A Thanksgiving Story

My favorite Thanksgiving short story is O. Henry’sTwo Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen.” Like many other O. Henry stories, it’s an exploration of selflessness and its possible consequences, built around an Old Gentleman’s annual Thanksgiving tradition of buying a good dinner for one particular indigent, Stuffy Pete. This year, Stuffy has already eaten, but the Old Gentleman appears anyway:

“Good morning,” said the Old Gentleman. “I am glad to perceive that
the vicissitudes of another year have spared you to move in health
about the beautiful world. For that blessing alone this day of
thanksgiving is well proclaimed to each of us. If you will come with
me, my man, I will provide you with a dinner that should make your
physical being accord with the mental.”

That is what the old Gentleman said every time. Every Thanksgiving
Day for nine years. The words themselves almost formed an
Institution. Nothing could be compared with them except the
Declaration of Independence. Always before they had been music in
Stuffy’s ears. But now he looked up at the Old Gentleman’s face with
tearful agony in his own. The fine snow almost sizzled when it fell
upon his perspiring brow. But the Old Gentleman shivered a little
and turned his back to the wind.

O. Henry tells the story with plenty of sarcastic jabs:

The Old Gentleman was a staunch American patriot, and
considered himself a pioneer in American tradition. In order to
become picturesque we must keep on doing one thing for a long time
without ever letting it get away from us. Something like collecting
the weekly dimes in industrial insurance. Or cleaning the streets.

But every time I read the story, the melancholy surrounding the Old Gentleman gets to me, just as it gets to Stuffy:

Gorged nearly to the uttermost
when he entered the restaurant, the smell of food had almost caused
him to lose his honor as a gentleman, but he rallied like a
true knight. He saw the look of beneficent happiness on the Old
Gentleman’s face–a happier look than even the fuchsias and the
ornithoptera amphrisius had ever brought to it–and he had not the
heart to see it wane.

Every time I read the story, I get caught up in the sad drama of ironic generosity. I don’t know if this means anything about Thanksgiving, but I do know that this is one of the stories I come back to again and again.

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