-- a shrimp tale --
Gus always made a good Santa Claus at the annual Elks Club Children's Christmas Party. That's because he carried 260 pounds on a five-foot ten frame and had the necessary holly-jolly belly -- formed from the regular downing of Budweiser, especially on weekends. An added qualifier was that when he laughed with gusto it would jiggle.
But as much as he enjoyed relaxing with a beer and his honky tonk music, he especially enjoyed the Christmas season when he could revel in the smiling and happy faces of the children. He had collected many memories and stories over the years from the requests children shared with him. Several years ago one 6-year-old with autism lamented that he feared he was on the naughty list since he was unable at times to control his behavior. But this Santa, the father of three, assured him it was okay to be yourself, to just be who you are, and to always do and try your best.
Gus worked as a 61-year-old electrician at the shipyard and during the year his friends would tease him about being sure to eat enough pork chops and donuts to keep his Santa job. They'd play practical jokes on Gus. But Gus, an adept jokester himself, on occasion when working with a young electrician on wiring repair jobs, would feign stark electrocution, shaking violently for seconds then bursting out laughing after seeing his coworker's eyes get big as hubcaps. He was jolly indeed.
With the Elk's party date three weeks away the South Mississippi Retardation Center asked him if he would consider being Santa for their annual Christmas Party. But he politely refused because of recent physical challenges he began having months ago.
Since returning home from their August vacation in the Smokey Mountains, Gus's stamina had declined. He blamed it on having spent five days in the thin mountain air. A week later, at the end of a work shift, his boots were feeling tight; his feet would swell. He became short of breath several hours into a shift. He cut back on the salt.
Later, while working in the hull of the ship, on his first trip up stairs it took him three minutes to catch his breath. The next week he was having to stop halfway up.
Things progressed. Two weeks later he began falling asleep in his recliner, feet outstretched. He had always snored but now it was much louder. One day Lydia, his high school sweetheart and wife of 39 years, heard a loud guttural snore and looked over to see him stop breathing. Startled, she shook him. His breathing restarted but he remained asleep. She timed his breath-holding spells. On one occasion he held his breath for 25 seconds. One night, afraid he might die in his sleep, she remained awake and counted 20 episodes of Gus holding his breath, ranging from 10 to 30 seconds.
Fed up, Lydia insisted he see the doctor. In his manly way he told her there wasn't anything seriously wrong with him; that all this started after the mountain trip and that in time it too would pass. It was when he began having to sleep sitting up that he agreed to see the doctor.
Lydia went with him to the doctor visit to make sure Gus told the doctor everything. The doctor said his blood pressure and cholesterol were very high and that he had congestive heart failure symptoms. He scheduled a sleep study to confirm what everyone suspected was true sleep apnea. He also prescribed medication, advising Gus to lose weight, recommending the book by Jorge Cruise, The Belly Fat Cure. At home Gus would not recall the doctor telling him that with his symptoms and sleep apnea he had a 60% chance of having a heart attack compared with men without sleep apnea.
On the morning of the Elks party, though he'd slept eight hours, Gus woke up tired. Lydia wanted to ask him if he felt good enough to be Santa that day but refrained because she knew from his excitement that a team of mules, much less reindeer, couldn't have prevented him from meeting with the children.
As usual the party was a hit. Each year more children, parents, and grandparents attended. Working on adrenaline, Gus made the first hour without a hitch. But during the next hour his suit made him warm and he broke, and kept, a light sweat. He fought off mild episodes of dizziness and weakness. Between children's visits he drank bottled water, a steady supply kept hidden behind the snowman prop.
By the time the last kid filed by with another request for a robotic dinosaur, he was ready to call it a day. On the way home he was too tired to share with Lydia some of the requests he'd heard.
He took a shower, changed into relaxing clothes, and sat in his recliner. After the news, he donned his ear buds and dialed up country music on his smartphone. His nightly routine of a mixed drink, Crown Royal, brought the Sandman early.
Exhausted from helping the Ladies' Auxiliary with the pastries and baked goods, Lydia went to bed early, kissing Gus on the way.
That evening the last thing to pass through Gus's conscious mind were the fading lyrics from Gary Stewart's 1975 hit, Drinkin' Thing.
The coroner deferred the autopsy since he'd relied on the doctor's clinical diagnoses and medical record. So the death certificate read, "Cardiac arrest, secondary to coronary artery disease, due to hypertension and hypercholesterolism." No one would ever learn if the pathologist, had she been allowed to make her cuts, would have discovered a cerebral hemorrhage or even a large blood clot in the lungs.
A representative from the Retardation Center was at the wake and shared with Lydia that she had their sympathy and that while they really had wanted Gus for their Santa that yes they had luckily found a replacement Santa.
Now, the Elks Club would have to find one too.