It was the night before the night before Christmas and this creature was stirring, wandering all over the house. I had awoken in the wee hours with a cold, sinking feeling, sweating but feeling so cold that I was shivering at the same time. Like Freddy Mercury penned in Crazy Little Thing Called Love, “…keeps me in a cold, cold sweat.” The man knew how I felt years before I felt it. However, my condition was worsened by a hangover. What a way to begin Christmas Eve.
You see, I lost my $24,000 year-end bonus check. I work as an account executive at a medium-size investment bank. We had a very good year, and the bosses seemed to have an extra amount of Christmas spirit. I remember so clearly through the fog of my hangover how my boss called me into his office. He seemed harried and had sweat on his forehead, where his hairline was receding faster than mine. In an Oscar-worthy performance, he complimented me as if he really meant it and handed me the $24,000 check. I, in turn, complimented his managerial skills in a set of white lies that were fueled by the vodka I had already consumed at the Christmas party in progress outside his office.
I remember putting the check in my jacket pocket and then, after exchanging holiday greetings with him, going back out to the lobby where our annual Christmas party was in full swing. Since Christmas was on a Sunday and our office was closed on weekends, we had our party on a Friday afternoon, the day before Christmas Eve. We had trays of catered hors d’oeuvres and the equivalent of a tank truck of vodka accompanied by just a few gallons of orange juice. So, screwdrivers were the drink of the day.
We ate a little and drank a lot. It was a great party, and you had the feeling that Bing Crosby and Gene Kelly should have been there to sing carols with us. There was the normal amount of flirting going on between the young, attractive women account executives and administrative assistants in our office and we middle-age account executives who were doing our best to hold in our ever-expanding potbellies. In a flash of creative TV sitcom imitation, I carried a sprig of mistletoe as I approached the most attractive women on our staff. But it didn’t work. The women, who were a lot smarter than we dirty old men, found reasons to leave the party before it got completely out of hand. And we brilliant account executives got down to some serious drinking. Soon we ran out of orange juice, but we found a jar of powdered orange juice mix in the back of the drawer under our office coffee pot. No one knew how long the jar had been there, and we speculated that it may have been there since the early days of space exploration, when the astronauts took jars of Tang powdered orange juice with them into outer space.
The recipe for screwdrivers became a glass of vodka mixed with two teaspoons of powdered orange juice mix. That recipe resulted in what had to be one of the most painful hangovers in the world.
There I was in the middle of the night tearing our house apart looking for my bonus check while making frequent rips to the bathroom and playing host to a mad percussionist banging on a tympani inside my head. I was lucky that the interior of our condo was illuminated by the bright light of a “super moon” resulting from the full moon being nearest to earth in its elliptical orbit. I tried to be quiet while looking for my check, as I didn’t want to wake my wife. She had been so proud and loving when I told her about the check. I didn’t have the nerve to tell her I lost it. I kept looking over, under and around everything we had in the house. And no check. I even prayed and told God that if I found the check, I would donate some of it to charity. The only thing to do was to wait until sunrise and then retrace my steps outside to see if I had dropped it somewhere. Our condo is close enough to the office where I normally walked to and from work.
After sunrise, my wife awoke and tried to rid me of the hangover and nurse me back to health. She prepared a breakfast of ham and eggs, plied me with coffee, and even tried to prepare a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. However, I turned down the juice as it provided too many painful memories.
It was Christmas Eve, a nice brisk late fall day with snow flurries from the leading edge of a cold front that promised a white Christmas. I retraced my steps back to the office, zigging and zagging to search every possible place where I could have dropped the check. I knew the odds were slim that I would find it, but I had to keep looking. I walk or sometimes bike to and from work through a park that faces the front of our condo. I spent most of my time scouring the grass on both sides of the park’s northern sidewalk. The park is built on a shallow dome of earth, and I normally go to and from work on the sidewalk at the northern side of the park. As one looks south there is a shallow slope going down to a children’s playground with the normal slides, swings and seesaws. There were several park benches and trashcans around the edges of the playground and sidewalks.
There weren’t many people in the park, but there was one old gentleman sitting on one of the benches on the side of the north sidewalk. I had passed him several times, and he looked at me with a strange smile each time I passed.
“What-cha lookin’ for, young fella,” he asked on one of my passes. “You passed here so many times with your nose to the ground like a bloodhound that you got me curious.”
“Oh, an envelope,” I replied. “It is a white envelope with some important papers inside. I think I dropped it on my way home from work last night.”
“Are ya sure ya didn’t leave it at work?” He looked at me with that strange smile.
“I distinctly remember putting it into my jacket pocket before leaving,” I replied, trying to be polite while suppressing the feeling that the old codger was making fun of me. I also had the feeling that he knew something I didn’t. I began to wonder if he had found my check and was withholding it from me. “Who are you? Did you find my check?”
“A check!” He let out a low chuckle. “I can see why you call it an important paper.”
“I’m asking again, do you have the check?” I began walking toward him. As I came closer, I realized he was a homeless person. His jacket sleeves were frayed, as were the bottoms of his pant legs. He had on a pair of scuffed black shoes, and it didn’t appear he had any socks. He had an uneven white beard in need of a trim and what appeared to be cheap reading glasses over blue eyes that seemed to twinkle with either mockery or humor. I couldn’t tell which.
“No, young fella.” He held up his right hand as if to stop me. “I don’t have your check. I couldn’t do much with it even if I had it. And to cash it I would have to show a picture, and you ain’t nearly as good lookin’ as me.” He laughed, and I couldn’t help but chuckle myself.
“Who are you?” I asked again.
“It ain’t important who I am. My name is Neek. What’s important is what ya gonna’ do with that check if ya find it and cash it. It’s Christmas and a lot of folks are havin’ to do without. Particularly at the Parkside Shelter.”
I had heard of the Parkside Shelter. It was on the street that bordered the park on the south. It was in a neighborhood I didn’t frequent. The shelter sat on the edge of a neighborhood of abandoned, boarded-up buildings and one over-crowded public housing project.
“I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” I said. “And you’re probably not going to believe it anyway, but I actually prayed to God to help me find the check, and I promised Him that I would give some to charity.”
“I hope you’re tellin’ the truth,” he replied. “And remember the Parkside Shelter is your closest charity. Speakin’ of which, I best be getting’ back there. And ya best get back to lookin’ for your check.”
With that, he slowly rose from the bench and started walking away toward the west where the sidewalk slowly curved to the south. As I resumed my seemingly fruitless search, he turned back toward me and shouted, “Why don’t ya look under that trash can that’s off ta your right.”
I glared back at him, wanting to yell back with an un-Christmas like curse. But I suppressed the urge and decided that I couldn’t loose anything by checking near the trashcan. And voila! There beneath the trashcan was a familiar looking white envelope with my check still inside. I turned to yell a thank you to the old codger, but he was gone. I laughed. Somehow he knew I was looking for the check, and he knew where the check was. He seemed to be playing some sort of sadistic game with me. But as I told Shakespeare – “all’s well that ends well.”
After depositing my check and finally unloading my story on my wife, I decided to visit the shelter and keep my promise about giving to charity. I thought that the shelter would be busy on Christmas Eve, and a little extra money would be really appreciated.
Never having been to the shelter, I paused at the door and had second thoughts about entering. As I was about to turn away, two older gentlemen approached the door, and invited me to enter with them for what they described as the annual Christmas Eve dinner.
We entered a large room that looked like an old school gymnasium. Only now, it was filled with long tables and bench seats with scores of homeless people eating. The food smelled delicious. I looked around and everyone was focused on eating. I thought meals like this were probably few and far between for the homeless. As I scanned the crowd, I saw no sign of the old codger that called himself “Neek.”
“Can I help you?” The question came from a tall thin man who looked to be in his mid thirties. He had a short blond beard and thinning blond hair under a Santa cap. “I’m Alan Bosch, and I help run the shelter.” He had on jeans and a navy blue sweater.
“I’m here to make a donation,” I said. “And hopefully to thank someone that was tremendously helpful earlier today.”
“Donations are always helpful.” He smiled and offered his hand. “And so are thank yous. I have a small office over here and we can sit there and talk.”
We went into his office, which was covered with stacks of folders and loose papers – some, on his desk, some on the chairs, and some on the floor. He removed a stack from one of the chairs and invited me to take a seat.
After I explained the saga of the lost-and-found check, I offered him a check for $5000. He seemed in shock as he thanked me repeatedly. I told him that I hoped it would help in some small way for the homeless to have a better new year.
“Now, about that thank you,” he said. “I take it you want to thank the gentleman who helped you find – or should I say led you to – the check. I’m not familiar with anyone here with the name of Neek. But from your description, I think you are talking about Crazy Nick. He used to come here and help prepare the meal every Christmas Eve. The only time he ever had an accent was when he pronounced his name. His last name wasn’t Cholas. But it was actually part of his first name, Nicholas. He just had this crazy way of pronouncing it. And I don’t know if he even had a last name.
“He would help prepare the meal every Christmas Eve, and he would go around from table to table trying to cheer everyone up. He would stay until about 8 o’clock, and then we wouldn’t see him for another year.”
“Why do you keep referring to him in the past tense,” I asked. “And do you know why he isn’t here this year?”
“Well.” Alan paused and scratched his chin through his beard. “I really don’t know how to say this, but Nick died last year during one of those Arctic cold snaps we had. Several of our regulars who knew Nick told me.”
“How can that be? If we are talking about the same person, I just saw him this afternoon.”
“Well.” Alan paused even longer this time. “You’re going to think I’m really the crazy one, but Crazy Nick had this really weird thing going on. He would claim that he was a saint who had been living for centuries. And he would ask everyone to say his name real fast, like it was said at his home in the Netherlands. Humor me for a minute and say his name, Saint Nicholas real fast.”
“Saint Nicholas,” I said.
“No, that wasn’t fast. Try it like it’s all one word and with his accent. SaintNicholas. Only real fast. SanNicholas.”
“Okay,” I said to humor him. “SantNeeCholas”
“Faster,” he said.
“SantNeeCholas. SantNeeCloas. SantNeClos.” I kept pronouncing it faster and faster until all the syllables ran together, and I pronounced, “Santa Claus.”
Alan began laughing. “See what I mean,” he said. “Maybe Nick wasn’t so crazy. Or maybe I’m the crazy one. But Nick thought he was Santa Claus.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. This whole thing is unbelievable. That can’t be the guy who helped me find the envelope with my check.”
Alan and I had a good laugh and exchanged Christmas greetings. As I left, I told him that I would visit more often and volunteer to help. I thought my wife would like to volunteer also.
Once outside I began to walk on the sidewalk that skirted the park. What a day! A lost check led me to an encounter with someone considered dead by the few who know him. He was a knight in not–so–shining armor, and he led me to the secular grail of a $24,000 check. And he thought himself to be Santa Claus.
The cold front that had been forecast was making its way through our area. The wind had picked up, and the snow flurries had become flakes. The snow was starting to stick, and it looked like we would have a white Christmas. I looked up through a break in the clouds at the bright super moon and thought that for a brief second the moon took on that mocking facial expression of Neek the crazy Santa. It just couldn’t be. Could it?
Buzz Miller is a retired Army helicopter pilot and aerospace support manager. He spent a significant part of his time writing reports and proposals. He has started creative writing to expand his writing experience beyond the technical writing required in his work.