For the past couple of years, my little red-schnozzed pal has paid me a visit on his way back to the North Pole for the big event. We usually meet at a local watering hole for a few cocktails while we catch up, but with everything shut down, I thought he might bypass Chicago this year. To my surprise, he texted when he was over Kankakee, saying he’d make Chicago in about ten minutes, and did I want to get together. Dr. Fauci recently announced that Santa was getting the vaccine, so I wasn’t too worried about the covid. We met in an alley behind a Logan Square restaurant. I had polished off all my pandemic wine and was out of rum for eggnog, but I found an old bottle of Night Train in the back of the cupboard.
There was a chill wind blowing, so we huddled next to a dumpster, and I poured us a little tipple. The first thing I asked him was if the pandemic was going to interfere with his toy deliveries.
“We’ve had bigger problems. I almost froze my hooves off flying over Ohio back in ‘83. I was sick for a week. I’m better prepared these days.” He held up a hoof to show me. “Electric socks.”
“That’s great,” I said. “I think the kids need their celebration more than ever this year. A lot of them are feeling isolated and lonely. Virtual Zoom school isn’t cutting it.”
“Yeah. The world’s sure a different place than it was last year.” He lapped up a little of the so-called wine. “The Big Guy keeps an eye on things from up at the pole. ‘He sees you when you’re sleeping’ and all that crap. When this virus stuff first went down, he thought people might come together. You know, unite to vanquish a common enemy, that sort of thing. Well, it didn’t take long for you humans to screw it up. You dopes will argue about anything.”
I admitted we had done a pretty lousy job.
“The elves and most of us reindeer wanted to cancel the whole holiday. We figure you all belong on the naughty list. We even drew up a petition. The Big Guy was on board with it, but Mrs. Claus pointed out that it’s mostly grown ups doing the fighting. It’s not the kids’ fault their parents are assholes.”
The temperature was dropping, so I pulled my hat down over my ears. Behind the dumpster, a couple of pigeons were quarreling with a rat over a discarded slice of pizza.
“I’m glad the kids are getting their gifts,” I said. “That’s the Christmas Magic. Being generous. Lending a helping hand. Giving to others. You and Santa symbolize that spirit. You guys set an example for us to follow.”
He laughed, snorting Night Train out of his nose.
“Christmas Magic? So, for a few weeks in December, humans get a sense of their shared humanity and that’s supposed to be magical? It’s a long year, my friend.”
“You seem awfully cynical this year.”
“Yeah. I’m sorry. I guess I’m just disappointed. I used to be a big fan of you guys. I’m a sucker for Christmas movies about humans finding redemption. Scrooge discovers his humanity. George Bailey realizes that, despite setbacks and disappointments, life is ultimately worth living. But I still have hope. I figure there’s a fifty/fifty chance you’ll learn to care for one another and live in peace before you destroy the planet.”
“Thanks, I guess. Not sure I like those odds, though.”
There was a commotion at the end of the alley, and we looked to see a man digging through a dumpster. He was under a streetlight, so we could see he wasn’t dressed for the weather. His jacket looked thin, and his bald head showed he wasn’t wearing a hat.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” the reindeer said. He pulled the electric socks off his front hooves. “Take these over there, will you. I don’t want to frighten the guy. You know, talking animal and all.”
I gave the man the socks, along with my hat and gloves, and wished him happy holidays. He thanked me and went back to rummaging through the dumpster. The wind died down a bit, and a few snowflakes were drifting down. Rudolph and I polished off the Night Train. I asked him to give my regards to Clarice and the fawns, and he told me to give Ellen a lick on the cheek. Just as he was about to take off, the bald man came over to us.
“I seen you guys talking, and I wanted to thank you for the gifts. I felt bad that I didn’t have anything for you, but I found a whole box of good junk in one of the cans.” He held up two little stars he had made out of clothespins and string. “I made these for you.”
He handed me a star, hung the other on one of the deer’s antlers, and shuffled off into the night.
“All right,” Rudolph said. “Maybe the odds are in your favor.”
He took a running start and leapt into the air, catching an updraft from a steaming sewer grate.
“Merry Christmas!” I shouted.
He winked and called out as he flew past the streetlight.