. Though I’m only twenty-three, I feel like it’s too late to go back to college. It’s starting to feel too late for a lot of things. That makes me want to hit Charlie even more.

Whenever I have the notebook open, I think about the kiss. That one fluttering kiss brushed against my lips. I remember exactly how it felt, like it happened only moments ago. Even Charlie’s impending death can’t push it from my mind.

It was the week before Driver plowed into Tina’s Honda Prelude and did a nose dive onto her hood. I was walking out of the changing area and Tina was sitting there. I meant to ask her if she was waiting for me but I never got the courage. I think she was.

“This guy was sort of harassing me all day,” she said. “Would you walk me to my car?”

I couldn’t think of a better use of my time.

Kind of ironic, now that I think about it. Tina walking out of the park with the shortest guy there as her protection. But I felt invincible. I pulled my shoulders back and straightened my spine.

We were halfway across the parking lot and it seemed obvious that no one was lying in wait for her. “What are you doing here?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” I was buying myself more time. I hadn’t known her long, and I didn’t want to answer that question incorrectly.

“It seems like you could be doing a lot more.” She smiled. “I mean that in a good way.”

“I could say the same for you,” I said.

“I’m saving for school. I have my Associates already, and I’m taking a year off before I go to the University of Illinois.”

“I’m saving for school, too.” It felt nice to say, but it wasn’t true.

We walked up to her car, the black Honda perfectly cleaned and scrubbed, and I waited as she extracted her keys from her purse. Her hair swayed lightly over her shoulders. The next time I saw her, the fender would be missing and there would be dent in the hood the size of a man.

“Thank you for walking me. It was very brave of you.”

I grinned. I could see her mulling something over, and then she stooped down and gave me a light friendly kiss on the lips. Without meeting my eyes again, she got into her car and started it.

It was the last brave thing I did.
Drunks are stumbling out of Sparky’s so I start the jeep and roll up to the entrance. I kill the lights. You can’t miss Charlie; he’s in his bright red Santa suit.

“Ho, ho, ho!” he yells into the night sky, his beard jumbled under his chin. My face throbs in time to my pulse and my hands sweat on the steering wheel. I put the jeep in drive but keep my foot on the brake. Charlie staggers out and stops a few feet in front of me; as if he’s tempting me. I couldn’t have placed him in a better spot. I’d hit him around the hips and he’d double over and smack his head against my hood. All I have to do is punch the gas. I haven’t felt this powerful since I escorted Tina to her car.

I watch him teeter, constantly shifting his feet to keep his balance.

I guess I don’t actually want to murder him. I just wish that people got punished more often for being assholes. Charlie looks up and sees me and a huge smile spreads across his face. “Hey!”

What would the world look like if he and I were friends?

“It’s Gidget the Midget!”

I slowly inch forward, my kneecap jiggling. I snap on the headlights and he throws his arm across his face. “Okay, okay.”

I’m going so slow that the speedometer hasn’t even moved. I’m close enough that Charlie leans on the hood with his other hand. If I hit the gas right now, it wouldn’t kill him. It would send a message. […]

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Josh Denslow’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Third Coast, Cutbank, Wigleaf, The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, and Black Clock, among others. Josh plays the drums in the band Borrisokane and edits at SmokeLong Quarterly.

“Too Late for a Lot of Things” was a runner-up in the 2015 Editor’s Reprint Award.