Monthly Archives: December 2022

Rudolph’s 2022 Visit

Ellen and I were in the kitchen putting anchovies and cheese on a pizza when I got the text. It was my little red-nosed friend, and he was on his way. ETA about an hour. He tries to stop for a quick visit every year on his way back to the North Pole from whatever warm climate he’s vacationed at. Usually we meet downtown or on the lakefront. Having the Chicago skyline as a backdrop for our visits is alway a delight. He was a couple of days early this year, and his text said he was coming to my house and to meet him in my back yard. That was unusual, but I wanted to get the pizza in the oven, so I didn’t think much about it. We finished dinner, and I grabbed a bottle of Nebbiolo, a glass and a bowl, and my coat and went out back to wait. It was dark out, so I clicked on the porch light. The reindeer was already there, standing by the garbage cans on the alley side of the garage.
“Turn out that light,” he said.
I did. There was a streetlight in the alley, and under its glow I saw that my friend was leaning against the side of the garage. He was panting, like he was out of breath, and his fur was a mess—muddy and stained with blood on one haunch. There was blood on his snout, too, and it looked like part of one antler had been broken off.
“Holy crap!” I said. “What happened to you?”
“Let me catch my breath. I flew here nonstop from Florida.”
We went into the yard, and I poured us some wine, mine in the glass, his in the bowl. I brushed the snow off a lawn chair and sat down to wait. After a few minutes, Rudolph lapped up a little liquid fortitude and asked, “So. How are things?”
“Oh no,” I said. “You first. What happened? Are you hurt? There’s an emergency vet right over on Belmont. They’re open all night.”
“I don’t need a vet. I could use something to eat, though. I don’t suppose you’ve got any moss or lichen laying around?”
“Sorry, no. How about oatmeal? Or I can make you a salad.”
“Salad’s good. No kale though. My stomach’s feeling queasy.”
I went in and filled a large bowl with lettuce and spinach, then grabbed a bucket of warm water, a sponge, and a tube of antibiotic ointment. While he ate, I cleaned the blood off his haunch.
“This could use a couple of stitches,” I said.
“Uh uh. No vet. I’ll be fine.” He lapped up a little more wine. “I’m feeling better already.”
I wiped the blood from his snout. I didn’t see any cuts. His nose glowed a little, and he said, “Don’t fuss, bro.”
“All right. What happened?”
“I started my vacation in New Orleans, just like last year, and was having a great time. I hooked up with some street musicians who dug having me around. I drew a big crowd in the French Quarter, which meant better tips for them. I’d keep time by flashing my nose, kind of like a metronome. Sometimes I’d let the trumpet player sit on my back. He let me sleep in his living room, and the whole band was happy to share meals with me. And we’d occasionally get a little high. Just lightly toasted, you understand. It was a very mellow scene, but a week ago New Orleans got hit with a cold snap, so I decided to finish my vacay a little farther south. I flew across the Gulf to the Tampa Saint Pete area, figuring to get in some beach time. Big mistake. You’d think people’d never seen a reindeer before. I was just walking along the sand, dodging the waves, pondering my place in the universe, when a crowd gathered and started following me. I got nervous and accidentally lit my nose, and the crowd lost its mind. They all rushed in, wanting to pet me or take a selfie with me.”
“And they hurt you?”
“Naw. I’m getting to that. This bunch was just annoying. Anyway, one of them saw that I was getting kind of panicked. He said his van was parked nearby and he’d be glad to help out, so we made a break for it. I got in the back of his van, and he drove us to a little bookstore where he worked as a clerk. We stopped and picked up sandwiches on the way. He was very polite. Told me his name was Brad and he was gay. I told him my name, which he had figured out already, and that I thought it was a mistake to define himself by his sexuality, but I knew it was a big deal for humans, so okay, good for you. Brad suggested maybe I should choose a less crowded beach if I was determined to go walking in the surf and pulled up a map on his phone to show me a few. The rest of the bookstore employees were pretty cool, and we had a very nice lunch. I was just getting ready to leave when the store’s owner, a woman named Sandra, mentioned they were having a holiday photo event over in the children’s book section, and would I please stick around and help out. She was going to put on a Santa suit with a little extra padding and call herself ‘Sandy Claus,’ and would I mind standing next to her on the dais and light my nose for the kids. She assured me that Brad and another clerk would keep the crowd under control. They’d treated me to lunch, so I figured, sure, why not.
Everything went okay at first. The kids were excited to see a real reindeer, but they were also intimidated enough to keep their distance. Sandy Claus and I developed a routine. She’d ask the kids if they’d been good, and when they said ‘yes’ I’d light my nose and nod my head. It went over big with the parents, too. One of the moms gave me a kiss on the cheek. I lit my nose when she did, which got a laugh from some of the dads. Like I said, it was all smooth as new fallen snow until a group of angry humans, chanting and carrying protest signs, showed up. I didn’t understand what they were saying at first, but the head chanter stepped up to the dais, pointed at Sandy, and called her a groomer. Up at the pole, we have a groomer, an elf named Cecil. He brushes us out, and cleans the mud off our hooves, and does a fairly presentable job. Anyway, you can imagine why I was confused. Turns out, the bookstore carries books about all different kinds of humans, and some of the books are about families with two moms or two dads. I still didn’t understand why the chanters were upset, but like I told Brad, you humans seem to put a lot of emphasis on who you should love rather than that you should love.
Well, Sandy Claus lost her cool and started yelling back at the chanters, at some point saying, “Get the fuck out of my store.” That was the spark that set off the dynamite. The chanters rushed the stage. The parents, upset that Sandy said ‘fuck’ in front of children, grabbed their kids and tried to get out of the store. Unfortunately, they were blocked by another group of chanters trying to get into the store. The head chanter took a swing at Sandy. Brad started to lead me to the stockroom, but someone grabbed him and pulled him into the crowd. I tried to help, but I had to be careful not to hurt anyone. I’m not big for a reindeer, but these antlers ain’t just for show. By the time the cops arrived, I’d been punched, kicked, bitten, and I think some asshole slashed me with a scissors. Santa can get someone else to guide his sleigh this year. I’m through busting my butt for humans. Maybe strap a headlight on Comet. That guy thinks he’s so great, let him navigate the blizzards and the war zones. I’m staying home with Clarice and the kids.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “You had a terrible experience, and, honestly, you look like you could use a solid week of sleep, but don’t you think you’ll miss it? I mean, this is your big annual event.”
“Maybe. I don’t know. I’m pretty fed up.”
“Well, let me ask you this. What was the mood like in the bookstore before the protestors showed up?”
“What do you mean?”
“The parents and the kids were all having a good time, right?”
“Did any of those parents complain about the books the store carries or that Sandy Claus was a woman instead of a jolly fat man?”
“No. I see what you’re getting at. Don’t judge all humans by the bad actions of a few. Well there weren’t a few. There were a lot, and they didn’t care who got hurt.”
“Okay. So they win.”
“What is that, some kind of reverse psychology. No. Uh, uh, bro. I’m not falling for that.”
“Think about it. We can’t control the things that happen to us, but we can control the way we respond to them. Don’t let a bunch of jerks influence your decisions. Besides, like it or not, people look up to you. You’re the outcast who made good. People look to you for inspiration.”
“We’ve talked about this before, man. I’m not a symbol. I’m just a reindeer. And I’m fed up.”
I got up, pulled his head down onto my shoulder, and stood hugging him. And he let me.
“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
It felt strange, me giving him advice and comfort instead of the other way around. I guess that’s how friendships work. I went in and brought out another bottle of wine and some oatmeal cookies. We sat there eating and drinking in silence for a couple more hours, just enjoying one another’s company. I always loved hearing him call out “Yippee ki-yay!” as he flew off into the night, but I’d dozed off. When Ellen came out and shook my shoulder to wake me, he’d already gone.