Christmas Bonus from The French Revolution

This section was cut from one of the last pre-publication drafts of The French Revolution. As it deals with Christmas, I'm releasing it now for a Christmas bonus. The excerpt picks up around page 64 in your print edition. While it doesn't completely make sense in light of surrounding areas which have been rewritten, I thought it'd be illustrative of the many paths authors consider and, wisely, usually end up cutting. Besides, who doesn't like a Christmas bonus? Enjoy.

The Saturday before Christmas of 1998, with Esmerelda working holiday overtime and the kids driving her crazy with carols sung in out-of-pitch disharmony, Fanny dragged the eight-year-olds onto Muni and down to the Powell Street station, rising from the escalators into a gray morning ablaze with bright small streets and bright small stores, herds of jaywalking shoppers shoving strollers, the aroma of warm pretzels. Chinese women hawked ornaments and key chains at junky bazaars, calling, “Half price from Macy! Half price from Macy!” Old men wavered out of the Gold Dust Lounge wearing overcoats and white beards and smelling like paint, strains of hillbilly rock pulsing through the swinging saloon doors. At every intersection teenagers asked for change, wearing dirty, weathered jackets that, Fanny noticed, looked alarmingly similar to Marat’s tattered Giants shirt. Maybe, she thought, being the holidays and all, it was time to look into getting the boy some new clothes.

They walked down wide sidewalks past neon wreaths and elaborate displays of polar bears dancing down city streets, turned into a grand entrance guarded by a pair of ten-foot tall Nutcrackers and through a maze of reindeer statuettes and plush toys, then down a tunnel lined with Styrofoam snow to a red hut, men in green pointed caps and ballerina shoes making extended calculations on clipboards. In the distance a giant black sleigh carried bales of gifts and a spotlight bore down on a gold throne. Photographers furiously shifted cartridges and waved light extensions and called “at the camera, at the camera” at the plump bearded actor manhandling kids on his knees.

The twins could not speak. Santa was a mythical creature at home, seen only on television and in pictures in a special scrapbook Fanny kept in the safe under her bed which depicted Harold Van Twinkle’s annual costumed appearances at Glide Memorial’s Christmas celebration, distributing sweets and fishing poles and vouchers for free turkeys to children. Fanny couldn’t get through the album without her voice breaking, and as a result Marat and Robespierre associated Santa with incredible emotional powers on top of his widely renowned gift-giving ability.

“Would you like to meet him?” Fanny asked, moved to the point of paying for pictures. “You can tell him what you’d like for Christmas.”

They nodded reverentially and followed her to the line. Over the next two hours they snaked forward at an unbearable crawl amid a cloud of chirpy shiftless kids. Fanny blocked out the din and read the Chronicle cover to cover; Marat swung on the rope barrier and napped on the floor; Robespierre retooled her holiday requests in her head. They participated in a collective groan when Santa left to feed his reindeer and stood on tiptoe to get a good look at the guy. The day washed into hot endless standing, bored standing, restless standing, generic carols repeating themselves on the sound system five and six times, nothing happening, nothing moving, standing until their feet buzzed and their heads hurt and their clothes felt itchy, until they trudged around a corner in a half-conscious stupor to find themselves next to the photographers, Fanny pulling her checkbook from her purse, Santa reaching for them with thick black gloves.

Robespierre went first, hurdling onto his lap. She took care to speak slowly and clearly, so he’d get everything right.

“Hello Santa! How are you?”

“I’m fine, little girl. What’s your name?”

“Robespierre Van Twinkle.”

Santa bellowed his famous “Ho ho ho” with nearly full-strength mirthfulness, the drain of four hours of children-handling obvious only to the pickier adults and a few kids who didn’t believe anyway. “I hear plenty of names, but that beats all. So, Robespierre, what would you like for Christmas?”

“A microscope, a book about American history, a bag of peppermint patties, a scooter, binoculars, puzzles, a Snoopy watch, and a kitten. And lots of ham for my mom. And some clothes for my brother. And for my Gramma some cigarettes.” Her teeth reflected decorative drip lights into Santa’s half-glasses, creating an eye-sparkling effect that impressed Marat but went missed by Fanny, who was preoccupied scribbling Robespierre’s wish list on the back of a receipt. “How about a picture, Santa?”

“Ho, ho, ho!” A streak of light caught a pair of jaunty grins and he exchanged the girl for her chunky brother, slung onto his knee with help from an elf.

“And what’s your name, little boy?” Santa boomed, rocking his leg like an aged oil derrick.

“Marat.”

“Hello, Matt! And what would you like for Christmas this year?”

“My name’s Marat. Ma-rat.”

Santa smiled stupidly, already tasting his quitting-time bourbon, possibly remnants of his lunchtime bourbon. “I’m sorry. Marat. What would you like for Christmas?”

Marat turned back at Fanny, head cocked and pen ready. He leaned over to Santa and put his hand over his mouth.

“No angel.”

“I’m sorry son, I didn’t get that.” Santa’s knee chopped harder, frustrated and fatigued.

Extra-wide lips, harsh-hushed pronunciation: “NO AIN GEL.”

“No angel? Is that a video game?” Santa nodded toward the grandmother, who he could see was getting all this.

“Not video game. Clothes. No angel clothes. Shirt.” Marat tugged at his own shirt, which smelled like urine and crackers and appeared to be a worn Willie McCovey jersey.

“Oh, you’d like a new shirt for Christmas! Very well. A No Angel shirt.” Santa hadn’t heard of the brand and his grandmother evidently hadn’t either, as she was rolling her hand for more.

“No!” He yanked Santa’s hair and yelled into his ear: “I don’t want to wear angel shirts! I like Giants shirts! Boy clothes!”

“AH!” Santa winked at Fanny. “What you’d like for Christmas is NOT to have to—”

“Santa!”

Yelps rose from the children encamped in the corridor. Santa and Marat surveyed the area, the elevated throne providing excellent sight lines all the way to the entrance, but the only thing that appeared out of place was how most of the children had turned away from the throne, some pointing, some laughing, most staggering sideways in dizzy confusion. Santa shrugged, a photographer motioned for them to scrunch together and bare teeth, and then Marat spotted a white bobtail hopping along, then another, three more, five, ten, sixteen of them, some tall, some skinny, some fat, a couple female, most reeking of spiced rum and beardless, all of them young and dressed in a full-on Santa regalia: fire-truck red pants, velvet vests, military boots, Santa hats, gold belt buckles, fluffy white trim blackened with soot and street grime.

“Shit,” Santa grumbled. “The rampage.”

The children wondered at the logical inconsistency of multiple Santas, came up with theories of Santa clones and apprentices and possibly even grown children. Marat and Robespierre looked warily at Fanny, expecting Harold-induced conniptions, as saleswomen rushed to courtesy telephones and called security.

“Christ,” real Santa said. “Let’s get the picture.” He flapped his gloves at the photographer, who was otherwise distracted by the Santa-style miniskirt worn by the least grubby lady of the group, and the extraordinary legs underneath.

“What have we here?” bellowed a fake Santa wearing a gold cap. “Photography! Wonderful.” He waved to the other Santas. “Positions, everyone! Group photo!”

The light turned mottled and portentous. The real Santa berated the imposters for ruining Christmas; it was a special, sacred time of year, and when they had kids they’d understand just how destructive this was—but the pranksters ignored the old man and lined up beside him in order of height.

“Merry Christmas,” the leader said. “Now shut up and smile.”

The department store photographer hunched on his stool with his hands on his knees—hell if he’d support this non-union bullshit—but a female Santa moved into his slot before the throne, disappointing the photographer with her lack of miniskirt and hard-candy legs, instead wearing thick glasses and canvas sneakers and loose-fitting red painter pants. She pulled a yellow disposable camera from her shirt and peered through the viewfinder.

“Squeeze together,” she called, compacting them with her hands. There were fourteen fake Santas, not counting her, plus a guy in street clothes wearing a Santa hat who looked to be about fourteen himself. They aligned themselves beside real Santa and Marat, foot-wide smiles slapped on their faces.

“Now!” bellowed the leader, his order coming from just above Marat’s shoulder. Marat swung around to get a good look at his face, so he’d remember him and could ask him questions later about their operation and why he did it, but he was looking the other way, behind the throne into the felt curtain depicting a snowy rural morning, fields dotted with walking snowmen and prancing reindeer and intricate gingerbread houses under a honey sky. Marat heard fabric rustling and heaving like when his mother got out of bed, an unapologetic fart, and then twenty-eight pant legs rested slovenly on boot tops, with one delicious miniskirt hiked up at the edge and attracting unanimous attention from the adult men in the room.

“No way! No way!” real Santa exclaimed, pushing Marat off his knee and standing to full height, a disappointing 5’2” that elicited snickering from the Santa photographer. “Stop it!”

“Put your pants on,” Robespierre ordered from the sideline. “That’s gross.” Fanny nodded hard through her tears.

Fake Santa looked at her upside-down, between his legs. “Oh shut up, snatch,” he called, blood rushing into his face. “You can’t stop tradition.”

Marat moved, fast for a chubby kid everyone agreed later, scrambling over the throne and leaping at fake Santa’s ass as the rest of the room stayed stuck in hesitant acquiescence. He levered down his shoulder and connected with the backs of his knees, hurtling fake Santa into the holiday backdrop, tearing the scenery off its riggings.

The flash exploded. Light singed the room, irradiating incredulous profanity from thirteen other Santas, the lone exception the guy in street clothes who raised his fingers toward the ceiling and yelled, “That was awesome. Awesome!” The photographer lowered the disposable camera from her glasses and watched her boyfriend pitch through the decorative curtain.

“Marat! Come on!” Robespierre grabbed her brother’s hand and dragged him out of the scrum, through the labyrinthine department store, to the street, masking her jealousy of his decisive and honorable action with heavy, determined grunting. Outside she propped him up against a garbage can and looked at his eyes, two breathing black coins that could do anything they wanted. “Snap out of it!” she yelled, crushing his hand in both of hers. He smiled dopily and nodded.

“Kids? Good.” Their soggy-eyed grandmother apprehended Robespierre by the sweater. “We had better leave before the authorities arrive. How about lunch?”

Red striped Marat’s neck as he realized he’d missed his chance; he’d never clarified his holiday wishes with Santa, and had missed getting his picture taken too. “Can we have soup?” he asked bitterly.

“We can have whatever you want,” Fanny determined, wholly taken with her grandson’s gumption, pluckiness, and instinctive defense of family.

“I want to stay. I didn’t tell Santa what I want for Christmas.”

“Hmm.” Fanny knelt, a rare act of equalization, and looked patiently at her grandson’s pudgy oval face. “I have a solution: tell me your list and I will pass it along.”

“Boy clothes,” he said. “And candy.”

“All right.” Fanny smiled as best she could, pleased by his list’s brevity, humility, and lack of wastefulness. She resolved to buy Marat a new wardrobe before the week was out.

Over three bowls of barley soup in a diner and a rattling bus ride home, Robespierre re-told the day’s adventure to everyone who’d listen, building up her brother as a fearless hero and defender of innocent children, and casting herself as his biggest fan. In Marat’s honor they had ham for dinner and watched the television programming of his choice, with individual pints of ice cream for dessert, a post-dinner snack of s’mores and pizza. He stayed up late drinking soda and eating pretzels, uncertain of why taking the guy out was such a good thing when he always got an earful for that kind of stuff at school, but excited by the celebration, hyped up on rare praise.

When the TV stations signed off, his heart thumped with caffeine. He went out to the street and threw rocks at trees. When he ran out of rocks he knocked over a few trash bins, then chased after a cat. The cat climbed over a fence two blocks later and he sat on the curb for a while counting cars, blue cars, red cars, fast cars, musical cars, until a van slowed down and a pair of naked men climbed out of the back. Marat followed them from a distance, zig-zagging across the sidewalk and executing commando body rolls behind parked cars, covertly tracking the pair across the Great Highway and down to the beach.

The night was cool and clear, the moon a polished pearl. Down by the water a bonfire sputtered, singing and wavering figures, women pirouetting across the sand. Marat climbed a dune and drank in the bending claymation shadows, the faint tuneless singing, a whorl of giggles, the secret late-night lives of adults. After a minute of it he felt flames in his limbs, roaring fuel heightened by the power of night, and he discarded his secret trailing for a direct assault scudding across the damp sand.

A man wearing a fedora sat on a cooler playing guitar. “Hey, little man,” he said. “Whatcha doing out so late?”

“Cold,” Marat said.

“Hey, a boy!” A woman leaned over him, her breasts dangling piƱatas, a long brown braid wrapped around her tie-dye dress. “Where’d you find him?”

“Beats me. He just showed up.”

The woman pushed the guitar player off the cooler and dug out a Coke. “Want a drink?”

“Fanks.” Marat popped open the can and poured half of it down his shirt.

The woman handed him a towel. “Where are your parents, honey?”

Marat shivered. “Dunno.” He watched the two naked men leap over the bonfire, dancing a little jig when they landed.

“We should call the cops,” the guitarist said. “I don’t wanna get messed up in some runaway fiasco.”

Marat recognized their tone of voice from his mother and grandmother, he’d become burdensome and in the way, not worth a picture with Santa. He threw the soda can in the fire and scuttled off into the dark.

“Hey!” the woman called. She turned to the guitarist: “Should we go find him?”

The guitarist shrugged, then lit a cigarette and dove into a medley of Dylan tunes, sipping his beer through a straw.

Marat loped south down the beach, to where bluffs rose above the sea and the highway veered away. He found a pear-shaped boulder and crouched behind it, listened as waves collided and wind rustled through dune grass. Despite the grit in his clothes he felt fresh, liberated. He wrapped the woman’s towel around his chest and pledged to stay up all night.