Nicky goes to the liquor store to buy Mama some Christmas “booze.” It is a day before Christmas and he is nine. He doesn’t know what kind Mama likes, just that she told Nicky that’s all he wanted for Christmas. “For fucking Christmas” is what she said. “I want some fucking Christmas booze.” She was so sad when she said it, as if she were a little kid, too.

“Santa won’t get Mama booze,” she said. “Or anything good. Santa’s for the rich. The lying, cheating rich. Believe me, Nicky. You’ll learn that soon.”

He hopes that she will be happy. Maybe she will even say she loves him again. It has been a long time since she told him she loved him. She used to sing him to sleep, to tuck him in, but after Daddy left, she withdrew. No more pretty Mama, taking him to the movies, or smelling like sweet perfume. She said she needed a time out from obligations. It is as if she has turned into a monster, like those Goosebumps books he likes. Maybe she is not even his mama anymore.

He walks into the store, bottles and cans lining the shelves. Large glass bottles, cartons with names like Fat Tire and 90 Shilling line the shelves, with colorful illustrations. The bottles, the cans all seem to overwhelm him. He can’t tell Mama’s “booze” from all the goods in the store. He just knows it’s in a bottle.

“Mama and babies have one thing in common,” she said. “We all need our bottles. We get cranky without them.”

He wants to just walk out, go home, but he knows Mama will be disappointed.  He is tired of her disappointment. It seems like she is disappointed or angry every single day now and he wants to just cry out. He has felt Mama’s anger when she’s run out of booze and often when she is drinking, too. It reminds him of when he has a tantrum, except she throws things and yells for days at a time, about his no-good father who walked out for some “strumpet,” or at least he thinks that’s the word. And she says that Nicky looks like his “no-good father.” She actually asked him why he couldn’t have looked more like her. She said it so sadly, too, that Nicky figured it must have been his fault, although he doesn’t think he looks like Daddy.

A clerk walks up to Nicky and stares at him, eyebrows arched.

“Starting early aren’t you, kid?”

“I just came to get my mama a Christmas present,” Nicky says, puzzled. Starting early on what? Is it too early to buy a present?

The clerk’s face seems to crumple, like a dollar bill, as if he knows something. Some deep secret. Has Nicky gone to the wrong store? Is he messing up again? He imagines Mama, angry on Christmas, imagines having to tiptoe around her. She will blame Nicky and he will hide in his room, crying, with no one to wipe away his tears. No one has wiped his tears away in some time. He needs to be happy, needs her to be happy.

“What does she want?”

“She said she wanted Christmas booze,” Nicky says. “She said she wanted fuckin’ Christmas booze.”

The clerk’s face crumples even more and he puts a hand on Nicky.

“Son,” he says. “I know you want to help your mama out. But I can’t let you buy that booze.”

“You don’t understand,” Nicky says, desperation rising. “She’ll get mad if I don’t get it. I wanted to get her something good for Christmas.”

“You give her some love,” the clerk says, slowly walking toward the door, his hand heavy on Nick’s shoulder. “That’s what she needs, son. A lot of love at that. I’m sorry you have to live like this.”

He shakes his head.

“I’m sorry your mama asked you to get that booze,” he says. “But she needs something more than booze.”

“What does she need?”

“Like I said, love,” the clerk says. “And other things. Trust me. You don’t want to know the truth of things. Not this time of year. I’m sorry you have to live like that.”

The clerk stares out into the cold winter’s day.

“Someone ought to go to your home, son,” the clerk says. “Make sure you’re okay. You got any other relatives?”

“No, sir.”

Nicky has not seen Daddy in over a year. Mama said Daddy didn’t want them, said it over and over, her eyes wide as saucers. And Nicky thinks this must be true. Nicky wonders if he is too “needy,” like Mama often says. She also says he’s too “loud” and has too much “energy.” Is this why Daddy left?

“Well, go do what you can,” the clerk says. “I wish I could help. But I don’t like to interfere, not now.”

“You mean call the police?” Nicky says. He knows some people’s parents go to jail, are in trouble. When people talk about help, it usually means calling the police. That’s what his friends say.

“Well, it’s Christmas,” the clerk says, shaking his head. He inhales, shuts his eyes, and sighs.

Nicky thinks of the police, imagines them taking away Mama. She must be waiting at home, alone. Waiting for her booze. This has been a dark Christmas, with a lot of bills stacked up on the table. Mama told him she didn’t even want to listen to Christmas songs, because they were too cheerful. He must get that booze, because it is right, because he wants to give, because he wants her to love him. He doesn’t want Mama to go to jail or somewhere else.

“She doesn’t love me,” Nicky says. He has never said this before, but maybe he can make the clerk understand. “I want to make her happy. A gift.”

“Son, the booze won’t make her love you,” the clerk says. “Trust me. You’ll make it worse. I know things.”

Nick is tired of failing, tired of being called a failure. His teachers fail him on tests, Mama doesn’t love him, and he can’t even get the booze. He’s tired of this all and he knows he shouldn’t have to live like this. The clerk, the teachers, they all claim to know things, but they never share these secrets with Nicky.

Nicky tries to pull away, to lunge for the booze, any booze, but he feels the clerk’s hands pulling him back. Pulling him away from the booze, from his mama’s smile, from her happiness. Nicky is marched out onto the pavement. It feels so cold, charcoal-colored clouds hanging above him, teasing him.

“Trust me,” the clerk says. “Go home now. Or I might have to call the cops. I know your mama.”

“How do you know Mama?”

“I don’t know her. Not exactly,” the clerk says. “But I know a lot of people like her.”

“I want to give her booze,” Nicky says. He repeats it over and over, as if the world will somehow hear and things will be right once more. But he knows it won’t happen.

The clerk sighs, staring at Nicky. In this moment, he thinks of how he has failed Mama again. He knows a sad truth: he will always fail. The clerk knows things, mysterious things, the world does, too, but Nicky cannot understand. He will go home.