October’s Santa Claus
By: Milady Nazir
It’s the appointed hour. Up above a flock of gray pigeons expand their wings across the park. Visitors duck their heads, others ignore the flying V while few gaze in delight.
He arrives to sit on the bench, next to the trash can. On his lap a box of Little Debbie’s rests. In the years prior, he would ride with guns by his side.
Stewart, now in his golden years, retired lucky and unscathed from the bounty hunting.
“It’s their own head that does them in,” says Stewart about catching man.
But he had had enough. Now he traded loaded guns for chocolate and vanilla swirls. His bicycle, with the bike seat wrapped in plastic, reclines on one side of the bench.
It’s his rotundity with Caribbean-blue eyes and the thick white beard that allows him to moonlight as Santa during the merry season. However, in the off-season he looks more like himself — the poor distant cousin of the jolly man.
At noon and on weekdays he comes dressed in black, travels for miles and toward the park.
“It’s how I get the exercise. Stave off the diabetes,” he says to a woman who stands across to see the upcoming feast.
Stewart takes a Little Debbie swiss roll and slathers it on his hand.
Now on the nearby ledge, the pigeons line up; they wait and then transform the V into followers that land at the savior’s feet.
“Coo. Look up. Coo. Santa Stewart. Coo. Sweet gifts. Coo.”
The birds swarm the bench and weave between his legs. One bird perches on his shoulder and stands at attention. Another climbs on his wrist and feeds on swirls.
By his feet, the homage continues with bobs, coos and walks in figure eights. Chocolate and bliss — the perfect meal. The feathered reindeers don’t bother to taste the professional stares. Suits go out of their way to avoid the scene.
Stewart’s nose is covered in purple papules. Underneath the knitted gray cap hides the white oily long hair. His black sweater has month-old stains while dandruff on it reminds you of early snow. The remains of daily days cover his nails.
Nylon from his white socks cuts the circulation of his thick ankles, now red and swollen.
“My ankles are bad. I know,” says Stewart to the woman. “It’s on account of the Diabetes but I bicycle and that’s good.”
With embarrassment for being caught staring down his legs, she immediately corrects herself and speaks about the feathered followers.
“They like you. How long have you been feeding them?”
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe about a year? I used to feed a squirrel too. I could get it to climb up my hand. I don’t know, but I understand animals the best. They’re never afraid of me.”
Another pigeon perches on his forearm and starts to eat from his hand. She wishes the same. Sometimes in the park she won’t eat her full meal and saves soft bits of bread. And if she sees a Philly pretzel on the ground while the feathers are at war over it, she picks it up to cut it into small pieces.
Here with Stewart is a peaceful never-ending feast. The winged followers just take turns. All eat. The bounty materializes from within the box.
A couple of benches away there’s another man with a bag full of crumbs.
“I think you got competition over there,” she says and points in the direction of the other pigeon feeder.
“I got Little Debbies. These guys know me,” says Stewart unperturbed.
Now the pigeons number more than 20. Synchronized bobs and coos separate her from Stewart.
“What’s the wildest animal you’ve ever encountered?” she asks.
“Well, when I was a little boy I raised hornet wasps. I kept them in a box inside the closet. I could just put my hand and they would crawl,” he says with big smiling eyes.
“Really? Didn’t your parents know?” she says while being struck by how young his eyes make him.
“Well, that’s when it stopped. I walked one day outside covered in the wasps. I loved it, they didn’t sting me…but a neighbor saw me and yelled. They called the police.”
“Then what happened?”
“They killed the wasps. That’s when my dad said ‘You’re no son of mine.’ ”
Stewart’s eyes narrow. The happy light switch turns off before her eyes. He now gazes again at the birds.
“I’m sorry. They over reacted, right?” she asks.
“I couldn’t keep animals. My folks didn’t get it. I decided to hunt people instead,” he says with a devilish smile.
“That’s funny! People can be the worst,” she says with a laugh in reply.
Her toes are now cold despite the pre-noon sun’s warmth. It’s the early fall and leaves still hold on to the trees.
“Will you seat next to me?” Stewart asks while looking right into her eyes.
She’s taken by surprise. Uncomfortable. Embarrassed.
“If you don’t mind, I kinda want to stand here. I have to leave soon.” This was here best response.
Although she loves the idea of being closer to the pigeons, she doesn’t want to be seen next to him. What would people say behind her? She feels her hypocrisy.
“That’s ok,” Stewart says. He smiles and reaches for another Little Debbie.
Suddenly, more birds fly down and now climb on his shoes.
“You see this one here, I have to feed it separately. I picked him up from the ground once,” continues Stewart.
“Well, they sure love you but I have to go.”
“Maybe I’ll see you again?” says Stewart.
“Yes, I’ll come again.”
Every so often she passes by the bench but Stewart is never there. The birds still perch above and wait.