An unabashedly sentimental fable set in
the time and place of the authors childhood, presented for the
readers edification and, it is hoped,
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
fathers coat sleeve. Dad! he breathed excitedly,
Look! Look, Dad, he exclaimed, pointing at the button set
into the tank side, its even got a horn! Wow! Can I have
it, Dad? Please, can I have it?
I dont 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 wasnt for sale; it was an annual feature of
Montana Powers 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!
Im sorry, but I dont think we can
afford it this year, said Wayne. I think youre
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! Ill ask Santa
for it. Hes gonna be at the party tonight, hes always
there. Ill ask him and hell bring my bike, I know he
Yes, rejoined his father, you ask
Santa. Maybe he will bring you a bike. Wayne
wasnt 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, lets 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 Ill buy us some hot
O-KAY! shouted Dennis
enthusiastically. Hot chocolate! Lets go!
And he began trying to drag his father bodily along Main Street past
McCrackens Mens Shop, past the Powder Horn, and across a
side street to the storefront housing Montana Power.
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. Denniss eyes glowed. Can I go up to the balcony,
Mom? he asked. I want to see if I can touch the
Yes, she answered, you may go
But dont reach too far out over the
railing, said Wayne with a smile. We dont 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 Denniss coat, Wayne went off to hang the winter
wear up in the cloakroom. His other two sons followed him. They were
a little old for kiddie Christmas parties, or at least they thought
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. Well be at the
cloakroom at nine-thirty, and youd better be there. Its a
cold walk home.
You bet, Dad. Well be there, said
Andy. See ya later!
Lets 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! Denniss 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, Im almost as tall as the tree! he cried.
Almost, she agreed. Dont you
fall over! Maybe youd better come down and get in line to see
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 wouldnt? 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. Im going to ask for that red bike, he
December 23 arrived, and it was time for Wayne to bail
the bicycle out of layaway. Having dispatched Dennis to Safeway in
his mothers 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? Im going down to getDenniss 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
Sure, they chorused. And ours, too,
Ha! said Wayne with a chuckle. You
should be so lucky. Youre both getting big lumps of coal this
year. He reached out to ruffle Andys hair.
Andy ducked away playfully. Cmon, Dad,
Im twelve! he protested. They all laughed.
Will it fit in the car? asked Larry.
Well just have to see, said Wayne.
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
You bet, said Ward. Ill have
it brought out to your car. It will go in, wont
it? The question was unnecessary; there was room to spare in
Waynes old Ford station wagon.
Playing along, Wayne assumed a worried look. I
dont know, he said dubiously, maybe Ill have
to cut it in half. Ward rolled his eyes toward the ceiling.
Boys, Wayne instructed his sons, you go help. The
tailgate isnt locked.
Youve paid half, said the store
manager when the boys were gone. Theres still fifteen
Yup, said Wayne. He fished his checkbook
and pen out of his pocket and inscribed a check for the balance
As Wayne started to put his pen away, Ward noticed the
bright gold cap. New pen? he inquired. Very
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 dont 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
At least with a Waterman youre 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.
Thats not a bad thing, said Wayne.
But Ive wanted a Parker 51 ever since before
the war. Ive never felt I could afford one, and now that I have
one I dont 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 clothing. Neither of them saw it fall to the floor and roll out
into the aisle. And neither of them heard the sound when a customer,
passing by, kicked it away.
By the time Marcia and Dennis got home, the bike was
safely concealed under the basement bulkhead.
But Waynes 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 its not here now.
Did you call Jay? asked Marcia.
Maybe you dropped it in the store and somebody found
Yes, I called him. No luck.
Oh, Wayne, Im so sorry. You just got that
Yes, well, Ill have to buy a new pen, but
doggone it, said Wayne, I cant afford another one
like that. Ill have to get something else.
Im sure youll 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. Whats going on? Do you know where the
boys are? Wayne asked Marcia.
I have no idea, she said.
Theyve been gone all day. Dont worry, theyre
probably just over at Koebers house watching TV.
Mmm, yeah, youre probably right,
agreed Wayne. But theyd better be home for dinner.
And he returned to his task of hanging the tinsel on the tree.
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 Marcias bedroom
commenced shuddering under the persistent blows of six excited fists.
Mom! Dad! hollered the owners of those fists, Get
up, its Christmas!
Faking a sleepy groan, Wayne shouted back, Go
away, its 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! Well 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 wouldnt 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 wasnt
pretended; 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
But she seemed as surprised as he. No, I did
not. I had nothing to do with that, she stated flatly.
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 couldnt 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 hes going to let us set pins on
Saturdays for ten cents a line.
And Im 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 cant buy. As he
looked over their heads at her, Marcia thought she saw a tear
glinting at the corner of his eye.
© 2003 Richard F. Binder