An unabashedly sentimental fable set in the time and place of the author’s childhood, presented for the reader’s edification and, it is hoped, pleasure.
The bicycle gleamed in the Gambles hardware store window. The centerpiece of the window display, it was bright red, and it was a real bike, not a kiddie bike with training wheels. There were balloon tires and a fancy sprung seat, even a battery-operated headlight perched on the front fender. Emblazoned on the tank between the bars of the frame was the name Rocket. Dennis tugged his father’s coat sleeve. “Dad!” he breathed excitedly, “Look! Look, Dad,” he exclaimed, pointing at the button set into the tank side, “it’s even got a horn! Wow! Can I have it, Dad? Please, can I have it?”
“I don’t think so, Dennis,” answered his father. Wayne McChesney had brought his youngest son downtown to see the electric train in the window of Montana Power, in the next block. The train wasn’t for sale; it was an annual feature of Montana Power’s Christmas decoration. A metal plate was attached to the inside of the store window, and you could make the train go by placing the palm of your hand against the glass.
“But Dad, I need a bike!” pleaded Dennis, jumping up and down in his excitement. “Andy and Larry got English racers last year, and all I have is that junky old little bike that the chain keeps falling off!”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think we can afford it this year,” said Wayne. “I think you’re going to have to settle for something a little smaller. Maybe next year, or maybe even for your birthday next summer…” He let the thought trail away.
Dennis subsided. Downcast, he paused a moment in thought, and then he brightened. “I know! I’ll ask Santa for it. He’s gonna be at the party tonight, he’s always there. I’ll ask him and he’ll bring my bike, I know he will!”
“Yes,” rejoined his father, “you ask Santa. Maybe he will bring you a bike.” Wayne wasn’t about to let on that he had purchased a bicycle, that very model in fact, weeks ago and had placed it in layaway until he could bring it home safely.
“Come on, let’s go see the train,” he said. Thinking a diversion might not be a bad idea, he continued, “Then we can stop in Bungalow Drug and I’ll buy us some hot chocolate.”
“O-KAY!” shouted Dennis enthusiastically. “Hot chocolate! Let’s go!” And he began trying to drag his father bodily along Main Street past McCracken’s Men’s Shop, past the Powder Horn, and across a side street to the storefront housing Montana Power.
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For as long as anyone could remember, certainly since many years before the war, the college had always put on a big Christmas party for its faculty and staff, with their families. The Student Union, a huge old three-story brick building, featured a monumentally large lounge with an old English-style fireplace in which roared a gigantic log fire. Not that the fire threw much heat, of course — it was a big rectangular box more suitable for roasting an ox than warming the spectators, but it was lovely to look at, and the crackle and snap provided a charming addition to a background tapestry of carols sung by the college choir.
At the end opposite the fireplace stood a huge tree, at more than 20 feet in height almost tall enough to brush the ceiling. Dennis’s eyes glowed. “Can I go up to the balcony, Mom?” he asked. “I want to see if I can touch the tree!”
“Yes,” she answered, “you may go upstairs.”
“But don’t reach too far out over the railing,” said Wayne with a smile. “We don’t want to have to drag you down to the hospital tonight.”
Dennis shed his coat in two seconds flat, dropped it on the floor, and was gone. Marcia McChesney unbuttoned her own calf-length winter coat and allowed her husband to help her out of it. Picking up Dennis’s coat, Wayne went off to hang the winter wear in the cloakroom. His other two sons followed him. They were a little old for kiddie Christmas parties, or at least they thought they were.
As the three returned to the lounge, Wayne collected Marcia with a raised eyebrow, and they all worked their way through the crowd to the base of the tree, where they found tables laden with apple cider, plates of cookies, and trays of candied apples — a traditional element of the college party since time immemorial — and everyone loaded up with goodies to be consumed through the evening.
“All right, you guys, go find your friends and have a good time,” said Wayne. “We’ll be at the cloakroom at nine-thirty, and you’d better be there. It’s a cold walk home.”
“You bet, Dad. We’ll be there,” said Andy. “See ya later!”
“Let’s go downstairs and see if they opened up the bowling alley this year,” he said to Larry. With a nod Larry agreed, and the two headed off.
“Hey, Mom! Dad!” Dennis’s voice floated down from the balcony railing. Looking up, his parents could see him leaning out, delicately jingling a bell with his finger. “Look, Mom, I’m almost as tall as the tree!” he cried.
“Almost,” she agreed. “Don’t you fall over! Maybe you’d better come down and get in line to see Santa.”
“Okay,” said the boy, and he disappeared from the railing. Moments later he trotted in through the archway from the hall and headed toward Santa. Looking around, he suddenly made a detour to the food tables — what eight-year-old boy wouldn’t? — and snagged an apple and a handful of cookies to fortify himself during the wait. Joining the line to see Santa, he looked over his shoulder at his parents. “I’m going to ask for that red bike,” he grinned.
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December 23 arrived, and it was time for Wayne to bail the bicycle out of layaway. Having dispatched Dennis to Safeway in his mother’s care, Wayne put on his coat and walked out onto the front porch. Andy and Larry were building a snow fort in the yard. They had trucked huge piles of snow from all over the neighborhood on their old Radio Flyer wagons, and the walls of their fort had already reached five feet in places. There would be a shooting step behind those walls, Wayne knew, in plenty of time to pelt passersby with snowballs on Christmas Eve. He knew, too, that the snowballs would be soft and fluffy, more ready to fall apart before reaching their targets than to do any damage or even give offense to those neighbors who would stroll past tomorrow to admire Christmas lights up and down the street. Wayne McChesney knew his sons very well.
“Hey, you guys,” Wayne called, “Want to come along to Gambles? I’m going down to get Dennis’s big present.” Neither Andy nor Larry believed in Santa anymore, but they knew that Dennis did, that it was probably the last time he would, and they were secretly pleased at being trusted not to spill the beans.
“Sure,” they chorused. “And ours, too, right?”
“Ha!” said Wayne with a chuckle. “You should be so lucky. You’re both getting big lumps of coal this year.” He reached out to ruffle Andy’s hair.
Andy ducked away playfully. “C’mon, Dad, I’m twelve!” he protested. They all laughed.
“Will it fit in the car?” asked Larry.
“We’ll just have to see,” said Wayne. “Hop in.”
In Gambles, Wayne looked around until he spotted Jay Ward, the manager. “Jay!” he called. “You got a bike for me?” At the word “bike,” Andy and Larry shared an approving glance.
“You bet,” said Ward. “I’ll have it brought out to your car. It will go in, won’t it?” The question was unnecessary; there was room to spare in Wayne’s old Ford station wagon.
Playing along, Wayne assumed a worried look. “I don’t know,” he said dubiously, “maybe I’ll have to cut it in half.” Ward rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. “Boys,” Wayne instructed his sons, “you go help. The tailgate isn’t locked.”
“You’ve paid half,” said the store manager when the boys were gone. “There’s still fifteen dollars owed.”
“Yup,” said Wayne. He fished his checkbook and pen out of his pocket and inscribed a check for the balance due.
As Wayne started to put his pen away, Ward noticed the bright gold cap. “New pen?” he inquired. “Very nice!”
“Yes, Pack Gaines gave the whole department a little something this year, and I put mine into this pen. Got it at Phillips’ next door,” replied Wayne, gesturing toward the side wall of the store.
“Hmph,” snorted Ward. “Must be a Parker, then, they don’t sell good pens.” The jibe was a joke; the two had known each other since boyhood, and their friendly rivalry had started long ago.
“Good pens? I suppose you mean Waterman?” said Wayne with a theatrically curled lip. He handed his new pen over for inspection.
“At least with that new Waterman you’re not chained to an ink bottle. I really like mine,” Ward said seriously. “I can carry a pack of cartridges in my suit jacket pocket and just swap in a new one when I run dry.”
“That’s not a bad thing,” said Wayne. “But I’ve wanted a Parker ‘51’ ever since before the war. I’ve never felt I could afford one, and now that I have one I don’t plan to change.” And he accepted his pen back from his friend.
Neither man noticed, as Wayne returned the pen to his pocket, that he missed. Neither of them saw the pen slip down inside his coat. Neither of them saw it fall to the floor and roll out into the aisle. And neither of them heard the sound when another customer, passing by, kicked it away.
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By the time Marcia and Dennis got home, the bike was safely concealed under the basement bulkhead.
But Wayne’s pen was gone, and he was frantic. Everybody was in the kitchen, and Wayne had just patted himself down for the hundredth time. “I had it in Gambles,” he said, “but it’s not here now.”
“Did you call Jay?” asked Marcia. “Maybe you dropped it in the store and somebody found it.”
“Yes, I called him. No luck.”
“Oh, Wayne, I’m so sorry. You just got that pen.”
“Yes, well, I’ll have to buy a new pen, but doggone it,” said Wayne, “I can’t afford another one like that. I’ll have to get something else.”
“I’m sure you’ll find something very nice,” said Marcia comfortingly. Then she ushered the boys to the bathroom to wash up for dinner.
The next day was taken up with last-minute preparation. Wayne put up the tree, Marcia baked many dozens of the boys’ favorite cookies, and the boys — were not in evidence. “What’s going on? Do you know where the boys are?” Wayne asked Marcia.
“I have no idea,” she said. “They’ve been gone all day. Don’t worry, they’re probably just over at Koebers’ house watching TV.”
“Mmm, yeah, you’re probably right,” agreed Wayne. “But they’d better be home for dinner.” And he returned to his task of hanging the tinsel on the tree.
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Christmas dawned to brilliant sun. But long before that golden orb shouldered its way over the eastern horizon, at the stroke of six-thirty the door to Wayne and Marcia’s bedroom commenced shuddering under the persistent blows of six excited fists. “Mom! Dad!” hollered the owners of those fists, “Get up, it’s Christmas!”
Faking a sleepy groan, Wayne shouted back, “Go away, it’s still the middle of the night.”
“Get up, get up, you promised six-thirty!”
“Oh, all right,” acquiesced Wayne with a sigh of mock weakness, “you go on downstairs, but do not touch anything! We’ll be down in a minute.” The stairs suddenly thundered with the tread of bare feet.
The adults arose and donned their robes, well aware that the patience of three young boys wouldn’t brook a wait much longer than that, and went down to join the boys.
The ceremonial opening of gifts was a joyous time. It was particularly exciting this year; as Wayne and Marcia entered the living room, Andy was caressing a new Stanley woodworking tool kit, Larry was poised ready to rip the ribbon off a bright red metal Erector Set box, and Dennis was staring with unalloyed delight at his new red Rocket bicycle.
After the great unveiling, everyone settled down to the smaller gifts. The boys, with secretive looks back and forth, watched impatiently as their parents unwrapped gifts from all their relatives. Marcia made the appropriate noises of pleasure over her new cookie sheet from Andy, her silk scarf from Larry, and her costume-jewelry earrings from Dennis. Her pleasure wasn’t feigned; she really did like the gifts. But there was, surprisingly, nothing for Wayne from any of the boys.
“Dad,” said Andy at last. “We had some really neat ideas about what to get you, but we, umm, well… Here.” He drew a shoebox-sized package from behind his back and thrust it at his father. “This is from all of us.”
Wayne took the box. The boys had obviously wrapped it themselves. It was covered with paper of two different patterns, and it was stuck together from end to end with more Scotch tape than Wayne would have thought possible. He struggled through the tape and paper, opened the box, and found wadded newspaper. Inside that was a much smaller box. Opening the small box, Wayne found himself staring at a brand-new gold-capped Parker “51” fountain pen.
Stunned, he looked wonderingly at his sons. “How—?” Momentarily at a loss for words, he stopped. He turned to Marcia. “Did you—?”
But she seemed as surprised as he. “No, I did not,” she stated emphatically. “I had nothing to do with that.”
Wayne turned back to the boys. But before he could speak, Larry began, “You lost your new pen, the one Dr. Gaines gave you,” he explained. “and we saw how sad you were. We went back to Gambles yesterday, but we couldn’t find it, either. But Mr. Ward told us what kind it was.”
“So we went to Phillips’,” Dennis took up the tale, “and we had enough to pay for half of it, and the lady said it would be okay if we pay the rest later.”
Andy took over. “Larry and I checked with the guy at the bowling alley, and he’s going to let us set pins on Saturdays for ten cents a line.”
“And I’m gonna shovel snow for the Badgeleys!” Dennis finished triumphantly.
Opening his arms wide, Wayne said, “Come here, all of you.” And he gathered his sons in. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “Thank you for reminding me that the best Christmas presents are the ones you can’t buy.” As he looked over their heads at her, Marcia thought she saw a tear glinting at the corner of his eye.