Only Fifteen Shopping Days...
...were left till that Christmas of 1941. Crowds bustled. Shelves cleared. The window of the Curio Shop on East Prairie Avenue was heaped high with broken dishes, torn fans, ripped up paper lanterns. They'd wrecked all their Made-in-Japan merchandise and made a display of it that drew a crowd.
Scooter and I looked, but it was something in the window of Black's Hardware that pulled us back every Saturday, to see if it was still there.
A Schwinn bicycle stood in the window. A solitary Schwinn, casual on its kickstand, sharp as a knife. Two-toned cream and crimson with a headlight like a tiny torpedo. An artificial squirrel tail dyed red, white, and blue hung off the back fender under the reflector. I couldn't look at the thing without tearing up. You could have played those chrome spokes like a harp. And look at the tread on those tires.
It was the last Schwinn in town, and maybe the whole country, for the duration. The duration was the new wartime word, and you heard it all day long, like the song "Remember Pearl Harbor," on the radio, over and over. The duration meant for however long the war would last.
I'd been wanting a two-wheeler for a year and thought I could handle that Schwinn, though it was full-sized and weighed thirty pounds. I thought I was long enough in the leg and had the arms for it, almost. Never mind that I didn't know how to ride a bike.
I didn't expect to get it for Christmas, and didn't. It was twice what bikes cost, and the last one on earth. Scooter and I checked on that Schwinn faithfully, knowing that one Saturday it wouldn't be there.
I pictured the kid who'd get it, some rich kid from up on Moreland Heights. I saw him in new Boy Scout shoes and salt-and-pepper knickers and a chin-strap helmet with goggles, swooping down a curving road with that patriotic squirrel tail standing out behind. I saw the easy arcs he made from ditch to ditch. He'd be a little older than we were, a year or tow older.
We didn't know what to expect out of Christmas this year. Scooter usually did pretty well for presents. He already had his Chem-Craft chemistry set. We'd had our first fire with it, burning a circle out of the insulation on the Tomlinsons' basement ceiling.
The stink bomb we'd built to go under Old Lady Graves's back step had gone off too soon, in Scooter's arms. I threw up the minute I smelled him, and his mom made him strip naked in their yard. She hosed him down and burned his shirt in a leaf drum. But that was last summer after his birthday.
One December Saturday when we checked, Black's window was empty, and the Schwinn was gone.
Dad brought home a tree standing up out of the Packard's rumble seat. People said there'd be no trees next Christmas and no string of lights when these burned out. Mom baked all Bill's favorites. Dad rolled out peanut brittle on a marble dresser top. People said that next year there wouldn't be enough sugar for Christmas baking.
But this one still smelled like the real thing: pine needles and nutmeg, Vicks and something just coming out of the oven in a long pan. And Bill was home. "That's Christmas enough for me," Mom murmured.
We untangled the string of tree lights, Bill and I, stretching them through the house. He could stick the star on top without stretching. But then he and Dad had hung the moon.
Bill was home from St. Louis with a full-length topcoat and his aeronautics textbooks. Bill wanted to fly, and he was taxiing for takeoff already.
He and Dad were down in the basement on Christmas Eve, puttering on mysterious business while Mom kept me busy. When Bill came upstairs, wiping grease off his hands, the kitchen radio was playing "Stardust." Bill swept Mom away from the sink, and they danced, turning around, the kitchen like it was the Alhambra Ballroom and Mom was his date. Her forehead was shiny, and her eyes were shining. She still held a dish towel that hung down from his shoulder. They danced until the radio began to play "Remember Pearl Harbor," and Mom switched it off.
Bill slept in the big from room upstairs. Dad had divided the attic in two and boxed in the rooms under the eaves. I had the little one at the back. We didn't get a lot of heat up here. On nights this cold I wore mittens and a cap to bed.
You could talk between the rooms. The wall was beaverboard, and we left the door open. From his bed, Bill said, "Davy? You remember to hang up your stocking?"
No answer from me. I was too old to hang up a stocking, as we both knew. "What did you get me?" Bill inquired because it was a known fact that I couldn't keep a secret.
"A pen wiper," I said. "Pen wipers for everybody. We made them in school."
"Miss Mossman?" Bill said, naming my teacher. He'd had her. "A pen wiper's good," he said. "I'll keep it on my desk and take it with me. Wherever."
Silence then. Silent night.
"What did you get me?" I asked, and my breath puffed a cloud. I hoped for his high school letter sweater, Cardinal Red. He'd lettered in track. I'd go in his closet and try it on a lot. It hit me just above the ankle.
"You get anything for me?" I asked in the dark because he was drifting off.
"Socks," he mumbled, "underwear."
"Oh," I said. I turned over once, and it was morning.
Copyright © 2007 by Richard Peck. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.