December 1, 2014
She never wore shoes at home.
Neither did her three children or their father, who only showed up every few days when he needed money. He may have left her with a broken heart, three mouths to feed and a stack of bills, but even he left his shoes outside the door.
It wasn’t that she loved being barefoot. Oh no, during this time of year she wore all four of her pairs of socks and even her not-so-good pair of stockings (the pair with the holes in the heels) to keep out the cold.
The problem was that shoes brought in dirt. Mud. Gum. Cigarette butts stuck to the bottom. They scuffed floors and sullied carpets.
She spent all day cleaning floors at work and sure as the sun shone in the sky, she wasn’t going to spend her time at home doing the same.
She worked nights. During the day she stayed home taking care of her family and at night when the little ones were in bed she trusted the older one (who was not long past being a little one herself) to watch them so she could earn some money so breakfast could be waiting when they woke up.
Winter was her good time of year. The work was harder, the floors were always wet from melting snow tracked in by, yes, shoes, and no, it usually wasn’t clean. This was not the best part of the city, after all. But what made it good was yet to come. Christmas. And that meant tips from the people who rented the offices she cleaned every night.
Most of those people she saw only in passing. They were usually going out as she was coming in. Locking their doors as she was unpacking her box of cleaning rags and sprays.
“Hello, um, Miss! Sorry about the coffee stain near the desk!”
“That’s ok, I’ll get it out.”
“Merry Christmas, um…”
“Merry Christmas to you too, sir.”
Some people she never saw. The offices of Tick + Hansom (she wasn’t sure what they did) closed at 4:00, long before she got to work. There were a pair of adjoining offices on the fifth floor that she didn’t have a master key for. There was no name on either door and she wasn’t completely sure they were occupied, but once in a while the shades would be pulled on the frosted glass door windows so something was going on in there.
She also never saw the man who rented the small two-room office on the fourth floor, and though he always kept the light in the office burning, it was empty when she went in. It was also usually clean, so either he or his secretary kept it neat. At least she assumed he had a secretary. The small desk that she guessed the secretary would sit at never had more than a magazine on it.
She cleaned their floors, emptied their trash cans, mopped their hallways and wiped their windows. She didn’t peek in their drawers or go through their papers. If there was an open file cabinet she left it open and untouched. If the jeweler on three had left a bauble on his desk it would still be there in the morning, shining away in the morning light.
She cleaned up spilled liquor and spilled blood. She turned a blind eye to the lawyer who was “deposing” a pretty young client late one night.
She didn’t even eat her dinner at an empty desk, instead spreading her thin meal out on a clean box she kept in “her office,” the janitor’s closet.
Tonight was an easy night. It was only a few days before Christmas and most of the offices had closed early or hadn’t opened at all. The trash cans were empty, the windows unsmudged, the floors more or less free of heel scuffs. Overall, she was going to have a good sleep when she got home, a rare one where her back wouldn’t ache.
By the time she got to the office with the perpetually burning light, she was a good way ahead of schedule and was feeling hopeful that she could be home early enough to get an almost decently long sleep.
She took out her master key, put it in the lock, but the door swung open before she could turn it. Curious, she stepped inside and saw nothing unusual but noticed that the door to the inner office was ajar. Leaving her cleaning cart in the hallway, she went inside.
On a shabby couch, looking like he’d fallen off his sled, was Santa Claus.
She stood there for a moment. Santa’s suit was torn at the collar, his white wig had twigs sticking out at odd angles, his Santa hat was missing, and his beard was over his nose and completely covering his left eye. (The right eye appeared to be black and blue but that was none of her business.)
She wanted to ask if he was OK, she was about to, when Santa groaned and sat up, not much, but a little straighter. He looked at his watch, saw it wasn’t there, then squinted at the clock through his bruised and starting to swell eye. “What time is it?”
She gave a little, startled jump, then looked at the clock and answered “almost 1 in the morning.”
Santa squinted at her, then straightened his beard and looked at her through his now-uncovered left eye. “That’s it? Usually the parties in my head don’t start thumping like that until 3. They better watch out or they’re going to get raided.” He gingerly took off his wig and even more gingerly started to rub the back of his head. “Do me a favor, sweetheart. Take a look back there. Tell me if it’s as bad as it feels.”
Slowly, she moved just close enough to him to see and leaned over. “Well, not too bad…” She leaned back, but the look on her face didn’t reassure him.
He looked at her. She looked at him. He was an odd sight. Short dark hair and a thick white Santa beard. “That bump feels about the size of Patton’s ego.”
She shuffled a little. “Maybe you should call a doctor?”
He took a deep breath. “I’ve had worse.” He shifted a bit on the couch, then an odd look crossed his face. He patted his red jacket and reached into a pocket. His voice changed, a cross between surprise and anger. “They don’t really think…” He trailed off as he pulled out a very thick wad of bills.
She looked away. This did not interest her. She did not want it to interest her.
The man in the Santa suit jumped up. He swayed a little, but his face (what could be seen behind the beard) was set. “He really thinks this will work.”
She looked around the office. It was old. It needed paint. There were two chairs against the wall and one of them looked ready to fall apart. She was sure this man could use the money, just like she could.
He turned to her. “It was nice meeting you, but I have an appointment to return a favor.” Grabbing his Santa hat off the couch (he was sitting on it the whole time) he took a couple of more-or-less steady steps over to the desk, where he took something small and black out of a drawer and slipped it somewhere inside his voluminously overstuffed Santa jacket. She looked away and brushed some of the lint off of her recently mended apron.
Santa stood for a second and looked at her, taking in the full picture, and, she thought she could feel, his keen eyes taking in even more.
“Thank you,” he said. She thought that the way he said it, he meant for more than just looking at his head.
Then he rushed out of the room, but stopped at the office door. He turned back, let out a deep baritone “Merry Christmas!” and a softer “ho ho ho” and left.
She fluffed the near-threadbare couch as best she could, closed the inner door, and wondered what kind of man would get so angry to find so much money.
She closed and locked the outer door and, running her fingers over the painted letters on the frosted glass spelling out DETECTIVE AGENCY, realized that this was the first time she had met Hollywood Russell.
She turned to her cleaning cart and was about to move on to the next office when she noticed that Santa’s beard was lying on top. Maybe it had fallen off?
Probably not. The thick wad of cash was beneath it.
She heard a soft “ho ho ho,” looked to her right, and saw a flash of red disappear down the hall and around the corner.
This has been