Gordie took his first drink in a long time about a month after June’s death, and he has been in a downward spiral ever since. His hands seem to pick up drinks without any conscious thought, like they remember something he can’t. His hands are always remembering things he would rather forget. Gordie looks at his hands now, large and shaking at Eli’s table, and thinks of how he was once a Golden Gloves boxer, but he mostly just hit June.
Gordie is obviously struggling with June’s death and feels guilty for having abused her for so long. Erdrich draws a direct parallel between Gordie’s hands—and particularly his fists—and his drinking problem, which suggests that Gordie drinks to cope with the damage and pain he knows he caused June when she was alive.
Eli pushes an egg across the table at Gordie. It is six o’clock in the morning, but Gordie refuses to eat. Gordie picks up a beer can, empties it into his mouth, and stands to leave. He goes outside and begins to shake again. He hasn’t eaten properly in over a week, and his clothes hang off him in a sickly way. Gordie gets in his car and manages to make it home. A few more bottles will straighten him out, Gordie thinks. He calls a friend and convinces him to buy four bottles of liquor to hold Gordie off until payday. Gordie’s friend agrees—as long as Gordie pays him interest, of course.
Likely, Gordie has been up all night drinking, and Eli is trying to get some food in him. The fact that Gordie goes to Eli’s when he is need of support (Eli is Gordie’s uncle and June’s adoptive father) harkens to the importance of family in the Native community, but Eli isn’t able to comfort Gordie in any way. Gordie is so deep in the clutches of his alcoholism that he is slowly drinking himself to death and there is little anyone can do to help him.
Days pass and the liquor is gone. Gordie manages to find a couple bottles of wine, but he knows he is too far gone. He feels trapped in his small house, and he can’t remember the last time he slept. Gordie bought the tiny house and fixed it up not long after June left him. Now, sitting in the silent space all alone, Gordie grows acutely aware of the fact that he both misses June and is glad to be free of her. Still, he finds it hard to believe she isn’t coming back. “I love you, little cousin!” Gordie yells out loud. “June!” Gordie is instantly regretful that he spoke June’s name out loud. His grandmother, Rushes Bear, always said one should never call the name of the dead—you can never be entirely sure that they won’t answer.
In some Native American cultures, speaking the name of the dead is strictly forbidden. Not only is it considered an insult to the dead to speak their name, some believe that speaking the name of the dead is capable of conjuring their spirit. Gordie’s immediate fear in saying June’s name is a reflection of his Native culture and spiritual beliefs, but it is also a reflection of his shame in mistreating June. Gordie knows that if June’s spirit comes back, she has every reason to harbor resentment against him; however, Gordie very clearly loves her.
Sitting in the house alone, the quiet gets to Gordie, so he switches on the television, turning the volume up loud. He flips on the vacuum in the corner and looks to the window in the bathroom. Gordie sees June’s face reflected in the dark glass and turns to run. He hears June bang on the window and then the sound of breaking glass. All of the appliances are on in the kitchen, and Gordie stands in the light of the open refrigerator hoping the light will save him from June. He plugs in the toaster oven into the wall to add to the chaos and blows the circuit with a loud crack. Standing in the dark, Gordie can feel June coming for him, so he grabs his keys and runs outside.
The novel implies that Gordie is hallucinating June's reflection in the window and the sound of breaking glass. He has been drinking nonstop for days, and he hasn’t eaten or slept, and this, in addition to Gordie’s profound guilt over his ill-treatment of June, has him convinced that June is coming back to haunt him. Gordie turns on the television and all the appliances in an attempt to ward off June’s spirit—or in this case, her memory—but he is ultimately unsuccessful.
Driving away from the house, Gordie is so relieved to be away from June that he forgets how sick he is. His hands shake as he holds the steering wheel, but he continues to drive slowly and tries to concentrate. Gordie hasn’t gone far when a deer runs out in front of his car. He takes it square in the hood and gets out to assess the damage. The deer, a doe, is clearly dead. Someone on the reservation will probably trade her for a bottle or two, Gordie thinks, so he drags the doe back to the car.
Gordie is sick because he has again run out of alcohol and is in acute withdrawal. It is clear that Gordie is trying to run from the memory of June and how badly he abused her during their rocky marriage. Gordie is so intent on drinking away June’s memory that he immediately thinks about how many bottles the deer is worth upon seeing the dead animal.
Back at the car, Gordie can’t get the trunk open, so he is forced to cram the dead deer into the backseat. She fits perfectly, and Gordie gets back in and starts driving. As Gordie drives, he looks in the rearview mirror and sees the doe sit up. She was only stunned, he thinks, and then their eyes meet. The deer looks right through Gordie and knows that he has “woven his own crown of thorns” and does not deserve to escape his pain. Gordie grabs the tire iron he keeps under the seat and strikes the deer in the head, directly between the eyes. Gordie turns and continues driving.
The fact that Gordie is willing to stuff a dead deer in the backseat of his car just to get a bottle of liquor is a testament to how bad Gordie’s alcoholism is. Gordie’s “crown of thorns” is a reference to the wreath made of thorns that Christ was forced to wear on his head by the Romans during the Crucifixion. The crown of thorns was part of the Romans’ punishment of Christ, but since Gordie has made his own crown, this implies that Gordie is deserving of his punishment.
As Gordie continues to drive, his shaking worsens. He can feel it deep in his bones, and he is forced to stop the car. After Gordie pulls over, he looks to the backseat and knows in that moment that he has “just killed June.” Shaking, Gordie gets back into the car and drives.
When Gordie kills the deer, it serves as metaphor for the role he played in June’s death. While Gordie did not have anything to with June’s death directly, his abuse is why she kept running off. Thus, Gordie bears some responsibility for June’s death.
At the Sacred Heart Convent, Sister Mary Martin de Porres can’t sleep. She is startled by Gordie’s sudden presence at her window and can’t figure out what anyone would be doing sneaking around the convent this time of night. Gordie has come to confess, he says urgently. Sister Mary tries to explain that she isn’t a priest, but Gordie continues to talk and is obviously distraught. She finally agrees to hear his confession, and while Gordie’s words are hurried and unclear, Sister Mary is able to figure out that this man at her window has just murdered his wife.
In Gordie’s delirious state, he absolutely believes that he has just bludgeoned June to death in the back of his car. In going to the convent to confess, Gordie officially takes responsibility for his role in June’s actual death and the years of abuse he forced her to live through, which, Erdrich implies, slowly broke June down and killed her little by little.
Sister Mary asks Gordie where his wife is now, and he leads her out to the car. As Sister Mary approaches the car, she braces herself for the dead woman in the back, but when she looks in, she discovers the dead and bloody deer instead. She climbs in just to be certain and then gets out, running directly at Gordie. Gordie runs into the woods, and Sister Mary goes back to the convent to call the police. As she waits with the other nuns for the police to arrive, they can hear Gordie wailing somewhere deep in the woods.
While Sister Mary’s interaction with Gordie is undoubtedly distressing, she reacts to him like he is a criminal, or some kind of animal, rather than a man in obvious pain who needs help and compassion. This disregard of Gordie as a human being is yet more evidence of the racism he is forced to endure because of his Native American identity.