Just before Thanksgiving, as America began rolling out the holiday fare, I read this story in the December 2022 issue of Harper’s Magazine, and it blew me away. This little two-and-a-half-page piece stands alone above countless other stories that I’ve come across in The New Yorker and Harper’s that come nowhere close to its power. I found it tangibly nourishing, like bread (Spoilers ahead! Read the story, and then please come back!).
Reality versus Make-Believe
It begins with the simple words, “My father told me this story,” for a sense of grounding. I found this effective because of the way the father returns at the end, or actually makes his first appearance, as someone who admits that he himself was the boy in the story.
When that boy enters the grocery store and sees a picture of an idealized family on canned ham labels, he thinks that the girl in the picture looks at the ham in “ecstasy,” which is absurd, over-the-top, and clearly fake to this young discriminating person. It stands to reason that he would feel that way, because his own family life is quite bleak: His mother probably doesn’t know where he is on Christmas Eve, and his father has “disappeared for good,” implying that before, his father had regularly disappeared and came back.
At the same time, he is understandably crying out for make-believe, and because of the stark realities of his family life, each of his spontaneous aspirations along that line are particularly endearing to me. He climbs over the rope and enters the display house, observing that the door is “flimsy,” as it was made of cardboard, and it’s almost heartbreaking that he expected it to be anything different. Similarly, after he steps inside and finds nothing there, he wonders what it would be like if there were a fireplace inside, with a cozy chair.
This foreshadows the actual fire that later warms the boy’s freezing, wet self as he sits in a blanket in Martin Miner’s house, and it makes this later fire all the more poignant because it was initially presented in the boy’s mind as a fairy-tale impossibility.
Let’s go back to that moment when the boy first enters the grocery store. He’s greeted by a woman who calls him “hon” and informs him that the store will be closing soon. But by the time he comes out of the display house, and wanders to the front where he sees the buck, the woman has presumably left, and locked the door, completely forgetting about him. This little detail made me deeply feel the boy’s loneliness in this moment: His mother is off somewhere on Christmas Eve, his father is gone, and to would-be maternal figures who call him “hon,” he doesn’t even really exist. And because the front door is locked after he emerges from the display house, he needs to go out the back, so the alarm goes off; this detail echoes the boy’s crisis and matches his fervent desperation that the buck “waits” for him.
As powerful as the details are for me in this story, what’s even more powerful is what’s not there.
The heart of the story is the relationship between the narrator and her father, but we know so little about that relationship and its two characters. However, that was all I needed to imagine the story, and any more would have been overkill.
Also, consider what we know and don’t know about the boy’s problems: We know that his mother isn’t in the picture on Christmas eve, that she might be working at the bar or at a party, that she doesn’t tell him her “plans,” and that she told him once bitterly that no one ever shared their plans with her, especially not his father. And that’s it. We know his father is gone, and that’s all we’ve got; we don’t know why he’s gone or what led up to it. But these few details were just enough for me to imagine all kinds of things. How much better that I was engaged in imagining things, rather than following the writer around to scenes upon scenes of backstory, the mother at parties and the father out robbing banks, or whatever he might have been up to.
The boy feels a scar on the buck’s neck, where his father’s bullet might have broken the skin and healed over, and he believes he has been forgiven. At first, I couldn’t imagine what the boy felt he needed to be forgiven for, and then I thought that it could only be from shoving his father’s arm, making him miss, and making him angry, as irrational as it would be for him to feel guilty for these things. But this feeling of guilt perfectly fits this child’s psyche, and it helps to set up the deer encounter as a transformational moment in the boy’s life.
The forgiveness not only relieves the boy of his irrational guilt, but it also comes from a mysterious source (divine? I love how we can’t know), and this is powerful because of course such a thing could only come from such a source; he could never get anything remotely like forgiveness from his parents or any other would-be authority figure.
The Two Tellings
At the first telling of the story, there was probably no real communication between father and daughter, since he didn’t answer his daughter’s question about whether or not he was the boy in the story, saying it was “just a story,” and because the story had a happy, magical ending. The second time, in admitting that he was the boy, I imagine that he opened up to his daughter with all of the pain of his childhood, which he had probably never done before.
In that second telling, I imagine that there is real understanding between father and daughter, because it was more than “just” a story with a magical moral, it was a personal story of an extremely important Christmas Eve in an unimaginably empty childhood, which gave him what he needed to survive and eventually have a child of his own. And that’s the story that the narrator gives us, wrapped in the broader, implied story of father and daughter.