[Originally posted: December 23, 2002]
It was in a dark and dingy bar, far from the North Pole and obscured from the city's self-knowledge by a veil of shame and hopelessness. I just came in to use the phone--honest.
I sidled in, keeping a hand on my bag, and leaned on the bar, trying to attract the bartender's attention. The place was so dark that, at first, I didn't realize the patron next to me was a deer. A reindeer, in fact. He had a large, red nose, which resembled a Christmas light-bulb. It wasn't lit, but he sure was. He was knocking back what appeared to be his fifth or sixth glass of Old St. Nick--rot-gut whiskey I wouldn't pour for a junkyard dog.
He looked at me and began to talk, which would have surprised me, if I could have been further surprised after seeing a large ruminant sitting on a bar stool in a low-life bar. Now, I'm not in the habit of listening to sob-stories in drinking establishments, but, as I tried to attract the bartender, the deer began to tell his tale. I sat myself down and listened as he rambled on. Here's what he told me:
I see you're lookin' at my nose. Yeah, it's big and red, and yeah, I'm a drunk, but that ain't why it's red. It's the other way around, see? I'm a drunk 'cause of my nose. See, long ago I was a sleek, young buck with a nice, little, furry-flapped nose like every other reindeer. Surprises you, don't it? Yep, I'm a reindeer. Used to run for the Big Guy--y'know: Santa Claus.
But let me tell you, it ain't all fun and reindeer games up at the North Pole. No, siree-bob! Let me begin at the beginning. See, when I was just a young buck, Santa's Elves came around to all the herds, recruiting. Had a bunch of nice flyers and it sounded real good. Easy hours, only one performance a year, educational benefits, room and board, health care and retirement benefits. Now, let me tell ya that when you're wandering the frozen tundra, that sounds like easy street. So I signed up.
For a while, I was just a second-stringer. Hangin' around, hoping for my big break. I used to talk to all of the other reindeer, trying to get pointers, but some of them where kind of stand-offish. Then, I got my chance: Charlie retired. Never heard of Charlie? Well, you'd have called him Rudolph. See, the team has positions for each name and when you take the job, well, you become the name. You didn't really think they were the same deer, did you? Reindeer don't live that long. It's kind of like Ronald Mac Donald. So, y'know, everybody's been replaced a time or two. And some of 'em--well, you wouldn't believe what they're really like.
Let me tell ya', it's rough up there; nothing but wall-to-wall guys, except for Vixen. You could have called her a lot worse than that. But, really, can you blame her? The only girl deer in a herd of eight guys? Not that she had anything to do with Prancer and Dancer, 'cause those two were getting along just fine together, if you know what I mean.
And the elves, man, let me tell you! What a bunch. They used to wear these little pointy-toed shoes until that movie came out. Y'know: Lord of the Rings? Then they all got uppity and started wearing long hair and soft-soled boots so you couldn't hear 'em sneaking up on ya. Used to frighten the hay out of us, and then laugh like crazy. Nasty.
But, so, anyway, back to Charlie. See, when Charlie retired, Santa needed a new Rudolph and I wanted to make the first string so bad, I didn't care about the surgery. It was all gonna be OK, right? I mean, the health care was gonna take care of it and I was gonna be Santa's Number-One Deer. I was gonna be in gravy and I might even get into Vixen's stall, if you catch my drift. Gravy: boy, there's irony for ya.
So I get the surgery and everything's going pretty good. Heck, I even went for the high-tech, laser-pointer nose option. Every year we get a nice card from Charlie from some exotic place like Madagascar, or whatever. "Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here." Yeah....
Then, one year, things have been going OK, when I get sick. So I go to call in, but I can't remember the back office number. So I call the main number. And what do I get? I get Santa's phone tree! And what do I hear?
"To speak to Santa, press one; to speak to an elf, press two; to order venison products, please stay on the line...."
And suddenly it all falls into place for me. I mean, why didn't I see it before? I mean, this is the frickin' North Pole, fer cryin' out loud! How does a guy running a business on his own manage to weigh three-hundred pounds in that kind of weather without a supermarket nearby? Let me tell you, it sure ain't his wife's cooking. That woman could burn water. He puts away a lot of milk and cookies every Christmas, but it sure ain't enough to keep up that bulk all year. Hell, no!
But every year, somebody "retires." Somebody like Charlie. I was walkin' around in a dead guy's nose! "Wish you were here...." Yeah, more like "wish you were a hero sandwich!"
I needed to get out, but I was too sick to crawl. It was two days to Christmas and I was in deep kimchee. I knew Santa's dirty secret. And I knew I'd be the next Rudolph to "retire". I lay low and tried to build up my strength....
But on Christmas Eve, the worst happened: there was a knock at the door and when I opened it, I could barely see Santa for the fog which had socked us in like poisoned cotton candy.
And y'know what he says to me? Yeah, I can see it in your face: you know. He says, "Rudolph with your nose so bright, won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"
I know what I should have done. I know what the smart thing would have been, but I panicked. All I could see was that smiling, jolly old elf, fat and happy on roast leg of Charlie!
"Fuck you, Fat-Man!" I screamed and I ran for the back door!
I was out and across the field, into the woods and gone in five seconds flat. But I knew they'd be coming after me: the Elves! The elves with their silent boots and long streaming hair and bows!
Bows, I tell ya! I should have realized it earlier. They all had bows, just like that elf in Lord of the Rings--what's his name? Leg-o-lamb? That's how they got Charlie! Silently, in the night....
But, my nose was shining like a beacon, that treacherous, traitorous nose! The nose I thought was gonna make my fortune was leading my death right to me! So I ran for the nearest bar and in it I found Blitzen. And he was really Blitzed. I called him a sissy and he took a swing at me and he smacked me right in the kisser. He broke my nose and I thanked him, but the Elves were already on to the place and coming through the door, so I made with the flying trick and sailed on out of there.
With my broken nose, I couldn't see in the fog, but neither could they and I managed to get away.
Eventually, I found a surgeon who was willing to fix my nose so it would never light up again, but it was never going to be a nice, furry reindeer nose again. I'd have to move south, where the air was warm enough to breath. I started moving, selling my services to petting zoos, then moving on, whenever the Elves started breathing down my neck.
And I've been moving on ever since.
I don't know how much farther I can run, though. It's been a long time. I've been from the North Pole to the South, been to Africa and South America and every little island you can think of, but they keep on coming: the Assassin-Elves. Some day, some day soon, my luck's gonna run out. Then I'll be just another string of venison sausage in Old St. Nick's larder. But at least I'll have told the world the truth about Santa's little Sweat Shop. I'll die a free deer.
And he tossed back the last of his drink and staggered unsteadily for the back door. He looked back just once and said, "Remember me. Remember Charlie." Then he was gone with an eerie clatter of hooves as he ascended into a cloudy sky, running like... well, like a deer.
When I left the bar, a man came up to me. He was tall and thin and his long, silver-blond hair hung down his back like a shimmering curtain from under a dark fedora. He wore dark glasses and a long, black coat. He stopped me and flashed a picture.
"Ma'am, have you seen this deer?"
"No, sir," I replied. "No deer around here. It's still hunting season."
He glared at me suspiciously, then turned away. I could see the bulge of his bow under his jacket.
I don't know what became of that deer, or if he wasn't just half-crazy with drink, but every time I think of that night in that bar I say a little prayer for him.
"Run, run, Rudolph."