|LIFE AS A LOSER #185: "THE CHRISTMAS NEIGHBOR."|
|By Will Leitch||
The best gift the man I thought was Santa ever gave to me was a motorcycle. I was nine. A motorcycle might seem like a strange gift for a nine year old. But you didn't see the motorcycle.
I woke up around midnight on Christmas Eve, and heard my father cursing. This was nothing unusual; though Dad would never dream of tossing out the F-word, he could fire off "goddammit!"s and "jee-zus cah-rist!"s with tommy gun-like efficiency. To this day, I can amuse my father's brothers by screaming and "JEE-ZUS CAH-RIST! Will, it's lefty-loosey, right-tighty!" at maximum volume. I sound just like him. I heard it a lot. My father is the
oldest of four brothers, who all understand; they know what it's like to be scolded with expletives.
After years of contemplation, I think I've finally pieced together what happened that Christmas Eve. Dad rolled in the tiny motorcycle, showed it off to Mom and then promptly dropped it. I heard a scream no, a screech. The motorcycle, the best as I can figure it, landed on the cat's tail. The cat freaked out and sprinted across the house, bashed open the door to my room and tore across my bed, waking me up. (He ended up smashing against my bedroom window and scurrying under my bed.) Then I heard my parents arguing. My guess is that it went something like this:
Dad: Goddammit! What's that cat doing there?
This went on for a while in a low-key, we're-not-really-arguing-it's-just-midnight-and-we-just-almost-killed-the-cat kind of way. I heard them the entire time. Mom was saying they should put a bow on the motorcycle, Dad thought that was kind of fruity, we don't the kid to grow up like that, and they talked and talked and giggled and drank , and I just laid there, wondering when they were gonna go to bed so Santa could show up. And why were they giving me gifts anyway? Wasn't that Santa's job?
This was how I learned that there was no Santa Claus. I must say, the lesson was well worth it.
The motorcycle ruled. It was short and squat. It was a Honda, which was its only real similarity to an actual motorcycle, save for maybe the kickstand. It was like a clown motorcycle. No. You know how sometimes, at the circus, they put the elephants on tricycles. That's what a normal adult would have looked like on that motorcycle. Its wheels were thick, like those of a four-wheeler, but the rest of the motorcycle was of the same proportion as a road bike. Only smaller. Apparently Honda had decided that they wanted a bike for nine-year-olds, one they couldn't possibly fall off. It was the motorcycle equivalent of water wings.
I loved it. God, did I love it. Its top speed was probably around seven miles an hour; my father could jog alongside it, backwards, on his hands. It didn't even have enough power to kick up rocks when I revved it up; it just kind of coughed, sputtered there, indecisive, before finally deciding OK, we'll take this kid where he wants to go. Throughout life, I have searched for midget cycles like this, and I have never found them. I wonder if they were just around for that year. I was lucky to be nine that year.
Christmas morning, confused, I found the very same motorcycle my parents had been discussing, oh, three hours before, right under the Christmas tree. (It fit under the tree! It was a real motorcycle, with an engine and gas tank and kickstand and everything, and it fit under the tree!)
The gifttag, in my father's handwriting, said:
I was too excited to quibble. I had a motorcycle! I begged them to let me ride it, right then, but I had to open the boring boxes of sweaters and pants and socks first. Children are so great. The clothes are so dull. These days, I'm happy just to get a sweater. I need clothes. Nice, safe gift. It's the best gift I could hope for.
This is not progress.
After we discarded the boxes and wrapping paper and bows and ribbons, my dad, after fixing a Bloody Mary, asked, offhand, looking out the window into the distance, as if this was the last thing on his son's mind, if anyone would be interested in taking the motorcycle out for a spin. I sprinted across the linoleum floor and grabbed his leg. Me! Me! I would be interested! Me!
We filled the bike full of gas, and Dad kickstarted it for me. "You ready to go?" I was ready. I hopped on the bike, revved up the gas on the handle and off off off! Dad held onto the seat for the first 30 feet or so, but then he let go and just strolled beside me. My smile was four stories high. A motorcycle! Mine! Wee!
I grew up in a little subdivision in rural Mattoon, and you can ride through the entire thing, about a quarter-of-a-mile round trip, without having to worry about a single car speeding through. I took a lap, with Dad next to me, laughing and yahyahYAH!ing all the way. After the first lap, Dad made me stop the bike.
You wanna go by yourself?
And off I went. Lord, I was so free! A neighbor dog followed me excitedly, his tongue wapping up and down, yupyupyup. I barely noticed him. My concentration was unbreakable. This was me! On a motorcycle! Yahhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!
I came to the turn by the McFarland house. The turn was the same one that had vexed me when I was learning to ride a bicycle. Unlike the rest of the subdivision, it was paved almost entirely with loose rocks. One wrong move, and down you went, bawling home for mommy. I was determined not to have the same fate befall me this time. As I looked up, I noticed Mr. McFarland ahead of me, raking leaves, waving, with a big dopey grin on his face. He'd seen me crash many times in front of his house. I was going to show him.
I sped up. Why not? Seeing the end of the rock road ahead of me, I turned a hard right, on top of everything, king of all that I surveyed. And then I hit an ice spot. It hadn't been a white Christmas in Mattoon, but Thanksgiving had been freezing, and I'd found a remnant. My back wheel caught the ice patch, just a little frozen puddle, really, and WHOOSH down I went.
I was nine. I immediately started crying. But I was prideful! I picked up my bike, straightened it out and looked at my right hand. It was bleeding, barely; I'd scraped it, and there were a couple pebbles stuck in there. This made me cry more. Mr. McFarland noticed my struggles and came over to me. I looked up at him, tears in my eyes, and said, meekly, "my hand. My hand. Ow. My hand."
I didn't know Mr. McFarland very well. Every time I saw him, he was raking leaves. He had two huge trees in his front yard. As far as I knew, he didn't have any children, even though he seemed about the same age as my dad, maybe a little older. But now, he was my only friend in the world. He looked at my thumb, which had a tiny scrape, right where it met the wrist.
He took my hand in his. He looked it at like a biologist at a petri dish. And then, without notice, he took his thumbnail, which was longer than my dad's and he dug it into my thumb. Hard. So hard, in fact, that more blood came out, a whole new wound opened. I remember this vaguely. But I remember what he was saying, with what I can only presume was a maniacal look in his eye.
"Oh, now, don't cry. Don't cry. Mommy will make it better. Don't cry."
He had destroyed my thumb. With his thumbnail, he had punctured a tiny slit, about two millimeters long, and then pulled, hard, until it opened. Blood was now pouring down my wrist. I screamed.
"Don't cry now. Just take your bike home. Mommy will make it all better."
I carried my bike, now idle, back to my house, crying and crying and crying. My father was waiting for me to come back, ready to see his triumphant son return from his first solo trip to the moon and back. And he found me bawling. He took me inside, noticeably disappointed, and handed me off to my mother. "He crashed," he said. She shot him a dirty look, and cleaned my wound.
To this day, I have a scar on my thumb from Mr. McFarland, and to this day, my parents do not believe that Mr. McFarland, who, now an old man, still lives in the subdivision, caused it. But it's right there, in the shape of a thumbnail, evidence of a neighbor's sadism.
From then on, I was always suspicious of that motorcycle, and I never rode it past Mr. McFarland's again. I still see him, sometimes, when I'm home, and he waves with that dopey grin, raking leaves, noting that the Leitch boy is back from New York for the holidays. It is a shame he is so feeble now. I would love to come over there and deck his halls. I really would.