Part 1 of 2
With the Soviet Union out of business now for a century, you'd think people would quit telling the joke, the one with the punchline "Rudolph the Red knows rain, dear." But no. I bring it out in people. I'm not him, I make that clear. My creators never got the rights to claim I'm Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the most famous reindeer of all. I'm R3, the second most famous. You're supposed to say that "R three," by the way. It looks like "R cubed" to me, but marketing says different. What do I know? In my pre-R3 days I flunked math, flunked everything, got in trouble, went to jail, which is how I ended up volunteering to transfer my wasted intelligence into a faux red-nosed reindeer who shows up every Christmas season like blizzards in Buffalo.
The joke teller this time is the mayor of another sprawling metropolis they added to the route this year because it's headquarters for our new sponsor. We're waiting backstage at the airport for the Grinch to bring it on home, so the mayor can give us the key to the city, and we can fly. The Grinch always runs long with his heart-swelling gag, says it feels too good to stop. The mayor's finally in shouting distance of the punchline, when Blitzen whispers in my ear, "Donner's digging in her heels again."
"Excuse me, mayor," I say. "I have a little situation to deal with."
"Some reindeer games?" he asks, thinking he's hilarious.
Donner's a mess—grazing on the wrong shrooms again. She's let a little spider make a web in her antlers and won't let me touch it. "At least it's real," she says. "It is what it is. What are we? Freaks. Genetic meatloaf. Reindeer who can sing and dance."
"Don't forget fly, babe. I know you love to fly."
She gives her head a shake. The spider scurries around like a sailor in a storm. "I can't do it anymore, Rudy. Don't try to talk me out of this. I've had it. They can send me back to prison if they want."
"They don't have prisons for the likes of us. You know that. It's the zoo for you now. Living outside in your own shit. Parasites. Does that sound good?"
"They have to catch me first."
"You're not exactly hard to spot. Even if you tried to pass yourself off as a real reindeer, you have no natural habitat within a thousand miles of this place. You want to be hooked up to a real sled, haul stuff around, on foot? Yak carcasses or whatever. Yak chops. How does that sound? There's still places on the planet where people do that, you know. While you—three, four months out of the year—get to fly. And don't forget we're shooting the new project this summer in Antarctica with the penguins."
She shakes her head. "It's unnatural."
"I thought Christmas was supposed to be a religious holiday."
"Nobody cares about that stuff. Do you see the baby Jesus in the lineup? Singing a duet with Frosty? You know how I get through it year in, year out? I think of it as a reindeer holiday. That's right. And we're the royalty, the holy family, whatever you want to call it. All sorts of animals showed up at the manger, supposedly, but, big surprise, no reindeer flew into Bethlehem. And yet, we're the stars of the show. Christmas doesn't come without us."
"You're forgetting Santa Claus."
"I wish. He's a figurehead, totally compromised, selling any damn thing to anybody, keeping his weird little lists on children—as if they were the real source of trouble on this planet—not to mention the eating disorder thing. Without us, he's nothing. You can find a laughing fat man in a red suit on every other street corner, but a real, live flying reindeer? The nine of us are it. We're something special."
"That's easy for you to say—the most famous reindeer of all." She looks at me with her big doe eyes, a faint smile on her muzzle. They all like to tease me about being the star because they know it goes against my anti-authoritarian grain to be the leader, the guy out front. But there's nothing I can do about it. I'm the one who got the nose.
"No, no, no. I keep telling you guys. Second most. C'mon Donner, hauling his fatness around isn't easy for any of us. We all have to pull together. I swear to God, he's bigger every year. So I need you, babe. Your good instincts, your insights. The nose isn't what it used to be. I need you there, close by, to guide me."
She ducks her head, paws the ground. "You always stick me in the back."
"You know how it is. I had to give the others a turn. I can't have anybody thinking I have favorites. Tonight, you go right up front where you belong. How's that sound?"
"Oh Rudy, you're so sweet. I don't mean to complain all the time, really I don't, but I hate being back there by Santa. He's always eating and laughing, and he doesn't smell very good." She's all teary-eyed. The same shrooms fueling her rebellion against the insanity of her life also make her an emotional pushover. Right now she's loving the whole world, with the possible exception of Santa, who, let's face it, isn't too lovable. Doesn't smell very good doesn't begin to cover it.
I give her a nuzzle. "I understand, believe me. But you can't smell him when we're flying, right? So let's fly. Everybody's counting on us—we're Christmas. We're not genetic meatloaf. We're the Christmas pie."
"More like the fruitcakes," Blitzen mutters, scratching his antlers on the wall. "Is this Christmas moment over yet? The green guy's done, we're on in five, and she doesn't even have her harness on."
I pick up Donner's harness and slip it on her. "She does now. Why don't you go tell Vixen to put her butt back by the fat man?"
"She's not going to like it."
"Just do it, okay?"
While Donner's distracted by Blitzen's departure, I flick the little spider from her antlers. Better me than the winds aloft. "How's the foot rot, babe?" I ask, massaging her shoulders, tightening her harness.
"It's much better. Thanks for asking. That cream you gave me really helped."
"Hand lotion from the Hilton. They put it in your room too. Relax. Enjoy yourself. Remember: This is a reindeer holiday. We're just letting the people and the donkeys and camels and whatever bask in our glow." I crank up the nose, making the room rosy, and get a laugh out of her.
"I'm sorry for being so difficult, Rudy. There's some nights it all just seems so pointless, you know? Like this can't be what I'm doing with my life."
"I know. Can't guide you there, babe. We're all on our own with that one."
"We've got each other," she says.
Truth is, I do have favorites and Donner's one of them. We absolutely agree about the lives we lead. We just deal with it in different ways. Sometimes I wish I was more like her.
What I told Donner about the nose isn't really true. The rest of me might be falling apart as the years go by—nobody knows how long we'll last—but the nose keeps going strong. The designers were justifiably proud. Besides reindeer nose, quite a marvel in itself, it's part phosphorescent fish and part penis (donkey, according to my sources). It not only glows, it swells. It's pinker than they wanted. They were going for that Christmas red, of course, like Santa's suit and Coke cans, but that's tough to wrestle out of a donkey dick. I'm more rose-nosed than red. No, it doesn't hurt, to answer the number one question. It starts to get numb after while, and four hours of straight glow is all I'm supposed to do according to contract. But who pays attention to those things? A freak's going to take them to court? Not likely. Had a gig in Denver once kept me glowing for 8 solid hours.
As for the rest of what I told her, it's true. Damn right we're Christmas—a holiday all about the foolish belief in the impossible. Flying reindeer are perfect for impossible. Doubters said you couldn't make flying reindeer, and they were right: We're not really reindeer; we're more like a whole new animal on a reindeer chassis. The most obvious difference is the hands. They look vaguely like ersatz reindeer hooves, but they're basically hands, and we use them. We sign autographs, turn doorknobs, use keyboards, twirl batons—all those opposable thumb, multi-digit tricks. You're not going to talk anybody into the freak life without hands and speech, even if he's on death row.
Everything else about our design is to get us off the ground. First off, we weigh half what a real reindeer weighs. Bird bones basically, with a little squirrel for strength. The antlers that flatten out into a multiplane airfoil are the result of a collaboration with a Chinese kite designer. Our legs, which unfurl into bat wings and allow for both bipedal and quadrupedal locomotion, were the hardest to keep looking remotely reindeer, or any mammal for that matter, but nobody's that close when we're flying, and most people don't know what real reindeer look like anyway. Company policy is we never appear on the same stage, page, or whatever, with the real thing. The reindeer toys, the reindeer in peoples' yards, reindeer images everywhere you look this time of year—they look like us more often than not these days, folding wings and all. If a real reindeer showed up for Christmas, the crowd would boo him as an imposter even before they found out he couldn't fly.
Even with wings we couldn't fly either, without an extra assist at take-off. Our failed ancestors couldn't leap high enough into the air to deploy their wings before they smacked into the pavement. They could jump off a cliff and fly, but not every venue has a cliff, so that was the end of their brief careers. They're in San Diego, last I heard, nine of them in a pen the size of a golf green and just as flat, next to some wacky pandas who can't hold their heads up.
We're the next generation. As ruminants, we're well equipped to store gas. A pair of chemists from Amsterdam figured a way to enhance this capacity fivefold. We eat a special feed before the performance which interacts with our redesigned digestive systems. They only give it to us for practice and performance, and keep the formula top secret, protecting their investment. A cup of that stuff, and we produce a gas in our guts that makes us as buoyant as a kid's balloon, and then it's blast-off. Our sphincters aren't exactly off-the-shelf either, and we have a remarkable degree of control, making us a nimble craft when we fly as a team.
There's a reason I put Donner in back. The red and white shrooms she likes retain much of their potency in the gaseous state. Santa's always wasted on eggnog, so he doesn't matter. I'm the one who steers this thing. But with Donner up front, the whole team will be high, except for Comet beside her, always steady as a rock. The rest won't mind. It might even help them believe that they're reindeer who really know how to fly, might make it a little easier when they ask themselves why.
At least we don't have to worry about where. Even the company doesn't expect us to fly around the globe in a single night satisfying the collective greed of all the children in the world. We have a route that lasts the whole season, starting in early October and spilling over into mid-February, takes us all over the planet, places where nobody ever celebrated Christmas before we started showing up every year. We only fly under our own power from the local airport, looping around the city's better neighborhoods, with two or three stops—big sports venues usually, the occasional parade—and then back to the airport. The stage show that travels with us has everybody, all the Christmas suspects from Frosty to Tiny Tim, but for almost twenty-five years now, we're the ones people all over the world come running outside to see. Look! Look! Do you see his red nose! It's Christmas!
The team's all hooked up, ready to fly and looking fine, and I'm proud to be one of them. I was always a loner ever since I was a kid. Maybe it's some kind of stray herd gene that's made me see things different since I've been in this body. It's not like I don't have a mind of my own, that I'm not my own person or any of that stuff. But at the same time, I'm always aware that whatever happens to one of us happens to all of us. It's hard for me to understand now why people don't get that, why that's so hard to grasp.
Donner couldn't be happier now she's up front, all smiles and chatter, rehearsing her favorite origin-of-Santa theory to Comet—that the man dressed in red and white was a Lapland shaman in his ceremonial robes getting wasted on the same red and white shrooms she prefers and pissing in the snow for the enlightenment (or recreational high) of all who ate the yellow snow. We've heard all the stories. I prefer the Santa-was-created-by-Coca-Cola story. Though watching him heave his bulk into the sleigh with a bucket of chicken in one hand and a pepperoni pizza in the other, I'm thinking maybe it was a team effort.
"Rudy!" he bellows. "How the fuck are you?"
"And do something about the sauce in your beard, will you? While you're at it, lose the food altogether. We don't want another lawsuit because Santa brained a citizen with a pint of Chunky Monkey, do we?"
"C'mon Rudy. I missed dinner."
"That'll be the day. Look Santa, don't push your luck. I can't keep covering for you. Each of us reindeer represents a multi-million dollar investment, while you're just another fat old man. I have to keep the reindeer flying, but you can be replaced. Get it together unless you want to work for a living."
"I'm sorry Rudy. I just love Christmas. I get carried away."
"It's November 3rd, and what you get is loaded. You have time to hit the head before we go. I suggest you do so."
I hate to be so hard on him, but that seems to be the only thing that works. He's our fourth Santa, actually, though he's been with us the longest. Ten years now. He has to be suffering from serious Santa burnout, and somewhere deep inside he's got to know his diet is slow suicide even with all the drugs he takes to keep his heart pumping against the odds. This job is all he's got. I don't want him to lose it.
As Santa lumbers off, Vixen starts whining about being stuck in back with him, but falls silent when the mayor shows up. He doesn't look like he's here to deliver the punchline. A couple of serious plainclothes cops are tagging along with him. I can tell they're cops by how they look at us, only seeing the prisoners inside, walking around free, when they know where we ought to be. I used to get that look from cops long before I was a reindeer.
"Look Rudy," the mayor says. "We need to make a change in the schedule. There's a little trouble—not in one of the flyover neighborhoods, of course, but near your second scheduled stop, and we'd rather err on the side of caution—so we're canceling that stop altogether, and the flyover around the adjacent neighborhoods."
"What kind of little trouble?"
He draws himself up, squares his shoulders. "The lawless taking matters into their own hands," he says, like he'd like to get his hands on the lawless and wring their necks for them.
"Can you be more specific?"
"Don't let it concern you, freak," one of the cops says, giving me a hard look.
I look right back. He doesn't scare me. I may not have any rights—I'm not legally human—I've never been able to vote—but I've shaken the hands of the last two Presidents this cop probably voted for. I have plenty of pull with the forces of law and order and their spoiled grandchildren.
The mayor gives me the new flight plan, and it's like a map of where the rich folks live. The whole south side of town is out of the loop. The cancelled stop at a big aging stadium there—the company-with-a-heart stop with the local boys' choir and the whole nine yards—was supposed to be a big deal, with our proud sponsor giving a minuscule portion of their immense wealth to a struggling community-based redevelopment and job training program to demonstrate their generosity in front of tons of media coverage. They're facing serious litigation in the spring and need to polish up their image, which is why they're sponsoring us in the first place. Who could sue the people who bring you Christmas—even if they fudged a few clinical trials to make a buck? I was supposed to represent the company and hand over a giant check as big as a surfboard. I stowed the thing onboard myself, made sure it wouldn't get any chicken grease on it downwind from Santa. There were going to be brass and press aplenty at this thing, their big moment, and now it's been cancelled. Something is seriously up.
"A lot of people are going to be disappointed," I say.
"We have the actions of a lawless few to thank for that," the mayor says, straight from the standard script, and makes his exit.
I know all about the lawless few. You'd be surprised how many there are. I wasn't one, exactly. I was too young when the opportunity presented itself. But when I was hiding under the bed with my mother, stray bullets whizzing through the house, my school down the block burning to the ground, and pieces of exploding cars raining out of the sky, it wasn't the cops I was rooting for.
While the team has a look at the new route, we get caught up on the local news. In anticipation of us flying in, city cops had been rounding up homeless folks so they wouldn't show in the picture when the media drones shot a reindeer's-eye view of our approach. Our old route would have taken us right over a park where they hang, living in tents and boxes. Some woman there wouldn't give up her dog. A dog can save your life on a cold night. They clubbed her, ended up shooting the dog. Things got real ugly. The mayor sent in a bunch of cops to bust heads, and now they have a full-scale riot on their hands, spreading fast. Somebody's dubbed it The Christmas Riot, and the story's starting to go global.
"I can't believe we're supposed to fly like this isn't happening," Vixen says.
"No refunds," Blitzen says. "Don't you get it? The city has to pay anyway. What do they care? We're just a bunch of freaks." The whole team nods in agreement.
"Would you put your sunshine back in the bottle?" I say. "Listen up, everybody, we have some flying to do. We can have our feelings hurt later. There's nothing we can do about these people's problems. We'll stay far to the north of the troubled area, and we'll fly low. I don't want some nut picking us off over the horizon thinking we're cops."
"What about when we don't show up at the stadium?" Dancer says. "That time we cancelled in Philly there were almost riots, and they weren't already having one."
"Not our problem," I say. "We've already been cancelled. Everybody's flight plan has been changed. We can't do the show by ourselves."
"But most of the audience will be there already," Cupid says. "We're supposed to land in less than an hour."
"We're running way late," I point out.
"They don't know that," Dancer says. "There's a whole stadium of kids and their folks sitting in the cold expecting us to show."
"They gave away tickets in the schools," Blitzen says. "They wanted a stadium full of gratitude for the cameras. They've spent ten times more money on promoting the gift than on the gift itself. What does that tell you?"
"Enough politics," I say. "Let's just shut up and fly, okay?"