I’d never been to Cut Bank, Montana. Why would any one go there? It’s about halfway between Great Falls and the Canadian border, which is to say, it’s a good place, depending upon the time of year, to freeze to death or be eaten by a moose.
In August, it’s not such a bad little town. Quiet, unassuming, sparse. Kinda what you’d expect from Northern Montana, which is an area of the country I normally refer to as, “Southern Canada.”
My pal Levi was getting married, so I was there. Always felt sorry for him a bit. He was half Montana cowboy — on his mom’s side — and half Native American. He had the unfortunate curse of the surname of Lipsitter. I never asked. You shouldn’t, either.
After the service the Lipsitters and the Fords — the momma’s side — invited me to the reception. When I discovered the evening affair was just downstairs, in the basement of the Cut Bank Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I feigned jet lag and headed back to my hotel. The only alternative was a seedy little bar called The Den, which was part bar, part casino and part roadside stripper haven.
My kinda place. Heh.
Fortunately, the bartendress at The Den spent some time in the South after dropping out of college and knew the difference between Jack Daniels and bourbon. When I asked about their selection she said, “We’ve got E-T and Turkey.” I grimaced.
She looked around as if to ensure no one was looking, leaned forward and whispered, “But I’ve got a half bottle of Booker’s in the back.”
Resisting the urge to tell her I’d waited 20 years to hear a woman say that, I nodded and slipped her my credit card. “I’ll have that, please!” I said with a wink.
There were 14 people in The Den when I turned around. Two old, crusty dudes sitting four seats to my left were in the corner talking about cattle. Seven people were dispersed amongst the video poker machines along the front walls. The other five were sitting at a dark table near the back. They all had their heads down and one kept ducking every time I looked their way. I realized after the third glance they were all at the wedding and were apparently the part of the Jehovah’s Witness congregation that never made house calls.
It was about half past 10 when the door opened. I was facing the bar, with the front door to my right. When I caught the outline of the stranger coming toward in, I did a double take. If a record could have screeched to a halt at that moment, it would have. My mouth dropped open. Everyone else was familiar with the patron. Awkward doesn’t describe my out-of-placeness.
The interloper didn’t flinch. He walked in and sat next to me. Right there — three feet to my left, bellying up to the bar at The Den in Cut Bank, Montana that August night, was a fully functioning, real life, reindeer.
It wasn’t the fact he was sitting on his bottom with back legs draped around the barstool and front hooves thrown over the bar that pushed me to say something. I sat, oddly cool and collected, for several minutes. The thing that got me was when Michele (with one “L”), the bartendress, came over and said, “What’ll it be, Don?”
The reindeer nodded and said, in perfectly plain English, “The usual. Crown and Coke.”
Being the bourbon aficionado I am, and not seeming to care that I was about to have a conversation with a fucking reindeer, I interrupted.
“Could I perhaps buy you something a bit more mature?” I enquired.
He squinted, giving me a chill as if something paranormal were about to happen, and said, “What did you have in mind, Podna?”
“Pardon me for being presumptuous, but I’m from Kentucky,” I said, like I was chatting with anyone else I’d ever used the line on … of course this time I was talking to a deer, so I felt guilty. I wanted to stop and apologize for my Cousin Johnny, who once interrupted Thanksgiving dinner to drop a 12-point buck from 300-yards from his bedroom window. But I persevered, hoping Michele (with one “L”) had a very different interpretation of what “Bookers” really was, and this would all go away.
“Well, we’re partial to bourbon,” I said. “Can I buy you a Booker’s?”
“Sure, why not? Michele (with one “L”), I’ll have a Booker’s. Neat. Bring the Coke on the side.
“Thanks for the drink.”
Before long he was asking me questions about bourbon. I told him stories of mash bills and Angel shares, tasting panels and flavor palates. We chatted for an hour or so about everything from Indian summer effects to horse racing.
“Pussies!” Don muttered when the ponies came up.
“What? What do you have against thoroughbreds?” I replied.
“Well,” he responded. “It’s not like they can fly?!”
If I hadn’t been talking to a reindeer, I might have just kept my mouth shut, but something inside me had to blurt it out:
“Oh, and I guess you’re about to tell me you can?”
You know that scene in Trading Places when Eddie Murphy walks into the country bar and exclaims, “There’s a new sheriff in town?” I was experiencing the moment just before that when the whole room turned and looked at him as if to say, “Who let him in?”
Don held up a hoof as if to calm everyone down. He grinned as he turned and said, “I guess you really are from out of town. I’m Donder. As in Santa’s reindeer.”
“Don’t you mean, ‘Donner?’” I said, laughing.
As the room fell silent again, he said, “Noooooo. It’s Donder: D-O-N-D-E-R. Check the fuckin’ fairly tale, asshole. That Clement Clark whatever guy got it right. Bing Fuckin’ Crosby does the goddamn song and now the entire free fuckin’ world is misspelling my name.”
Fitting that the only time I’ve ever found myself sitting beside a reindeer, I step in it.
“Wait?” I pled, acting oblivious to any facts presented, “You’re THE Donner .. I mean Donder? As in Santa’s reindeer Donder?”
“The very one,” he said, with an indignant smirk.
In case you’re wondering, yes — an indignant smirk is tough as hell to decipher on the face of a deer.
It took me a few minutes to believe him, but then he recounted the time Santa had my red, flame decal, Schwinn chopper bike on the front porch, but had to run off for a few extra hours. I woke up and looked out the window just as he was putting the kick-stand down. I was seven. That told me he was the real deal.
Fascinated, I started a litany of questions that both had Donder uncomfortable at the nosiness, but also boastful as if I was asking a long-toothed hunter to tell me about his top 10 champion kills. Okay, bad analogy under the circumstances. But you get the idea.
Among the things I learned:
- Reindeer really are tiny. Donder was roughly the size of a dwarf sitting upright beside me at the bar. He acknowledged Clement Clark Moore’s poem was about as accurate a description of Santa he’d ever heard. The “big guy” is about 4-foot-10. “Any bigger and we’d strike. Fat ass is already too heavy to lug around,” he said. In 1998, though, they switched to a fiberglass sled which offset Santa’s new-found affinity for Labatt Blue.
- Santa and the ‘deer have never set foot in or on the North Pole. They live about 20 miles west of Milk River, Alberta, Canada, but only because the health care is better there. When I asked what health care had to do with it since they seem to have been around for hundreds of years, thus I’d think they were perfectly fine, Donder said, “Fuckin’ elves. Life expectancy of about 30 years. Plus, their tiny fingers keep getting caught in the machines.” He said the whole crew would live in Cut Bank if it were up to the reindeer. The people there don’t hunt as much.
- Cupid is far from one. He tried to set Blitzen up with a waitress at the Waffle House in Shelby back in 1983. But she had a hairlip and a palate issue and kept calling him “Bitchin’” It pissed him off and he took her to a drive in one night and left her there.
- Dancer would be one if he could get toe shoes to fit his hoofs. But he looks surprisingly good in a tutu.
- Comet had his antlers surgically removed, then replaced in 1987 so he could co-star in Twins with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
- Vixen is a prima donna. He claims the deer on the Hartford insurance company logo is modeled after him. But that deer has an 11-point rack. Vixen has six. He had seven before an “incident” in 1977 where the other one ended up in the wrong end of a bank teller. “It was a mess. She had kids and all,” Donder explained. “But the Hartford logo is kinda like Vixen in a way. The artwork cuts off his legs so you don’t know if he’s short or tall. Vixen’s legs are about the size of a Dachshund’s.”
It was getting close to midnight and Donder and I were both a little drunk. He seemed to want to leave, but I had to ask a couple more questions.
“What about Prancer?” I asked. “What’s he like?”
“His name’s ‘Prancer.’” he said, dryly. “What do you think? Dude’s queer as a football bat.”
“Really? There are gay reindeer?”
“Oh yeah!” Donder went on. “He’s real effeminate, too. Constantly prancing around, talking about how red and green clash and we need more turquoise in our get-up. He loves Karaoke and Desperate Housewives and herbal tea … total fruit cake.”
I was kinda stunned and sat silent for a moment. But Donder went on.
“We took a company field trip up to Calgary for a hockey match last year,” he continued. “You would have thought we were introducing the guy to the greatest gay invention ever?”
“He digs hockey players?” I asked.
“No … the team there is the Flames. He bought three jerseys, two hats and half a dozen stickers. Kept running up to people saying, ‘I’m a Flame … I’m a Flame.’ We kept our head’s down, but kept thinking, ‘No shit Sherlock.’”
“I bet that makes the toy runs awkward,” I thought … apparently out loud.
“Oh, no worries there,” Donder replied. “He’s always up front. Besides, he’s big into Bed, Bath and Beyond, so Blitzen, who’s positioned right behind him, doesn’t really even mind the smell. More than I can say for us others.”
I was curious about so many other things. I couldn’t get by without asking more about Santa Claus.
“So, gimme some scoop on the big guy,” I said. “What’s he like? What’s his secret? Is he really some Norwegian cobbler who used to leave gifts in kids shoes and stuff?”
Donder smiled as he swirled his drink around, ready to fill me in on some great secret. I could sense there was something big about to come.
“Come on … you know you want to tell me!” I prodded.
“Well,” he grinned as he cocked his head back and looked up, as if to ask forgiveness for what he was about to say. “You’re not going to believe this, but …”
“But what …”
“Santa is a Jew.”
Michele (with one “L”) dropped a glass. The Jehovah’s Witnesses abruptly rose and left in unison. One lady playing video poker turned and said, “Get the fuck out of here!?” but never let the cigarette leave her mouth in doing so.
“It’s true,” Donder said, giggling. “He just does the present thing to get back at his parents for all the shitty Chanukah gifts all those years. His real name is Sol Klein. His dad was a jeweler in Poughkeepsie. One of the elves wished him a Happy Chanukah one year and Santa snapped, hit him with a tire iron and made bacon out of him.”
“Oh my God?” I said. “What did everyone think about that?”
The stories had obviously reached a point of discomfort. Donder motioned for his tab and the video poker folks were slowly coming ’round and leaving. Sensing my questions and his state of sobriety were putting a dark spin on the evening, I asked for my bill, too.
But I had to ask one more thing.
“Alright, Don. I can’t let you out of here without one more question,” I said as he started to leave. “You never mentioned Rudolph. What’s the little dude like in real life?”
He looked at me like I had three heads.
“You know? Rudolph … the red-nosed reindeer?”
Donder threw a 50 down on the bar, nodded at Michele (with one “L”), looked at me almost astonished-like and said, “Come on, dude? You mean to tell me you believe in that fairy tale Christmas shit?”