Don’t ask me why Santa looks like he got his outfit from Cruella Deville. But do ask me about the little girl in the photo. It’s me when I was seven or eight.
The only thing I wanted that Christmas was my photo taken with Santa. He was making a regular appearance at the local grocery store. I’d go in there and stand back in the bakery, watching parents and kids making memories. That’s all I wanted.
But it cost a quarter and we didn’t have a quarter to spare.
So I got inventive. I went to the local pet shop and told the owner I’d clean cages every day after school, and all day Saturdays, if he’d pay me a quarter before December 24th.
Mr. Aoki struck a quick deal.
Back then pets weren’t regulated like they are today. There were lizards, snakes, ferrets, weasels, hamsters, rats, a couple of cougar kittens, a litter of raccoon kits, all kinds of dogs and cats, fish and birds, and a cage jumping with monkeys.
I fell in love with all of the animals, but never lost sight of my goal.
December 24th came and I put on red pants and the closest thing I had to a red jacket and went to work. I cleaned until 1:30 p.m., knowing Santa’s run at the grocery store ended at 2 p.m.
I pestered the pet shop owner, a kind Japanese man, for my quarter. I followed him to the register and about died when he didn’t give me a quarter, but handed me an entire dollar bill. I grabbed it and ran, praying Santa would still be there.
The line was gone. Even the sign was gone. And it was still ten minutes until 2 p.m.
I almost collapsed with disappointment. Then I caught sight of his Dalmatian hat and red suit and zipped down the dairy aisle, begging Santa to stop. The elf with him, lugging the Polaroid camera, urged Santa to keep heading toward the back exit, but he stopped, sat on a couple of wooden orange crates, and I got the Polaroid picture I’d so desperately wanted. But then he caught me off guard with a question: “What do you want for Christmas, little girl?”
Just the photo, I thought—and a pet monkey. But that’s not what I said. I leaned into his scratchy beard with a reply that shocked us both, “I want my mom to stop drinking.”
Santa let out a long, exhausted sigh.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, embarrassed and suddenly all teary. I would have darted away, if I didn’t have to stay and wait the 90 seconds for my Polaroid to develop.
I don’t remember what else Santa said—something about not being able to deliver every gift kids asked for. All I know is that I buried the memory of that day for a very, very long time, and I’m not sure why. Then this year I came across that Polaroid, and snap…I was that little girl again. I could smell the pungent scent of Aoki’s Pet Store, and feel the sodden newspapers at the bottom of so many animal cages. I could hear the screeches and the meows of so many animals. I could sense the scratch of Santa’s beard. My heart ached to comfort and congratulate that freckle-faced little girl who dressed herself, did her own hair, and forged a way to make her dream come true.
I was getting all-nostalgic, all heal-your-inner-child, when my brain stopped all the sappy stuff, and conjured up the real question: Whatever happened to my seventy-five cents in change?