EXCLUSIVE FICTION: Too Late For A Lot Of Things by Josh Denslow

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Grateful acknowledgement is made to 7:13 Books for permitting STORGY to exclusively publish ‘Too Late For A Lot Of Things’ by Josh Denslow from his forthcoming short story collection – ‘Not Everyone Is Special’.

Too Late For A Lot Of Things

Santa’s Workshop is off I-88, a few miles past the casino
boat. It’s around the corner from that massive junkyard
where Tina got the fender for her Honda Prelude after the
accident she had where the guy in the other car died. She’s constantly asking me what I think he’d be doing right now if she hadn’t killed him. I told her she didn’t kill him, that he was the one who was drunk, but she doesn’t want to hear that.

I have a million ideas better than a year-round Christmas-themed amusement park, but Santa’s Workshop actually exists and all of my ideas are trapped in my head. I’d love to say that this place is a failure, but it’s not. Kids come here in May and get off on the orgy of Christmas that we serve them. Parents let their DNA run around without supervision even though most of the employees are imagining them charred at the bottom of a pit. Maybe not charred, but at least maimed in some way.

There’s a candy cane merry-go-round and a spinning sleigh ride that grinds through a decade of hardened
pre-pubescent vomit. There’s a small indoor ice skating rink and a giant slide with fake toboggans. But the biggest ride is Escape from the North Pole. It’s a roller coaster that climbs up a slate mountain and the children, safely strapped into their harnesses (if Lance isn’t drunk), learn that a hairy ape has taken over Santa’s workshop while Santa is out delivering packages on Christmas Eve. Then they are sent over the first drop and through a loop, all the while trying to find Santa Claus. The main conflict with the ape is never resolved.

I’d be a great roller coaster attendant, but since I’m not
tall enough to ride the ride, they won’t let me be in charge
of it either. Instead I get to wear a felt green jumper and
matching pointy hat. Which is what I’m doing right now as I walk around the park grounds making myself available for photo opportunities. My black shoes curl up over my toes where a small bell hangs. I get on my own nerves as I walk, though I’m quite popular with the kids and their parents. I hate all of them, but particularly hate the ones that are taller than me. Which these days seems to be more than half of them. They must feed the smaller children to the bigger ones.

Two young girls in jeans and t-shirts run up to me
giggling. Don’t ask me how old they are. Somewhere
between five and thirteen. Their mom trudges behind them, the camera already poised in front of her.
“May we have a picture with you please?” one of the
girls asks. I even hate when they’re polite.
Their mom has thinning brown hair and some stress
wrinkles around her eyes. She’s looking at me like I’m a
vending machine. The girls sidle up to me and she snaps
the picture.
One of the girls runs off immediately, but the other
stops and stares.
“Merry Christmas,” I say, hoping the words burrow
somewhere deep inside her and fester for the seven months remaining in the year.
“Why are you so small?” Big innocent eyes.
“Okay, honey,” the mom says and pushes her daughter on her way. “I’m sorry about that.” Her doughy arms hang
at her sides. “She’s just never seen someone like you before.”
“Like me?” I’d punch through a hundred babies to
make her eat her words.
“She knows you’re not a real elf. But you know. Someone small like you. It’s not something you see every day.”
“Really?” I swallow. “I do.”
She rubs her hands on her thighs and takes a step backwards. “I’m sorry my daughter offended you.” She turns abruptly and follows her kids.
At least she didn’t call me a midget.

I’m four feet, seven-and-a-half inches tall. I don’t have
any of those out-of-proportion midget appendages, and I
don’t waddle like a duck. I have a smooth face that I maybe have to pluck a few hairs out of every couple of weeks. I look like an angel in my Santa’s Workshop costume. Or like a child star. But I’m twenty-three years old.
I have a half-hour break so I decide to find Tina. She
works over in Gumdrop Alley, which is where all the prize
games are. She runs the Reindeer Roundup. Plexiglas reindeer streak by on a conveyer belt and the kids try to knock them over with bright red balls. Tina says by the end of the day, the balls are so sticky from the kids’ hands that she doesn’t even want to touch them. Plus she’s been pegged a few times, which I figure is their way of hitting on her.
She must look like a model to them. Five feet, ten inches tall. Wavy blond hair that collects on her fragile shoulders. A narrow face accented by two trusting eyes. She’s always reminded me of a stork, but in a good way. What you don’t notice right away is the acne scars on her cheeks. Her yellow teeth. Her flat chest. Most people don’t pay attention like I do.
I know if I were taller, we’d be an item; there’s a lot
of chemistry between us. I can’t change the genes I was
handed, though, and that puts me at a severe disadvantage.
Tina leans against her booth, not a kid in sight. She’s
wearing a red and green wool dress, and I desperately want to feel the sweat collecting on her thighs. “Some kid grabbed my ass,” she says.
“Finally. A smart one.”
“He was dared to.”
“How do you know?”
“I heard them talking about it so I leaned over into the
prize bin for longer than I usually do. Wanted to give him
a chance.”
She has this way of spreading her legs apart and
bending slightly at the knees when she talks to me. It probably knocks off about four inches but she still towers over me.
“You’re doing it again,” I say.
She straightens her legs and pulls her shoulders back.
She’s like a goddess. “You know, if you stopped seeing yourself as short, everyone else would, too.”
“Life’s not that simple. Besides, in my mind, I’m eight
feet tall.”
“I don’t believe you for a second.” She tosses one of
the red balls into the air and catches it.
“You remember which kid grabbed you?”
“If I saw him again.”
“Maybe you could point him out. I’ll tell him Santa has
a boner right before it’s his turn to sit on his lap.”
“You in Santa’s Cottage this afternoon?”
“Yeah. With that fucker.”
We have alternating Santas. One of them is a guy
named Norman who keeps to himself. Puts in his time and
then goes straight to the bar. The other is Charlie, and he’s a real prick. Actually thinks he is Santa Claus. Got busted for breaking into his neighbors’ apartments and dropping off presents for their kids. Luckily no one pressed charges or he wouldn’t have his job anymore. The worst part about it is that I seem to be the only one who doesn’t like him. In fact, I have a sinking suspicion that Tina has a thing for him and it tears my insides apart.
“I was thinking about Driver again,” she says. That’s
what she calls the drunk driver who died on the hood of her car after he catapulted through his windshield.
“I thought you weren’t going to do that anymore,” I say.
“This was just a random thought. I was watching a
group of boys throw balls and it occurred me. He would
never work here.”
If I could somehow become that guy, Tina might
actually date me. Not the dead version of him. I mean the
version that she created in the year after the accident. The
better she made him, the worse she felt about his death.
She was also creating an unhealthy standard for all other
potential suitors.
“Sorry, I got a couple of turds approaching,” Tina says.
She’s always calling kids turds even though she wants one
of her own. I suspect it’s because she already has a cool
name picked out for it. I can’t remember the name, though. Something with an ‘R’.
“Can I get my picture with you?” one of the kids asks,
his eyes glazed over as he attempts to OD on sugar.
“I’m on break,” I say, feeling the phlegm lodged in
the back of my throat and the ten years of smoking finally
shredding my voice enough to make me sound menacing.
He laughs.

Kids are lined up around Santa’s Cottage, past the point
where it looks wholesome and toward the back where the
machinations of the theme park are exposed. Generator
boxes, a couple of frayed wires, and a janitor’s closet with a door that still doesn’t close after Lance kicked it in when he couldn’t find the key over a year ago.
Every single kid in line tries to get my attention. I keep
my head down and plunge through the Employee’s Only
entrance, my shoes jangling loudly. Charlie stands in front
of the men’s room straightening his beard. As opposed to
other Santas I’ve seen, he’s not really fat. He’s broad-shouldered and muscular, sort of how I wanted to turn out. Like he could play Hercules or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s son. Plus, he’s a respectable five feet, eleven inches.
“Help has finally arrived,” he says with faux joviality.
He turns his back to me and shakes his shoulders, the loose Santa suit sagging around his hips like a turkey neck. “Zip me up.” He squats so I can reach all the way to his collar, and I wish I could tighten it around his throat until it cut off the flow of oxygen.
“We got ourselves a madhouse out there,” he says when
I’m done. “A lot of boys and girls trying to be good this
year.”
“You sound like someone on the sex offender registry
when you talk like that,” I say. I grab a few of the big Styrofoam Christmas presents and carry them into the next room. The train is already on and chugging its way around the track mounted below the ceiling. Gingerbread man standees line the walls and glowing plastic candy canes illuminate the room. I place the packages around the rickety wooden chair where Charlie will sit. He refers to it as his throne but you won’t catch that word rolling from my mouth.
There’s another elf already manning the entrance door;
this guy named Monty. He’s six feet, two inches tall and has a horrible twist to his spine. He refuses to shave or look savory on any level so management usually sticks him at the door to Santa’s Cottage in an ill-fitting elf costume. The kids take one look at him and think twice before doing anything fucked up. Monty has been here longer than any of us, and there’s a rumor that the twisted spine happened on the job. With that kind of job security, I don’t think I’d bother giving a shit either.
“Don’t forget to announce me,” Charlie calls from the
back room, and Monty snickers.

Problem is, if I don’t do it, Charlie will go to management and say I’m not a team player. All management cares about is us being team players. It’s written in block letters in the break room. WE’RE ALL ON THE SAME TEAM.
Monty throws open the entrance and sunlight barges in.
I clear my throat. “Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus,” I sing. Charlie steps into the room, his hat askew, his beard perfect. “Right down Candy Cane lane.” My dignity seeps out of me like last night’s burrito.
The kids cheer.

The last kid exits the room, and Monty follows him out
and shuts the door. Monty never helps us clean up. Charlie gets to his feet and says, “That was great.”
I flip the switch for the train and the twinkling lights.
“Doesn’t the sight of all those children cheer your
heart?”
“Actually, they look like dollar signs to me. Each one
adds a little more to my paycheck on Friday.” I lock the
entrance and walk toward the back.
“You have a bad attitude, you know that?” Charlie says,
his face flushed. “Here you have a chance to make a real
difference in their lives and you crap on it.”
“Do you think they remember you five minutes from
now? They’re on to the next thing as if you never existed.”
Charlie pulls off his beard and stuffs it into the front
pocket of his Santa suit. “Here’s what I think. You’re jealous of me.”
I know where this is going.
“You want to be as tall as me. You want the kids to look
up to you, not down on you. You want to be Santa Claus.
You want to be me.”
You know how when you look through a telescope and
you can only see that one small part of the sky and the rest is outside your vision? Everything else disappears and I only see Charlie and his unibrow and his inflated nostrils.
A yell rips through my throat, and I charge him. My feet pound past the wrapped presents and fake gumdrops lining the walkway. Halfway there, I realize I have one of the tall lighted candy canes in my hands. I guess I’m planning to hit him with it.
Charlie looms in front of me. I can tell he doesn’t know
what to do. I’m only steps away when I’m suddenly pushed backwards, as if Charlie has a force field around him. The candy cane smacks into my face, and I land flat on my back. All of the air in my lungs rushes out at once and my fingertips go numb.
I stare at the tinfoil snowflakes hanging from the ceiling. The silence feels wonderful, as if I slipped into bed for the night. A rhythmic slapping sound breaks the silence. Charlie’s head hovers above me and I realize he’s clapping, a large grin on his face. “That was a hell of a show, Keith,” he laughs. “God, I wish I had that on video.”
He kneels down and puts his face directly in front of
mine, and I can see his stubble and one black hair escaping from his nose. “Don’t fuck with me. Midget.” He stands up and kicks me in the hip. I groan and roll onto my side.
After I’m sure he’s gone, I slowly lift myself onto my
hands and knees. The candy cane lies next to me, snapped in half. But I see the problem. The power cord stretches from the bottom and down the walkway to a hole in the floor where it is still plugged in. Damn thing ruined my plan.

My body aches as I pull off my elf costume. I can barely
lift my legs to get them into my jeans. A few other workers
come into the changing area, but no one says a thing to me. If I were back in high school, someone would be making cracks about how small my clothes are, or how I have to shop in the children’s section of the store. But everyone is broken at Santa’s Workshop. We tend to leave each other alone.
My palms are still shaking with rage. I know Charlie
goes to Sparky’s every night after work for a beer. By the
time I have my shoes on, I’ve made up my mind. When he
walks out of the bar, I’m going to hit him with my Jeep.
Maybe not the most eloquent plan, but it’ll do the trick.
Almost everyone from Santa’s Workshop is at Sparky’s
tonight. I see all of their beat-up trucks and rusted foreign
cars. I don’t see Tina’s Honda and that mellows me out a
bit. The ‘S’ in the neon sign over the door is burnt out, but
it’s been that way for years. Most of the time, we just call
the place Parky’s. The bartender is a huge black guy named Tyrese, and I’ve had at least a hundred dreams where I morphed into him and picked up Tina in my huge arms and carried her away from Santa’s Workshop forever.
I stop my Jeep in the back of the dusty parking lot.
A slight breeze filters in through a hole in the soft top. A
few years ago, someone cut through it and stole a bunch of scratched CDs, and I never bothered to repair it.
For a second, I’m tempted to abandon the plan and get
a drink at the bar. Then I picture Charlie’s head exploding
under my front tire, and I decide to wait. I pull my notebook out of my front pocket and flip to the back. I mostly use it to write down directions or lists of things to get at the store or the names of new people at work. But on the last page, in the smallest writing I can muster, I’ve made a list of all the things Tina admires about Driver. All the things I can’t seem to be. Confident, Funny, Successful.
At the bottom, I write, Doesn’t work at Santa’s Workshop. Though I’m only twenty-three, I feel like it’s too late to go back to college. It’s starting to feel too late for a lot of things. That makes me want to hit Charlie even more.
Whenever I have the notebook open, I think about
the kiss. That one fluttering kiss brushed against my lips. I
remember exactly how it felt, like it happened only moments ago. Even Charlie’s impending death can’t push it from my mind.

It was the week before Driver plowed into Tina’s Honda Prelude and did a nose dive onto her hood. I was walking out of the changing area and Tina was sitting there. I meant to ask her if she was waiting for me but I never got the courage. I think she was.
“This guy was sort of harassing me all day,” she said.
“Would you walk me to my car?”
I couldn’t think of a better use of my time.
Kind of ironic, now that I think about it. Tina walking
out of the park with the shortest guy there as her protection. But I felt invincible. I pulled my shoulders back and straightened my spine.
We were halfway across the parking lot and it seemed
obvious that no one was lying in wait for her. “What are you doing here?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” I was buying myself more time.
I hadn’t known her long, and I didn’t want to answer that
question incorrectly.
“It seems like you could be doing a lot more.” She
smiled. “I mean that in a good way.”
“I could say the same for you.”
“I’m saving for school. I have my Associates already,
and I’m taking a year off before I go to the University of
Illinois.”
“I’m saving for school, too.” It felt nice to say, but it
wasn’t true.
We walked up to her car, the black Honda perfectly
cleaned and scrubbed, and I waited as she extracted her keys from her purse. Her hair swayed lightly over her shoulders. The next time I saw her, the fender would be missing and there would be dent in the hood the size of a man.
“Thank you for walking me. It was very brave of you.”
I grinned. I could see her mulling something over, and
then she stooped down and gave me a light friendly kiss on the lips. Without meeting my eyes again, she got into her car and started it.
It was the last brave thing I did.

Drunks are stumbling out of Sparky’s so I start the Jeep
and roll up to the entrance. I kill the lights. You can’t miss
Charlie; he’s in his bright red Santa suit.
“Ho, ho, ho!” he yells into the night sky, his beard
jumbled under his chin. My face throbs in time to my pulse and my hands sweat on the steering wheel. I put the Jeep in drive but keep my foot on the brake.
Charlie staggers out and stops a few feet in front of me;
as if he’s tempting me. I couldn’t have placed him in a better spot. I’d hit him around the hips and he’d double over and smack his head against my hood. All I have to do is punch the gas. I haven’t felt this powerful since I escorted Tina to her car.
I watch him teeter, constantly shifting his feet to keep
his balance.
I guess I don’t actually want to murder him. I just wish
that people got punished more often for being assholes.
Charlie looks up and sees me and a huge smile spreads
across his face. “Hey!”
What would the world look like if he and I were friends?
“It’s Gidget the Midget!”
I slowly inch forward, my kneecap jiggling. I snap on
the headlights and he throws his arm across his face. “Okay, okay.”
I’m going so slow that the speedometer hasn’t even
moved. I’m close enough that Charlie leans on the hood
with his other hand. If I hit the gas right now, it wouldn’t
kill him. It would send a message.
But I guess revenge isn’t my thing. Charlie stomps out
of harm’s way, dust swirling in the beam of my headlights.
I watch him cut across the parking lot and sit heavily in his Chevy pick-up truck.
I don’t have to do anything. That fucker is going to kill
himself behind the wheel.
His Chevy rumbles to life.

The third most powerful thing I’ve ever done is drive
Charlie home. He’s sitting in the passenger seat of my Jeep. If I could have been there that night, wherever Driver had gotten drunk, I would have given him a ride; saved Tina all of this torment. She never wonders why he was drunk in the first place, what other problems he may have had. I would be Driver’s hero and that was a hell of a lot better than being Driver.
“You’ve been a very good boy,” Charlie says with his
head pressed against the window.
Oh man. Why didn’t I run him over?
“Where do you live?”
Charlie pulls his beard up from his neck and puts it into place. “It feels like Christmas Eve.”
“It’s May.”
“I’m just saying. There’s a very heavy Christmas vibe
in here.”
“Well, you’re dressed like Santa.”
“That’s part of it. But also we’ve been helping each
other. Putting others first.”
“You beat me up earlier. And I was planning to hit you
with my Jeep.”
“You were?” Charlie chuckles as if I’m a kid who asked
for the most ridiculous gift for Christmas.
There isn’t another car on the road, only cornfields
broken up by the occasional gas station or convenience store.
“I figured out what your problem is,” Charlie says.
“Oh yeah?”
“You think everyone is laughing at you even when
they’re not.”
“People do laugh at me.”
“See what I mean.” Charlie rests his head on the window again. “What’s your biggest fear?”
“Being stuck in this Jeep with you forever.”
“Real cute.” Charlie belches. “My biggest fear is having
a heart attack or something while I’m masturbating and then they discover me lying in bed with a sock on my dingus. I don’t want to go out that way, man.” It sounds even crazier because he’s wearing that ridiculous beard.
“Where do you live?”
“Just hang a left into Willow Creek.” I never knew he
lived in the trailer park. Willow Creek is where people go to disappear.
“I have a feeling I know what your biggest fear is,” Charlie says. “Waking up one day and everyone is shorter than you. Then you’ll feel sorry for yourself because you’re too tall.”
Willow Creek looms ahead, and I flick on my signal.
“I have to ask you,” I say. “What’s with the whole Santa
thing?”
Charlie belches again. “It’s just how I see myself.”
Gravel pops under the wheels as I pull into the entrance, past the wooden sign that says KEEP OUR HOMES CLEAN. Trailers hulk in the shadows. “How long have you lived here?”
“Oh, I don’t live here. I know somebody.”
“I’m not a taxi service.”
“You don’t have to wait for me. I’ll stay the night. You
can leave me here.”
“Fine. Which one is it?”
Charlie points into the darkness. “Last one on the end
there.”
I stop in front of a gray trailer with bowed wooden
steps leading to the front door. A low-watt bulb throws
shadows all over the dirt driveway.
Charlie pulls on the handle but the door doesn’t budge.
“That one doesn’t open from the inside. I have to come
around and let you out.”
I crawl out of the Jeep and land heavily on the ground.
It smells like rain. The front door of the trailer opens as I
walk to the passenger door. I don’t even bother looking up.
“Keith? What are you doing here?”
My neck stiffens. I have to pivot my whole body to see
the owner of that musical voice.
Tina’s standing on the bowed steps in blue flannel
pajamas. What have I done?
“He’s drunk,” I say. I open the door and Charlie stumbles out, his hands gripping my shoulders for support. “I thought I was taking him home.”
“Hi, Tina.” Charlie smiles slavishly.
The idea of the two of them together is like discovering
that my parents are related. Or being told I have only hours to live.
“I didn’t want you to find out this way,” Tina says.
I need to get through the next few minutes and then I
can stew in my anger the whole way home. “He’s all yours.”
Charlie kneels on the gravel, his hands pressed to his
head. “I might throw up.”
Tina’s wearing a pair of boots with no laces and they
clomp loudly as she moves toward me. Charlie moans, and I realize with him kneeling on the ground, I’m a full head taller.
“You gave him a ride?” She furrows her brow, confused.
“If I had known I was bringing him here, I might have
changed my mind.”
“I don’t think you would have,” she says softly.
She’s right.
“Don’t you see?” I say. “Charlie is Driver. He’s not some
mythical guy. He’s just a fucked-up dude. If Charlie ended
up on someone’s hood tonight, everything would be washed clean. I want everyone to know he’s a prick. Forever.”
Her face is blank.
“You two have fun,” I say and cross to the Jeep.
“Wait,” Tina says. I stop and we peer into each other’s
eyes.
“We’re fine,” Charlie says. “Head on home, Gidget the
Midget.”
“Don’t call him that,” Tina says quietly.
“It’s okay. It doesn’t bother me,” I say.
“Really?”
“Coming from him?” I throw Charlie a glance and he
gives me the finger.
Her cheeks are still rosy, but her eyes soften. There’s a
little tug in my chest. “You’re right about Driver,” she says.
“I never told you this, but he was alive when he landed on
my hood. I watched him try to fight off death, our eyes
locked. I was the last thing he ever saw. Even though it
wasn’t my fault and he was drunk and could have killed me too, it felt like I owed him. I had to honor his last seconds.”
Our height difference doesn’t matter. I step toward her,
ready to put my arms around her.
“Do you have a thing for Gidget?” Charlie bellows and
a light snaps on in the neighbor’s trailer.
“Get out of here, Charlie,” she says.
“Look at him. He’s like a miniature me. He’s a hobbit.”
“He’s twice the man you’ll ever be.”
“Get in the jeep, Charlie,” I say. “I’ll take you home.”
“I thought you wanted to hit me?” He’s still on his
knees, but I see the twinkle in his eye. The same look he
gives the kids when he claims to know who’s been naughty and nice. “Go ahead, I can take it.”
“Stand up,” I say.
“But then you won’t be able to reach my face.”
“I can reach your face.”
“You’ll get more velocity if we’re the same height.”
“Big word for you.”
“Ho Ho Ho!”
Tina’s face is white, her bottom lip quivers. “Please just
go away,” she says to Charlie.
“Go on inside,” I say to her. “I’ll take care of this.”
She nods and clomps toward the porch.
“Make sure you lock up,” I say.
“Nice to see you,” she says and smiles.
“Now I’m really going to throw up.” Charlie dry-heaves.
I kick some dust toward Charlie. “I’m leaving now. If
you want a ride, get in. If not, you can sleep out here on the gravel.”
I climb into the Jeep as Tina opens the door to her
trailer. I wave and she waves back. I put it in reverse and
crawl backwards out of the drive.
“What about that punch!” Charlie yells. Tina shuts off
her porch light, and Charlie disappears into the darkness.
“Hey!”
I turn the Jeep around and creep toward the entrance.
“Hey!”
I slow down, the dull red brake lights revealing Charlie’s immense frame barreling after me.
I think I’ll let him run a bit longer before I stop.

Josh Denslow

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Josh Denslow’s stories have appeared in Barrelhouse, Third Coast, Cutbank, Wigleaf, and Black Clock, among others. In addition to constructing elaborate Lego sets with his three boys, he plays the drums in the band Borrisokane and edits at SmokeLong Quarterly. You can follow him on Twitter (@joshdenslow) and at www.joshdenslow.com.

You can read our review of Not Everyone Is Special here.
You can read our exclusive interview with Josh Denslow here.
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