Counting the Reindeer

An hour into his father’s viewing, Jack Woolsey noticed his sister’s husband Daniel walk in wearing a red sweater circled by two rings of green and white prancing reindeer. “He was watching his football game,” Woolsey’s sister said, and Woolsey felt his fists clench.

Daniel, as if to confirm that news, announced that one team had a two- touchdown lead. “It’s just the end of the first quarter,” he said, “so it still might get interesting.”

“For whom?” Woolsey said.

Daniel looked perplexed. “You don’t follow college football?”

Woolsey followed it enough to know that neither of the teams in the BCS Championship Game were located within 700 miles of where they stood, but he opted for “Not tonight.”

Fifteen minutes later, Jackie leaned down to say, “Daniel thought you’d want to know nothing’s changed,” and Woolsey lurched to his feet as if she’d blurted “Fire!” He remembered how his father had hated Daniel, how he’d worried that Daniel would outlive Jackie and squander all the money she saved by living frugally. He followed the red sweater as it left the viewing room. Watched it disappear down a flight of stairs, from where, half way down himself, Woolsey could see a small television showing the game in an office.

When Daniel reappeared, announcing the half time score as if he’d placed a bet, Woolsey, to keep from punching him, began to count the green and white reindeer that circled the sweater, losing his place when his brother-in-law turned, then starting over, then losing count again while their knitted hooves lifted as if prancing in otherwise unmarked snow.

Those reindeer, the next day, ran through Woolsey’s thoughts at his father’s church, at the cemetery, and at his sister’s house while guests consoled him as they balanced plates and glasses. Then, for twenty minutes more while he drove to his father’s house. A FOR SALE sign was already posted in the yard, but Woolsey parked in the driveway, opened the trunk, and waved his wife forward. “Take a look,” he said.

He watched his wife until she looked inside the shopping bag, squealed, and swung around holding up the reindeer sweater. “You stole this hideous thing?” she said. “He’ll know.”

“Not until next Christmas.”

Forty years ago, his father had built a fireplace in the back yard and used it for grilling, keeping wood in the garage instead of a bag of charcoal. Woolsey gathered an armful of logs from the depleted stack and carried it to the fireplace. He built a tepee of wood and stuffed smaller sticks underneath it before he soaked the whole thing with gasoline from the can that sat between an old set of golf clubs and the ancient lawnmower.

Draping the sweater over the fireplace bricks, he kept his thumb in place beside a reindeer and began to count. There were nine reindeer in each of the three circles, two of the reindeer in the highest one leaping into the armpits. “I stole matches, too,” he said.

“You’ll blow yourself up,” she said. “You’ll be a ball of flame, and all those reindeer will laugh.”

“I’m letting the fumes blow away. The can is back in the garage where it belongs. These reindeer won’t be amused.” He struck a match, flicked it onto the wood and jumped away.

Woolsey fed the fire for a few minutes before he dangled the sweater over the flames with the end of his father’s dusty three-iron. It flared in spots as if something highly flammable had been woven through the wool, the sort of material Woolsey imagined was used in clothes that immolated children. It took a lot of coaxing to keep the rest of the sweater burning.

“We should get going,” he said, stabbing at the remains of the sweater, a flurry of sparks erupting, each one of them so much a pin point of diminishment that he looked down again to make sure the sweater’s ashes were still there to scoop into the shopping bag. In less than fifteen minutes, they were hiking back to the fresh grave through an arrival of snow flurries.

At the grave site, the shopping bag felt so light in his hand Woolsey, for a moment, thought it had leaked during the short walk from the car. Handful by handful, Woolsey scattered the sweater’s ashes across the grave. “So Dad knows,” he said, and though he held no hope that this was true, he held his wife as if he believed it.

Gary Fincke’s collection of essays, The Darkness Call, won the Robert C. Jones Prize (Pleaides Press, 2018). A new collection, The Mayan Syndrome, will be published in May by Madhat Press. Its lead essay, After the Three-Moon Era, originally published at Kenyon Review Online, was selected to be reprinted in Best American Essays, 2020.