Jon Gallagher
Sample works
Going Home

As Published in Mediphors, Issue 7, 1996

Jon Gallagher

The peach-half wiggled loose from its precarious position on the fork and dropped to the floor.  Unaware, Nellie's hand brought the fork to her mouth as if nothing had happened.  Her jaws worked up and down slowly, chewing the non-existent bite of fruit, her face never changing its stoic expression.
          Nellie guided the fork back to the plate with her frail hand that was more blue than pink.  Once an elegant hand, it was now little more than tightly wrapped skin surrounding bones and veins.  I could imagine how it one had held a cup of tea, the pinkie extended in proper fashion as she hosted a local ladies' auxiliary meeting.  I could see them helping to wrap army helmets in precious paper as she made her contribution to the war effort.
          Her cheeks, once reddened with just the right amount of rouge, were now furrowed and creased, the result of more than 90 years of joy and sorrow.  A translucent green tube wound around her ears, crossing her cheeks, feeding oxygen through her withered nose.
         Behind thick lenses, gray eyes, eyes that had shed tears at the assassination of JFK, seen a country react to the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, and even witnessed the effects of Al Capone on prohibition, now stared absently at the food.  I'm not sure she could see what was on her plate or if she was just pretending to see.  Perhaps she was staring deep into her own personal history, reliving it in her mind's eye.
         Her wispy white hair was cut short and brushed straight back, patches of it matted from several days without shampooing.  What color had it been - blonde, brown, red?  Was there anyone who even remembered?  Was there anyone who even cared?
         Again she lifted a peach with her fork.  This time the morsel made it to her mouth, but part of it slipped through her lips and landed on the tray in front of her.  She was once again oblivious.
         I thought how she must have been a tall, proud woman.  Now with an ill-fitting pink sweater wrapped around her as she sat in the wheelchair, one could see only the permanently hunched shell of a woman.  Instead of the sweet smell of Evening in Paris or Chanel #5, she now reeked of old urine.
         As a nurse passed in front of her, she lifted her head ever so slightly and said, "My Morris is coming to pick me up today."  Her voice was tinny like the crackling pitch from a broken speaker of a transistor radio.  Somehow it wasn't out of character with the rest of her body.
         The nurse stopped for a split second and said, "Nellie, eat your peaches, Honey," before continuing down the hall, ignoring the patient's comments.
         "Morris.  He's coming this afternoon."
         Another nurse came from behind Nellie and patted her shoulder.  "Are we done yet?" she asked, her voice unusually loud.
         "Oh, I believe so.  I'm still a little hungry, but Morris will be here soon.  He's going to take me home."
         "Well, I'll just leave your plate a little longer.  You can eat until he gets here."  The nurse turned and came my way.  "All finished sir?"
         "Yes, Ma'am," I replied, picking up my tool chest.  "You shouldn't have any more problems with that phone now."               
         "I hope not."       
         I started to leave, but my interest in Nellie pulled me back to the nurse.  "Does she really think Morris is coming for her?" I asked.
         "This is your first trip out here, isn't it?"
         "Yes, it is," I admitted.
         The nurse gave a small sigh of fatigue.  "Morris is Nellie's son.  Her only son.  He brought her out here almost 20 years ago.  Every day since she arrived, she tells us Morris is coming to take her home.  Every day, every night.  She's still got her mind except for that.  She's stuck on Morris coming to get her."
         "That's too bad."
         "Especially since Morris had been promising her that he would take her home tomorrow.  Always tomorrow."
         "I suppose Morris hasn't been out to see her since," I suggested.
         "That's the good part.  Morris came out here himself about a year ago.  Sees her everyday."
         As I walked down the long corridor leading to the front doors of the nursing home, I had a few minutes to consider my own fate when I reached Nellie's age.  Would I be lucky and die before being condemned to a nursing home?  Would my children come and visit me regularly if I did end up in such a place?  Would I be able to tell if there was a peach on my fork?
         I passed an elderly man as I reached the doors.  He stood with the aid of a walker, looking out into the parking lot.  He was about 30 pounds overweight with heavy jowls.  He looked at me with sad eyes and a quivering lower lip.  "Have you seen my daughter Betty?" he asked.  "She's going to come today and take me home."
         Before I could answer, I heard an aid behind us call to him.  "Come on, Morris."  It's time to go back to your room."


HO HO HO and A Merry XXX-Mas

By Jon Gallagher
From the Zephyr  (Galesburg IL weekly newspaper)
December 12, 1991


   The image of the department store Santa is best remembered as Edmund Gwynn portraying jolly old St. Nick in Miracle on 34th Street.  His white beard is real, not some mass of synthetic fibers handing from elastic bands.  His Ho, HO Ho's are sincere, not fabricated.  He listens as children recite their lists instead of constantly checking his watch to see when his next break will be.  The Kris Kringle in that movie is the ultimate Santa, one that should be a standard for Santas everywhere.
         But you won't find that sort of Santa in Galesburg, at least, not at the Sandburg Mall.
         The mall does not hire the Santas you see sitting in center court.  They provide the set, that is, the raised platform, chair, and goodies that Santa hands out to all the little kiddies, but that's it.  A Missouri company that does business as "Santa Plus" provides the people - one Santa and a couple of elves.  I should know; I'm a first shift, weekend elf.
         Santa Plus is under contract with the mall, and pays the mall a certain percentage of revenue derived from a picture taking concession.  Pictures sell for a minimum of $3.00 apiece.
         Big Business?  You bet.  The Galesburg operation is budgeted to do $9000 during the shopping season that officially began two weeks before Thanksgiving.
         Santa Plus would have you believe that all employees, especially those who don the red suit and fake beard, are carefully screened in advance.  They would have you believe that a careful search for just the right people was launched before the arrival of the Christmas shopping season.  They supply forms to the local manager to make sure this is done.
         Don't believe it for a second.  It didn't happen that way in Galesburg.  The manager of the Galesburg Santa Plus hardly looked any further than the sofa in her front room. Most of the employees in Santa's Village at the mall have the same address, or at least a connection to that address.
         This makes it real simple:  dial one phone number and reach a couple of Santas and a few elves... just like at the North Pole, I guess.
         Richard Bridgewater was one of the few who lives somewhere else.  Richard played Santa, mainly at night.  The father of seven, he has had plenty of experience with kids.  Each night he would drive all the way from Avon to "Ho Ho Ho!" for the sum of five bucks an hour.
         Richard was one of the most popular Santas at the mall.  During slow periods, Richard would read "A Christmas Visit" (a.k.a. The Night Before Christmas) to a handful of children gathered at his feet.  Even when the line extended out into the mall, Richard never rushed a child who sat on his lap.  He always found the time to quiz the kids about Santa's favorite reindeer, the location of his secret workshop, or some other trivial Santa fact.  For the older kids who asked for cars and money, Richard would explain with a twinkle in his eye, "Santa only makes toys, so if you get a Ferrari, it's only gonna be this long," holding his fingers a few inches apart.
         Richard came close to the image projected by Edmund Gwynn in "Miracle."  The manager of Santa Plus comes close to the image Alastair Sim portrayed as Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol."
         She fired Richard last Tuesday night.
         You may recall the weather that night.  The mercury was dipping below zero.  Winds were howling, pushing the wind chill to unfathomable negative numbers.  Roads were drifting over with snow and travel advisories were posted.
         It was so bad out that the entire Alexis basketball team and all their fans had to spend the night in Abingdon High School's gym after a game there at night!
         For those of you not up on local geography, Abingdon is between Galesburg and Avon where Richard lives.
         Richard told the manager that he wanted to leave at 6:00 that night so he would have a chance to get home.  The manager told him that she would try to find him a replacement by that time.  When 6:00 rolled around, Richard had not heard from his manager.  He took one look out the door and decided what he was going to do.
         He left.
         It should have been a big deal.  The mall was practically deserted anyway.  Very few parents had their children out in that kind of weather.
         But the Santa Plus contract with the mall calls for there to be a Santa on duty until 8:00.  John Burgland, manager of the Sandburg Mall, called Santa Plus headquarters and gave them hell for Santa leaving a couple of hours early.  Santa Plus called the location manager and gave her hell.  She called Richard.  The man in the red suit got a pink slip.
         The weather was too nasty for the Santa Plus manage to venture out to the mall to tell Richard that she couldn't find a replacement, but it wasn't nasty enough for him to leave early.
         Hey, after all, Santa does have Rudolph.
         So, instead of having a great Santa, Santa Plus has settled for something less.  The Santa on duty the next night was a local resident of Galesburg.  Naturally, he is some relation to the Santa Plus Manager, but we haven't been able to figure out what the relation is.  All we know is that during the day, he has another job.
         He works at the adult book store on Henderson Street.
         During the day, Santa peddles pornography!
         His definition of "naughty and nice" may be a little different from yours.
         One of Santa's helpers (i.e. photographer), is also related to the Santa Plus manager.  He's allegedly the father of her grandchild.
         This helper is fond of kids.  He's been overheard complaining about the "f***ing little monsters" that come to see Santa.  He commands kinds to "SMILE!" like a drill sergeant.  It's no wonder that, by his own admission, only seven out of 177 pictures taken one Saturday actually had children smiling.
         There may be nothing wrong with a photographer who is not very good with children.  He's not much more than a child himself.
         There may be nothing wrong with someone who handles smut all day being Santa.
         Just because I would never let my kids sit on his lap is no sign you should keep yours away.
         I just thought you might like to know why the Mall's best Santa is no longer welcome... and what his replacement means when he wishes your kids "Merry XXX-Mas!"

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