The splendid asylum of impersonating Kris Kringle

An excerpt from Mohr’s third novel, Damascus, due out this fall from Two Dollar Radio.

Owen and his birthmark braved the Mission District’s windy streets, walking toward Ritualz café. As he made his way down Folsom Street, a man and his daughter, seven-years-old, saw Owen. She pointed at the birthmark underneath his nose: “Daddy, look, it’s Adolf Hitler.”

Her father gazed at Owen, chuckled, said to him, “Sorry about that. We watch a lot of the History Channel.”

“Maybe she should watch more cartoons.” This wasn’t the first time somebody had made the connection between his birthmark and a Hitler moustache, but it was the first time a child had said so to Owen’s face.

“Maybe,” the father said, “but to her credit, the resemblance is uncanny.”

 The resemblance was not uncanny from Owen’s prerogative: it was unfortunate. Unfair. Unequalled in its unkindness. Unbelievably unlucky. Undermining others understanding of his unsavory undertaking. The word uncanny only applied if the terrible smudge wasn’t fastened to your face.

“You might want to teach her some manners,” Owen said.

The father didn’t answer. Instead, he noticed his daughter’s shoe was untied and leaned down to fix the knot.

“Maybe it’s just me,” Owen kept going, “but it’s pretty rude to call someone a dictator who incinerated six million Jews.”

It’s hard to say why this one interaction affected Owen so explicitly; impossible to pinpoint why this conversation prodded Owen’s anger out of its dormancy. Was it a simple accumulation: had there been so many birthmark-cracks over the years that this was the proverbial straw that dropped the camel to its knees, unable to stand again and continue its aimless mope? Was it his hangover that morning? Was it that his hangover that morning was the same one he’d had every day for the past 40 years? Did it feel more violating because of the girl’s young age? Was it the mirrors he’d broken, their bad luck? Was it that he’d again betrayed the promise he’d made last night not to drink during his shift behind the bar? Was it that not drinking one night behind the bar actually felt like an accomplishment? Was it that he felt friendless? Was it that Wednesday the only two places he went were his apartment and Damascus? Was it that those two places were often his only stops in a 24 hour period? Was it that sometimes if he felt too drunk to stagger home, he hoisted a sleeping bag on one of the bar’s pool tables and spent the night there? Was it waking up the next morning, cocooned, disoriented, thirsty, then as he realized where he was, the onslaught of guilt and shame and helplessness? Was it the names he called himself within the walls of his skull: loser rotten stinking alcoholic waste of air? Was it the blood in his stool? Why didn’t he go to rehab? A.A.? Sell the bar? Was it the streets that particular morning, more grimy, the homeless scattered on the sidewalks, refugees from their own addictions and pasts, feces streaked on buildings, broken bottles everywhere, maimed pigeons coercing, graffiti scribbled on storefronts? Was it his sexual irrelevance? Was it that the 49ers were in the middle of a losing season or was it that during his time off from Damascus his phone only rang if it was his niece, Daphne, checking up on him? Was it that he had no other “friends” except the ones that schmoozed for free cocktails? Was it that his bar, Damascus, was barely breaking even, that there had been neither progress nor faltering in its fiscal intake, that it had been almost exactly the same the entire 18 years he’d owned it? Why did life lurch on smeared in the same coagulated details?

The young girl’s father said to her, while holding her shoelace, “See how I made these two bunny ears, Pudding? The last step is to tie the bunny ears in a knot.”

“I’m not Hitler,” Owen said.

“Tie the ears?” the girl asked her father.

“Precisely,” he said, grinning that dopey parental grin, genetic amazement.

“Let me get this straight,” Owen said, “she knows who Hitler is but can’t tie her own shoes?” He wiped his face. He was sweating that thick, marbled hangover sweat. The kind that shoved its way through the skin like coffee pooling and pushing past a filter—heavy and hot and aromatic.

“Don’t listen to the man, Pudding. He must be having a tough morning.” The father finished tying her shoe, then looked at Owen. “Actually, it’s pretty amazing that a child her age is informed enough to spot a facial similarity between a total stranger and one of the most recognizable figures in history.”

“Congratulations, you’re doing a great job as a parent,” Owen said. “Usually, a woman has to get into her 30s or 40s to make me feel like complete shit, but your daughter has already got it figured out.”

“Hey, hey,” the father said to Owen. “Watch your mouth.”

“Now you’re worried about my manners,” Owen said. “Good luck to you and your troll.” Not catching what he’d done until the words were out of his mouth. Not realizing that he’d just insulted a child until it was too late.

Then the man rushed at him, and Owen couldn’t believe the speed with which the father’s temper had savagely blossomed. Maybe that was what it was like to be a parent—a love so fertile and harsh that you did anything to protect your young.

“Please,” Owen said, but the father’s bull-rush didn’t slow and he shoved Owen hard in the solar plexus, knocking the wind out of him.

“You ever talk about my kid like that again, I’ll break your nose.”

Owen staggering backwards, struggling for air, attempting to gather himself to grovel: “Please, I don’t want any trouble. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said it. Please.”

“It’s pathetic to talk to a child like that,” the father said. “Do you know that you’re a pathetic human being?” The father walked back to his daughter and said, “I’m sorry you had to see that, Pudding.”

“What happened, Daddy?”

“He’s a mean man who said something he shouldn’t have.”

“He’s a mean man,” the girl echoed.

“Yes, he is,” the father said.

Owen watched them walk away. He almost started crying. He swore off booze. Again. He promised himself not a drop during his shift that night, not one drop. Again. He cut up 21st Street toward Ritualz, hating himself for what he’d just done and hating that the little girl was right: he was a mean man. He was Hitler. No matter what he did, Owen was doomed to reel through the rest of his days, reminding everyone of the Holocaust.

He was almost to the café when he saw a homeless man who’d scattered on the sidewalk the items he’d found, swapped, or stolen. These were laid out on a blanket to entice pedestrians. There were some clothes, a single CD, a naked Barbie doll, a broken sewing machine, a bunch of old cassettes, mostly Motown, and a cracked black case for an acoustic guitar. The guy also had six issues of the New Yorker from the early ’90s with tattered, water damaged pages, stiff and toothed at the edges. Nothing highfalutin or of any real monetary value, but as Owen walked toward the end of the man’s paltry sale, he saw something worthy of another style of appraisal.

He saw the Santa suit.

He saw asylum.

Owen stopped in front of the costume. He imagined all those part-time workers portraying Santa at malls around the country come December. Their true identities hidden under a façade of happy associations. He needed to bury the Hitler costume he couldn’t take off under the image of this Yuletide superhero.

The homeless guy held a harmonica in his hand, though he hadn’t played a note since Owen had been in earshot.

“How much for the Santa suit?” Owen asked.

The wind picked up a bit, fog drifting from the Castro and through the Mission. A car was being hooked to a tow truck across the street. Someone was taping Xeroxed copies of a missing cat poster over an abandoned storefront; information leading to Chip Whiskers’s safe return would result in a handsome reward.

“Twenty bucks.”

“But it’s filthy.”

“Then don’t buy it. Someone else will. Christmas is coming.” He put the harmonica in his mouth and played a series of carefree notes to illustrate his ambivalence about the transaction.

Owen sighed, saddened that he’d been bested by a homeless merchant. “Twenty it is.”

“Wear that uniform well. Make Kris Kringle proud.”

Owen removed his coat and began to put the suit on over his clothes. The Santa pants were a little short for him, revealing an inch of his jeans, a little tight in the waist. The coat, too, was snug, sleeves only coming three quarters of the way down his forearms. But he didn’t care. Once he slipped the beard and hat on, every man, woman, and child would see Santa Claus and think to themselves yes, yes, yes, now there’s a friendly face.

A college student stood out front of Ritualz in a Che Guevara T-shirt, holding a clipboard. He asked Owen, “Does Santa want to sign a petition to legalize marijuana?”

 “I stay out of politics.”

“Who said anything about politics, bro; this is about our God-given right to smoke the sticky-icky.”

Owen only shrugged and went inside the café, ordered a double espresso. The young hipster behind the counter sported full sleeves of gorgeous tattoos, inch-long crows flying up her arms; she said to him, “Can I give you my Christmas list?”

“Of course.”

“All I want is for my boyfriend to go to rehab.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“And the new PJ Harvey CD.

“Noted.”

“But if I had to choose one or the other, definitely Seth getting into rehab. I can’t remember the last time I saw him sober. Last night, I caught him licking a stick of butter as a midnight snack. This morning he was drinking rum in the shower when I left.”

“I will do my best to help him.” The crows on the backs of her wrists had their beaks open, shrieking. Owen tried to hand her three dollars, but she shook it away. Then she looked around, and once convinced that her perimeter was safe from any managerial condemnation, she whispered to Santa, “Your money is no good around here,” which was the first time that had ever been the case. Before his transformation from villain to saint.

Elation thumped through Owen as he walked out of the café. Energetic and motivated to cruise the neighborhood and watch people’s reactions to his new protective skin.

The public proved very interested in chatting with him. There were “Ho, ho, hos,” and “Hey, Santa, what are you doing out in October, consumer research?” and “Don’t forget about me, I’ve been nice all year, except to my brother, but he’s a total a-hole,” and even an, “I just got laid off by my start-up. Are you guys hiring at the North Pole?”

All of these were met with the warmest wishes and largest smiles from Mr. Claus, as Owen gushed enthusiasm in his new starring role. No one was ordering a Whiskey Sour and defiantly staring at his birthmark. No one threw up in Damascus’s bathroom and told Owen he better go “swab the decks.”

Point is that these were no small victories for Owen. Overdue. You might wonder why he didn’t grow a beard and cover the damn thing up, but it wasn’t that easy, his hair follicles unable to penetrate the abomination’s cruel girth. Way back when he’d even pondered plastic surgery, but his insurance snickered at the idea elective procedures might fall under their jurisdiction.

Sure, the fog and wind were chilly, but Owen didn’t care, didn’t notice them, as he paraded like a holiday peacock.

“I’m never taking this damn suit off. Ever,” he said to himself, preparing to perform a belly-laugh for a group of people coming his way. One of them was already calling out from down the block, “We love you, Santa; what kind of cookies should we leave out this year?” 

Contributor

Joshua Mohr

JOSHUA MOHR is the San Francisco Chronicle bestselling author of Some Things That Meant the World to Me and Termite Parade, a New York Times Book Review editors' choice selection.