Randy and I stood at the edge of the living room, not putting a toe into the forbidden space. In the early morning dimness, the Christmas tree tinsel fluttered, enticing as sea anemone tentacles in current.
“What did Santa bring?” Randy asked. In second grade, a year younger than me, he still believed, as I no longer did. I peered into the undersea darkness, sure I’d seen the gleam of bicycle spokes.
“I can’t tell,” I said, in case I was wrong. Next to me, Randy wriggled, his bare feet half-covered by my hand-me-down pajamas. He slipped a cold hand into mine. I’d told him brothers didn’t hold hands, but sometimes he forgot. Since it was Christmas, I let him.
“Boys?” our father’s sleep-blurred voice came muffled from his bedroom. “Are you up already? Go back to bed.”
We stood still, unwilling to leave the glittering tree, the bulges of stuffed stockings.
“Don’t make me come out there.”
We hightailed it back to our bunkbeds, shoving our icy feet under blankets still warm. Below me, Randy lapsed into a steady sleep. I imagined that bicycle, the wind in my face as I rode away, away. I knew how to ride already—I’d learned on a friend’s bike before we’d moved out here from town, before Dad had his hours cut and Mom had left. “It’s just us men now,” Dad had said. Men in the woods surviving on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and Hamburger Helper. She’d left while Randy and I were at school, but I’d imagined her departure so often, I felt like I’d seen it. How she’d loaded her clothes and her paperback novels and the candlesticks that used to be Grandma’s into her yellow Ford wagon. Even though it was November, I imagined her driving with the window down, her blond hair streaming in the wind, her red taillights disappearing into the tree shadows. Even after Dad took her chair away from the table, gave away her dresser and her owl statuette from the mantel, a Mom-shaped empty space still lived in the house with us, the way a gap showed when you lost a tooth.
Finally, Dad knocked on the door. “Get up, lazybones,” he called, as if we hadn’t been awake long before him. We tumbled out of bed, our bare feet thudding on the hardwood as we ran to the living room.
The sun was up, the cold light reflecting so brightly on the tree I had to squint. We’d cut the fir sapling off our property, instead of getting a nice bushy tree from the lot like we used to. This tree’s branches were so spindly, even the lightest glass ornaments made them droop. Through half open eyes, I saw the bike, navy blue, with matching handlebar grips. I scanned the rest of the tree, ignoring the meager spray of wrapped gifts. There was only one bike, not two.
I ran for it, declaring ownership by putting my hand on its black seat first. “Cool, a bike. What’d Santa bring Randy?”
Dad stood in the doorway, unshaven, bear-like, a mug wrapped in his palm. I hoped it just had coffee in it. Lately, his coffee hadn’t smelled like mornings, but like nights, like the amber bottle that he and mom used to open sometimes after supper. “Santa just brought one bike.”
“Then whose is it?” I asked. If Mom had still been with us, she would surely have told us to share it. But Dad took another drink and shrugged. “You guys figure it out.” He went back to the kitchen. I looked at Randy while the banging pans of Dad cooking rang out. “I’m the oldest.”
Randy’s uncombed hair stuck up on one side, like he was in a perpetual wind. “Dad said Santa brought it for both of us.” He set his mouth in a straight line—the same line I remembered from Mom when Dad came home late.
That bike was mine. The vinyl seat was soft and warm from my hand. I walked it out from behind the tree, it’s rhythmic ticking a song meant only for my ears. “You know what sharing would mean, right? We’d both want to ride it at the same time. It isn’t like a game of Sorry we can play together.”
He narrowed his eyes as he considered.
I put down the kickstand and moved close to him, keeping between him and the bike. “I’ve got a better idea than sharing. Let’s play poker. Whoever wins gets the bike.”
I’d learned to play poker from a friend, and I’d taught Randy, thinking I could smear him every time. It didn’t work out that way. He was just as good as me, maybe because he was better at math, memorizing his multiplication tables faster than me, able to compute change at our old neighborhood’s 7-11 where we used to buy candy. I could see him calculating his odds before nodding agreement.
“I’ll get the cards,” I said, running off before he could. I found the pack of worn Bicycle cards and rifled them, searching for aces, listening all the time for his running feet pounding the hardwood. He never walked anywhere. I started to sweat as I slid two aces to the bottom of the deck and slipped the stack back in the half-split cardboard package.
In the living room, Randy had dumped out his Christmas stocking and was sorting the candy and nuts, as if he could find another gift from Santa. The few wrapped gifts under the tree looked like clothes, not toys, some of them simply in store logo boxes with a stick-on bow slapped on. Since we no longer got an allowance, I’d made Dad a gold-painted macaroni Christmas tree in school.
“OK,” I said, sliding down beside him. “Five cards, jokers wild. One hand to win it all.” I opened the pack and dealt the cards, gliding them across the hardwood. A bang and a stifled curse echoed from the kitchen. Even after two months, Dad would still reach for something and find Mom had taken it with her. A charred smell wafted our way, but I didn’t worry. It always smelled like that when Dad cooked, as spills on the burner smoked.
My hand was mostly trash, but I had a pair of fours and a king I would keep. Worried, I tried to gauge Randy’s hand by his body language. Sometimes I could tell from the way he held his shoulders stiffly that he had a good hand and didn’t want to give it away. Today, he didn’t have that suppressed excitement; he had the narrow-eyed look he got when he computed store change in his head. I rubbed my sweaty palms against my pajama legs.
I was ready with my two discards, so that when he discarded I could too. I dealt him three, and, while he was gathering them up, slipped the two aces off the bottom for myself.
I tucked my upper lip inside my lower teeth, an old habit that reappeared when I was nervous. Lower teeth were so nice and even compared to upper teeth. Comforting. I picked up the two cards, and even though they were the aces, even though Randy had not noticed my underhand deal, my pulse pounded. I gripped my cards tighter to disguise how my hands were shaking. Three aces might have made him suspicious, but now I wondered if two aces would be enough.
“You first,” I said.
With an uncertain smile, Randy turned his cards. His fingers looked very small as he laid out his pair of queens.
My heart beat so fast, I felt like there was a pogo stick in my chest. I showed my aces and fours. His eyes swum with tears. “You’ll let me ride it sometimes, won’t you?” His voice got softer. “You’ll teach me how, won’t you?”
“Of course,” I said. But the bike would be mine. Mine whenever I wanted it. I wanted to yelp with joy, even as a cold lump of guilt weighted my stomach. “Let’s go try it out.” I stomped my feet into my tennis shoes without stopping for socks, wheeling the bike out the front door while Randy trailed behind me, clenching his lips as if to keep from crying. He had yet to touch the bike.
I swung a leg over that smooth black seat, gripped the handlebars, and, half-standing, started pedaling. A wild coyote sound burst from my heaving chest as I picked up speed down our gravel driveway and the house shrank away behind me.
It was worth it, I thought, pushing down the memory of Randy’s forlorn face. The wind caught my hair the way I imagined it had caught my mother’s as I raced away.