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Polterheist

By:Laura Resnick

Polterheist
Laura Resnick


1


I became convinced that something strange was going on at Fenster & Co. when a singing tree tried to strangle me.

Prior to that, I'd had my suspicions, of course. But my attention really got focused on the subject when the mechanical arm of a fake tree suddenly twined around me and squeezed like a determined python-while several of the thing's other limbs violently knocked away anyone who tried to interfere. The real clincher was when the tree's animated eyes glowed red with demonic fire while it growled in a low, gravelly voice, "Kill . . . kill . . . I want flesh! And blood."

Okay, that was more than just a mechanical malfunction, and no one was going to convince me otherwise-though NYPD's Detective Lopez, as was his wont, certainly tried.

My name is Esther Diamond, and how I came to be dressed as an elf who never feels the cold, performing musical duets with an animated tree (much too animated) in retail hell, is a fairly standard tale of woe in my profession. I was in an Off-Broadway play that closed right before Thanksgiving, and although I'd had several auditions that autumn, I hadn't been cast in anything.

Meanwhile, Bella Stella, the notorious restaurant in Little Italy where I usually worked as a singing waitress when I was "resting," was temporarily overstaffed with musical theater students who were home from college for the holidays. So Stella, the owner (and bereaved mistress of Handsome Joey Gambello, who got whacked right there in the restaurant a few years ago), could only offer me a handful of shifts until they all went back to school. Although the wiseguys who ate at Stella's tipped well, the income from a few scattered shifts wasn't covering my rent. So when the opportunity arose to work at Fenster's through Christmas Eve (I use the word "opportunity" in its most abstract sense), I took the job.

Fenster & Co. was a well-known landmark in the competitive retail world of midtown Manhattan. Shopping at this upscale, family-owned department store had long been a tradition for New Yorkers and tourists, and Fenster's famously extravagant Christmas displays had made the place a mainstay of the season for decades. Generations of kids had visited Santa Claus at Fenster's. Indeed, generations of them seemed to be present on the day I was homicidally assaulted by a caroling tree.

I was hired late in the season, weeks after jobs like this were usually filled, because my predecessor had stopped coming to work. Actually, a number of seasonal staffers and benighted performers had stopped showing up for their shifts. By the end of my first shift at Fenster's, I found the employee exodus easy to understand. The dense crowds shoving and stepping on me, the discomfort of my skimpy costume as December winds whipped through the store via the busy entrances and exits, the long hours on my feet, the fascistic management policies and humorless floor managers, and the seasonal hysteria of holiday shoppers and their overtired children were enough to make any sane person stop showing up to work here. But I gritted my teeth and stuck it out because I needed the money. Pluck and dreams don't pay the rent-especially not in New York City.

On the day of my arboreal asphyxiation, I was industriously working my way through the various duties of my twelve-hour shift (the attrition rate among the seasonal staff ensured that I was able to sign up for quite a few overtime hours).

I started my shift by assisting Santa Claus, who spent every day enthroned on the fourth floor from opening until closing. With thousands of kids per day coming to see him (not all of the children hygienic or calm, and not all of the parents well-behaved), portraying Father Christmas was such a stressful job that we always had two Santas in the store, so they could swap out regularly with each other throughout the shift. Only one Santa at a time was allowed on the floor-out in the public area of the store where people could see him. The "relief" Santa relaxed in the break room while the "floor" Santa listened to Christmas wish lists and posed for photos. Elves kept things running smoothly by ensuring that the relief Santa was ready to start working the moment his counterpart stepped off the floor.

The two-Santa system was also designed to ensure we never had a day like today.

The store opened at ten o'clock in the morning, by which time I had donned my costume, left the ladies' locker room, and was pacing in front of Santa's empty throne, which was placed prudently near the fire exit and at the very back of Solsticeland-Fenster's immersive multi-cultural extravaganza, which was erected every year to celebrate (and profit from) the holiday season. It was a true test of stamina for parents to get all the way to this spot, since it involved wending their way, with kids in tow, through a marathon maze of elaborate exhibits and retail displays stocked with every conceivable toy, gadget, and trinket that money could buy. The delights of these items were demonstrated by elves whose job was to convince young children to go tell Santa, loudly and within their parents' hearing, that this was what they wanted for Christmas.

Sure, seeing Santa was free, but there was plenty of cost involved.

As usual, despite the considerable distance from Fenster's main-floor entrances to this section of the fourth floor, and notwithstanding the dense seasonal obstacle course which separated the store's escalators from the spot where I was standing, eager children and cranky parents descended on me like the Golden Horde only minutes after the store opened for business that day.

First in line was a wide-eyed, pink-cheeked, little blond boy who clung shyly to his mother's hand. At her nudging, he politely bade me good morning, then asked, "Where's Santa?"

Good question, I thought, glancing at the empty throne. Another reason we had a couple of Santas working every shift was so that this would never happen. With two dozen children already lining up at the throne within minutes of the store opening, we were currently Santaless.

I gave a meaningful look to Candycane, the other elf assigned here this morning. She nodded and went in search of a Santa.

Assuming that she would be back with one in tow within minutes, I smiled perkily and explained to the gathering throng, using suitably melodramatic tone and gestures, "There was a big snowstorm in the North Pole last night. Santa woke up to find his sleigh buried in snow! So he's going to be a little late getting here today. He said to tell everyone he's very sorry about this. But he's on his way here right now!"

As more parents and children piled into the area, a father said snappishly, "Santa's late? He's late? What do you mean by ‘late'?"

Ignoring him (I had learned quickly that, whenever possible, this was the best strategy with irate parents at Fenster's), I asked the little blond boy who'd been the first to arrive, "What's your name?"

"Jonathan."

I gasped. "You're Jonathan? Really?" When he nodded, looking startled by my excited reaction, I said, "Oh, Santa especially wants to meet you. He told us so when he phoned in to say he'd be late."

"Santa has a phone?" a little girl asked with interest.

"A smart phone," I confirmed. "He just loves it." Then I bent over to tell Jonathan, "Santa said he'd heard you were coming today. He said, ‘Tell everyone I'm sorry I'll be late-and, please, especially tell Jonathan not to leave before I get there. I really want to meet him!'"

Jonathan' pink cheeks went bright red with delight. Then, overcome with emotion, he buried his face against his mother's coat. She patted his back as she smiled at me and said that, in that case, they would certainly wait for Santa.

"How late?" the same irate father demanded. "Five minutes? Ten?"

"Look! There's Rudolfo!" I cried out. No, I had no idea why our red-nosed reindeer was Italian. He just was. "And Twinkle is with him! Yay! We can have a song while we wait for Santa!"

Rudolfo, played by a pudgy middle-aged actor with roving hands, was sort of a giant, fuzzy-brown sock puppet with massive felt antlers. Twinkle, dressed in a traditional red and green elf costume, was an accordion-playing college kid who defied management policy by wearing his glasses when in costume on the floor. He insisted he couldn't see without them. Judging by their bottle-bottom thickness, I believed him.

My cry of delight had startled the pair as they were passing us on their way to their assigned post elsewhere in the fourth floor's seasonal wonderland.

"Please, Twinkle and Rudolfo," I called merrily. "Give us a song while we wait for Santa to arrive! Santa is late today due to a snowstorm in the North Pole."

"How late is he gonna be?" demanded the fuming father. "I don't have all day for this."

Rudolfo recognized my problem and shifted course to start working the crowd that was lined up at Santa's throne. He shook hands, patted cheeks, and posed for pictures while Twinkle, fiddling with his accordion, came over to join me beside the elaborate empty chair.

"Santa's not here?" Twinkle muttered, peering at me through his thick lenses. "He'll catch H-E-double-hockey-sticks for this. Whose shift is it, anyhow?"

"Moody Santa, I think," I said.

This being a short-term job, and all of us in costume for it, we mostly knew each other by our floor names: Twinkle, Candycane, Rudolfo, and so on. To differentiate between the half-dozen Santas on staff, we used descriptive monikers: Moody Santa was a morose new graduate of the Yale School of Drama who hadn't expected this to be his first professional job as an actor; Wheezy Santa suffered from allergies; Diversity Santa was my friend (and, years earlier, had been my boyfriend), an African-American actor named Jeff Clark who'd been hired recently to replace Giggly Santa after he stopped coming to work.

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