Bunker’s Christmas

(First published in Ballyhoo Stories, Number 4.)

Bunker couldn’t believe he’d missed with the first two shots. But the goose flew so slowly in the mist that he had time to reload, lead the bird, and fire a third time, finally dropping it with a loud splash in the marsh. He felt his first satisfaction all morning, since his wife had rolled him awake at five and told him to finish sleeping on the couch because of his cold feet. After napping with a spring in his back, he’d woken up for good at six, made cheese sandwiches, filled his Thermos with coffee, and driven to the duck blind.

Ice had frozen at the edges of the marsh. He floated his decoys on the gray water into the fog. He quacked on his call, but couldn’t raise a bird. Over the next few hours he ate his sandwiches, drained his Thermos, and took three trips to the bushes. By nine his toes were numb. His battery-warmed socks needed new batteries. He decided to quit. Then, from the north, the goose flew by, redeeming the morning.

“Gotcha!” he shouted.

Hearing the splash, Bunker’s retriever leaped into the water and paddled furiously into the distance. He watched with pride. The dog was a natural. Her nose held high, she swam straight for her prey. Bunker rose out of the blind and stomped some warm blood back into his feet. He’d easily make it home in time for the noon kickoff on TV.

But the dog swam back with an empty muzzle. She clambered onto the bank and shook the water off her fur. Her floppy ears dripped, and her loose face hung ready to cry.

“Where’s the goose?” Bunker demanded. “No dog cookies this time.”

He tightened the shoulder straps on his rubber waders and stepped into the water. He refused to lose this bird. The marsh bottom was squishy but spiky with the stalks of dead reeds. If he tripped and flooded his waders, he’d be in great trouble, so he stepped cautiously, even as his feet grew frigid and clumsy. His thighs ached from the bitter cold. He had waded in up to his waist when he saw the goose floating thirty feet ahead in the swirling vapors. He sang ” The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to take his mind off the cold.

From ten feet, Bunker knew that the goose wasn’t a goose. Had he waded all this way for driftwood? He’d kill that damn dog.

Finally reaching the floater, he gasped; his knees almost collapsed. He struggled to stand upright. If he slipped, he could die.

It was a toy sleigh with nine reindeer as small as clothespins tangled up in the reins. Many of the reindeer floated motionless on their sides with blood leaking from their noses, but two struggled to kick free from the straps, desperately holding their heads above water. Only the front reindeer with a bright red nose had escaped the wreck. It treaded in place, pulling the sled not an inch.

Santa Claus slumped on the sleigh dashboard, his face buried in his arms. The tiny man seemed to be sobbing. His black boots sloshed in the pool of water on the sleigh floor. Bunker pulled on Santa’s hat, flipping him back into his seat. Santa had a bloody nose and a black eye. His beard looked like a dirty cotton ball. Upon seeing Bunker, Santa revived and spit tobacco juice on the railing. He raised his white glove in a fist no bigger than a chipmunk paw.

“You perfidious buffoon! You blundering knave! You putrefying cretin! You rotting cuckold!”

“What?” said Bunker.

“You stupid fuck!”

“Hey,” said Bunker, jabbing Santa’s belly, which felt surprisingly hard. “Where’s your manners?”

“Manners is it? My God, how this world has fallen into the stinking dragon pit. You dithering twit! You’ve fractured my spine!”

“Where?” Bunker poked the red belly and wiggled the little man around. Santa winced, gasped, and sobbed. He weakly tried to push away Bunker’s finger.

“Mercy, I beg of you, take me to the hospital!”

“Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” Bunker asked.

He corralled the reindeer and sleigh in his arms. The red-nosed reindeer climbed onto his shoulder and sat curled and alert. Santa leaned against the dashboard and muttered more curses Bunker didn’t understand. Even his wife showed more respect than this guy.

Bunker waded toward the duck blind. His body ached from the cold. For a moment he feared he was walking the wrong way, out to the river, because in the fog every direction looked the same. The bottom made a step up to knee depth, and Bunker felt confident again. He whistled to the retriever. She yelped, leading him to the blind. Climbing up the bank, his legs were so numb he nearly toppled onto his face.

“Look what I shot,” Bunker told the dog. “A pain in the ass.”

He heard squishing in his waders. No wonder he felt so cold. Left out on the porch all summer, the rubber must have cracked its seams. He put down the sleigh for the dog to sniff. Slipping off his shoulder straps and peeling his waders, he found his blue jeans black with water from his thighs down. If he dilly-dallied, he’d get hypothermia. As it was, he’d probably wake up tomorrow with a runny nose.

The dog snarled, then whimpered and crouched back from the sleigh.

“You slobbering mongrel!” Santa shouted. He waved a can that Bunker guessed was pepper spray. Like flicking a crumb from a table, Bunker shot the can into the reeds. “God Blasted!” Santa shouted.

Bunker chuckled. This guy was too much. But the sleigh looked intriguing. The license plate was foreign, an oval with numbers but no home name. There was a weathered bumper sticker that Bunker squinted to read, but didn’t get: My Other Vehicle Is A Broom. He wondered what this sleigh might be worth. It was far more sophisticated than a child’s toy. The dashboard had dozens of dials.

“Stop looking up my arse, you dawdling imbecile!” Santa shouted. He slipped a silver flask from his red coat and took a swallow. “This is the only medicine I’ve got. Get me to the hospital!”

Bunker didn’t approve of the liquor, but no use in trying to reason with a drunk.

The pickup was parked in a muddy lot behind the old wire factory. “You ride in back,” Bunker told the dog and tossed two cookies in the truck bed.

He laid Santa’s sleigh on the passenger side. The soggy reindeer tangled in reins spilled off the seat and to the floor. He wiped the windshield with his sleeve and slammed his door. Bunker pumped the gas pedal and turned the key until the engine caught. The windshield had fogged up. He turned on the heater and waited.

“I thought you were a story,” Bunker said. “Everybody knows Santa Claus is just a guy in a rented suit who stands on a sidewalk for a month ringing a bell for the Salvation Army. Most of them aren’t even fat anymore.”

“Insidious impostors,” Santa snarled. “The rankest collection of winos, perverts, and unemployed thespians. My wardrobe treated as a clown suit. Believe me, had I the employ of lawyers, I would raise holy Cain over such wanton infringement.”

Santa lay on his sleigh seat with a hand on his forehead, his face slick with sweat and his armpits stained. Bunker wondered if he shouldn’t lose some weight. Santa didn’t look healthy.

“How come you’re so small?” Bunker asked.

“If the geometry of chimneys eludes you, my friend, let me reassure you: At your absurd size it can’t be done. You’d plug the top like a champagne cork. And you wouldn’t go pop.”

“Then how do you get all those presents down?”

“Must I divulge every secret? My back is suffering thunderbolts of pain!”

“The engine has to warm up,” Bunker protested. But he wiped a circle in the windshield fog and shifted into first gear. The truck lurched across the lot, spinning tires in the mud, finally pulling onto the road and bumping across the abandoned railroad tracks.

“Jesus crapper!” Santa shouted. “Must you ram your axles in every pothole?” He pulled his flask from his coat.

The red-nosed reindeer looked up from napping and lay back on the seat. Bunker wondered if it would eat dog-cookie crumbs.

He cracked his window to clear the windshield fog. They passed the heating-oil tank yard and the nursery with mulch bags piled like stone walls.

At times, Bunker didn’t recognize the village. The firehouse had been been turned into condos and Main Street now had a recycling center, video rental, Chinese takeout, and a gym with a large window that normally revealed women in leotards and big sneakers running on treadmills. But things were quiet this morning. A gull perched on the traffic light. The shops had strung garlands and lights all the way down the block. The liquor store window featured a man-sized Santa Claus cradling a champagne bottle.

“A long time ago, when I was sitting in his lap, Santa promised me something,” Bunker said. “Was that you?”

“Oh, these infantile wounds and jealousies. Don’t you people have therapists for such things?”

“My older brother got a new bike, a Schwinn Stingray.”

“Need I remind you of life’s vicissitudes? Your father’s chronic intemperance and lack of employment? Each December he begged for store credit. Yet you treated yourself to a colossal tantrum over a stuffed bunny rabbit.”

“You remember that?” Bunker said. He reddened with embarrassment.

“The curse of my trade,” Santa said. “A million heartbreaks under the Christmas tree. While children cry with useless rage, their cowardly parents dump the blame on me. Who alive endures more hatred than Santa Claus?”

“You say it that way, I feel sorry for you,” Bunker said.

“Don’t,” Santa snapped. “The pity of fools offers little succor to the stout. To the hospital, you procrastinating lout!”

Beyond the village, Bunker pulled up to the donut shop and grabbed his Thermos from under the seat. He needed to piss and think. At the hospital nobody would believe that he couldn’t see the difference between a goose and a sleigh. If the newspapers found out, they’d crucify him: “Hunter Shoots Santa Claus.” Liberal do-gooders would call in the middle of the night. School children would write angry letters in crayon. His wife would live with her sister for a month, and he’d get stuck eating TV dinners.

He ordered a Lucky Dozen—thirteen donuts—and had his Thermos filled with decaf. He grabbed some holiday sugar packets with printed Christmas wreaths for his pocket.

“Merry Christmas,” he added, while paying.

“Happy Kwanzaa,” the girl snapped. “I don’t believe in corporate holidays.”

Back in the cold he wondered why the country even bothered anymore. Everybody got so nasty for the holidays. He’d left the engine running for the cab to stay warm. After slamming the door, he opened the donut box and began with chocolate frosted. Maybe he should offer Santa a crumb.

“Donuts?” Santa said. “My spine ruptured, and you stop for donuts? Does your piggish appetite know no bounds? Is your morality so debased you prize a creme puff over another man’s life?”

“I’ve got you figured out. You’re not even real,” Bunker said. “You’re like one of those special effects miniatures they use for the movies.” Surely some rich brat had been flying his Santa Claus sleigh over the marsh like a remote controlled model airplane when Bunker fired his shot.

“I shall beg no more from a cretin. To the emergency room! When the world hears of your felonious behavior—”

Bunker tired of the wise talk. “I bet you’ve got a switch somewhere.” He grabbed Santa, who screamed and kicked uselessly in mid-air. Squeezing tighter, Bunker ignored the fuss. Santa wasn’t any stronger than a two-pound fish. Bunker felt behind the neck, down the spine, and checked under the boots, which were badly scuffed with a hole in the left sole. This switch was well hidden. Suddenly, Bunker felt a stinging pain as Santa pulled back on his thumbnail.

Bunker howled and shook his hand free. Santa landed hard against the dashboard. It sounded as if a chicken bone had snapped. Santa’s body bounced limp on the passenger seat with his head twisted backward. Half his mustache was red with blood.

“Hey,” Bunker said. “You okay?” He faced the head the right way. But Santa was lifeless as a teddy bear.

Bunker didn’t know what to think. Was this like running over a squirrel? Or was it murder? But how could it be murder if the guy was the size of a doll? Yet what would people do if they discovered he’d killed Santa Claus?

Bunker finished his donuts on the way home. He felt troubled, relieved, troubled again. Luckily, his wife was at her sister’s knitting sweaters for the grandchildren, so he didn’t need to sneak around after parking at the house. He pinched the red nose of the last moving reindeer and carried the sleigh down to his basement workbench and covered it with a painting tarp. A plumber all his life, he felt safest in basements, more comfortable than upstairs in people’s houses. And his wife never snooped down here. The dampness was too much for her hip.

Upstairs in the laundry room, he stripped off his clothes, which smelled of swamp water, and left them heaped on the ironing board. In the bedroom he put on thermal long johns, and in the kitchen he filled a bowl with potato chips and grabbed two beers. He settled into his recliner in time for the kickoff. On the TV snowflakes swirled around the AstroTurf. He smiled. Maybe they’d have a white Christmas after all.

* * *

His wife caught him napping. The game had reached half-time. The high-kicking cheerleaders had furry fringes on their short skirts. She held up his soggy BVDs and watched them drip on the carpet.

“I had an accident, okay?” Bunker said. “In the marsh. I could’ve drowned.”

“How many times?” she said.

“Yes, I know.”

“One hundred? One thousand? One hundred thousand?”

“I can count, too.”

“Have I told you to use the laundry basket?” She dropped the cold underwear at his feet and marched out of the room.

* * *

Two days later Santa and the reindeer started to smell. Bunker rushed down to the basement and opened a turpentine can to mask the odor. But he was scared. He stripped the fat man naked and searched everywhere for a secret switch by wiggling fingers and toes, tweaking the ears and nose, pulling out the tongue. Swallowing his pride, Bunker even played with Santa’s little penis, but nothing brought the man back to life. All Bunker found was a red appendix scar on the hairy belly and a faded forearm tattoo of a mermaid swinging on a sea anchor.

Bunker was worried. Nobody had ever told him that Santa and his reindeer were miniatures. Nobody warned that the man had a mouth like a sailor. In fact, no one believed that Santa was real, except children. It had been an honest mistake. But Bunker knew what the world thought of honest mistakes. If the press discovered what he’d done, he’d be a worse villain than Michael Jackson. They’d make a movie. They’d bring back the electric chair.

By the third day Bunker had a plan. As a boy, he had spent many afternoons in his uncle’s garage, watching him do taxidermy in hunting season. After the neighbors dropped off their trophy heads, his uncle removed the fur. Then he molded a new head with papier-mache. After the paste dried, his his uncle slipped the fur back into place and mounted the head on a wooden plaque shaped like a knight’s shield.

On Saturday morning over his fiber cereal, Bunker told his wife, “I’ll be working in the basement all day. I don’t want to be disturbed.”

She looked up from her Sanka. “Don’t you want to know when your football comes on?”


“You promised you would put up the storm dorms today.”


“The weather man said it’s going to rain tomorrow.”

“Keep going and I’ll nail the basement door shut behind me.”

“Suit yourself,” she said. “I’m going over to my sister’s. The grandchildren are fixing the manger with real hay this year. They’re getting a pair of rabbits for Christmas.”

“Just what they need,” Bunker said. “Sex education.”

“You must’ve taken your grouch pill this morning,” said his wife, rinsing her cup in the sink. “There’s egg salad in the refrigerator. If you want your pickles, you’ll have to go to the store.”

Bunker waited for her to leave. He read the funny pages and read them again. She lingered as if she suspected something was up, fussing over small chores, but finally left. Bunker waited ten more minutes in case she forgot something and returned. Then he descended to the basement.

For corpses, Santa and the reindeer didn’t look too bad. Their eyes had dried like pepper corns, but he’d switch them with tiny glass beads from a craft shop. With his old fly tying kit, his wife’s sewing box, a jeweler’s magnifying glasses, an X-Acto knife, and model glue, he had all the tools he need. With modern plastic resins he could mold the bodies much faster than his uncle had done with papier-mache. He tuned his transistor radio to sports talk and started working.

At first, Bunker got tangled up with the reins. He wasn’t used to working in miniature, plus he’d never understood horse teams. But if he’d learned one thing from his trade, it was patience: If you don’t have enough time to do it right, you always have the time to do it over. After an hour, he’d unknotted the reins, oiled the leather, and resewed the loose jingle bells. He skinned each reindeer by cutting along the belly. He handled Santa the same way. Upstairs, he dropped the body meat in the kitchen sink disposal with Lysol to drown the odor. Back in the basement, working with needles and tweezers, he painstakingly sewed the skins over their new molds.

Bunker knew his limitations. At best he was an amateur taxidermist. Yet these pieces turned out perfectly. After sewing the stitches, he couldn’t find them again in the fur. Rather than being rock hard from the plastic resin, Santa’s belly had some give. The glass eyes could have fooled anyone. They seemed to follow Bunker around the room.

After washing Santa’s uniform in Woolite, Bunker dressed him, polished his silver belt buckle, trimmed his beard and eyebrows, and made him smile. He added a touch of blush from his wife’s makeup kit to the pudgy cheeks. Bunker arranged one hand to hold the reins, while the other waved like somebody riding a parade float. All in all, Santa looked much better dead.

With a toothbrush Bunker groomed the reindeer’s’ fur. With a nail file he sharpened all the horns with dulled or snapped tips. He sanded and repainted the sleigh, removing the dumb bumper sticker. To finish the project, he made a small roof with miniature shingles as a platform for the sleigh. He glued the reindeer hoofs and sleigh runners into place, then sprayed fake snow over the roof, letting flakes drift onto Santa and reindeer so they seemed to be traveling through falling snow. After the snow dried, he sprayed the model with pine deodorizer so it smelled like a forest.

Bunker admired his handiwork. All together, the reindeer and sleigh stretched over two feet, much longer than they’d seemed in the marsh, broken and wet. And, as hard as he looked, Bunker couldn’t spot any mistakes: no fingerprints in the paint, no crushed ears, no eyes missing from glass beads rolling loose. He couldn’t even find the spots where he knew his hand had slipped. He felt proud.

He was struck by the aroma of gingerbread. His wife must have been baking for an hour. He carried his prize upstairs. He would mount it above the mailbox in full view of everyone.

“My Goodness, Bunker, is that what you’ve been doing all day? Let’s put it on the dining table so I can see it in the better light.”

She bent to study the details, jingling the tiny bells, petting the reindeer, and tugging Santa’s collar a bit higher. After ten minutes of rapt attention, she straightened up with a loud crack in her joints, and kissed him right on the lips.

“You’re a genius with your hands when you put your mind to it,” she said.

While his wife cooked dinner, Bunker secured the sleigh roof above the mailbox. He ran an outdoor extension cord down the driveway and hung two plumber’s lamps on branches to spotlight the sleigh. It looked as fancy as any window display in the City’s finest department stores.

Sipping tea after dinner, they heard carolers. His wife rushed to turn on the front porch lights. Bunker joined her. They spotted the singers two houses down, a group of about twenty parents and children, dressed in various jackets and hats, holding candles and huddled in threes and fours to share the sheet music. After raising a musical hum, they launched smartly into “Good King Wenceslaus.” Bunker felt his chest melt with tenderness. They sounded as good as a record.

“Caroling,” Bunker said. “What a wonderful idea.”

“They’ve done it for years,” she said. “They just haven’t stopped at our house.”

“Why not?” he said.

“Maybe they think we’re Jewish.”

“Bunker? Jewish?”

“We’ve never put out decorations.”

Bunker hoped they’d see his sleigh. He felt nervous, like a young man before a date. Then a boy broke ahead of the group, trotting as if trying to pull the adults faster. His sneakers had red lights that blinked like an instrument panel. Bunker had never seen such fancy shoes.

“Dad! Dad! You gotta see this!” the boy shouted from the mailbox. The carolers gathered around the sleigh. Bunker heard their eager murmuring. Finally, the group turned from the sleigh and clustered at the head of the driveway. Their faces glowed in the candlelight. They began singing “Silent Night.” Bunker and his wife whispered along.

As the song finished, Bunker opened the door for his wife to carry out the platter of gingerbread cookies. Following her into the crowd, he smelled the wool and candle wax, heard the sniffling, noticed all the red cheeks from the chilly night. But the crowd sound happy. His wife beamed the way she’d smiled before getting her dentures. She held the cookie platter low enough for the children.

“Mister, did you make that Santa yourself?” asked the boy with blinking sneakers.

“Yes, yes I did,” Bunker stammered. The boy’s jeans hung so low on his skinny hips that Bunker wanted to pull them up and suggest wearing a belt. But he knew it was best not to interfere.

“Alex, I told you, you can’t buy something like that in a store,” said the boy’s father. Thirty-five perhaps, the man wore tortoise shell glasses and black earmuffs, a trademark of the professionals who commuted to the city. Bunker worked in their basements, but he rarely met anyone but their wives during the day.

“Very impressive work,” the man added in a huskier voice, speaking man to man. “I tinker with model frigates myself. Nothing serious. On weekends between the kids’ practices. But I can see that you’re a true master.” With his fine leather glove he shook Bunker’s hand.

“Dad, we gotta get one of these,” the boy pleaded.

“Work, Alex. Hard work and talent,” the father scolded. “That’s how you get something that nice.”

Bunker blushed. To regain his composure, he watched the carolers wipe crumbs from their hands and pull on their gloves. He’d forgotten how much trouble children have
with mittens. Several mothers scribbled addresses on scrap receipts from their pockets for his wife to mail her gingerbread recipe. Bunker knew she’d copy it by hand for each one. A father posed his two children in red snowsuits beside the mailbox and crouched to snap their photograph. Finally, the carolers blew out their candles and flicked on their flashlights to walk to the next house.

“Come again next year!” Bunker said, surprising himself with his loudness.

That night Bunker did it with his wife like he hadn’t in months. Afterward, he snuggled against her back, his damp groin slack with satisfaction. Over the years, her stomach had grown saggy, and her breasts had slumped, but she had never felt more comforting to hold. Her body was still a miracle to him, as breathtaking as a nude painting in a museum.

Bunker heard her sniffling, silently crying the way she had years ago in romantic movies, not wanting to disturb people in nearby seats. He hadn’t noticed himself until he saw her wet cheeks after the theater lights came on again. They hadn’t been to the movies in a long time.

“Tissue?” he asked.

“Please,” she said. “Thank you.”

She punched up her pillow under her head and now lay facing him. Her eyes shined like wet china in the bedroom dusk. But her tears had stopped. He always felt his strongest love for her right after she finished crying.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t have children,” she said.

“Me, too,” he said.

For a long time, Bunker and his wife lay quietly under their feather quilt. The basement heater whooshed, then fell silent. A mouse scratched somewhere in the ceiling. They didn’t feel sleepy. His wife went down to the kitchen and returned with two cups of warm milk.

Bunker sipped his milk. “You know what I hope Santa brings me for Christmas? A new pair of waders.”

“We’ll see what he can arrange.”

* * *

In the morning the sleigh was gone. The roof with fake snow still covered the mailbox, but Santa and his reindeer had vanished. Even the sleigh tracks Bunker had drawn with a cotton swab in the roof snow had disappeared. A raccoon? A dog? Maybe a strong wind had blown in the night. He lifted the branches of the nearby spruce and found nothing. He spread the rhododendron. He scanned the next lawn. How could this happen?

In his flannel pajamas and sheepskin slippers, Bunker was freezing, but he felt too dejected to care. What proof did he have to show the police that his sleigh had even existed?

Then Bunker smiled. A great burden lifted. What a wonderful holiday was Christmas.

In the kitchen his wife was cooking his favorite breakfast: toast with a poached egg in the middle. She fried sausage links until the skin was crispy and poured grapefruit juice for his health. The radio played Christmas carols. She liked to name the song before the announcer did. She knew them all.

Bunker showed her the roof from the mailbox. He’d rehearsed sounding unhappy.

“It’s gone,” he said. “The sleigh. Poof!”

She put down her china pot. This morning she’d made real coffee, not Sanka. She rubbed her hands on her apron and sat in her chair. She stared at Bunker, then at the radio.

Bunker held his roof at arms length.

“The dog’s been needing a new dog house,” he said.

“What has gotten into this world?” his wife said. She stood up and threw her apron on her chair. Her ears were red, her cheeks flush. “I’m calling the police!”

Bunker laid his hand on the receiver. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said. “It was one of the neighborhood boys. Having a lousy Christmas at home. Wanted something special.”

“Stealing’s not right,” she said.

“It’s Christmas,” he insisted. “Let the boy learn his lesson another time.”

She pushed past him through the swinging door. In the living room she plugged in the Christmas tree lights and shifted a few silver garlands. She pulled out her yarn box from the couch.

Bunker sat down to his fried toast and sausages. This spat could result in the three-day silent treatment, but he’d survived many before. With his fork he pricked the soft yolk to let the yellow soak into the toast.

* * *

Such an easy shot. Bunker wondered if he was going blind. He lowered his rifle and popped out the shell casing. After reloading, he raised his sight and scanned the mist, listening for the slow stiff wings. A fog horn groaned. Suddenly, the goose reappeared right overhead. Bunker swung his rifle upward. He saw the miniature reindeer, trotting at an easy gait. He gasped and lowered his aim. The sleigh banked and circled downward. The little man rose from his seat and strode to the railing, making the sleigh rock. Santa stretched out a tiny telescope for a look, then compressed the scope and slipped it up his sleeve. As the sleigh came abreast of Bunker’s face, Santa pulled the reins for a stop. The reindeer snorted. Santa shook his fist at Bunker.

“You blasphemous cur!” he shouted. “You stinking toiler!”

Santa aimed a tiny musket that widened like a horn. The shot sounded harmless, like a boy’s cap pistol, but Bunker felt a stinging pain in his nose worse than a stubbed toe or hammered thumb. His eyes filled with tears. He dropped to his knees, cupping his face in his hands as if afraid his nose might shatter into pieces. Whatever Santa had fired wasn’t an ordinary bullet.

Bunker sat with a damp chill rising from his knees in the marsh grass. Maybe he should give up duck hunting. He hadn’t bagged a trophy bird in years. And the sport had gotten so fancy with the new scopes and gear. It was for younger men who drove SUVs and understood GPS. Bunker wouldn’t miss it. He had plenty to do at home with all the projects his wife clipped from her magazines.

Lowering his hands, he was glad not to find any blood, just tears on his muddy palms. The dense mist created the illusion that the bulrushes and water spread for miles. Bunker was ready to go. He stamped his feet for circulation and blew warm breath into his hands. The dog sniffed his pocket for a cookie. Bunker fed her two.

At home in the bathroom, Bunker studied his nose in the mirror. It was ruined: a purple cauliflower with red capillaries. And it hurt like the dickens. He’d have to be very careful about his nose while gluing the white mustache under his nostrils. He fitted the cotton white beard with straps hidden behind his ears. This year his wife was hosting an afternoon party for the neighborhood before the caroling. For days, the house had smelled of gingerbread from her baking.

As usual, she didn’t bother knocking on the bathroom door before barging in. She wore her red holiday dress with a sprig of holly pinned to her breast.

“My Goodness! You look just like him,” she said. “The nose is perfect.”

He smiled bashfully at her reflection.

“Ho,” he said. “Ho, ho, ho!” He would practice until he got it right.

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