[Dumb Stories] Most Infamous

I stood in the shadows between the pool cues and a table occupied by a lone drunk. The drunk was staring, dumbfounded at me as he had been for the better part of half an hour, but I wasn’t bothered. Everybody stared, and the drunks stared more than the rest, since they had lost every vestige of self-respect that would have caused a pang of guilt to course through them for staring at a freak like me. I’ve gotten used to the stares. It’s the overwhelming number of drunks that bothers me.

In this Godforsaken country, if you couldn’t handle the stress of working at the plant, you turned to drink. It happened to everyone after a while. When there’s only one game in town, they make the rules, and those rules were ruthless. Thirty-six hour shifts and only twelve hours between them to sleep, or, more commonly, drink until you finally fell into some sort of unconsciousness. No breaks, no meals, no excuses. You drank to keep the sting of a worthless life from getting to you. Finally, when the drink stopped working, you would just walk outside, into the cold, and die.

The Big Man doesn’t give a shit about the drunks, I thought, They’re just numbers to him. Acceptable losses.

My teeth ground as I thought about the Big Man sitting in his warm office while every other living creature within a hundred miles or more worked endlessly to fulfill his vision. Then, everyone would bow and scrape when he appeared, smiling at the filthy, exhausted workers as though he were their proud father and they his favored children. Well, almost everyone would scrape. Some of us knew better. Some of us wouldn’t take it anymore. I took a deep breath; I had to focus. This was an important day, years in coming. Today, the Big Man was going to die.

The door creaked. None of the drunks turned their heads, but my eyes flicked toward it, now standing wide open. A dusting of snow drifted like a puff of fog into the dive. It had been a gust of wind, nothing more. The bouncer, thick-necked and over-muscled, slammed the door with a flick of his wrist from his perch at the end of the bar.

“Damn it…” I whispered under my breath.

I needed to keep it together. This was the first time I had ever attempted to pull a job this big, but it was a logical step. The Big Man was a pig that needed to get stuck. He needed to die, and I was the one who would do it… with some help. I was anxious for the first of my guests to arrive. I had only communicated with two of the three of them through very secure channels, never face-to-face. I was nervous about meeting them for the first time. The tinkling chime of the wall clock announced the hour. Before the light, brassy tones faded, someone spoke right beside me, just outside of my peripheral vision.

“You must be the employer,” uttered a small, unnerving voice.

Even before I turned to see the speaker, I knew who it was, and I shivered, inwardly. My eyes fell upon the speaker’s fragile-looking form. They called him the Iceman. I had thought the name silly and overly dramatic until the moment I had laid eyes on him. The man was cold. Colder than the dead. Like someone who had never truly been alive. Though, to an outsider, it might look like I could crush him with a step, the Iceman had depths to him that couldn’t be seen but were easily felt. I could sense the kind of uncaring evil that lurked in this man’s frozen heart. I didn’t even bother to question how he had sneaked up on me, in spite of the single entrance and the fact that my back was toward a wall.

“G…good to meet you,” I said, stammering and too quickly.

He offered me a sickly smile but said nothing more. He would be the greaseman for this job. Getting to the Big Man was almost impossible, especially at this time of year, but, at just one moment this season, he would be at his most vulnerable. It was crunch time at the plant. With everyone stressing about their jobs, working extra hours, and generally doing everything they could to heighten their chances of having an aneurism, at a particular moment every year, security around the Big Man was lax. It would be tonight, just before he would step out of the hallway that connected his office to the large, open yard next to the plant to give another artfully crafted annual lie, in which he would applaud everyone’s work ethic, remind them how important each of them was, and then smile and wave as the masses wept at his presence and cheered for him. Everyone who lived under our beloved despot’s rule was required to attend. In fact, everyone was required to be in the yard at attention before the Big Man stepped out to make his speech. Everyone. This included his bodyguards. That would give us between fourteen and twenty seconds to get to him when he was alone listening to the crowd chant his name over and over like mindless drones.

The Iceman’s job was to make sure we got in cleanly, without any fuss or disturbance. He would give us the path to follow, the info about patrols we would run into, and watch posts we had to avoid. He also had ensured that certain doors would be unlocked at the right moments and certain eyes would be turned away where distraction was more profitable than plucking them out. In fact, his job was really done, but he would still be coming with us in order to make any last minute changes to the route, should the need arise.

The Iceman sat down on the opposite side of the table that was closest to me, after only the shortest of glances at the nearby drunk caused him to rise and wobblingly flee to another part of the dive. He had sat in the only seat that would put his back toward the door, as if he was trying to make a point that he had nothing to fear from anything that lay out in the cold. Perhaps he didn’t, but I didn’t have much of a chance to think about it before the door crashed open at the behest of a gigantic boot. The door clanged against the side wall and made that odd, high-pitched ringing that all very heavy doors do when roughly handled. In stepped a large man who was totally out of place anywhere within the domain of our Dear Leader. He wore a thick coat fashioned from some unrecognizable white fur and dark hide. From the tufts of fur that poked from his enormous boots, it was obvious that they were also lined with the strange fur. Those accessories would have been the first and most prominent clues to the identity of this foreign traveler, if he had not also been carrying the largest rifle I had ever seen. It looked like it had been forged of midnight steel and designed exclusively to hunt dinosaurs from a great distance… possibly across time.

He took the weapon from his shoulder and marched slowly toward the table the Iceman occupied. The man sat in the chair to the Iceman’s left, and, after placing the butt of his rifle on the floor near his foot, rested its barrel against his right thigh while letting his hand drift, almost lazily, down to rest on the rifle’s bolt. While apparently relaxed, this position seemed almost more menacing to me than it would have had his hand been on the trigger and the barrel pointed between my eyes. He nodded to the Iceman, more in reflex than any sort of camaraderie, and then set his eyes on me.

He had a name, once. A real one. There are legends that say he sold it for his nightmare rifle or that he gave it to a witch in trade for the means to slay a monster or that, in a fit of greed, he sold his family for gold and silver and, after he returned to his senses, couldn’t face the name any longer. Every legend is different in some way or other, but they all agree on one part: he gave up his name. For some reason, that was most frightening to me. In any case, most people that spoke of him at all (and that wasn’t many) called him Red, almost assuredly because of his jarring, flame-red hair. I nodded to him.

“Red… is it?” I said, trying to maintain a firm tone.

He shrugged, saying nothing.

Red was our demo. What the Iceman was to getting us in to kill the Big Man, Red was to getting us out. The problem was, where getting in required finesse, getting out required firepower. Luckily, Red was nothing but firepower. After the Big Man was dead, we wouldn’t have enough time to sneak back out of the plant grounds. After a pause of maybe only half a minute where the Big Man didn’t appear, one of the bodyguards would stick his head into the door to make sure everything was alright. They would have us, then. The most obvious exit route was to make our way back through the plant and out the same way we had come in as speedily as we possibly could. We all knew that there was no chance in hell we would make it all the way back through the plant without someone triggering a lockdown. Red had come up with a rather simple solution. He suggested that we leave the same way the Big Man was going to leave, through the door at the end of the hall. Of course, that is after I set up shaped charges by the door and blow anyone standing within thirty feet to hell, Red had added in his last communication to me. With little other choice, I had agreed.

With two of the three members of the team sitting somewhat uncomfortably at the table, the last member stood up from his seat at the end of the bar. He grabbed his drink and performed a sort of shuffling walk toward the table, his brutish form larger if not quite as tall as Red’s. I had known the bouncer of this dive since we were kids, both thrown into the world far before our time. We had relied on each other since that time to scrape by, and had become something like brothers in the process. He had a name that he had hated since he was born, but, after he patched me up and pulled two loose teeth that I earned from a messy landing during one of our early jobs, I called him Doc. The name stuck, and he was good-humored about it, as with most things. For being so brutishly large, almost in the styling of lowland gorillas, he was fairly gentle. That is, unless he was working.

As a bouncer, he wouldn’t just sling you out the door for causing trouble. He would make sure you remembered what had happened for days, if not weeks or months. For the job, he was the muscle. This wasn’t a role with which he was unfamiliar. He and I had worked together on many other jobs over the years. Each time, he performed as though he was on a mission from God. On the job, he was a berserker, but, though he played up the meathead angle to throw people off guard, he wasn’t stupid. He was far from it, actually. When we were kids, he would talk about wanting to practice medicine of one type or another. I always knew he was capable of it, but schools aren’t very accommodating to those who have left the Big Man’s service, even if it wasn’t their choice… even if they were just kids at the time. Doc made the best of it, though. He had learned much on his own, and, to my knowledge, might be the most skilled medic around. He still liked cracking skulls too much to give it up, though, which suited our purposes just fine. We needed him to break arms, now, but, later, we very well might need him to bandage us up and sew us back together.

Doc sat down across from Red, grinning stupidly at both of the other team members. Neither of them even bothered to glance his way. I approached the remaining empty spot at the table. After looking at all three of them, pausing briefly to hold a moment of eye contact with each, I spoke.

“In forty minutes, we are going to fulfill years of planning. This has to be perfect. Are there any questions?”

“Yes…” said the Iceman, “…We have not discussed how we will be getting to the grounds or how we will be leaving.”

“Well, that’s obvious isn’t…” Doc began, but I cut him off.

“I will be providing transport there. Our vehicle is waiting outside. Leaving the grounds would have been a problem, but I believe we will be able to commandeer the vehicle of our… target.”

“And you can handle that all by yourself, can you?” said Red, roughly.

Doc finally got a word in edgewise, “He’s the best there is, was, or ever will be.”

“Thank you for the vote of confidence, Doc,” I said, without letting my eyes drift from Red’s, “Yes, I can.”

Red and the Iceman seemed to accept this. Without another work, Red picked up his monstrous weapon, and walked outside, presumably to retrieve whatever explosives he had brought along for the job. A moment later, the Iceman retreated to our vehicle claiming that the dive was “overly warm”. I waited for Doc to finish his drink before starting outside. He stopped me with a word.


I turned around, my left brow raised questioningly at the concern in his voice when he spoke my name.

“Rudy, even if this goes off without a hitch…”

“Yes?” I replied.

“They’re still going to know it was you who killed him. Hell, they might know it was all of us, but they are, for sure, going to know it was you. You’re too recognizable… You know…”

He tapered off. I said nothing.

“They’re going to come after you. Hard. They aren’t going to stop until they have your head. You’ve got to see that.”

“I know, Doc. Still, it has to be done.”

“Why? Why does it have to be done? Why do we have to be the ones to do it?” Doc was visibly upset, now.

“He took everything away from me, Doc. Everything!” I realized I was yelling and lowered my voice to a harsh whisper. “He turned everyone away from me. He turned my parents away from me. He made them turn me out into the cold. He is a monster. A beast. He has created a society that can’t handle the slightest variation. Don’t you remember how he kicked you out of school, Doc? For what? Being smart?”

“I know. I know,” Doc said with his hands raised, “I get it, Rudy. You know that I get it. You know that I remember. I also remember how we found each other in the cold. How we survived.”

“It doesn’t matter that we lived, Doc. How many others died alone before and after we found each other? How many more have to be turned out when they’re nothing but kids. How many have to walk out into the cold because the drink won’t help anymore before someone stands up and says ‘No more’? This needs to be done. It’s too late to back out now.”

I stared at him, knowing that he could see the fire in my eyes. He hung his head in defeat or acceptance; I couldn’t tell which.

“You’re right. It’s time to end it,” Doc said. Then he paused for a brief moment before starting again, with the rumor of a smile on his lips, “If this does work out like you’ve planned, after we kill the Big Man, blow a hole in the side of the plant, and come running out, you at our head, one thing’s for damn sure.”

I spoke with a little more lightness in my voice, “What’s that?”

He looked right into my eyes and quirked a grin, “After they catch a load of that, Rudy, you are definitely going to be the most infamous reindeer of all.”

He grinned at me for a moment, and then we both turned toward the door, exiting into the peculiarly foggy evening.


[Dumb Movies] The Polar Express

the-polar-express-(2004)Every year, and I mean every year, I hear the same argument start sometime in October or November. It used to just be a lot of “Keep the Christ in Christmas!” shouting. Now, people are angry over cups that don’t have snowflakes and gingerbread men on them. They don’t understand that Xmas is the correct Greek shorthand for Christmas, and isn’t sacrilegious at all. They even go so far as to demonize other holidays that occur near Christmas as some sort of usurper upstarts, because they either forgot or never learned that Christmas is on December 25th because the early church wanted to stop people from celebrating the much more popular Roman holiday The Feast of the Unconquered Sun, which had occupied the date for centuries. People are angry about words, images, plays, and songs. I’m angry, too.

I’m angry that when I greet people with a Merry Christmas, certain people will nod in approval, as if I have done something correct rather than something kind. I’m angry that people tell me what they have contributed to charity this year, as if it’s noble rather than something that is required of all people with enough to give. I’m angry that people use this time of year especially to pervert words like kindness when they mean pity or joy when they mean luxury. I’m angry that I’m angry. I’m angry that I do all these things that make me angry, too.

I used to believe in something. At least, I think I did. I believed in the magic. I believed that Christmas was the best holiday because of presents and food and movies and music and having a break from school. I used to believe in something. Then, sometime when I was ten or twelve or somewhere around there, I started to see the silver tarnish. The beautiful wrapping paper started to tear, and I saw what was underneath. It was a holiday made of half-truths and knowing winks. I was being fooled, and I couldn’t say anything because it would mean that the holiday where I got to eat as much as I wanted, the holiday where I got presents might be ruined. I realized that the magic was fragile.

In The Polar Express, this doubt is represented by an inability to hear Santa’s sleigh-bells. The hero of the story, a boy whose name we never learn, struggles with his doubt, fearing that, should he ask his parents about the nature of Christmas, it would mean an end to the magic. Throughout the story, he encounters representations of those traits that become grating when the magic loses its luster, childish avarice and starry-eyed excitement, and he also encounters the traits he most fears taking over, depression and cynicism.

Near the end of the film, where the boy is surrounded by true believers, he looks up to see the sleigh-bells being rung and everyone around him saying how beautiful they sounded. He could not hear them. A bell breaks off and comes rolling toward him. The boy picks it up and rings it but hears nothing. This is the moment that a fun family film becomes a great film, one that I love. The boy, at the edge of tears, closes his eyes and, with the pain of growing up in his voice, whispers, “I believe. I believe.” With that, he rings the bell again. The others were right. The sound is beautiful.

I had spent so much time worrying that I would do or say or think the wrong thing, and that would shatter the fragile magic. What I failed to realize was that, while I focused on myself, on my thoughts and my actions, the magic had already been broken. But, much like a stone table in another novel about the true meaning of Christmas, beneath the broken surface of the magic I had relied on for so many years, there was a deeper magic. It was a magic that could not be bought or sold. It wasn’t encountered while eating or singing carols. It was and is the gift of peace.

Maybe the reason that what we perceive as the magic of Christmas fades to doubt over the years is because we can’t find that magic in food or presents or other people or anything as simple as that. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to get angry. It’s easy to point fingers at the ones who you think are attacking your holiday. It’s easy for me to point fingers at people I think are missing the point of Christmas. It’s easy to be angry. It’s hard to feel peace. It’s hard to understand that freedom is admitting you don’t have or need control. It’s hard to accept that the way I feel about people who proclaim their righteousness is just as self-righteous as their Facebook posts. It’s hard to admit that we can’t take Christ out of Christmas, because we didn’t put him in it. So, instead of admitting that the magic doesn’t need our protection, we begin to doubt its very existence. One by one, we fall away.

There’s a line at the very end of The Polar Express spoken by the narrator after the boy shares his bell with his sister and parents. His sister, Sarah, hears it, but his parents don’t and assume the bell is broken.

“At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”

On Christmas day, I celebrate the gift I was given. It was not a gift in name only. It was a true gift. It was a gift that I couldn’t buy myself. It was the gift of deep magic, of peace, of being known. It was the gift of love in the face of my self-righteousness. It was the gift of never being alone again, not in this life and not after. Yet, even still, with all of my self-assurance, I still find myself often holding the bell to my ear, closing my eyes, and, just before ringing it, whispering the only two words that ever truly mattered: I believe.