When Christmas Eve comes, Junior’s family doesn’t have enough money for presents. Junior’s dad is so depressed that—as he always does when there isn’t enough money—he takes the money they do have and runs away for a week to get drunk.
Dad’s reaction is sadly ironic and counterproductive, but it’s also another example of the vicious cycle his family is trapped in. Poverty leads to depression, which leads to alcoholism, which leads to more poverty.
When Dad gets home, he does nothing but lie on his bed. He tells Junior he’s sorry about Christmas, and Junior says it’s okay, though it isn’t. He wonders why he is “protecting the feelings of the man who had broken my heart yet again.”
Junior expresses his love for his father by forgiving him even though he doesn’t deserve it. In this way, Dad’s alcoholism reverses the usual dynamic between father and son, demanding that Junior act like an adult before he’s necessarily ready.
Dad tells Junior he got him something and tells him to look inside one of his boots. It turns out to be a wrinkled, damp five-dollar bill, which smells “like booze and fear and failure.” Realizing that his dad must have really wanted to spend the money on more alcohol, Junior recognizes the saved bill as “a beautiful and ugly thing.” He wishes his dad a merry Christmas and kisses him on the cheek, even though he’s already asleep.
The five-dollar bill is both beautiful and ugly because it shows Dad’s deep love for Junior and also his inability to adequately care for him. It’s a nearly meaningless item, yet a meaningful gesture. In a similar way, Junior’s kiss and “Merry Christmas” is a poignant message of love and forgiveness, even though his dad isn’t awake to receive it.