Margie noticed him the first time as September was drawing to a close; the man was walking quietly past The Sea Shanty. Margie had worked at the Shanty – a small bar with a tourist name that served tourist food – for years. That’s how it was at the end of the kitschy pier, rustic with sea salt and tourists. But now the summer crowds had left and only the year-‘rounders still came down to the pier.
She probably never would have noticed him except that her break came at the same time he took his walk, that time after the day but before the night. At first they didn’t acknowledge each other – but then, as the evenings went on – they began to nod. Margie was the first to nod and the man, after a bit of hesitation, nodded back.
Of course Margie wondered who this man was. Then she started making up lives for him. In her head he became a failed mercenary, a successful basketball player, a former Secret Service agent, an Olympic distance runner, an Amazon snake catcher. But she realized the silliness of it all – he was a small man and that just wouldn’t work with the lives she had imagined.
And so the two of them continued, day after day, through September and October, a nod, a smile, a glance. But around the first part of November, the routine – this long dance almost – changed. Margie left the restaurant at the usual time, leaned on the pier railing, put her usual Hershey’s Kiss in her mouth and reached to smooth out her sweater.
“Pardon me.” The man had, for the first time, approached her and said something.
“I’m sorry?” Margie asked, not sure if she really heard him.
“Hate to bother you, but I was wondering if you had a match.”
“Oh, a match. No, sorry, I don’t,” she answered, noticing the faint aroma of pipe tobacco around him.
“Thanks anyway. I thought I had a few left but the box is empty.” As he spoke he twisted a box around in his hands – a small, heavy, wooden box.
Margie stared at the box in the man’s hands and then quietly said, “I haven’t seen a match box like that in years. My grandmother used to keep matches like that by the fireplace.”
“I guess it is old fashioned…just like me.”
“I didn’t mean that. And you’re not old fashioned, I guess. And what if you are old fashioned? What’s wrong with that?” Wonderful, another needy guy who craves validation for everything he does. I never should’ve come out here tonight, she thought.
“No, I am a bit out of touch I guess.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Margie softly replied. Go away; leave me alone to suck on my chocolate in peace will ya please? she thought. “Why do you say that?” she asked him while at the same time thinking, don’t answer, please don’t answer.
“Easy, I’m an old guy who’s done nothing but make toys his whole life. And now no one wants the toys I know how to make.”
“What toys do you make?”
“Wooden toys. Puppets and things like that. Specialized toys they call them now and there’s not a big enough market for it.”
“I had a wooden puppet,” Margie whispered, almost to herself.
“You know? How could you know?”
“’Just about every kid used to have one. But not anymore.”
“Yeah, probably not. Now its iPod this and iPad that.”
And so the two of them stood there, gazing out to sea, for the next few minutes, both lost in their own thoughts. “Well,” Margie said, “I guess I gotta go back to work.”
“Yes…Uh, hey, want to have a drink sometime?” he asked while continuing to look out to sea. Sorry, you’re too fat, too old, and your nose is too damn red, she thought. “Okay,” she replied.
“Good. Maybe next week?”
“Sure – Tuesday after I get off work. At 10.”
“Alright, I’ll see you next week – at 10.” And with that the two turned away – he to walk on as always, she back to work.
Margie left the Shanty at 10:30 that Tuesday night. She had planned for 10 but 10:30 was the earliest she could manage. She walked out the bar door with an almost-smile, and that was because she had a date, and that was because the small man had actually reappeared, and that was because, well, she didn’t know why. But she was glad. Not glad in a giddy “I’ve got a date” kind of glad, but in a “Something to do besides go home alone” sort of way. Regardless, she almost smiled when she left the Shanty and the man walked up to her.
“Sorry I’m late.”
“Still feel like having a drink?” the man asked.
“Sure. But what’s your name?”
“I’m sorry. My name is Jarl Holger.”
“Jarl Holger, that’s unique. What kind of name is that?”
“Oh, sort of Scandinavian and Norwegian.”
“Ah,” Margie sighed. “Do you smoke a pipe?”
“No, but the man I used to work for did….does. Why do you ask?”
“Just thought I caught a slight aroma of pipe tobacco,” she replied. The two of them had been walking up the pier as they talked and very shortly they reached land and needed to decide where to go.
“There’s a good pub just a short way from here. They serve pretty good food there.”
“Okay, sounds good, Jarl said in little more than a whisper.”
The pub, though busier than the Shanty, was still more than half empty. The couple sat in a darkened corner, ordered hot buttered rum.
Margie decided to be the one to get into the heavier conversation. “So where do you work?”
“You wouldn’t believe me.”
“Oh, sure I would.” Okay, so what line of nonsense is he going to try to give me now, Margie wondered. Can’t one of these guys ever just be honest?
“Fine,” he quietly said. “I’m an elf.”
“That’s cool. What shopping center do you work at? Do you mind all those little kids climbing on you all day long?”
“I mean a real elf – North Pole, Santa Claus, Christmas kind of elf.”
“Well good. Hey listen, I better be going now.”
“I knew you’d react like that.”
“What did you expect? Tell someone you’re one of Santa’s elves…good grief.”
“Remember I said I know you had a wooden puppet? Well, I made that puppet. Red clothes, black hair, tiny gold belt and slippers.”
“How did you know that?”
“I told you, I’m an elf.”
“Okay, just for the heck of it, let’s pretend its all true. You’re an elf. Why aren’t you at the North Pole?”
“I told you that too. I build wooden puppets – know how to build one or two hundred puppets an hour. But not many kids want those anymore.”
“Why don’t you make something else?”
“I like puppets. I like working with wood, painting their faces, attaching the strings in just the right length. I’ve been doing it forever. But I guess that’s past. Now I like to come here, look at the water. It’s nice, the water…would solve so many things.”
Margie looked at him and closed her eyes. “Please no,” she thought to herself. “Please don’t let this happen; I don’t want to mess with some guy who thinks he’s an elf and wants to end it all.” But at that moment, for whatever reason, Margie took a long, second look at Jarl Holger. She saw his face by candlelight, looked into the eyes that had seen a thousand Christmases, saw the hands that had carved puppet after puppet, and somewhere, deep inside her, saw the smiles those puppets brought. And then she knew. “You really are one of Santa’s elves,” she whispered. “An elf can’t… No, no, no. That just means you have to go back – even if you end up making just one puppet for one kid. That’s Christmas, Jarl.”
And Jarl sighed, a deep, tiny sigh. “I know.”
Jarl’s phone sounded – it’s how Santa keeps in touch – playing “Jingle Bell Rock.”
“I’ve gotta go – it’s getting busy at home. Thanks for the company.” Jarl slid out of the booth and sauntered off, whistling the carol almost to himself. Margie didn’t mind paying the check – and left a large tip. It was, after all, Christmas.