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Date: SUN 12/23/01
Page: 3
Edition: 2 STAR

Shopping with Santa

By Melissa England

I began by thinking it would be fun to fulfill a childhood fantasy. I remembered Miracle on 34th Street and found the emotional appeal of working for Macy's irresistible. According to the script, the real Santa was employed there, and every child knew it was true. I fell in love with the romance. I was mesmerized by the magic.

So I decided it wouldn't hurt to check it out as seasonal work. The employee discount would just be an added side benefit.

The first day, I showed up at Macy's in the Galleria, early and dressed in red. I hadn't considered how it would be to stand for eight hours at a time. That night I soaked my feet in a warm salt bath that didn't actually take the sting out. But I was committed, and the young woman who was my supervisor promised my feet would adjust.

I smiled most of the day, looked for Santa and people-watched. As the days neared Dec. 24, more shoppers frequented my fine-jewelry counter.

While I was still struggling to remember the right codes and keys for the register, a strikingly well-dressed man in a silver-gray suit tossed a platinum card on the counter and told me to pick six things.

"One twice the price of the others," he said.

I thought it was a joke. Or a grade school math problem - if Melissa had six diamonds and added three pearls, what would she wear to the party?

"What kind of six things, sir?" I asked politely.

He smiled as he talked into his cell phone. "Six things for five young women and their mother. Aren't there six things you've liked in this department?"

I gathered necklaces, earrings, bracelets and charms, and laid them on the black velvet board (breaking the rule about showing one piece of jewelry at a time).

He nodded, and then I pulled out the piece de resistance, an oversized pearl ring cuffed in diamonds.

"Wrap it up," he said into the phone, "but hand me that ring." He winked one of those winks that are meant for everyone, and he was off.

The days went by, and another man, dressed in worn flannel plaid, said he didn't want or need my help; he knew what he was looking for. Besides, he was her husband. Later he described her. Almost blond, shorter, smaller, but kinder than himself, he growled. He sounded like a dog that barks because he wants his ears scratched. I could guess why she liked him. He crossed his arms and grunted at the amethyst ring beneath the glass. I started to tell him the cost, but he interrupted.

"That's it!" he announced and tossed crisp $100 bills onto the counter. When I handed the package back, gift wrapped, he finally broke a smile and mumbled, "Good work."

She was nearing 60, mahogany-red hair, sad blue eyes. She was looking for a gift for her grown daughter; but something distracted her. I picked up enough words to know it was the fear of an unresolved illness that shadowed her face.

I showed her a red garnet cross. I didn't know what her daughter looked like, but I knew this piece seemed to be made for this woman. She stood looking at it for a long time, then placed it against her pale skin. Her husband showed up and said the cross was made for her. They touched hands; she leaned into him and closed her eyes. "Merry Christmas," he whispered. A nod to me closed the deal.

He had just come from work, and he didn't have much time. He had $200. I showed him nearly everything in his price range, but nothing satisfied him, and his frustration mounted. He thought I was missing the point. He struggled to explain what this woman meant to him. He had been married 17 years. During that time he had lost more than one job, and his truck had been repossessed. He told me there were days he could not feed them. His voice softened. He looked up, beyond me, and told me she had never left him, never stopped believing in him. He didn't know why God had given him such a good woman. Did I understand? I pulled a solid-gold heart on a delicate chain from under the glass. I started to tell him it was double his limit, but he stopped me. It was perfect; it was what he wanted her to see, to touch and to know about his feelings. I helped him fill out a short form for extended payments.

I wrapped it, and he asked me to help him add a card. I wrote, "To the only woman in the world who could teach me love." He looked at the words and looked away. He held the note in his hands as if it were a delicate flower.

"That's right," he nodded. He signed his name in big, shaky letters and tucked it into his pocket. He said this year would be better. This year he would give her everything she deserved. We smiled at each other, and I shook his hand, grateful to have met him.

Just before the store closed one night, a petite blonde in her mid-50s came in, carrying a package and asking for me by name. She was in a hurry and pulled out the red velvet box that carried the pearl ring. I knew it. She was going to return it. How was I supposed to know what kind of jewelry she would like?

She began, "I am married to the sweetest man. Every year he gets me jewelry, and every year he can't wait to show me, and every year I am amazed at his incredible choices. I just need to know if I can get this sized by Friday."

I smiled, biting my lip. "I'll check."

So it was true. Santa really did live there. I'd seen his reflection again and again, and the ritual of giving to each other is magic.

I went home Christmas Eve tired but fulfilled. I thought about my customers, especially one. I knew there would come a moment when a kind, sweet woman would open a jewelry box and find a solid-gold heart on a delicate chain. What she wouldn't know was that the gift she received was also mine.