First, quit your day job and go back to school, even though you’re thirty-two already. Do this because your boyfriend is dead and you will never get to run your fingers through his curls again. Then panic because it’s November and your student loan has stretched only as far as a cheap elastic band and you can’t yet cope with being on display under the fluorescent lights that illuminate real jobs. This despite the fact that you only wear waterproof mascara now, which prevents black rainbows from staining your cheeks.
Call your aunt who works in the administration office at the outdoor shopping centre. Tell her you’ve been thinking about the gingerbread man costume you saw hanging in the supply closet when you dropped by a few months back. Nobody knew where it came from or why it was there. You felt sorry for it, drooping on its industrial-strength hanger, a deflated mass of dark-brown plush, white piping, and three jumbo white buttons down the front. Remind her that Christmas is less than two months away. Suggest that Santa is passé—something all their competitors have—and that a giant human-cookie hybrid may be just the holiday hook the marketing department needs. Tell her that you’ll only charge fifteen bucks an hour and that you’ll figure out a routine on your own time.
Go to your first costume fitting and apologize for your buxomness because you’re supposed to be a gingerbread man. Use non-adhesive packing tape from the supply closet to go from a DD to a C. When you’ve got the body on, complete with inch-thick foam lining to give it definition, strut around and act like a mobbed-up tough. Stop when your aunt says, “Cut it out; you’re not a biscotti.” Hold still while she measures and examines, making sure no gleam of pale wrist or ankle will ever show.
Try not to panic when it’s time to stuff your blond head inside the heavy, almost two-foot-tall cookie head. Flash back to when you were small and it was thrilling to swim under the covers to the tightly tucked foot of the bed to see how long you could last before having to rush, flailing, to the top again. As you breathe in your own coffee-breath air, yearn for those days the way any sad, worn-out grown-up does.
Wait a week for your aunt to deliver your new and improved costume on her break. After she leaves, draw the blinds and carefully put it on over top of your gym shorts and tank top. Burn a thousand calories trying to do up the zipper by yourself. Stand in front of the mirror and delight in the fact that, for once, it’s okay for your butt to look fat. Try not to look yourself in the gingerbread face too much because your wide smile is unsettling. Fire up the Marvin Gaye and boogie your hips to “Let’s Get It On.” When the song ends, recline on your couch like Burt Reynolds on a bearskin rug because you don’t know what else to do and you already feel like you just came out of the oven.
Burn 700 calories trying to undo the zipper. Google “mascot training.” Watch an instructional video called “How to Be Chuck E. Cheese” and learn that “just putting on the costume, walking around, and waving isn’t enough.” Find a source that says mascots can’t speak, so they must have a repertoire of gestures—ones that say things like, “I’m scared,” “I have an idea,” and “I can’t hear you.” Pick up a few tips, too: Don’t wear makeup because you’ll just sweat it off. Always go to the bathroom before you suit up. Never hold an infant, because your big mascot hands will not allow you a safe grip.
Read about the realities of mascot violence. Be cautioned that anyone can lash out at any time—be it another mascot, a vicious child, a smart-aleck teenager, or any other variety of thug. Make a note to try to be aware of your surroundings. Watch a clip of the Jelly Belly mascot taking a self-defence class in response to being attacked. Feel a degree of confidence because you’ve learned a little self-protection.
The next evening, after school, put the plush body on without its foam lining because you’re cold and it’ll save on the heating bill. Do your homework. When you’re done, pull on the head, position yourself in front of the mirror again, and try to recall some of the moves from the hip-hop class you took last year. With dismay, remember that the only move you’d really mastered was shaking your booty. Give up and practise jumping up and high-fiving the air instead with large and exaggerated movements. Try not to slip and fall on your plush ass.
Tell no one about your job except your pot-smoking Christian pal in the apartment across the hall. Even then, refer to it only in code, calling it Operation Catch Me if You Can. Ask your neighbour if she can drive you to your first appearance, the thirty-third annual Santa Light Parade. Your aunt will be waiting for you there with her boss and the maintenance man who will drive the red flatbed truck carrying your gingerbread house, its snowy roof dotted with humongous faux Smarties, twinkly lights along its eaves.
In the car, on your way down to the parade, wave to all the children you pass. When their eyes light up, feel your heart go zing. Keep madly flapping your oven-mitt-sized hand at them, your real hand feeling tiny inside it, until your wrist goes numb. Pat your neighbour’s shoulder when she is overcome. Hear her say, “Bless all your hearts,” with the hand holding her cigarette dangling over the steering wheel.
Once you’ve been dropped off, find your group. In the failing light, stretch to warm up, even though you cannot fully bend over at the waist because of the foam. Notice the ballerinas on the Nutcracker float in front of you doing the same thing, albeit much more gracefully and with haughty looks on their faces. Feel unfit and uncoordinated, then feel pissy and embarrassed.
Remember that no one can see you you, though, and feel liberated. Briefly wonder if 200 pounds of dough can prey on ballerinas the way big cats do on gazelles. Jog lightly on the spot in your three-sizes-too-big cookie-coloured Ugg boots until you’re good to go. Let your aunt pin your cheery red fleece scarf with the company logo in place. Sling on the big Christmas stocking she’s filled with candy canes in wrappers that crackle.
When the cue is given and the float pulls out, walk beside it with your aunt, who’s wearing a baker’s hat and carrying a three-foot-long spatula. Feel like you are in a movie in which the sound has dropped out; the only thing you can hear is your own breathing and your heart pumping in your chest. Feel inexplicably safe and calm.
Turn onto the main drag where the sidewalks undulate for blocks and blocks with masses of festively turned-out parade goers. Run toward them. Keep your knees high and your strides long. Do this like you were born for it. High-five the people in the front rows and toss candy canes. Notice the sound has come back up on your movie because a din of children raised on Shrek are shouting, “Gingy! Gingy!” They chomp their teeth, threaten to eat you, and grin. Pretend you’re afraid and tiptoe away as fast as you can because they can’t catch you, you’re the gingerbread man.
Later, when you watch clips of the parade online, watch yourself in disbelief. You were there but weren’t there, were so oblivious—didn’t even register the fifty-odd tuba players in front of you playing “Good King Wenceslas” or the bevy of tap-dancing sugar plum fairies behind you. The only thing you knew for sure was that you had put one foot in front of the other, your real self panting and bewildered inside your cocoon of absurdity.
A few days after the parade, work your first regular shift (you will work Thursdays through Sundays for the next four weeks until Christmas Eve). Report for duty, already suited up, pleased because on your seven-block walk into town you caused quite a stir. A biker roaring by on his Harley even shouted, “Right on, man!” and gave you the thumbs-up.
Start your shift by doing rounds of all the shops. Spritz yourself with ginger spice home fragrance in the decor shop and stretch yourself out on a chaise. Struggle to try on a handsome fedora in the hat shop. Pretend to read Camus in the bookstore. Skitter around on all fours in the doggy bakery. Make people laugh with your antics. Pump their hands vigorously and nod your head approvingly, bestowing confidence and good cheer upon the customers while they shop.
Next, wander around town giving out candy canes, paying particular attention to children—and once, accidentally, because you can’t see very well, to a dwarf. Quickly ascertain that there are different kinds of children and different ways to deal with them. Hug, high-five, and play games with most of them, but gently coax the shy ones because they can’t help but see you as a cookie of scary proportions—a cookie who, against all logic, can do the chicken dance. Withhold candy from the brats who poke your big cookie buttons until you want to barf into your big cookie head, and who kick you to see if they can get a noise out of you. Try to avoid the ones who cry if you so much as glance at them from twenty feet away and whose parents complain to administration about the monstrous cookie who had the gall to offer candy that wasn’t organic or sugar free to their precious spawn.
Pose endlessly for photos, needlessly smiling like an idiot inside the costume. Run into a friend of yours holding his two-year-old. Shake the toddler’s hand; play peekaboo with one hand while your other reaches around and squeezes his father’s butt. Run away when he looks shocked and says, “Oh, wow, it’s a friendly gingerbread man.” Figure that if he calls to complain, you can out yourself then.
Practise your self-defence when a meth addict in front of city hall jumps up from the sidewalk and violently tries to yank off your head, screaming, “What the hell are you? ”
When he won’t stop going at you, elbow him in the jaw because you have to make him stop. Assume your fight stance (legs slightly apart, one foot forward, dukes up) while he is reeling, which, combined with the elbow jab and his burn-out friend who’s still sitting on the sidewalk laughing at him, makes him back down.
“Dude, that’s one tough cookie,” the friend says as you walk away.
On your break, trudge over to Chinatown where your red-headed friend lives above her graphic design office. Awkwardly ring the doorbell with your big plush thumb. When she answers the door, surprised and giggling, pick her up shrieking and cross the threshold to inside. Put her down and close the door behind you. Pull off your head, shake out your damp hair and say, “Holy fuck, who knew this job would involve so many goddamn kids and tweakers who try to rip your head off? I’d kill for a glass of water.”
“How about milk? ” she says, and you both crack up.
Each shift, return to your friend’s on your break because it is the only place you can go to get a reprieve from the head. Lie on the floor, baking in the body with a cool cloth pressed to your forehead while your friend smiles down at you from her office chair. Tell her about your antics, like how a young couple doing a silly waltz at a bus stop let you cut in, or about how you stand at restaurant windows peering at people’s meals and patting your big gingerbread tummy until they notice you on the other side of the glass and laugh. Also complain about injustices, like the macho men outside the strip bar up the street who routinely call you a faggot, the stoned teenagers who tries to grab all your candy, and the dirty old man who says he wants to lick your crumb.
When your break is over, let your friend tuck your head back into your neck for you and readjust your scarf. Remember five months ago when she held your hair back for you while you threw up because you couldn’t hold grief in your stomach. Bite your bottom lip and try to forget.
On your days off, feel naked in your regular clothes. When you go out on your errands, keep your head down. Watch movies you shouldn’t because they make you cry and you should be studying for exams. Lie in bed and wait for Thursdays to come.
Make the front page of the local newspaper. The caption reads, “Gingerbread man hulas to ‘Jingle Bells’ at outdoor ukulele concert.” Your aunt is proud, and you tape the picture to the inside of your medicine cabinet. While you’re in the bathroom, decide you might as well coat your hair with a deep-conditioning masque that you can rinse out later because nobody can see your hair when you’re working anyway.
On your last day, make an appearance at the downtown community centre’s Xmas Extravaganza. Get snubbed by the pompous Royal Bank lion with his fluffy mane and broad shoulders. Have a confrontation with hand gestures because he keeps stepping in front of you and you’re already trying to compete with Santa and a live llama. When he puffs his chest at you, puff your chest back, sucking in your buttons, but then back down, because you don’t want to scare the children who are trying to figure out why the lion and the cookie are circling each other.
Walk away in defeat but stop when you feel a pair of small arms encircle your leg and squeeze. Look down at a halo of curly hair and big brown eyes staring up at you. “I love you, gingerbread man,” says the little boy. “I love you so much that I want to marry you.” Feel your face crumble inside your cookie head. Bend down and hug—really hug—him back.
On the way home, stop by the market. Make your way to the bakery case and point to what you want. See that the aloof teenager behind the case can’t figure it out. Shake your head when he asks, as solemnly as he’d ask any customer, “Do you want a lemon square? ”
Shake your head again when he says, “A chocolate croissant? ”
Nod your head vigorously when a hipster guy in skinny jeans in the line next to you pipes up, “Dude, I think he wants the gingerbread cookies.”
“Both of them? ” asks the counter boy, looking back and forth between you and the hipster.
“Cannibal,” the hipster’s friend mutters.
Look shocked at the remark and pantomime, trying to convey that you’re not going to eat them: you’re going to save them from being eaten.
Hold your big cookie hand out when the teen says, “Here you go,” and passes you a string-tied box with the last gingerbread boy and gingerbread girl from the case. Pump your fist for the crowd that has gathered. Nod in agreement when the hipsters explain to them that you are liberating the cookies.
“I’ll pay for them!” announces a girl with dreads.
“No, steal them!” says one of the hipsters.
Run when the other one says, “Run!” Clutch that box and hightail it out of there. When you hit the street, keep going, lungs burning as you pump your arms and legs and people point and laugh at you crazily weaving between them, your head wobbling. Run for blocks, holding onto that box, past your apartment building, past house after house decorated for the holidays, past two parks and a school. Just keep running, pretending the world is funny and forever.
This appeared in the November 2015 issue.