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As I write this, I'm at Tacky's Tavern polishing off my third Long Island iced tea. (Nope, don't adjust your volume—you heard me right!) Now, normally, I believe the best highs come from life itself. But today, your old pal Jean requires a drinky-poo the size of an aqualung! (Actually, I prefer Brandy Alexanders to Long Islands, but Tacky's doesn't make them.)

So, guess who's back on the unemployment line? Here's a hint: It's a certain North Pole elf with a hubby who says "told ya so" so often he should have it tattooed on his forehead! Yep, you guessed it—none other than yours truly.

If you've followed the past few columns, you know my dad and I started a business called Off-Season Santa, in which lucky visitors got to sit on Santa's (aka Dad's) lap all year 'round. It was a pretty "way out" idea, I'll admit, but we were confident it would catch on. After all, who doesn't love Santa?

Apparently, nearly everyone. It's a crying shame. Can't people think outside the box for once? We all need whimsy in our lives. People are so used to going to stores for essentials like food, but they never think to feed their spirits. Well, don't worry: Soon you'll see me back behind a cash register, checking out your groceries or clothing or toilet paper—and most likely wearing a misspelled name tag, too. (I swear, how hard is it to spell "Jean"? It's not "Jeanne" or "Gene" or "Jene"—never has been, never will!)

The sad thing was, business had been picking up. Our brand new "Christmas in July" banner was attracting the right people, we were logging quite a few sales of discounted greeting cards and knickknacks, and there was even a girl making a documentary about us for her college film class. On the day before the fire, four mothers with children stopped by, and they were paying customers, too.

Yeah, okay, the fire. There was a fire last week. I'm pretty weary from talking and thinking about it, but I suppose I have no choice but to mention it again. It burned down nearly the entire strip mall, including the comic-book store, four vacant spaces, and Off-Season Santa. (For some reason, only the H&R Block was left untouched. Perhaps the wind shifted.)

Thank God no one was hurt. The fire happened late Wednesday night. The scariest part was that, on the very night of the fire, Dad stayed at work late after closing to play Texas Hold 'Em with Doug, the guy who managed the comic-book store, and Armand, the property manager. If Dad and those guys had stayed around the store a half-hour longer, they might've gambled away a lot more than a few bucks!

I'm still not really sure how the fire started. I've heard stories flying around about paint cans, defective sprinkler systems, and a stash of fireworks in the back room of the comic-book store. I don't know—I haven't paid much attention. It was painful enough seeing our devastated shop. Whatever wasn't burned to a charred crisp suffered water damage from the fire hoses. I had to spend a whole day hauling garbage bags of charred Christmas decorations and yards and yards of dirty, damp polyurethane "snow" to the Dumpster. (Talk about being down in the dumps!) Not even Dad's cutout sleigh placards, which he used to hide his Rascal scooter from the children, were spared. The documentary girl was there too, filming me. I wished she wouldn't, but I didn't have the heart to ask her to go.

Fire investigators interviewed Dad a couple times at our apartment. Watching them stirred up an old memory of mine, of another business of my dad's that burned down. My dad was running a roofing company and some warehouse on his property burned one night. I was in high school at the time, and I remember insurance people coming to our house, and Dad even going to the police station to make sworn statements or something. Shortly afterwards, he closed down the business and moved away with the woman who would become his second wife.

So, this was not Dad's first encounter with fire. Oddly enough, rather than being upset, he seemed calm, almost relieved. He never insured Off-Season Santa, but he's convinced we and the other businesses will get fat payouts from the building owner's liability insurance.

"We'll get some money, and I'll be able to pay my debts," Dad said. "The fire didn't start in our space, so they can't finger us for negligence."

I asked Dad if we could use the money to open a new store, this time in a better space and with insurance, but Dad shook his head.

"Off-Season Santa was ahead of its time," he said. "Someday, people will finally come around to the notion of a year-round Santa, but not now."

I awoke at about 10 this morning to find that Dad had loaded his Rascal scooter and his few belongings into his Lincoln Town Car and left. (I guess Dad still enjoys his hasty exits.) Hubby Rick was already at work, so I called him to ask if he saw Dad take off.

"You mean he bailed?!" he cried. Then he started raging about how Dad owed him so much rent and food money and back wages for me, and how he couldn't believe he let Dad sponge off us for so long. I tried to tell him about the insurance money, but I couldn't get a word in edgewise. So I hung up, grabbed my notebook, and drove to Tacky's.

Sorry, Jeanketeers. I'm a little blotto, and I shouldn't be taking my troubles out on you. I just find it sad—I feel like I finally had a chance to spread my wings and fly, and I got sucked into a jet engine. Now that I've had a brief taste of being my own boss, I don't know how I can ever face dull work and bossy supervisors 15 years my junior. Right now, I'm crossing my fingers that tomorrow I'll open the paper to a classified ad reading: "WANTED: 39-year-old woman to test-market our line of Long Island iced teas. Good pay, flexible hours. Ownership of Christmas elf suit a must."


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