Rudolf’s heart raced and his mouth twitched. He took a deep breath and tried to ignore the others. He hated the teasing. Even though it happened every year, dealing with it never got easier.
“Where’s your red nose Rudolf?” somebody yelled as the boys burst into more laughter.
He tried to walk with a normal easy stroll but he felt tense and awkward. It was hard to normalize this situation while he battled both embarrassment and fear. Embarrassed everyone was staring at him and fear that another snowball would smack the back of his head…or worse, that a sudden shove to his back would throw him again face first to the ground.
“We want to see you fly Rudolf!”
“So would I,” he thought amid their jeers.
His head suddenly lurched forward and he felt the cold sting of another snowball. He didn’t pause to brush off the snow, determined instead to distance himself between himself and the school.
He both loved and hated his name. Christmastime was the worst. Most of the rest of the year passed with only minor incidents but after Thanksgiving the teasing continually got worse. By the last day of school before Christmas break he expected this. Even the snowballs.
But his name was all he had from his father. He held onto the name in the same way that he held on to his imagined life with a father he’d never met. Somewhere out there was a man named Rudolf who understood. And Rudolf tolerated the teasing because the pain of letting go of the idea that someday he’d find his father hurt more than the snowballs.
After a few blocks, the mob lost interest and Rudolf was left to walk in peace. He shook the icy water out of his hair and wiggled his shoulders to rub his coat on his back. It soaked up some of the freezing slush that had drizzled halfway down his spine. He picked up his pace to get home where he could take off his wet shirt and wrap up in a blanket.
The house was cold and empty. His mom worked two jobs and wouldn’t be home until just before the sun rose tomorrow morning. She’d sleep a few hours and then rush out to catch the bus. Rudolf spent most of his time in the dark, quiet house reading. He tossed his coat on the couch and quickly stripped off his wet shirt, careful to keep it from touching his bare skin. He grabbed the heavy wool blanket on the couch, wrapped it tightly around his body, and collapsed in a cold shiver onto the soft dusty cushions. He spent most of his life alone on this couch.
After his shivering subsided, he reached one arm out from inside the warm blanket to the table behind him and flicked on the light. In the same motion, he grabbed his book. For the next five hours he was happy. In these adventures he had friends and people who loved him. Men admired him. Girls oogled over him. And he stomped out evil and saved the world.
When his eyes finally dropped shut and the book fell to his chest, Rudolf slept with a smile as his escapades continued throughout the night. When he opened them the next morning, the smile stayed in place. He loved dreaming. It had been a wonderful night. In the real word, his mother had come and gone again. In this world his warm breath form a tiny cloud in the cool air above him. He tightened his grip on the book, still resting on his chest, lifted it, and escaped for the rest of the day. He finished it just after the sun stole the meager winter daylight.
His stomach growled. He rolled off the couch and stood, careful to keep the blanket wrapped tightly around him. He moved through the house to the kitchen and looked for something to eat. The fridge wasn’t completely empty but it didn’t have much to offer; a pickle jar with only green juice, old cottage cheese that looked more like blue cheese, and a carton of milk that was on its way to becoming cottage cheese.
Earlier in the week he bought can of Speghettios for 99 cents at the mini market down on the corner. They were probably still on sale. He shuffled through the kitchen drawer for spare change. Unsuccessful, he went back to the front room and searched the bookshelf. He let his blanket fall to the floor and ruffled through the cushions of the couch and chair. Seventy five cents later, he decided to make the best of it. Wearing three shirts, both pairs of his pants, three dirty socks (two on each foot and one on each hand), and his coat, he ventured out into the dark cold Christmas Eve.
Near the market he checked a payphone hoping for a break. It was empty. Inside the market he confirmed the Speghettios were still on sale and even spent a good minute looking at the picture of the little round noodles on the cover. He paused on his way out of the store and thought about buying a Snickers bar instead. But he wanted the Spheghettios. He figured he could find some change somewhere.
Outside he walked down the streets. Several of the houses had blinking lights along the roof and windows. Most of them had a Christmas tree on display in one of the front windows. He wondered what it was like past the glowing trees. Did families actually sit together for a Christmas dinner? Did they read Christmas stories? Maybe sing around the piano? He hoped so.
A large SUV in the distance slowed and turned into a driveway several houses ahead and on the other side of the road. Car doors opened and closed. He saw a few shadowed figures walk into the house and a couple more around to the back of the car. The back swung open and the people unloaded the vehicle. He heard muffled voices as the figures, loaded with grocery bags, walked into the house.
As he drew even with the house, a dark Christmas tree in the window suddenly sprang to life. As he watched, something near the car caught his eye. Curious, he walked across the street and saw a grocery bag laying on the ground near the vehicle.
He crossed the street and picked it up. It was heavy. He opened the bag and wasn’t surprised to see it was full of food. He was, however, surprised to see a can of Spheghettios. For a moment he hesitated. He could take the can and leave the rest. He didn’t consider taking the whole bag. In fact, he wouldn’t have even considered taking anything but Spheghettios had been on his mind all night. They wouldn’t miss a mere can of Spheghettios. Their nice car, nice house, bags of food…why shouldn’t he take it? He could leave the rest on the porch, ring the bell, and run.
He walked up and rang the bell. The door swung open and he held out the bag. The warm air rushing out of the house carried smells that made his mouth water.
“You forgot this,” he said.
The teenage boy at the door looked down at him for a moment.
“Oh, thanks.” He said and took the bag. “Have a Merry Christmas,” he said with a quick smile.
An irritated yell from back inside the house interrupted Rudolf’s response, “Come on Jake, we’ve already been waiting all night!”
Jake glanced around and then back to Rudolf.
“Thanks, you too,” Rudolf answered as he stepped back.
The door shut and Rudolfo turned and began walking down the steps. He reached the sidewalk and hurried to the left and out of view of the front window. And then he stopped. He felt the can in his pocket. He wanted it so bad. He could already smell and taste them. But he was starting to feel sick. He remembered the boy wishing him a Merry Christmas and felt worse.
He rang the bell a second time. A large woman wearing a red sweater decorated with green Christmas designs answered the door.
He avoided her eyes and held out the can in his sock covered hand.
“You forgot this too,” he said.
She didn’t take the can. With his head hung low he rolled his eyes up. She was staring down at him and he quickly looked away, ashamed. He thrust out his hand again hoping she would take it. But she didn’t.
He looked up and she was covering her mouth with her hand. ‘She knows,’ he thought. ‘She knows I stole it.’
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was hungry.”
“What’s,” she cleared her throat and seemed to struggle to speak. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Rudolf,” he answered.
“Like the Reindeer?” she said.
“Yeah,” he answered. “Like the Reindeer,” he said without enthusiasm.
“What are you doing alone tonight?” she asked.
“Won’t your family be worried?” she asked.
“Nah,” he said and held out the can again.
She took the can and bent down so her eyes were even with his.
“We are just getting ready to eat and we have plenty. I would be honored to have such a fine young man join us for dinner. Would you like to come inside?”
Rudolf wanted to but shook his head, no. He felt bad.
“I’m sorry about the Sphegettios,” he said, again avoiding her eyes.
“Rudolf,” she said.
When he looked at her she had tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Thanks for stopping. Thanks for reminding me what Christmas is really about. Sometimes I get so caught up in everything I just…”
Rudolfo didn’t understand.
“Take this, at least,” she said and pushed the can back into his hand. “You deserve a lot more.”
He hesitated but accepted her gift.
She chuckled and sniffed. “You saved Christmas Rudolf.”
He was confused, but he smiled at her and shook the can, “So have you.”
“Stop by again some day, will you?”
“Promise?” she asked.
He looked back at her and nodded. “Ok, I will,” he grinned.
The looked at each other for a moment and Rudolf stepped back.
“Merry Christmas,” he said.
“Merry Christmas, Rudolf” she answered.