Saturday, December 15, 2007

Fiction: A Good Christmas

I understood that the Andersons were poor. I guess I should say that 'we're poor'. After all, I'm an Anderson now too. Robert Charles Anderson. That's me. But for a long time my last name was Ardwinkle. I don't remember much about the old days - just that I lived up in Minnesota and we had snow at Christmastime and I had a real mom and she was the most beautiful lady in the world. I hope you won't laugh at that. I used to tell people that and they usually laughed. Not just kids either. Grownups too. And even if they din't laugh, I could tell they din't believe me. But I know it's true and that's all that matters. I realize I must have had a dad too. Moms don't have babies all by themselves. But I don't remember my dad.

I kept the name Ardwinkle after I came to live in Jeanie and Charlie's little house 'cause they were only foster parents. The workers told me that I might only live there for a while, 'til I was adopted. Some of the big kids in the neighborhood - the ones who din't like me - who din't seem to like anybody, really - they told me that the Andersons only took me in 'cause they needed the money. But those kids were wrong 'cause I'm still here and they don't get the money anymore.

I remember the day it all changed. I was down the street at Jake's house, playin' on his driveway. They had a bigger house than us and they had a garage for parkin' a car in. Jake said I could play with his brother's basketball if I wanted, so I went into the garage to get it. The big door tips up on some kind of spring so it wasn't hard for me to open it, even though I was a smaller kid then. I pushed it hard up into the air and ran inside for the basketball. When I came runnin' out with it I felt somethin' smash into the top of my head. Holy cripes, did it ever hurt! Worst hurt I ever had. I din't realize the big door had started comin' down again. I had run right into the metal piece at the bottom of it. Some part that makes it lock. Right away I dropped the ball and felt the top of my head. Then when I looked at my hand I saw all the blood and I got real scared and ran home.

Here's the funny thing. When I went flyin' through the door and started yellin' for Jeanie, I din't call her Jeanie. I called her Mom by mistake. That was weird. I never done that before. I din't even notice what I'd said until a bit later when I was standin' in the bathroom and she was pickin' though my hair and lookin' at my head. That's when I realized what I'd said and I felt pretty silly but I din't worry too much about it right then. I was too busy shakin' and tryin' not to cry and just tryin' to wish the hurtin' away.

Jeanie said my head would be okay and then she said, right to my face, "But it must hurt like hell, don't it?" Now that was really weird. I wasn't the only one sayin' funny things that day. 'Cause Jeanie never said a swear-word before - at least that I'd heard. Even Charlie almost never swears and I sure wasn't allowed to. She kind of patted my back and said, "Does it hurt like hell?"

So I said, "Yeah Jeanie, it hurts like hell!" It felt really crazy to swear in front of her like that. It kind of took my mind off the hurtin'. But I sure din't start goin' around swearin' all the time after that. I figured the rules would be right back in place just as soon as I was feelin' better.

I saw that Jeanie's eyes were all shiny, like she was gonna cry. So I had to be brave. "It's okay, Jeanie!" I said. "It hurts like hell but I'll be alright!" She kind of laughed and kissed me on the forehead and gave me such a hug I felt like a tube of toothpaste and she was tryin' to squeeze the last glob out of me. When she was done I had to catch my breath. She used her sleeve to wipe a tear off my face and I was a little embarrassed about that until I remembered that the tear wasn't mine.

Later when Charlie came home from work we told him how Jake's garage door got me, and Jeanie told him, "It hurt like hell but he's alright now." Charlie gave her a funny look and we all laughed.


That night I went to bed but I stayed awake for a long while after my bedtime, lookin' at my books. I always did that until the light from the window got so dim I could only guess what the words were. I never had a lot of toys but I always had lots of books 'cause Jeanie always walked me to the library whenever I wanted. The library let us have a membership card for free. That night I was readin' about sheep dogs and monkeys and stuff when I heard the floor creakin' and I knew that Charlie was at my door. The floor creaks differently for Charlie then it does for Jeanie.

I hid the book under my pillow and pretended to be sleepin'. The door opened and Charlie whispered, "Robby, you asleep?" I lay real still but he walked over and stuck his hand under the pillow and pulled out the book. I don't know how he knew it was there. I opened my eyes and saw him kneelin' on the floor beside me. He was smilin'. I guess he wasn't mad. He looked at the book in his hands and flipped a few pages. "Good book?" he asked. I just nodded my head and rolled onto my side to face him.

"There's something we gotta talk about, Robby. It's important and I just couldn't wait until the morning. Jeanie said to let you sleep but I just couldn't wait."

"Okay," I said.

"Jeanie says you called her Mom today."

"Yeah." I felt my face gettin' warm. I turned my eyes away from him.

"She wants you to know that it's okay to call her that and I want you to know that if you want to call me Dad, that's okay too." I felt kind of weird 'cause I wasn't sure if it would feel right to call them Mom and Dad. It just kind of slipped out that one time, you know?

"How's your head?" he asked.

"Not so bad now."

"You know, Robby, you can't go around getting yourself hurt like that."

"Okay," I said.

"Because if a worker comes around to see you and you're all bandaged up or bruised or limping around, what's she gonna think?" I din't understand why Charlie was sayin' these things. I started to wonder if I was in trouble after all.

"I'll be more careful," I said.

"She might think we're not takin' proper care of you, and she might want to take you away." I nodded my head to show that I understood.

"But I was thinking - Jeanie and I were thinking, that if we were to adopt you, then she couldn't take you away. And no one could ever take you away - 'cause you'd be our son. And we were wondering what you'd think of that idea?"

I din't know what to say at first. My whole head felt funny. And I don't think it was from the door hittin' me.

"'Cause - we really like the idea," he added, and even though the light from the window was gettin' dim it seemed like there was a real bright reflection in Charlie's eyes.

Not too long ago my best friend and me got our hands on a bottle of his dad's whiskey and we mixed it with coolade. I had this crazy dizzy feelin' in my head. Kind of a wild, happy feelin'. That was the only time I ever drank booze. But it was the second time I ever felt that crazy dizzy feelin'. The first time was in my bed that night when Charlie was kneelin' there askin' me what I thought of their idea, and Jeanie was standin' at my doorway. I hadn't even noticed when she'd got there. I told him the first thing that came to mind.

"Charlie, I think that idea's just fine as all hell!"

So then I went from bein' Robert Charles Ardwinkle to Robert Charles Anderson and that was pretty cool, 'cause for one thing, I got to keep the same initials. And for another thing, with my middle name bein' Charles, it made it seem like I was named after Charlie Anderson, my new dad - and that was fine by me. On top of that I stopped gettin' nicknames like Winkie and Bullwinkle pinned on me and instead people called me Bobby or Bobbo. But this one kid, Albert, he started callin' me Bobo, and I din't like that one, but mostly 'cause of who was sayin' it. There was somethin' mean in the way he talked to me. I din't like Albert. But it was hard to avoid him 'cause he was part of our gang and my other pals liked him 'cause his parents had money - so they had a swimmin' pool and Albert had cool toys like remote-control cars. His parents were friendly with Charlie and Jeanie and that's another reason why it was hard to avoid him.

I took a lot of flack from Albert 'cause I had no bike. Everyone else in the gang had one. I wanted a bike more than anythin' in the world but there was no way my folks could afford it. I overheard Charlie tellin' Jeanie one time that he'd been lookin' out for a used bike for me but even they were too expensive. That made me sad but I loved them just for tryin'.

Almost every day the gang would make the long bike ride to the quarry. There was all kinds of fun to have around there. There was the creek and the caves, all kinds of rocks and wood and stuff from an old construction site and good trees for climbin' or buildin' a fort in. I tried walkin' there one time but it took so long and it felt awful lonely wonderin' what fun my friends had already started havin' without me. Jake tried doublin' me on his bike but it was too hard with all the hills on the way. I began borrowin' his sister's bike. Sometimes she told Jake 'no' but I wouldn't find out until later 'cause Jake would just give me her bike anyway. Sometimes she would catch us as we were ridin' away and she'd yell at us but we'd keep on ridin'. I felt bad about that but gettin' to the quarry was just too important.

Somehow I never got in trouble for that. I realize now that Jake surely caught a lot of heck over it but that never stopped him from doin' it again. Folks said Jake was a little 'slow upstairs' but he was as loyal to me as any pet dog and that made him alright in my book. He was the best friend I ever had.

Albert never got tired of makin' fun of Jake. He'd test him all the time. "Country or planet!" he'd ask out of nowhere and start namin' things. Jake would guess that Australia was a planet, or bronchitis was a country. Everyone laughed at his mistakes, even himself. I guess he was too dumb to know how to be embarrassed. I used to laugh too. But then one day, I just din't anymore. And Albert din't like that. So he turned on me too.

"Powder Puff," he'd say - 'cause of the girl's bike I was ridin' - with its white seat and tassels on the handlebars. He made fun of that bike every time I rode it. It bugged me a lot but I never showed it. I just laughed it off. Jake laughed too but I din't mind. He din't know any better. But cripes, how I wanted my own bike.

One day I was at school and a kid had ridden his new bike there, wantin' to show it off. I couldn't stop starin'. I'd never imagined such a cool-lookin' bike. The frame was red. The seat and handlebars and all the bits and pieces were black. There were no curved parts to the frame. It was all straight angles and big thick bars. The tires were bigger than normal with deep grooves in the tread. It looked so strong. It almost seemed like a motorcycle instead of a bicycle. I fell in love with that bike. My first crush. I'd have sold my soul to the devil to own that bike but I had no idea how you go about somethin' like that.

Christmas was comin'. Jake told me I should ask for the bike in a letter to Santa Clause. He was the only kid in the gang who still believed in Santa. I never had for as far back as I could remember.

I knew that that bike was terribly expensive. I never said a word about it to Jeanie or Charlie. I braced myself for Christmas, determined not to show any disappointment when I got no bike at all, determined to be happy with whatever I did get.

And it wasn't so bad. I got a new pencil box, a poster book and markers and a kite and a very cool model car that came in dozens of pieces that I could put together with glue. This was a bit advanced for me but Charlie said he'd help me with it, bit by bit, every night 'til it was done. And he did. And I got a library card with my own name on it. I was happy. It was a good Christmas.

That evenin' we were invited to the home of Albert's family to have turkey dinner with them and their relatives. I din't really want to go but I kept quiet about that.

Everyone was all hugs and kisses when we got there. Albert and I looked at each other across the room. He had a bandage on his forehead. I imagined that his own mother had got tired of his big mouth and whacked him with a stick.

He was always friendlier to me in his own house than when we were with the gang - I guess to impress the grownups - I don't know. Still, I wanted to stay in the livin' room with my folks but Albert's mom said he should entertain me in his bedroom and Jeanie gently prodded me. So I went. Albert was friendly as I figured he'd be. He was all wound up about his Christmas presents and had to show them all to me. I can't remember what they were - except for one. He led me to the back door of the house.

I saw it there in the yard before we even opened the glass door. But I followed him out there anyway. 'I won't cry,' I told myself. 'I won't let him see me cry.' My body seemed to move all by itself. I din't even feel the ground under my feet. It felt like I wasn't really there, like I was watchin' a movie. I watched Albert as he ran his fingers along the black seat and the thick red bars, watched him squeeze the black handgrips. And I didn't cry.

"It's an off-road bike," he explained. "I took it out for a spin already this morning, out there on those hills, you see? Took a bad spill too." He pointed to the bandage on his forehead. I noticed a small dent on the frame of the bike - just under the handlebar arrangement. It's red skin was broken there, bleeding silver. I was glad for that. I wished the whole darn bike had fallen to pieces. It was the very same bike of course. My own true love, and I wished her dead.

"Go on," said Albert. "Take it for a spin." I saw my one hand take hold of the handlebar. Yes, I could do that. I could get on the bike and ride it away. I would ride it for thousands of miles and never come back. He'd never find us. I'd ride it north, all the way to Minnesota and find my parents from the old days. I'd just ask around for Mrs. Ardwinkle, the most beautiful lady in the world. Everyone up there would know her. She'd be famous.

Instead I released the handgrip and turned away. "Excuse me," I said, but my throat had closed up and the words gurgled out of me so hoarsely that Albert probably thought I said nothin' at all. I went back into the house. I heard everyone talkin' upstairs so I went downstairs. In the basement the bathroom door was open and the light was off. I went in and closed the door and sat on the floor in the dark.

And I cried. I cried til my eyes stung and spasms of loud hiccups gave away my hidin' place. Jeanie found me.

"What's the matter?" she asked softly.

"I want to go home."

"Sweety, what's wrong?"

"Please. I want to go home."

"We can't, Robby. We just got here. We haven't had dinner."

"Then I'll stay in here."

"Okay, then. I'll stay here with you until you're ready to tell me what's bothering you." She turned on the light and saw my face. She winced at the sight of it and sat down on the lid of the toilet seat. I just couldn't explain it to her. I left the room and stumbled up the stairs. I would just leave. I stopped by the back door and looked through the glass at the bike. Jeanie was right behind me.

"Oh," she said quietly. "I think I understand."

Charlie showed up and wanted to know what was goin' on. Albert and his mom were right behind him.

"Robby's not well," said Jeanie. "I'm taking him home." At this I fled for the front door. I glimpsed Albert on the way, dreadin' the smirk he was sure to be wearin' but I saw only confusion on his face - or was it pretend innocence? "Robby, wait on the porch. I'll be right out," Jeanie said.

When we got home and I went straight to my room and laid in bed 'til I fell asleep. I woke up later and was hungry but I stayed in bed and finally slept again. The next time I woke up, Jeanie and Charlie were in my room with me, sittin' on the edges of my bed, just lookin' at me. At that moment I wanted to call them Mom and Dad but I wasn't quite ready for that yet.

"Come on, Tiger," said Jeanie. "Charlie brought home left-overs for you. You must be starving." I crawled out of bed.

They followed me to the open bedroom door but I had to stop there. I din't know if the sight in front of me was real or not. It stood on the livin' room floor, supported by its black kickstand. A big green bow had been tied to the handlebars.

"You had a visitor while you were sleeping," said Charlie. "Santa Clause."

I went to it in slow motion, as if it were a wild animal, as if any sudden movement might scare it away. I knelt on the floor beside it. I pressed my cheek against the cold red steel and then I knew that it was real.

"Do you want some dinner?" asked Jeanie, almost tremblin' with excitement for me. "Or would you like to go for a short ride first?"

They were surprised that I chose dinner. I would ride the next day. That night I would just park it in my bedroom with me. They wouldn't understand what we'd been through, the bike and me. We had peace to make before there'd be any ridin'.

It was some joy just to look at it. It was the same model and colour of course. But mine was even slightly better than Albert's, it occurred to me, 'cause mine wasn't dented. And just to make certain, I looked at the front of the bike, and I was wrong.

It puzzled me at first, that my bike too had a dent where Albert's did, where the silver steel showed through. But Charlie explained that it must be a manufacturin' defect, a problem on an assembly line.

The next day we rode to the quarry and I felt like the crown prince when my pals all admired my new bike and wanted to sit on it for a bit. But Albert din't show up, not that day or the next and I was happy the first day 'cause my bike got all the attention. The second day I was disappointed. I wanted to see his face fall when he saw that I had a cool bike too. On the third day he came, with his new bike of course, just like mine. But his face din't fall when he saw my bike. He said, "Wow! Look at Bobo! We got the very same bikes!" and we brought them side by side and everyone looked on.

"Identical!" I said. "Right down to the scratch at the front here!" And that's when Albert's face did fall. And suddenly I understood. I din't even need to look at the front of Albert's bike. I knew very well then, that the dent there would be gone, 'cause there was only one dent after all.

Albert was always nice to me after that. He still made fun of me but somehow it din't seem mean anymore. I told Charlie about that and he said the strangest thing. He asked was I sure it was Albert that changed or might it be me? When Jake moved away to Tennessee, Albert and me started bein' like best friends. And he never once mentioned what really happened that Christmas. Not even once.



8 comments:

Babs said...

Fwig, this was one of the most touching stories I've ever read. In fact, I'm crying over it. It is very, very good. Oh for fuck's sake, I'm such a blubbering baby.

Claudia said...

I liked that very much fwg, thanks.

Fantasy Writer Guy said...

Thanks for the support. This is my first time writing in a child's voice and while there's a couple flaws I'm too lazy to fix - I'm happy with the experiment.

Thanks again.

Claudia said...

How did you do this? How long did it take? Was it tricky(hard) or was it fun?

Fantasy Writer Guy said...

Supermom: I'm always playing with many ideas at any given time. When I married the generous-gift idea with the foster-turned-adoption idea the story became obvious and occured to me pretty much fully formed. When that happens - when a story idea strikes so fully formed like that - It's a real blessing so I run with it. It was not tricky. It was fun. I wrote it in one night. Then I re-read it on a couple subsequent nights and gave it minor edits. Some of the minor details were spur-of-the-moment.

I wish every project would evolve this way but obviously not all do.

Writing is easy when you have a lot to say. The most important element to writing has nothing to do with writing. It's how you dedicate your life to one of intense observation!

Suki said...

Does Santa bonk people on the head with MacBooks - whether new or used, as long as usable for two more years?

I wish he would. Any lappy would do as long as it works with a MIDI controller, and stays working for two years. But yes, Santa, the MacBook is on our wishlist.

:sigh:
That was beautifully done, FWG. Very poignant, and I love the way it speaks in the voice of a young adult remembering his childhood.

Dr. Shedevil said...

What a wonderful story, Fwig. What a great job tapping into the voice of that little kid living in each of us.

'Scuse me...I need a tissue - gots nsotx running outta my nose.

Kathleen said...

That was a beautiful story, FWG. I thought I wasn't in the mood for fiction when I read the first line, but then it sucked me in.