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The live cigarette, burned almost to the very end, hung at the corner of the boy’s lips, glowing fitfully and faintly with his speech. It hung there, untouched by his hands, which were thrust under the rug. He no longer drew the smoke in; it seemed to seep in without conscious effort on his part, drifting from his nostrils thinly with his breath.
It’s Christmas in April here at Mirror with Clouds! After reading Alice Munro’s “The Turkey Season” which I had a feeling would have something of a holiday theme (and it did), I selected the Ace of Spades for Week 14 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project which corresponds to Robert Penn Warren’s “Christmas Gift”. Each year, I purposely include a story that has a Christmas sounding title just to see when it might show up and Warren’s story is the one I included this year. While Christmas is never directly mentioned in the story, some of the details (not least of which is the title) give the impression that the setting is sometime around December.
At the beginning of the story, Sill Lancaster, a boy who I would say is about ten years old, has hitched a ride (on a horse drawn wagon) into town to find a doctor for his pregnant sister. The locals at a store give him directions to the doctor and some red and white peppermint sticks.
He finds the doctor who hitches up his horse to his wagon and takes Sill back to his sister. The bulk of the story is Sill’s ride back home with the doctor. In fact, the story ends before they get to the Lancaster house. From the short pieces of conversation between the doctor and Sill, we find out that Sill’s sister is from his mom’s side of the family, not his dad’s. It appears that the sister is not married – at least a husband is not mentioned. The doctor knows of Sill’s father and understands that most people don’t like him.
The doctor rolls his own cigarette and drops the tobacco bag into Sill’s lap. In a powerful scene, Sill, not sure of what the doctor will think, eventually opens the bag and rolls his own cigarette, too. In exchange, the boy gives the doctor one of his peppermint sticks.
Given the approximate age of the boy, these two gifts say more about the givers than about Sill. The locals at the store think of him as a child. The doctor understands the unspoken circumstances of Sill’s family life and knows he’s more of a man. Maybe more of one than he should have to be.
My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis. This story is included in my copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike.