The Good People
Wren was not going to spend another Christmas like the last one, when he’d wandered from the Cozy Diner to an early matinee and then home to his empty apartment. Not this year. This year he had the jump on things. He’d gone on the Internet and found a good deal on a flight. He chose Ireland because he’d overheard Kelly, the pretty receptionist at work, telling a friend in the break room that she loved Ireland. It was just luck to learn the city of Cork, on the southern coast, was this year’s European Capital of Culture. That meant he could tell Kelly that the Irish were going all out on their celebration, with specially planned arts, music and a thing called Solas, the Journey of Light. He took three weeks off work, which made the trip appear more a vacation than an escape, and bragged to his coworkers about the series of tickets he’d already purchased to various international-sounding events. Only to Kelly, who’d recently begun appearing in his dreams (lusty and malleable!) did he mention the rings. Eighty-five hundred stainless steel rings, he told her, were being made by Irish artists and handed out during the Solas. A recipient was then obligated to perform some prescribed act when he met another ring bearer on the street.
“They’re creating spontaneous art!” said Kelly, who was just then at the filing cabinet, squatted down to stuff some bit of paper in the last drawer and her small skirt rucked up to reveal brown thighs. “The streets will be their stage!” Her words held a lilt as she straightened. She had a melodious voice and was studying dance and acting in night school. Sometimes, in his dreams, she even sang to him.
“Street theater,” he agreed, although it was a word he only knew from the Internet search and had little idea of what it actually entailed. But his heart thrilled to have impressed her. They’d never exchanged more than five words before, and now here they were with their eyes locked. Perhaps she really would see him as cosmopolitan and sensitive to such things as art and culture. A man who was taking off for Christmas in Ireland was certainly a dateable commodity!
“Oh, I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland,” Kelly lamented so sorrowfully that for one wild moment he considered inviting her along. Or canceling his plans and staying with her. But just then her desk phone rang and Kelly leaned toward him to retrieve it.
“Hey, babe!” she said into the receiver, dropping her voice to a husky whisper, “hold on.” She gazed up at Wren and a dazzling amount of silver—bracelets, earrings and necklaces—swung in his vision. Kelly loved silver.
“It’s for me,” she said with a rueful smile. But what did that smile mean? A moment’s regret at the timing?
“Oh. Right. Merry Christmas,” he finally said.
“Merry Christmas,” said Kelly. “Watch out for the Good People. And bring me a ring!”
The Good People, he learned, was an old Irish term for the leprechaun. Wren found this out reading his guidebook while waiting for his plane to take off.
“Leprechauns are a tricksy sort,” the guidebook warned, “who despite their reputation for guarding crocks of gold, will play pranks on any mortal who takes their eyes off them for a second, before they vanish laughing!”
The drawing beside the caption looked to Wren like one of Santa’s elves, and he was suddenly struck by the parallel. Both the leprechaun and Santa’s elves were menders and cobblers, little beardy men in green vests, jelly-bag hats and square buckled shoes, who tap tap tapped industriously down through time. Wren filed this away. It was the sort of thing his new, cosmopolitan self would save to bring up with Kelly. Later, when he handed her the ring.
Wren closed the guidebook, aware of a stir among the passengers behind him. An elevated sound to their muffled chatter. Scattered laughter that laid a course up the airplane aisle and to the seats surrounding him. His seatmate had arrived.
“What I’ve been through. You wouldn’t believe!” Wren saw red as the guy stuffed his satchel in the overhead. There was a titter and shifting among the passengers. His seatmate was wearing a Santa suit.
“Geez Louise.” The man fell into his seat ignoring the stir he’d created and disregarding the seatbelt stuck beneath him. “Almost got arrested in security. Damned belt buckle!” He was an incongruous Santa. No beard and thin as a lizard. Very un-merry looking and slit-eyed. The only thing authentic was the suit, a rich velvet trimmed with what looked like polar bear fur. It encased his wizened body from his neck to his hard soled, soot-black boots.
“You think I like it?” He’d caught Wren staring. “You think I need this?” He jammed his hands on his red-clothed knees. Stood up and shouted to a kid in the seat across from them who was begging his mother to let him talk to Santa.
“I am not too little for an MP3 player!” the kid whined. “Am I Santa?”
“You’re way too little,” the lizard Santa growled. “Now shut your piehole kid! All of you. Shut your pieholes!” he glared around then plunked back down in his seat.
“Ever wish you were somebody else?” he said to Wren as the plane began to move.
Right now Wren just wished he was anybody else who was sitting in another seat than this one.
“Try being Santa Claus 365 days a year.” The man wriggled as if he’d like to slip from the suit that fit him snug as a second skin.
Wren didn’t answer. None of this matched the cultured world traveler he was making himself into for Kelly. The TV on the seat back flickered and the safety video came on.
“Yeah, buckle up. Ha, ha, ha,” groaned his seatmate. “Or should I say Ho, ho, ho? What I wouldn’t give for a nice plane crash.That would be the end of it.”
Wren wished he hadn’t said that. He was unused to airplane travel and began to worry about the condensation on the window, whether it was normal or not. The plane rumbled and thunked, then rose like a gliding sleigh. The world shrank away.
“Hey buddy.” His seatmate poked Wren with a knobby elbow. “Let’s get drunk. Whatdya say?”
The plane was full, so Wren supposed it was useless to ask to switch seats. Besides, he didn’t have to tell Kelly everything.
The guy’s name was Doyle. He used to weigh 250 pounds. “Swear to God,” said Doyle, well into his third Jack and Coke. Or was it his fourth? Wren was beginning to lose count of the number of tiny plastic vials the stewardess had brought. He was no longer bothered by the window condensation. If it were a problem, wouldn’t someone else have remarked on it by now?
There had been dinner and a movie and now the mini plane in the seatback video ahead of him showed they were somewhere over the North Pole. Kelly was hundreds of miles away, and with that distance and a few drinks he’d solidified his destiny. He was crossing the bleary nothing to get her a ring. Across the aisle the little kid who wanted an MP3 player had not stopped eyeing Doyle with disgust.
“I lost the weight thinking I could shrink myself out of this suit,” said Doyle. “But the suit kept shrinking too!” Doyle was a kook. He kept insisting he’d been fooled into Santa’s suit. “By old Kris Kringle himself!” said Doyle. “Sure, I know. I get it. You think I’m some kind of squirrel head. But it was him all right.” Doyle pinched two fingers together and gave his shirt a fierce pluck. “Now it won’t come off I tell you. It won’t come off!”
It was funny, really, muffled by the cocoon of airplane travel and the spell of Jack and Cokes. A tale Wren could relate to Kelly if he told it right. (Hadn’t they already achieved one successful conversation?) It might amuse her to hear about the guy who swore he was tricked into wearing a super-glued Santa suit.
“You must like Christmas,” said Wren, deciding to egg him on.
“I used to hate Christmas,” said Doyle. “All those days off work. The wife spending money like it grew on trees. The kids. Gobbling things up. I was a regular scrooge. I didn’t believe in Christmas!”
“Then why’d you get in the suit?”
Doyle leaned close and blinked his lizard-slit eyes. “Look, man. Ever notice how much Santa sounds like a fairy story? They say he comes from that Christian saint, Nicolas, but look around. All them elves and shit he’s got. All his magic. Gnomes, and sprites and tricksters, that’s where Santa comes from!”
“As a matter of fact—” Wren began.
“He warned me, that’s the clinker,” Doyle cut him off. “He warned me! ‘Once you don this suit—'you bet he talked like that—'you’re gonna wear it til you are honest with yourself,’ he says. ‘Face yourself and all that. Blah, blah, blah. Be a man, be charitable, be jolly. Ho ho ho.'”
Doyle rammed his hand into the fur muff at his neck and rubbed. His skin had taken on a strange, sallow look. “It’s all about yearning, fella.” Doyle licked his skimpy lips. “And all of us yearn for something.”
Doyle’s stare looked dazed, and Wren felt he had to say something. “What did you yearn for then?”
The lizard eyes moved sideways. “You know sometimes you just get a twinge? You think your life could be better? You think everyone else knows something you don’t?” He gazed into his Jack and Coke. “Maybe the old bearded man was sick of this whole thing himself. Hey, nobody believes in him anymore. It’s hard to be yourself when nobody believes in you. Ask me, I know. I’m living Santa’s life.” He moaned. “I’m scoffed at, ignored, ridiculed. I’m only appreciated at Christmas. It’s horrible I tell you, horrible!”
“I can see where it would be,” said Wren.
“You don’t know the half of it. I been stuck in this thing five years! Think about being Santa in spring, summer and fall. At Christmas it’s all right, but the rest of the year’s ridiculous. I lost my job, my wife, my friends. Nobody wants to be seen with a man in a Santa suit.
“Oh, I been through all the stages all right. Denial, anger, grief, acceptance. I even created a life being Santa. I do bit parts in movies. TV adds. Commercials. You might be surprised to know they start filming for Christmas in June.”
Wren was no psychologist but he didn’t think Doyle had accepted anything. “You still want out of the suit,” he said.
“No. No. No. I believe. I believe. If you ask me Christmas should occur EVERY day of the year, with just one day set aside for NO Christmas. We could all lose our joy, our divinity our love and humanity on a SINGLE DAY, instead of 364 days a year. Besides, the merchants would love it.”
To get a ring for Kelly, Wren went directly to the tourist center when he landed in Cork. The small office held a bushel of tourist brochures and a smattering of sale items; shirts, hats and pens covered in shamrocks. The woman behind the desk was having a long chat with the single customer ahead of him. Wren waited, reading some of the brochures in order to feign patience. The brochures said tonight was the official Christmas lighting ceremony on St. Patrick’s Street, “Patrick’s” to the locals, and for the price of a pint you could watch the ceremony from the Old Oak Bar.
The woman ahead of him wore down at last and he took his turn. The blonde behind the desk was friendly. But when he asked her for a festival ring she frowned and shook her head. The last of her rings, she told Wren, had just gone out the door before him.
“Aren’t there any left at all?” Wren was jet lagged and stricken. He had a headache from the Jack and Cokes. The length of his journey had made it paramount; he had to have that ring for Kelly.
“Pity,” said the counter girl, who was pretty but not, he decided, as pretty as Kelly. “To miss by one. And you all the way from California! Why not go on along to the English market, find the book store and ask Tom Dougherty. Earlier today he still had a few.”
At the bookstore Tom Dougherty shook his head. “I had three left, just an hour ago. Everybody wants those rings. Hey Paudyeen!” he called to a man loitering behind a stack of books. “You want to tell us who might pass this fellow a ring? He’s all the way from California.”
The one called Paudyeen lifted his work-squared chin. “Biddy’s shop maybe,” he said. “Follow me, lad,” and tottered out of the store.
Wren followed Paudyeen outside. Cork’s buildings were old in an interesting sort of way, their edges softened by the dark and gauzy night. Strings of unlit Christmas lights laced the streets. Patrick’s was closed to traffic and a kind of street faire was going on, with a music stage and movie screens and people strolling down the street center, laughing and calling to one another, buying balloons for the kids and gawking at the decorations.
The Irish traveled in family packs. Kids, moms and dads, grandparents, and aunts and uncles, too. They were all out tonight, ruddy cheeked and waiting for the Christmas lighting ceremony. A film played on the movie screens, images that looked to Wren like an ode to God inventing the world, zooming down from the stars to snow-capped mountains to sun-kissed, sandy shores.
On stage Sir James Galway, a famous piper, was playing in earnest. Behind him a smoke machine sent green and yellow smoke into the Irish mist. And up and down Patrick’s dozens of banners swayed silver and blue against the cold night. Wren thought of the land of Oz.
The man called Paudyeen walked him over a few blocks to a brass shop. It was closed but Paudyeen brought out a pipe and tapped its stem on the glass. A bulb switched on in a back room and hundreds of brass objects took the glow. Clocks and horns and anchors, model cars, trains, ships and planes. Horses, pigs, cows and birds. Barometers, weathervanes, forks and spoons. An old woman hurried through the shop and opened the door. She bent her white head toward them.
“Biddy, you got any festival rings?” shouted Paudyeen in her ear. “He’s all the way from California.”
“Festival?” cried Biddy. “What festival is that?”
“The Solas, Biddy.” Paudyeen took this in stride. “Don’t you recall the Solas?”
“Solace?” Biddy shouted. Her smile was game. “A solace ring? It’s Himself you want then,” she added. And she plucked Wren’s sleeve and nudged him out to the street. “Go over to Patrick’s just that way to the Old Oak Bar. Ask for Yellow Billy.”
The barkeep in the Old Oak had a wrinkly, stepped-on face. He looked anxious when Wren asked him for Yellow Billy.
“Yellow Billy!” he said. “You wouldn’t mess with him.”
Wren was plainly out of his depth, and sick of going in circles. “It’s not for me,” he said. “It’s for my girl. I heard Yellow Billy had some festival rings. I promised her I’d bring one home.”
“Love struck, is it?” the barkeep sighed.
“Apparently,” said Wren, although it was somewhat of a surprise to him that upon his arrival in Ireland, Kelly had become his girl.
The wrinkly face drew in. “Yellow Billy had a ring. But I seed him leave it for that fellow over there.” He nodded to a dark corner of the bar where Wren made out the shape of a man passed out on a stool. “Hey, Yank,” the barkeep offered, “I’ll stand you a pint.” He handed Wren a Guinness.
Wren took the Guinness to the corner of the bar. The drunk had his head down, turned away from him. The ring was on his pinky finger. Wren sat down beside him.
He drank fast and had a quick battle with his conscience. His heart was tapping like a cobbler’s hammer. The guy had skinny fingers. Like the ring might fall off any minute. He might wake up tomorrow and think he lost it.
Wren shuddered. He must be more jet lagged than he thought. Or more in love. He was not a thief. He was a man of art and culture! He’d traveled across the Atlantic to prove it. But how could he disappoint Kelly, whose last words burned in his heart; Bring me a ring.
All he had to do was reach over and grab it.
“Ho!” The drunk lifted his head and Wren froze with his hand over the man’s hand. Doyle!
Doyle’s eyes were bloodshot and weary. “It’s you.”
“You didn’t say you were coming to Cork.”
“I had a Santa gig. On the stage outside.” Doyle blinked his lizard blink and looked toward Patrick’s Street.
“I thought you were stuck in that Santa suit,” Wren accused. He should have been amused, but he felt cross. Doyle was wearing a suit all right, but not a red one. This one was the color of tropical sea water. Shimmery in the dusky pub light. With too-short sleeves and pant cuffs that seemed to have shrunk up Doyle’s skinny arms and legs as if appalled. His square buckled shoes were tanned and his pea soup shirt beneath the coat looked ridiculous.
“I was!” Doyle sat up straighter; the ring clunked the bar top. He drew his hand up. “You won’t believe it. It’s the ring!” Wren studied the silver band. It was simply fashioned, but hefty, as if shaped in a forge. “Found it on the bar top not 20 minutes ago!”
Wren swallowed. Twenty minutes too late!
“Soon’s I put it on, a guy comes up to me.” Doyle shook his head like the cobwebs were clearing. “Says hideho, lad. You’ve got a ring. And so do I. That means we have to exchange.”
“Yeah,” said Wren. “I know about the exchange.” He stared into his Guinness. There was no other way to take a man like Doyle. He drank the stout liquid down.
“I tell him, only thing I want to trade is suits,” said Doyle. He grinned. “Oh, what a night I’ve had! What a night! I miss home! I miss it! I’m going back. I really am. I’m going back and appreciate everything now.”
“He traded you suits?” Wren couldn’t take his eyes off the ring. Watching that ring on Doyle’s pinky was like watching his future with Kelly on another man’s hand. As if he didn’t really have a future with her at all.
“Traded me straight across. Right here in the men’s, not 15 minutes ago! Said he’d always had a yen to be Santa.”
Wren signaled for two more pints. “I thought that suit wouldn’t come off.”
“Me too! Me too!” Doyle kissed the ring. “My luck,” he said, “I’ll never take you off now, girl.” He ran a hand around the collar at his neck. “I was honest, too. I told him the story. The whole of it.” He drank the Guinness Wren had bought him.
"'You have to face yourself in this suit,’ I told him. ‘You can’t tell yourself no lies. Once you put it on there’s no going back.'” Doyle paused. He turned to Wren. “So how do I look in this thing?”
“Like a leprechaun,” said Wren meanly. He couldn’t get over losing out on a ring.
Doyle lifted his pint and eyed him over the froth. “Whatdya mean?” he said harshly.
Wren dropped his eyes. A sudden, sly idea seized him. “I didn’t mean anything,” he said.
But Doyle was suspicious now. “Spit it out,” he growled. “Whatdya mean?”
Wren said nothing. He just looked at the shimmery suit.
Doyle looked too, down at the shimmery sea water suit and back up at Wren. There was fear in his slitty eyes. “It’s a … little green, ain’t it,” he said slowly.
Wren offered the trade. His own slacks and sweater, even his new leather jacket, for the shimmery suit. But only if Doyle threw in the ring. Doyle practically groveled saying yes. “It ain’t my fault,” he kept saying, “remember that. I told you the truth.”
Saint Patrick’s street was full of families when Wren stepped out of the Old Oak Bar. He sensed a nostalgic tug in the air as the crowd waited for the Christmas lights to come on. From the look of the tangle of lights it would be dazzling.
The movie of creation was still playing on the video screens. Images of stars, the mountains, the ocean waves drawing down in a melodramatic way to the green patchwork quilt of the Irish countryside. Then the countryside became the city, and finally the very street where they stood.
God made the world, and in its center, he placed Cork, Europe’s Capital of Culture for 2005!
Wren had taken his time donning the suit. The jacket felt short and the tanned shoes tight and rather pointed, he hadn’t noticed that at first. He had to figure out the old fashioned buckles, too, so by the time he emerged from the men’s room, Doyle had vanished. The suit was snug, but no matter, he could take it off as soon as he hit his hotel room. Wren picked up the ring Doyle had left on the bar. He could feel Kelly’s pleasure when she saw it.
There were more musicians on stage now. Their song built in a swirl of melodeons, fifes, whistles and hand drums until Ta da! a man in a Santa suit appeared among them. As is if by magic, the moment Santa showed, children popped onto their fathers’ shoulders and a roar went up. Santa chanted the countdown and the crowd joined in. Ten, nine, eight…
The fellow playing Santa looked larger in the suit than Doyle had, his chubby cheeks buffed with cold. The suit seemed to have expanded, though, and fit his pouched belly and stout legs. But it was the same one all right. Rich velvet and polar bear fur at the edges. Sooty, hard soled boots.
Seven, six, five… On the video screen the camera panned the crowd. Wren was startled to see his own image. Even though he didn’t believe what he’d told Doyle, he had to admit he looked something like a leprechaun in this suit. He sure would be glad to get out of it.
Four. Three. Two. Wren joined in. It was a moment he could save for Kelly, along with the ring. The exultant AHHHH when the crowd hit one, and the lights exploded. Noisemakers squawked and firecrackers banged. The hand drums boomed. Balloons let loose from the children’s hands floated up and away in the yellowy-green smoke. Christmas had arrived in Cork.
He was looking down the yellow brick road to the Emerald City. There, up on stage danced a gleeful Santa. Tap tap tapping his hard heeled boots. It must be the Guinness. The shimmery suit collar rubbed. And Santa’s eyes looked tricksy.