“So, let me see if I’m understanding you. I’m willing to buy $5,000 worth of Thin Mints, but you won’t give the credit to Leia? You know these cookies are going to kids seeing Santa, right? Effing Santa! They show up, they see Santa, they get a box of cookies and some other shit. You got something against free publicity? What the fuck, lady? What’s Leia gonna win? Some $30 tchotchke? Just go buy it for her and tell her she won.”

She was a low-talker and I had to hold the phone tight to my ear.

“Sir, I’d appreciate it if you would curtail the expletives, and although we appreciate your support of Scouting, the cookie drive is held once per year.”

“Lady, don’t treat me like I’m an idiot. I know the cookie drive is once per year. I bought a shit-ton last year. The reason I’m talking to you right now is that it’s only once per year. If it wasn’t, I would’ve just ordered the cookies from Leia, right? Look, what are they, like $3.00 a box? I’ll go up to 2000 boxes. Six grand. Figure this shit out and call me back.”

I hung up and stared at the ceiling as I counted down from ten. People sucked. When I hit one on my countdown I leaned forward and pushed the waist on the hula girl figurine. She swung her hips, the grass skirt swayed, and I resolved again to get my ass to Hawaii and retire.

How the fuck did I get suckered into being Santa? I’ve stared down promoters for the world’s largest venues, mayors of major cities, billionaire executives, and do-nothing lawyers. I’ve shut down events; I’ve pulled a gun on fucks that were strong-arming my people; I’ve spent my own money to buy artists out of ridiculous contracts, and I’ve sponsored men and women that I’ve had to pull from the gutter and get back into a program.

One gap-toothed little girl with a thing for hugging and I’m done for. She looks tearful ’cause some rat-fuck backs out and like a schmuck I’m agreeing to be Santa Fucking Claus.

To be honest, I don’t give a crap about a lot. That’s not a positive. I sort of float through life, filling it up with this and that. It’s the way I’ve been since I lost my family. Anchoring me and keeping me grounded are Alex, helping people I sponsor, my estranged daughter, and Leia, the little girl who I can’t say no to.


“Hello, this is Ethan.”

“Hey, this is Mike from the studio. You do, like carpentry and stuff, right?”

“Um, yup. I’m fine, thanks. How about you?”

“Not good, Ethan. I got suckered into some shit and I need a hand, but sure, let’s be all polite and shit. How are you, Ethan? Nice day, Ethan? What lovely weather we’re having, Mr. Poplin. Good enough?”

He laughed before continuing. “Yeah, good enough. What do you need done?”

“I need one of those… I don’t know. What does Santa sit in? A throne or something? Whatever that is, I need one.”

He sounded confused. “A what now?”

“You know, you always see him in some big comfy red chair, right? I need one of those.”

“That’s… Huh. Okay. When do you need it by?”

“For the concert. Leia had some guy playing Santa for the kids and he flaked. I got roped into it and it has to look good. Can you put something together?”

“Who’s Leia again?”

“She’s… Look, it doesn’t matter. She was setting up something nice for the foster kids and it fell through. I was convinced to step in, and I don’t want to fuck it up. Can you help out? It’s a paying gig.”

“Don’t worry about the money, Mike. You know I teach carpentry, right? It’s for charity, so I’ll make it a class project. I’ll make sure it turns out looking good. You only need it for a day, right? It just needs to look good? What else do you have?”

“I guess I’m gonna buy a suit. That and the chair, right? Do I need anything else?”

“Well… Yeah. You want to be a good Santa, right? Maybe a small riser, so the kids in the back can see you? Some helpers? A backdrop of some sort with North Pole type images? Have you considered renting a reindeer? The guy you’re replacing, did he have stuff set up?”

“He was an idiot. He’s not even answering calls, so if he did, we don’t know about it. I’m so fucked.”

He laughed. “It’s not that bad. We can get the labor for free if you cover materials. My wife does interior design, and she’d love to get in on something like this. We’ll make it look good.”

“I didn’t think of any of this. Listen, you think you can stop by sometime this week and we can figure this shit out?”

“Sure. Shannon’s with her mom Wednesday. Does that work? Around four?”

“That’d be great. And none of this free labor crap. If you’re working you deserve to get paid.”

“We’ll figure that out later. Maybe we’ll swap for some studio time.”

“Sounds good.”

Reindeer? Where the fuck was I going to get a reindeer?


It had been three days since my initial phone calls and four days since I looked Leia in the face and said ‘absolutely not’ only to have it become mangled in my throat and turn into ‘of course.’ I was nervous as hell. This was so small that it was laughable, but I was never the frontman. Ever. I was always the guy behind the scenes making sure that shit went straight.

Now I had to be Santa. When I tried to recruit my partner Alex to take over, he just laughed and walked out of the room. I could hear his guffaw all the way to his office. I was screwed.

Produce the Grammys, Mike? Sure. Organize the biggest benefit concert since LiveAid, Mike? Sure. Get me out of my contract with Death Row Records, Mike? Sure. Be Santa for a bunch of kids? Fuck no. Even if the kids are in need? Maybe pay for Santa, but be Santa? Still fuck no, unless you happen to be eight-years-old and have a missing tooth or two and huge eyes and think that I can lasso the moon.

In that case, it was “of course.”

So, I became Santa’s Helper, because I was informed by Leia in a very serious voice that Santa wasn’t real, but sometimes people pretended to be him to make kids happy. I wasn’t allowed to tell her friend Baylee because she still believed in Santa, and I couldn’t tell her mom because her mom said that kids who believed in Santa got presents.

Admit there’s no Santa and lose presents? Leia was nobody’s fool. So, I was her confidant. I had to rein her ideas in a bit but we’d make it happen. Some of her over-the-top plans would have to be gently put aside, but I wasn’t going to let this be some second-rate shitshow.

As silly as this Santa thing was, it had become important. I’d been too detached lately. I needed something where I had to be all-in. I clocked my hours and put in my time, but it was like I was building sandcastles on the beach. There was nothing strong and permanent in my life and everything I did was a distraction from that.


“Knock-knock! You about ready?”

“Yeah, give me five.”

Alex was out of town with Em, Leia’s mom, so I was having the weekly projections meeting with Lini alone. Lini was our office manager and knew more about the day-to-day stuff than we did. We usually just rubber-stamped whatever she told us. She’d pretend to ask if we were on board with everything, and we’d pretend to think about it before okaying whatever she was doing.

I grabbed my printout, clipboard, and pen and made my way to her office. She had a cold birch beer waiting for me. We bought them in bulk and they were shipped in from Pennsylvania. Drugs had been in my rearview mirror for the better part of forty years, smoking for ten, and alcohol was a rarity, but if you try to take my birch beer you’re losing the hand that touched it.

Popping the tab, I raised the can in her direction, took a slug, and put it on her desk.

“Please use the paper, Michael.”

I put the can on the piece of paper.

“So, where we at?”

“Pretty much where we expected. We had two cancellations for middays but picked up three nighttimes. That will offset. I’d like to hire additional security for the parking lot when we have more than three studios booked after midnight. They are usually fine, but things tend to get… rowdy. Would that be alright?”

I pretended to think about it. “Yeah, sure.”

We spent the better part of an hour going over things before we wrapped shit up.

“Okay, good meeting! Anything else?”

“Yes, your accountant brought on a partner. She’ll be taking over our business. A Miss Alana.” She rifled through some papers. “She’ll be here Thursday morning.”

“What the fuck, Lini. Seriously?”

She lowered her glasses to the end of her nose and looked at me. “Yes, seriously. Mr. Acton, this office is my little refuge. You understand that and I appreciate your indulging me. It’s where I go when the drunken lead singer soils himself or the women rip off their tops or some diva is making ridiculous demands. I don’t ask anyone to behave any differently out there, but please leave that sort of language at the door when coming to my office.”

I sighed. She was right. We hired her from a choir group for fuck’s sake. Lini was remarkably patient with us and it wasn’t much to ask.

“Yup, got it. I’ll pull it back.”

She smiled. “Thank you.”

“So, tell me about this woman. You vet her?”

“Vet her? No. You’ve worked with your accountant for more than twenty years.”

“Yeah, but that’s just it. She’s not him.”

“Okay, but I’m sure if he brought her in he must trust her.”

“Look, I’m sure she’s fine, but check into her background. I’ve dealt with too many accountants and too many lawyers who felt entitled to clients’ money. Not kidding. I’ve had to… Well, some of the rumors about me are true. My rule of thumb? People suck. Be loyal to people who’ve proven themselves, keep an eye on everyone else. Look into her.”

“Michael, I’m sure…”

“Lini, I’ve seen shi… stuff that you haven’t. Trust me on this. The music business is full of not-nice people. You’ve seen that here. It’s worse at the labels. Just check her out.”


“Thanks. So, we’re good?”

“Until next week’s meeting. Will Alex be back?”

“I think so.”

I was back in my office answering emails when an employee knocked on my door. He also happened to be Leia’s uncle.

“Hey, boss. Got a visitor.”

Leia came running in, hands full. “Mr. Mike! Wanna trade?”

She had one of my birch beers and a box of Thin Mints. I spit in my palm and she put down the cookies and soda and did the same. I put on my most serious face and we shook hands.

“Deal.” I took the cookies, she took the soda.

Jimmy shook his head. “Don’t ever, and I mean ever, let Em see that. Back in fifteen?”

Smiling, I nodded at him, took his note about Leia’s mom to heart, and turned my attention back to my erstwhile partner.

“So, explain this to me again. How is an eight-year-old working on a Santa for other kids? And where do you keep getting the Thin Mints from?”

“We bought a bunch and put them in the freezer. Mom told me about the Santas with the bells last year and how they help get money for kids and stuff. Oh! And she told me about the soldiers that get toys for kids that don’t have toys.”

“Marines? Toys for Tots?”

She shrugged and continued. “When Alex told us about the concert I asked Mom if we could do something like that. For the kids who don’t get presents. We don’t have any soldiers, but Mom said we might be able to get a Santa. We called that man, and me and Mom talked to him, and then he was supposed to call back with the… The thing that you sign.”


She shrugged again. “And then Mom called a bunch of times and he didn’t call back. So Alex said you could be Santa.”

“Son of a…” I paused and forced a smile on my face. “He did? Okay. I’ll have to thank him. So then you came to me?”


“Okay, kiddo, you and me. We got this. So what are you thinking?”

“Lots! How about you come in a helicopter that we paint red to look like a sleigh?”

“Um, that might be a bit much. What else?”

“Maybe those snow machines and we make a bunch of snow and have snowball fights and stuff?”

“Yeah, that might be a bit much too, but it’s closer. I’ll look into it. What else?”

“Maybe we can get Alex to be in an elf costume? He’s pretty big, but so was Buddy in the movie.”

Leaning back in the chair, my grin grew larger. “Yeeesss. That works. Alex in an elf costume. He will love that. Great idea, Leia.”

We brainstormed until her uncle came back to scoop her up.

“You watching her while Em and Alex are gone?”

“Little bit. Mostly Baylee’s mom. You met her?” His eyes sort of lit up.

“Yeah, more Baylee though. That kid never stops singing and it’s always Taylor Swift.”

“Tell me about it. You don’t have to play every song that woman’s written. Two eight-year-olds can be more demanding than you’d think. I’m taking Leia for supper. You wanna come?”

“Nah, got some stuff to do. You coming back tonight?”

“Yeah. I’m studio bitch tonight. Sitting in with one group and watching the place till midnight.”

“Okay, catch you later. See you, Leia.”

“Bye, Mr. Mike. Uncle Jimmy, you said the B-word.”

“Um, yeah. Don’t tell your mom.”


“Knock-knock. Michael, my nephew is going to be here working this weekend. I’ll keep an eye on him.”

Lini was leaning into my office. She had a weird habit of saying “knock-knock” instead of knocking.

“Yeah? How much are we paying him?” I don’t know why I asked. Paying some teenager wasn’t something I cared about, and Lini had never taken advantage.

“Nothing. He’s being punished. He and some friends broke three windows playing stickball and tried to deny they did it. They were playing in the street at one of the kids’ houses and it seems like every neighbor has a doorbell cam.”

I laughed. “Sorta hard to deny that shit.”

She grimaced. “Yes. I’ll be giving the money he would have made to the homeowners.”

“Okay, so we’re paying you instead of cutting him the check?”

“No, I have it covered.”

“Bullshit. If he’s here working, we’ll cover it. Whatta kids make these days? Twenty an hour? Just take it out of petty cash.”

“No, it’s fine. This is an aunt thing. I’ll…”

I interrupted her. “Lini, I don’t play the boss card often. Take the money out of petty cash. I’m not asking. Anybody that works deserves to get paid. If he has obligations and it has to go to the windows he busted, that’s between you guys, but if someone works for the studio, the studio pays them.”

She paused before replying. “Okay. Thank you, Michael.”


I’d received a call from someone I sponsored the previous night. I found us a meeting and then we went to Pass Key for dinner and then to Dunkin’ Donuts because it was open 24 hours and, hey, donuts. Being up until three, I stumbled into the studio after 10:00.

Lini’s office is behind reception near the entrance. I had to walk past and she called out.

“Michael, do you have–”

“Not now.”

“Um, Michael?”

“Not now. Need water and ibuprofen.”

Blessedly, that ended the conversation. I wasn’t used to late nights and endless cups of coffee anymore. I was getting old. Twenty years ago I could have drunk all night and still showed up ready to kick ass. Now coffee was putting me in my place. Aging sucked.

After closing all the blinds, grabbing water from my mini-fridge, and 800 mg of Advil, I turned off the lights, sat down, and closed my eyes for a few minutes. Okay, maybe it was half an hour. Ninety minutes at most.

I jumped at the ringing of the phone. Licking my teeth and hating the gummy, tacky feel, I coughed and picked it up.


“Michael, I need to see you.”

“Okay. Give me five, Lini. I’ll come to your office.”

Popping three Tic Tacs, I chewed them up, drank another water, and grabbed two more of the little mints. I hit the head and splashed some water on my face on my way to her. Stopping in her doorway, I was taken aback by the woman sitting with her.

She was beautiful. A brunette, she was probably five or ten years younger than me and was dressed professionally.

“Michael, this is Ms. Alana. She’s going to be here today and tomorrow going over the books. We thought it would be a good idea to meet one of the principals.”

“Um, yeah. Sure. Nice to meet you.”

She smiled and I felt that smile in my gut. “And you, Mr. Acton. I know that you’ve had a long and strong relationship with my partner. If you have any questions at all, I’m happy to address them.”


“I’m sorry?”

“I’m Mike. Big Mike to some people. Not you. I mean, other types of people. That doesn’t make sense, does it? Like, not your type of people. Musicians, roadies, um, yeah.”

I was fucking rambling like I was fifteen. Her smile seemed bemused now.

“Okay, Mike it is. Lini has graciously offered to share her office for the next two days. Anything I can do, you’ll likely find me here. Otherwise, my number is on my card.”

She stepped forward and handed me her business card. Haliaka Alana. I put her card in my shirt pocket.

“Great. My office is down the hall on the left. Alex’s is two doors past that on the right. He should be back tomorrow, I think. Um, welcome aboard.”

She smiled again and once more I felt it down to my toes.

“Thank you.”

I had to get out of there. “Okay, I’ll leave you to it.”

A couple of hours went by when Lini pushed open my partially opened door.

“Knock-knock! Need some signatures.”

I scanned what she was having me sign. There wasn’t much to be concerned with. We weren’t at a crossroads and I didn’t want to play guitar, so I doubted she was Old Scratch in disguise. As with her asking our opinions or for permission for something, my looking over the paperwork was more for appearance’s sake than anything else.

“Thanks, boss.”

Lini was at the doorway when she stopped and looked back. “She’s pretty. And single.”

“Yeah? Who is that?”

She smirked. “You’re a lot of things, Michael. Subtle isn’t one of them. I’m grateful you didn’t drool on my office rug.”

I smiled and leaned back in my chair. “Get outta here, I got work to do.”

“Sure. She’ll be here late, by the way.”

“None of my business.”


She walked off and I picked up the phone.

“Hello, Koji Fusion? Yeah, I need some catering for tonight. This is Mike Acton, you have me on file. Enough for fifteen. Maybe 6:30? Make it enough for twenty. And include drinks.”

The guy on the other end of the phone replied. “We usually require 48 hours, but we can slip this in. What did you want?”

“Um, I don’t know. Look up our order history. Base it off that. Whatever is fine, it just has to be good, you know?”


“Yeah. One in particular.”

“Not a problem, Mr. Acton. See you at 6:30.”

Ethan Poplin stopped in at 4:00. He had a laptop that had some design ideas.

“Damn, Ethan. I knew you were good with making instruments and shit, but what you got here and making the graphics for the chair and backdrops and everything? Pretty cool.”

He shrugged and looked a little embarrassed. “That’s my wife. She has all these design CAD programs down.”

I nodded like I knew what he was talking about. “Right. Well, this all looks great. Is it doable?”

“Yeah. Very. We sort of went baseline to keep expenses to a minimum. Your biggest cost is going to be backdrops. We’ll use the pop-up stands we use for the Poplin Family Jug Band, but you’ll still have to pay for the new screens with the North Pole imagery. Other than that, the raw materials aren’t bad and my wife wants to be a part of this, so her designs are on the house.”

“Huh. Okay. What if we don’t go baseline? What are we talking about with expenses right now?”

“Maybe two grand? I can spec it out over the weekend.”

“What could we do if we spent five or six K?”


“Yeah, it’s for freaking orphans and foster kids and shit. I’m gonna cut corners? Not a chance.”

“Well, we can certainly make it look a lot more professional. It’s still going to be kids doing a lot of the work if I have the students working on it as a class project, but I’ll make sure everything is done right.”