Marie Leclerc, the owner of Little Switzerland, said that whoever sold the twenty-five pound chocolate Santa Claus would get a Christmas bonus. I wanted the money to put toward a black knee-length coat that I’d seen in a neighboring boutique. Layla, the single mom who was hired for the holiday season, wanted the money to help pay for her son’s presents. The part-time college kids who worked evenings probably just wanted the money to buy pot. In the end, it didn’t matter how bad we wanted the bonus or what we were going to do with it, because the day the big chocolate Santa was unveiled was the day the Channel 4 meteorologist wrung his hands as a giant storm system washed over Greenville, South Carolina, without any sign of letting up soon. The holiday shoppers didn’t want to dart from store to store on Main Street, where water surged in the gutters and traffic sprayed puddles. Instead, they went to the mall.
The only people who stopped in Little Switzerland were businessmen ordering hot chocolate in between meetings. One Thursday, for example, I steamed whole milk with shaved chocolate, stirring until the thermometer reached 140º, then topped off a drink with whipped cream. The final touch was a pinch of chocolate shavings, sprinkled like sawdust onto the peaked dollop of cream. I handed the drink to a businessman, maybe a lawyer, and rang him up at the good register–the one that didn’t buzz. I watched him lick the whipped cream, taking a bit of it onto his tongue, his face relaxing at the sweetness. Then he sipped what I knew was the lightest, richest, and smoothest thing he had ever tasted. His once-stiff shoulders slumped a little. Moments like that made my life bearable. I drank them in, those little pleasures.
Layla, the holiday help, killed the vibe. She batted spidery eyelashes and tried to sell him the chocolate Santa Claus, even though the poor guy just wanted to enjoy his drink in the dry, peaceful indoors without being hassled. That was part of being a good saleswoman—knowing what the customer wanted, even if the customer didn’t know what he wanted. She said, “It could be a gift for a client. Now wouldn’t that be thoughtful?”
If she was trying to flirt, it wasn’t working. Layla was a severely pear-shaped woman in her mid-fifties. Sun spots covered the backs of her hands and under the fluorescent lights, her dyed hair was a glimmering orange.
“How much?” he asked, sighing, a little annoyed. I could smell the chocolate on his breath: the slightest equatorial spice, smooth finish, 48% cocoa.
“When you consider the craftsmanship that went into making it,” she said, “three hundred dollars is really a steal.”
He said, “Thanks, anyway,” and opened his umbrella.
Layla said, “That’s bad luck, you know.”
He said, “I don’t believe in luck,” and went into the raging weather.
Layla said, “Well, I blew it.”
I could have offered some encouraging words but that would have felt weird, since she was older than me, so I just said, “It takes practice.”
She said, “The frustrating thing is when you get to be my age, you don’t have the time.” She looked at her shoes, a pair of ankle-boots lined with fake fur. “I have this picture in my head of the person I want to be,” she said, trailing off, her eyes focused on something that I could not see.
To fight boredom, we cleaned the shoebox we called a store. I scrubbed dried bits of chocolate from the back counter and as Layla wiped down the glass display cases, she painted a pretty bleak picture of her life. She was a former Delta flight attendant and her ex-husband was a Delta pilot. She thought they spent eight years together until finally her husband admitted that he was miserable and couldn’t handle having a disabled child, and so he moved up to New Jersey and took international flights out of Newark. Layla’s eighteen-year-old son had Down’s syndrome and lived at home with her. He worked five days a week at a community center where he also took classes in drama and improvisation.
“My husband said I was asking for it because I was almost forty when I had Benji. What do you say to that? I love my son.”
I said, “Wow.”
She asked, “What’s it like to be you?”
Me? I thought. I’m twenty-five and live in a garage apartment in the Hampton-Pinckney Historic District downtown, a fifteen minute walk from the shop. I keep a wine glass on the little backgammon table beside my bed to catch a small leak, which plinks all through the night as I’m trying to sleep, and every morning I pour the rainwater down the sink. I make my own candied walnuts with sugar and butter and keep them in a dish on my coffee table. I try to read before bed every night but I almost always put the book down and look through the window to see what mood the moon is in, the shy moon, the absent moon, the heavy moon baring it all. I would like to be seen as the full moon by someone like maybe the deli man across the street. I watch him working sometimes, preparing sandwiches and fishing pickles from the barrel.
Layla was only temporary and I didn’t want to get too personal. I just said, “Sometimes I wish I was a real chocolatier in the real Switzerland.”
Layla said, “We don’t make this chocolate?”
“It comes on a truck every Tuesday,” I said. “Weren’t you here for the delivery?”
She said, “I must have been in the bathroom.”
Layla spent the first fifteen minutes of every shift French-braiding her hair in the bathroom and tying the back of her apron into a perfect bow. Mine was crudely knotted.
She set the bottle of window cleaner on the counter and looked at the twenty-five pound chocolate Santa Claus, which stood over two-feet tall and was wrapped in clear cellophane with a red ribbon at the top. The shell was an inch thick. Santa’s hair and beard curled in chocolate ripples. His cheeks shined and so did the end of his button-nose. His hands rested on the bulge of his stomach as if he were about to lean back and laugh into the frigid North Pole air. Layla put her hands on her hips, those enormous hips, and didn’t break eye contact with Santa. It was as if she saw some flicker of life in there.
She said, “I flew over the Alps a number of times, but I’ll probably never see them again.”
The rain continued into mid-December and Marie Leclerc, the owner, began to worry. I’d worked at Little Switzerland for three years and my previous holiday seasons had been hectic. We had sold out of peppermint bark, candy canes, Champagne truffles, chocolate coins, and, for the evangelical crowd, white chocolate crosses filled with peanut butter. I leaned in the doorway of Marie’s office. She scrolled through sales charts on her computer and shook her head. She was wearing jeans and a YWCA sweatshirt. There was a small refrigerator in her office, too, and she took out two plastic mini bottles of Smirnoff and handed me one.
She raised the little bottle and said, “Ho ho ho.”
Marie and I got along well. I knew that she was still paying off a three-hundred thousand dollar loan and worried about meeting sales goals each month. Sometimes she left pictures of her family up on her computer, pictures of her husband and toddler at the beach. The little girl, Grace, was fair-skinned and in the photos there were white stripes running across her chest and down her arm where she’d been stung by a jellyfish.
Marie said, “This rain is a bitch.”
On the nightly news, there were segments of young correspondents going to flooded intersections and trying to report on the damage. Bridges had been washed away, along with a staggering number of dog houses, sandboxes, and barbecues.
Marie said, “I shouldn’t have hired Layla after all. Tomorrow I’ll have to give her the boot.”
I felt the alcohol in my shoulders, relaxing into my arms, and said, “I’ve gotten used to her but I won’t necessarily miss her.”
Marie said, “That’s retail for you.”
Layla didn’t show up for her shift the next morning. After counting the drawers—we’d only made $10.25 the previous day—and filling out the deposit slip and turning on the lights and sweeping the floor, I leaned against the back counter and looked through the glass storefront at the street. Some people ran by with newspapers over their heads and others walked slowly under golf umbrellas. In the hanging gray weight of their faces, cold-eyed, dog-headed, misery could be seen. They kicked through puddles reflecting pink and ice-blue neon. The rain shifted colors with the traffic lights. I saw a row of women getting their hair washed in the salon across the street and, next door, the deli man spooning sides onto platters for the refrigerated case. Not as many people were going into the deli lately, but the delivery boy had been busier than ever.
Marie brought out two cups of coffee from her office. She handed me one with milk and sugar. Hers was black.
She said, “Where’s Layla?”
“Hasn’t shown up yet.”
“Maybe she knew what was coming and decided to stay home.”
I said, “I don’t think so.”
“Maybe she’ll call in sick,” she said. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Marie worked a half-day. She went into her office, stayed on the computer, and then went home around lunchtime. Layla still hadn’t arrived. She seemed like a reliable person who genuinely wanted to do a good job and if something had come up, like her son getting sick or her car breaking down, I knew that she would have called to explain the situation. One of the part-time college kids, Eric, came in for the closing shift at five o’clock. I asked, “How do you handle the boring nights?”
He pulled out a four-pack of caffeine pills from the front pocket of his cargo pants and said, “I get these cheap off the internet.”
As I zipped up my rain jacket and threw the hood over my head, he stood attention and saluted. I said, “At ease, Eric,” and he said, “Adios.”
I walked home, shouldering past smoking crowds outside of bars during Happy Hour. I headed south on Main Street, cut right on West Washington, and right again onto Hampton Avenue. I went upstairs to my garage apartment and hung up my rain jacket. No point in having that black knee-length coat in this weather. I mixed up a walnut and green apple salad, and sat in front of the little flat-screen TV. I’d missed the beginning of the five o’clock news and joined in with a story about a local gun & knife show cancelled because of flooding. If I had stopped to reflect on my evening ritual, supper in front of the TV, I would have been overwhelmed with sadness.
The phone rang. I answered.
“Are you watching the news? I can’t believe it. This is a nightmare. Jesus fucking Christ.”
“Are you joking?”
“It happened last night.”
“Are you drunk?”
“She got stuck in floodwaters, decided to get out of her car, and was swept into a storm drain. Her body, it was wedged down there, like, plugged. This was by Cleveland Park. I take my kid to Cleveland Park all the time. No more.”
I dropped my fork into the salad bowl and pushed it away. I leaned over, propping my elbows on my knees, and looked at the hardwood floor, all scuffed and worn with age.
My hands shook a little and without thinking, I said, “Her hips.”
“Her hips were so goddamn wide!”
I couldn’t believe it.
I rubbed my eyes, feeling like trash. She had been dead the entire day and we didn’t have a clue. I’m not sure what I would have done differently if I’d known that she was dead, but it felt horrible going on like everything was fine when, in reality, she was no longer breathing. I wished I had known. Maybe I would have spoken to her in my head and said that I was sorry, sorry that she had died underground and sorry that I had said I wouldn’t miss her.
Marie said, “We’ll have to go to the visitation. I’ll close the store for now and put a sign up or something. What’ll it say? ‘Our dearly departed.’”
I hung up the phone and turned off the TV. I didn’t want to see the segment replayed later in the night. I didn’t want to hear the news anchors talking about Layla’s death, the discovery of her body, the son she left behind.
On the afternoon of the visitation, Marie picked me up. The sky looked like a layer of mold, soft and grayish-green, and the trees were stripped bare. I asked if we could stop by the store on the way because there was something I wanted to pick up. She shrugged and turned onto Main Street, pulling into a loading zone beside Little Switzerland. The rain fell cold and angry as I unlocked the front door with my key. A sign reading SUDDEN LOSS was taped to the glass door. Inside, the twenty-five pound chocolate Santa Claus sat on the counter in the lonely dark, the eyes flat and lifeless. I picked him up, hugging the full weight against my chest, and carried him back to the idling car, where I strapped him into Marie’s daughter’s car seat.
I said, “I think we should give it to Benji. Whatever you paid wholesale for it, that’s what I’ll give you. I’ll pay, I don’t care.”
It made logical sense to me that Benji should get the Santa Claus. It was an object connected to his mother, something she had wanted to sell to make him proud, to earn extra money and make Christmas bigger and better, and I thought he would like to have it more than any random person who might buy it at Little Switzerland, although the chance of that happening was pretty slim.
Marie said, “I paid one-fifty.”
“Okay,” I said. “One-fifty.”
We arrived at the visitation, which was held about fifteen minutes outside of Greenville at Layla’s sister’s house. An inflatable snowman stood in the yard, streaked with rain. There wasn’t a paved walkway to the front door, so someone had stretched planks of plywood across the spongy grass. When I walked the path, hugging the chocolate Santa tight, the plywood sunk into the soft ground and bubbles rose to the surface. Marie walked behind me, scarf wound around her neck, and oversized sunglasses blocking her eyes. I told her that if anyone was allowed to wear sunglasses, it was Layla’s family members and not her temporary employer, but Marie said, “I’ll grieve in my own way.” I thought that maybe Layla’s death was an excuse to be upset about her own life.
We went inside and met Layla’s sister, Marge. She was younger, maybe forty-something, and was less severely pear-shaped. There were dark circles under her eyes but I thought that was probably from the sudden tragedy and under normal circumstances she would have a pleasant face. She saw the enormous Santa Claus and said, “The refreshments table is over there.”
Bouquets of white roses were scattered throughout the living room. Perched on top of the upright piano was a framed photograph of Layla in her Delta flight attendant uniform, head cocked, eyes shining.
I said, “Where’s Benji?”
“He isn’t feeling up to a crowd right now.”
“Where will he go?”
“Go?” she asked. “He’ll stay with me.”
I realized how crazy I must have looked, showing up at the visitation of a coworker whom I really hadn’t known that long, only a few weeks, with a thirty-year-old boss who had, within five minutes of arrival, already poured wine into a Dixie cup, finished it, and gotten a refill. On top of all that, I was carrying the largest milk chocolate Santa Claus that any of these people had ever seen in their lives. The cellophane wrapper crinkled as I adjusted my grip and said, “I have something to give him.”
Marge said, “I don’t think he wants to speak with strangers at a time like this.” She smiled weakly and said, “Excuse me, the meatballs are ready.”
I faced the living room crowd. Marie held at least a half dozen cubes of cheddar cheese in one hand, Dixie cup in the other. Tears slid down her cheeks, although I couldn’t see her eyes behind those huge Beverly Hills sunglasses. She asked, “Will it be like this after I die?”
I pointed to an empty seat by the Christmas tree in the corner of the room, a five-foot spruce covered in cheap purple and green fiberglass ornaments. There were already a few presents under the tree wrapped in cheap-looking paper. I said, “Sit over there. I’ll find you when I’m finished.”
I slipped down a hall decorated with watercolor paintings of palmetto trees. I shifted the Santa Claus to one side, so that I held him against my hip like a tall, rigid baby, and opened the first door. Closet. The second door revealed an elderly man sitting on the edge of a king-sized bed, crying, with his hearing aids placed on a TV tray beside the bed. I closed the door and moved on. There was a smaller bedroom, with a white chest of drawers and matching white desk and chair. A fake plastic palmetto tree sat in the corner of the room in a terracotta pot. A twin bed was pushed against the wall and Benji was nestled under a quilt stitched with star patterns. A set of flannel pajamas was draped over the back of the desk chair but he still wore his day clothes, a white button-down shirt and a clip-on bowtie. His small head appeared even smaller because of a buzz cut. His lips were very pink and chapped.
He said, “Who’re you?”
“I’m Ashley,” I said. “I worked with your mom.”
He sunk further into the bed, saying, “Butthole.”
The real-life Benji wasn’t as soft and passive as the Benji in my head. The real-life Benji smelled like cologne and wouldn’t even look at me.
“Do you mind if I set this down?”
“I don’t care.”
I put it on the desktop and sat in the white chair. I said, “This Santa Claus is from the chocolate shop where your mom worked. I thought you might like to have it.”
“I’m not supposed to eat sweets much.”
“You could eat a little at a time.”
“People have been giving me a lot of things,” he said. “It’s not even Christmas yet but I got an illustrated Hamlet.”
“Your mom told me that you took theater classes.”
He pushed his wire-rim glasses up the bridge of his nose. He began to speak and every so often, he stopped to lick his lips. He said, “My favorite is improv. The point is to make the scene go forward, even though you don’t know what anybody’s going to do next.” He put his right hand over his heart. “Trust is a decision you make inside yourself.”
He looked at the Santa Claus sitting on the desk.
“Do you want to see it?”
I picked up the chocolate Santa Claus and handed it to Benji. He took the weight easily, though, and peered at the milk chocolate face. He squinted and said, “I can’t see him.” He untied the ribbon, opened up the cellophane, and pulled out the huge figure. The chocolate shell was smooth and shiny as wax. Benji looked at it for a second and then put it under the covers with him. When Benji’s breath hit Santa’s cheek, the chocolate warmed up and shifted to a lighter shade of brown. Benji stuck out his large, wide tongue. Licking turned into kissing. I didn’t look away. I stared for about five whole seconds without realizing that I was staring. Here was this eighteen-year-old boy—no, man—and he was acting on his desire in a way that I had not. Something like envy sprang up inside of me, envy that other people could do exactly what they wanted without second-guessing themselves.
I asked, “Do you want the light off?”
He said, “Uh huh.”
I turned off the desk lamp so the light fell softly in the room. His lips smacked on the chocolate. His hands caressed Santa Claus beneath the quilt. Chocolate had a powerful effect on people and seeing the effect on Benji made me tremble, the way his hips began to move under the quilt, those hips. Just when I realized that I was wet, felt it in my underwear, there was a knock at the door.
Marge said, “Benji?”
I stood up from the desk chair. Marge opened the door. She looked at me, then at Benji, who was grinding on Santa Claus under the covers. Marge said, “What is going on in here?”
She tried to block the doorway, but I pushed her out of the way and ran down the hall, knowing how strange it must have looked. I emerged in the living room and slipped through the crowd, somber and smelling of crockpot meatballs, that had gathered around the piano to sing “Amazing Grace,” and I found Marie asleep in the chair by the Christmas tree. I said, “Get up, come on, let’s go,” and realizing that words did not properly communicate the urgency of the situation, I slapped her face. She startled awake and I led her through the crowd and out the front door before she even knew what was happening.
Marie and I were crossing the plywood path across the soggy front yard when I heard Marge shouting, behind us, “You!”
Just then, Marie slipped on the plywood, feet flying out from under her, and landed flat on her back. I turned and saw the wrinkled expression of pain and shock on her face. The sunglasses had flown into a brown puddle. The rain was on us, attacking us, pummeling us.
The front door to the house was open and the entrance was packed with an onlooking crowd, along with umbrellas on the floor and big piles of jackets hanging from hooks on the wall. Marge stood front and center in the doorway, rain blowing on the front of her dress and onto her face. Dead leaves streaked through the air. She had a wide, domineering stance and said, “I don’t know who you people are but I want you out of here this instant. If I find out that you were filming my nephew or taking pictures, I’ll come after you with a vengeance.”
She pointed that stiff finger at me and said, “Take a look everyone. If you ever see this face again, reach for your pepper spray. This is the face of the modern American pervert.”
Then she slammed the door shut.
At that point, Marie managed to stand up. Her clothes were soaked and dirty. She dug her car keys out of her purse, which had gotten water-logged in the fall, and handed them over. Every time we hit a large puddle on the drive, I lifted my foot off the gas and held the wheel steady, and in that way, we hydroplaned back to downtown Greenville in complete silence. The scene ran through my mind over and over. I realized that Benji had been standing in the back of the crowd, his face covered with chocolate melted by body heat.
Marie didn’t want to go home. She wanted to sleep on the couch in her office at Little Switzerland. I didn’t ask why but I figured that her husband would be upset to know she’d gotten drunk at the visitation, passed out, and busted her ass on plywood. I parked her car in a garage two blocks from the store and we walked the slick, dark sidewalk that was plastered with flyers for a coffeehouse’s stand-up comedy night. I went to the open the front door to Little Switzerland and realized that I hadn’t locked it after grabbing the chocolate Santa Claus. Leaving the store unlocked was worse than being wrongly accused of chocolate perversion, because I knew Marie and the store mattered to me. Marge might have thought I was some kind of freak but A) that wasn’t true and B) my intentions had been good and C) I would hopefully never see her again.
Marie went into the store first to scope out the scene. I followed, cautiously, nervously. Everything was in its place. Truffles, creams, clusters, caramels, chews, barks, and marzipan were all lined up in perfect rows in the dark cases. The registers were untouched but she opened the drawers anyway and saw that all of the money was there. She looked in the safe. Nothing was missing. I leaned against the counter and covered my face with my hands. I couldn’t believe it. I had never left the doors unlocked before and was terrified that because of my mistake everything would be destroyed or stolen.
I said, “It will never happen again.”
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” Marie mumbled. “Nobody came in, nothing’s stolen. It’s our lucky day.” She opened a case and picked out a caramel. She asked, “Did you sleep with Benji?”
I realized that’s how it must have looked. I shook my head.
She chewed the caramel, nodding, and then wandered toward her office. I thought I heard her mumble, “Everybody wants to feel good.”
I said, “Wait.”
“Do you want me to pay you for the Santa Claus now?”
“I can write a check.”
“One-fifty is a drop in the bucket. It doesn’t matter.”
“No,” I said. “It does matter.”
“Not to me,” she said. “Not anymore.”
She went into the office and shut the door.
If Little Switzerland had been mine, I would have been pissed that someone left the doors unlocked and would have been frantic to see if anything was out of place. If Little Switzerland had been mine and the weather had turned to shit during the holiday season, I wouldn’t have moped in my office and waited out the storm. I would have gotten my ass up and put coupons in the local newspaper and advertisements on the radio stations. I would have done something to draw people in, something to keep my business alive. That was the problem, though. There wasn’t anything to keep alive. Marie didn’t want to do it anymore. She was tired or maybe full of regret. There was no way for me to look inside another person and know what they felt. I could only look inside of myself. So much time had been lost already.
I went outside and made sure to lock the doors behind me. It was only six o’clock but already the sky had down-shifted to a deep industrial shade of gray. I heard the wind and the rain and train sounds. At first, I thought I was going straight home to do research, make arrangements, pack my things, but then I heard a small bell chime through the rain and looked across the street. The delivery boy stepped out of the Italian deli and jogged down the block with a paper bag of food and a red and white checkered umbrella. I realized how hungry I was. I jogged across the street in my ruined leather flats and went into the store, breathing the smell of cold, salted meat. One case contained platters of sides that you could buy in half or one pound plastic containers—stuffed olives, anchovies, mozzarella salad. Another case contained meats and cheese, the faces of which were pink, red, white, yellow, green, spotted, marbled, pickled, magnificent. A refrigerator held sparkling sodas. There were three little cafe tables inside. I looked at the deli man, who was leaning on top of the meat and cheese case with his hands together, fingers interlaced. He smiled and I followed the wrinkles that went from the curve of each nostril to the corners of his mouth. His eyebrows met in the middle.
“I see you over there,” he said, pointing across the street. “Hey, you wanna sandwich?”
I looked at the chalkboard covered in specials.
I said, “The New Italian.”
First, he cut a square ciabatta loaf in half. Then he picked a brick of cheese from the case and put it in the slicer. He sliced once, then, unhappy with the thickness, adjusted the blade and sliced again. I saw the muscles in his back and shoulders through his white T-shirt. While he worked, he asked, “Good day today?”
I couldn’t think of anything to say, except the truth. “My coworker died.”
He turned and handed me a slice of provolone cheese. He said, “It’ll grab you by the balls,” and I knew that he meant death, not the cheese. He sliced hard salami, capicola, and ham and added peperoncinis, artichoke spread, and a zig-zag of olive oil from a squirt bottle. He wrapped the sandwich in deli paper, dropped a stack of napkins on top, and handed it to me.
I took the sandwich and asked, “How much is it?”
He hooked his thumbs in the front pocket of his apron. He said, “No charge.”
“Thank you.” I looked around the store and said, “Well, I better go.”
He said, “No, no, no,” gesturing toward one of the café tables. “You eat here.”
The deli man stood at the counter and drank a little bottle of Perrier, politely looking at his hands, the fine black hairs that grew from his knuckles, instead of watching me eat. The peppers made my lips tingle. I kept forgetting what time it was. It felt like the middle of my life, even though it was the beginning.
He nodded toward Little Switzerland, saying, “Maybe I’ll come to your place next time.”
I imagined myself walking through Zurich in a long black coat, the elegant storefronts lit in spectral light, cases filled with watches and chocolates.
I said, “I won’t be there.”
He looked confused.
I said, “It was nice to meet you.”
He said, “Same here.”
The deli meat was so salty that later that night, after I’d gone home and fallen asleep, I woke up dying of thirst and reached for the wine glass on the backgammon table beside my bed, placed there to catch a leak in the ceiling. In one long swallow, I drank the rainwater.
Wynne Hungerford’s work has appeared in Epoch, SmokeLong Quarterly, Clackamas Literary Review, The South Carolina Review, and The Weekly Rumpus, among other places. She is an MFA candidate at the University of Florida.