A Christmas Gamble

By Matt McGee

Christmas is giving. It’s surprises. The unexpected. Maybe, some years, there can be just a little bit of magic thrown in.

Some people need to be alone to feel that.

Chris loves to lie in her room, lights off or at least dimmed down to little more than a single candle. Then she’ll turn on a radio; there’s a station that plays Christmas greats, all the best songs by the best artists in the history of America. With that station on, she couldn’t be warmed more than if she were sitting next to a crackling fire.

But eventually, she has to get up and go to work.

For those who are newer to the world, or at least to the world of gambling, Chris is what’s called a croupier. If you’ve seen a craps table, she’s the lady in the tuxedo in the middle of the table holding the bamboo cane shaped like a hook. She spends hours raking in people’s money, or the dice after they’re thrown and announced.

Sometimes she says it to herself. Croupier. Pronounced kroo-pee-ay.

She fell into the job exactly one year ago, right around Christmas time, and got a certain impression right off the bat. She sees the needy year round, fashioning themselves as the professional gamblers they see on TV, but sees it more so during the holidays. People have saved up a little Christmas fund, and in the thick of the gift-giving season they get the brilliant idea that the casino is going to be a quick way to double, triple, maybe quadruple their money. Some of them succeed. Most don’t.

And time after time after time, a pretty lady with the blonde hair of a mermaid has leaned over and swept away their hopes with a company-provided bamboo cane.

This year, she decided to be someone else.

 

***

 

She wasn’t sure what it was at first. She didn’t turn to dealing cards or worse, becoming a pit boss. She didn’t abscond with the house’s money, all the money that suckers bet too much of with their lofty ideas of how to buy love for the holidays stuck their minds.

No, this year Chris decided she’d try to give something back to someone. Someone anonymous. Someone random. Giving a gift only she would know had been given. That was the one rule she insisted on.

They had to have no idea it was her.

 

***

 

She knows people put these kinds of ideas out there all the time. And call it God or the Universe or whatever, sure enough, there’s usually an answer.

This year for her, it came as a Facebook post. People were posting pictures of freshly cut trees, lights hung on the eaves of their home, and decorations tacked and taped all over. Sometimes, just the idea of getting their holiday work done was enough to warrant a post. Just dragged these down from the attic! That’s enough for one day, time for wine was a typical status update.

Chris would scroll through her feed the way she liked to: in her bedroom, under her comforter, hours after it had gotten dark. Cold, winter night had fallen and the radio would purr nearby. The casino was paying her well and, after the great Recession of ’08, Chris was able to purchase her own townhome. She knew the facts, but was always surprised how well the gambling and alcohol industries do when the 401k’s tank and the retirement funds hit the fan.

She lie in bed wrapped in the warm, dim, dark room, lit only by the Christmas lights she’d taped up in the window. She’ll have to get up and shower in a few minutes. No one wants to go to work, even those who get paid to have fun.

And that’s when she saw it.

Her friend Matthew is a singer in a number of local lounges, his catalogue the Great American Songbook. She once sat at a table and listened to him sing a Sammy Davis jr tune then segue right into Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ without missing a note.

She saw that Matthew posted something 14 minutes ago.

“Here’s one way to have a Merry Chris-mas!”

He hadn’t posted it directly to Chris’ page or tag her, but seeing her name in his text made it feel addressed. Every December 25th, people love to joke ‘hey, it’s your day!’ The only name she can think of that would bring more bad puns this time of year is if her mother had named her Holly. She’s learned to smile and say ‘every day is my day!’ and this usually just before she rakes away their money.

The post Matthew has put up gives her an idea. She shuts off the phone. Doesn’t know if she’d going to follow through on it.

Not tonight.

I’ll do it the right way tomorrow.

 

***

 

First, she has to write the letter.

There’s a spiral notebook under her bed. ‘For writing emergencies,’ she thinks. And there’s always a pen on her bedside table. She opens to a fresh new page and just let the words flow out:

 

DEAR SANTA,

I’VE BEEN A REALLY GOOD GIRL THIS YEAR. I HAVEN’T ASKED YOU FOR ANYTHING FOR A REALLY LONG TIME. OF COURSE THERE’S A REASON FOR THAT, MOSTLY BECAUSE I STOPPED BELIEVING IN YOU. I FILLED UP MY LIFE WITH OTHER THINGS. I HAD A BOYFRIEND. I HAD MY PARENTS OF COURSE. AND OF COURSE I’VE ALWAYS HAD A DOG.

 

MY MOTHER DIED LAST YEAR AND MY FATHER PASSED AWAY IN AUGUST. DON’T EVEN ASK ABOUT THE BOYFRIENDS.

BUT THEN THIS YEAR, I LOST MY DOG. I DIDN’T ‘LOSE HIM’ LOSE HIM, I MEAN HE DIED. IT WAS SUDDEN. IT WAS THE LAST THING I WANTED IN THE WORLD. IT FELT LIKE EVERYONE WAS LEAVING ME ALL AT ONCE. I BURIED MY FEELINGS BY GOING TO WORK. A JOB, MIND YOU, WHERE ALL I DO IS TAKE AWAY WHAT OTHERS SET DOWN. BUT YOU PROBABLY KNOW THAT ALREADY.

I’VE BEEN THROUGH A LOT, SANTA. MAYBE YOU KNOW THAT ALREADY TOO. MY PARENTS, THEY WERE OLD. THEIR HEALTH HAD BEEN FAILING A LONG TIME. IT WASN’T A SHOCK WHEN THEY PASSED AWAY. I WAS PREPARED. BUT LOSING ZANE (MY DOG) REALLY HURT. I STILL WAKE UP FIRST THING IN THE DAY AND FEEL HIM RIGHT THERE BESIDE MY BED. TECHNICALLY HE IS – I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH HIS ASHES, SO THE BOX JUST STAYS BESIDE MY BED. HE’S HERE BESIDE ME NOW AS I WRITE THIS.

I KNOW YOU CAN’T BRING MY FRIEND BACK, SANTA. BUT THERE’S ONLY ONE THING IN THE WORLD I WANT RIGHT NOW, AND THAT’S A NEW FRIEND. I CAN’T GO LOOKING FOR ONE ON MY OWN, I FEEL LIKE I’D BE DISESPECTING ZANE SOMEHOW BY DOING THAT. AND I DON’T KNOW HOW TO ASK ANYONE ELSE. BUT I’VE ALWAYS ASKED YOU FOR THINGS, AND YOU ALWAYS CAME THROUGH WHEN I WAS A LITTLE GIRL. SHOOT, THE LAST TIME I GOT A PRESENT FROM SANTA I WASN’T SO LITTLE ANYMORE! MY DAD LOVED TO DO THAT STUFF.

I KNOW IT’S ASKING A LOT, SANTA. BUT ALL I WANT IN THE WORLD IS A DOG HERE WITH ME. PLEASE SANTA, SEND ME SOMEONE THAT NEEDS A GOOD HOME.

 

Chris was almost in tears when she wrote the last line:

 

I’M OLD ENOUGH NOW TO HAVE A GOOD HOME TO GIVE, AND NO ONE TO GIVE IT TO.

 

It felt like a secret mission that night when Chris, on her way toward the casino, stopped at the big blue mailbox on the corner. She looked both ways before getting out of the car. Then she looked both ways again as she approached the old steel box, opened its squeaky lid, and dropped in a letter addressed to the North Pole.

 

***

 

Next, she had to do something about Matthew’s post.

She’d been turning it over in her head during her shift at the casino. Even on her lunch break, as she gobbled away yet another turkey sandwich, she thought of the best way to make the call to the phone number Matthew had listed. For the rest of her shift, no one noticed the faraway look in her eye as she raked up chips or slid the dice toward the next shooter. She had one eye on the table, the other on her watch. When her shift ended she raced home, undressed and got back in bed.

She checked her clock radio: almost 7am.

The post office would be open at 8am.

She’d stay awake.

Chris took a long hot shower, then washed and blow-dried her hair. She took the time to throw in a load of wash, things she probably wouldn’t wear any time soon but who knows when she’d get another chance to make them available. The digital clock-radio keeping vigil above Zane’s ashes now read 7:51.

She burrowed into the comforter. She’d make her call from the coziest spot in the house.

At exactly 8:01am, she said: “Hello, I’m calling about your Secret Santa program. How can I get involved?”

 

***

 

After six hours sleep Chris got up and dressed in her casino clothes, white dress shirt and black slacks topped by a bow tie. Then she got in the car and drove twenty-five miles to the main Post Office branch. Perched on a hill over-looking most of the valley, she imagined that from up here, the post master could see who was being naughty and nice.

“So, you’re Chris?”

Chris smiled at the solidly-built woman behind the reception counter. She looked like she’d carried a lot of mailbags and walked a lot of miles in her forty years.

“Yes,” Chris said. “Nice place you’ve got up here.”

“We like it.” The woman reached under the desk, produced a short stack of letters, and set them on the counter.

“These are what’s left. A lot of them have already been snatched up by other Secret Santas. We’re grateful there’s been such a generous turnout this year.”

“How has it been in other years?”

“Not as good. All of sudden we’re a big success!”

“Why the difference, you think?”

“For better or worse? I’d say the current political climate has spurred people into looking for something good to do for others. And as you’ll see,” the woman rested her hand on the dog-eared stack, “there are plenty of people needing help.”

“Thank you. I’ll go over here and read.”

Chris carried the stack of worn photocopies to a seating area, furnished with government-provided chairs and a couch. Functional, durable, practical.

The Secret Santa program worked this way: people who needed help wrote letters to Santa. Those who included a return address on the envelope had their letters set aside.

A team of carriers then pored through them, weeding out the most sincere. They knew their neighborhoods, and knew from day in and day out experience those who were truly in need.

Those letters were turned over to the Secret Santa program at the main branch on the hill. A call for volunteers went out through social media to make the dreams of those most in need come true. Matthew had reposted that call. Chris, having seen it, memorized the details, then kept it to herself.

Now she held in her hands the photocopies of those original letters from the ones most in need. Names, addresses, any identifying information had been redacted. These copies were now worn around the edges from people sifting through them, looking for an opportunity to do good this season anonymously.

Chris started reading.

She dismissed the first three right off the bat. They were written in an adult’s handwriting and carried a tone of ‘hey Santa, bring me this! I’ve been good, I swear!’ Chris wondered how they even made it into the pile.

Six more were rejected as they asked for extravagant gifts. An X-Box, an iPhone, a new Samsung tablet. Chris shook her head. It wasn’t about the cost.

It’s that no one NEEDS an iPhone, she thought.

Then, there was one letter she almost couldn’t get past.

A young man with failing eye sight had asked Santa for a dog. Sounds familiar, she thought.

This young boy didn’t ask for just any old dog. He needed a seeing-eye dog. He really wanted a husky or a malamute. He’d heard that they were strong and very, very loyal. ‘Or a boxer,’ he said, also because of their reputation for undying loyalty.

A tear fell on the page. Chris sniffled and quickly wiped the tear from the paper. Can I do this? Wait. I can’t. Seeing-eye dogs are specially trained; she knew they weren’t talking about going to the shelter and bringing home a pound puppy. The dog would need to go through special schooling. He’d need all the care of a regular dog and then some. And there’d be vet bills and food and medicine…

It was one of the hardest things she’d ever done to set that letter aside and keep reading. And in a way, she felt like she wasn’t just giving up on the boy – she was giving up on her own secret dream. After all if she as a Secret Santa couldn’t provide that boy with the dog he actually needed, then who in the world was going to look out for her? Who would bring her a dog for Christmas?

She had to set the letter down and keep going.

She had to believe.

The letter Chris finally settled on was written by two young sisters who, she found out through polite questions, lived in a rough side of the valley near the post office’s main branch. The girls had been rescued by their aunt from a mother whose bad habits had landed her in jail. They didn’t have time to bring everything they needed, and would really like a couple of bikes to get to school. ‘A pink one for me and a purple one for my sister,’ the author had written.

In a way, it was perfect. Chris had grown up with three brothers, all of whom had been BMX and dirt bike fanatics. She knew how a bike came apart and goes together again.

Chris went to Goodwill. There, as if placed by a divine hand itself, were a pink and purple bike. Both were in mostly good shape, showing only the marks of having been outgrown then left to sit in a garage. Chris knew a bargain when she saw it: the pair were only $12 for both.

She brought them home and cleaned each spoke, each pedal. She oiled chains and polished their rims. She scrubbed the white tires of the purple bike with a nailbrush until they shone like new. Finally she tucked them into the trunk of her small Toyota and drove to the casino where she saw another night of the usual ‘Christmas Bonus’ers,’ as she called them, the desperate trying to snowball their Christmas funds. Tonight, she was immune to their woes.

When her shift was over, and it had been a late one, she clocked out, knowing that her next move would be to drive straight to the main post office with the trunkload of bikes.

She crossed the parking lot, fumbling keys. Her plan was to drop the bikes off, then go to a place called Oakbrook Forest. Located on a strip of land beside a local freeway, the family-owned business grew and harvested fresh Christmas trees. She’d visited a few times over the years, once with one of her brothers who’d brought along his dog. He was a good boy, the dog not the brother, and had only marked a couple trees in a place where adopting families would likely never know a dog had been.

She kept walking to her car, letting out a little smile at the memory.

And that’s when she heard it.

A dog barked. What was a dog doing at the casino? The building was thirty miles out into the hills, far, far away from civilization. Where misery won’t have any company she’d often joke. There were no neighbors, no guard dogs on duty at a nearby ranch. The casino owned everything for two miles in every direction.

The dog barked again.

Chris knew enough about dogs to know that deep woof belonged to a larger breed. She heard it again. She moved in its direction.

Maybe the dog had heard her coming. Or sensed it. Chris kept following the trail the dog was creating, the barking getting louder and louder.

Then she found him.

A German Shepard sat on the passenger side seat of a newer, bright red pickup. He fidgeted when Chris came into sight, and barked again. When Chris got close to the half-open window, the dog stuck his nose right into the opening.

“Hey boy, what are you doing out here? Did you lose all your money?” Chris held her hand up so the dog could smell that she was friendly. “And now you’re trying to drive home, huh? Silly boy.”

The dog sat back on the seat and whimpered.

“Who left you out here alone, huh?”

The dog didn’t answer. He was no stool pigeon.

“Well, I know just what to do.”

Chris took her cell out of her purse. She’d stored SEAN SEC in her contacts. She dialed.

“Security, this is Justin.”

“Justin, where’s Sean?”

“Stepped out a moment. Everything OK Chris?”

“Can you see me on your monitor? I’m in Level 2D of the parking garage.”

Justin was quiet a moment. “Yeah, there you are. What’s up?”

“Rewind your tape and see how long ago this red pickup rolled in here.”

Another few moments of silence. She knew Justin was operating the forward and back features on the camera. Everything at the casino was not only watched 24-7 but recorded, and for good reason.

“It’s…,” Justin stuttered, “right now nine-oh-seven in the morning. And that truck came in at eleven-twenty-three.”

“Last night?”

“Yep. Why? You stalking an ex or something?”

“Puh-lease. Can you see on your camera right now who’s sitting in the truck?”

Justin was quiet a moment. “Hey! Who’s your friend?”

“Someone who’s been stuck in a truck with no food or water for almost ten hours.”

“Or a bathroom break,” Justin added.

“That’s right.”

“Hang on, I’ll make a general address.” There was a moment or so of quiet, then Justin’s voice blared through her cell and every loudspeaker on the property.

“WOULD THE OWNER OF A RED CHEVROLET PICKUP, LICENCE NUMBER TWO-JAY-ARR-KAY-NINE-ONE-SEVEN please contact the nearest concierge. That’s – ” and Justin read the description and license number once more. He had almost finished his second description when the phone on his console rang. Security,” Chris heard him say. She pictured him with a phone up to each ear.

“Yes sir, you’re the owner? Well sir it seems that one of our employees noticed a dog barking in your vehicle. We think he may be in distress. Yes the dog, not the employee. Would you mind going out to the vehicle and checking sir?” a slight pause. Then: “thank you.”

Chris couldn’t wait. “What’d he say.”

“He said: ‘wait ‘til I the end of this hand or until I bust.’”

“Are you KIDDING ME?” Of course, Chris had seen this before. The addicted gambler won’t leave a hot streak, or for that matter even a cold streak when they don’t want to. Sometimes they might not even be playing at all, they just don’t want to get up from where they’re comfortable. She turned to look at the Shepard; he looked at her, tongue wagging. “Your owner’s a real piece of work, isn’t he buddy.”

The dog barked. It sounded like an agreement.

“Well Justin, I’m not leaving him. I’m gonna stay right here until the guy shows then I’m gonna give him a piece of my mind.”

“Sure you can afford to give it away?”

She didn’t answer.

“Sorry,” he said. “Look, maybe I can speed things up a little.”

“How?”

“Oh you don’t need to know all my secrets. Security can be very convincing when we need to be.”

“OK, I’m gonna hang up,” Chris said.

“OK.”

They disconnected. The dog looked at Chris. Then he turned back out the window, tongue panting.

Chris knew from experience that, though it looked like the dog was smiling, the panting usually meant that he was in distress – either the stress of a worrisome situation or physical pain.

“You want to go out for a walk, don’t you buddy?”

The dog barked.

“You know that word huh. Walk?”

The dog barked. He stood up on all fours, nose to the open window.

“I thought so. Well don’t worry. Justin and I are gonna spring you from there and quick, OK?”

The hum of an electric golf cart echoed through the cement chamber that was the parking structure. An amber light pulsed. Security had arrived.

Justin leaned out. He was a young man with a full head of dark hair and a beard to match. A casual onlooker would never guess, but Chris knew he had quite a singing voice as well.

Chris stepped over to meet him.

“Where’s the guy?”

Justin didn’t speak. He simply held up a set of keys.

“What the – “ and she watched Justin press a button that unlocked the truck.

“Guy couldn’t make it so he sent the next best thing.”

“He sent you up with the keys?”

Justin looked over the lowered, tricked out red truck. “Man, that is some sled, huh? He says the dog is friendly. Says you should take him out.”

“He wants me to walk his dog?”

Justin held out his hand. There was something in it. Chris let him drop it in her palm.

A $1,000 chip.

“Are you kidding? He’s giving us a thousand dollars to WALK his DOG?”

Justin shook his head.

“I don’t think you heard me. They guy said ‘take him.’”

Chris had opened the door. The dog jumped right down and waited for Chris to take the other end of his leash. The three walked out of the garage, toward a long patch of open green grass where the dog could sniff around.

“Well I’m taking him alright, taking him right to a place where he can walk and be a dog until his owner gets back. What did this guy look like anyway?”

“Big older guy. Huge gray beard. Went all the way down along his belly. When I asked his name he just said Mac. ‘Like the truck?’ I asked. Just call me Mac, he said. Then he handed me the keys and – ”

Chris had been busy watching the dog sniff. She snapped back into current reality when Justin stopped abruptly.

“Um, Chris?”

He was looking back in the direction of the truck. She turned, too.

The space was empty.

“How did he…,” Chris started, “did you leave the keys in it?”

“They’re right here in my pocket! I – ”

Justin pulled his pocket inside out.

It was empty.

Chris stared at Justin. “What the…”

The dog came back over and sat beside Chris’ leg, as if that’s where he belonged all the time. Chris and Justin looked at each other, then – as if no other explanation were available, they turned to the sky. She still isn’t sure to this day, but if you ask, Chris will swear that there had been a streak of light that passed overhead, and a man with a long gray beard who looked down at where she had received her single deepest, greatest Christmas wish.

 

MATT McGEE writes short fiction in Thousand Oaks, CA. In 2018 his stories ‘A Day in the Life of a Favor Saver’ and ‘Schneider’s Last Stand’ appeared in Grey Wolfe Press’ ‘Legends’ anthology, ‘The Flaming Tadpoles’ appeared in the UK-based ‘Painted Words’ anthology in July and his first novel ‘Wildwood Mountain’ was released June 19th. When not typing he drives around in a vintage Mazda and plays goalie in local hockey leagues.

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