Work in Progress

In 1973, good boys and girls didn’t merely ask Santa for a bicycle—they begged him for a Schwinn. Brand awareness and consumer lust of such magnitude was unprecedented until that time, and didn’t come cheap. To ensure their product’s lofty position on kids’ Christmas lists everywhere, the marketing wizards at America’s best-known bike company stuffed Kaptain Kangaroo’s withered pouch with all the filthy lucre they could muster. The Kaptain compensated Schwinn for its generosity by lavishing praise on the company’s fine products every morning during his nationally syndicated TV show. Not even Dancing Bear got more air time than bikes like the Lil’ Pixie, the Fair Lady and Schwinn’s legendary Sting-Ray. After watching Mr. Green Jeans pedal around the Kaptain’s playhouse aboard one every morning since Labor Day, I knew I had to have a Schwinn Orange Krate. The one with the banana seat, springer forks, 16-inch from wheel and five-speed Stik Shift. if there wasn’t an Orange Krate beneath the tree on Christmas morning, I vowed to kill someone. Doing so would be easy—the second gift on my list was a .22 caliber rifle with a high-powered scope. Any survivors of my murderous rampage could watch the authorities haul me to the Loxahatchee Boy’s Farm on the last nag in my holiday trifecta: a 12-inch black-and-white TV.

For the son of a surgeon, such gifts would have comprised a Christmas bounty beyond compare. Given mom’s station in life at the time—clerk of the Manatee County Small Claims Court, Judge Arpaya presiding—my wishlist teetered on the fringes of grand larceny. To improve my odds of acquiring all three, I did the unthinkable: I feigned belief in Santa Claus. Not a stretch for a six-year-old, but I was pushing twelve.

When he turned his back on the notion of Santa several years earlier, my best friend Timmy Fleming suffered a precipitous drop in both the volume and quality of his Christmas booty. Sugarplums in his stocking got the boot, their void filled by soap-on-a-rope and disposable shavers. Beneath the tree, Louisville Sluggers and Hot Wheels tracks were replaced by dress shoes and chess sets. If I was going to pull the hat trick this Christmas, going all in on Saint Nick was the smart bet. Of course, mom called my bluff.


Since being naughty wasn’t working, I tried being nice. “Hey mom—I took out the trash. “Would you like me to wash the laundry? “Let me cook dinner this Thursday—I know a really good recipe for polka-dotted macaroni and cheese.” For three weeks I cooked and cleaned like an indentured servant. No chore went undone. I topped off mom’s scotch. I pedaled down to the Cuban market for her smokes. I made my bed. I took out the trash. Was it working? I’d find out December twenty-fifth.

When Jesus’s birthday finally arrived, a peak beneath the tree confirmed mom’s exclamation three weeks earlier: there was, in fact, no goddamned Santa Claus. The contents of a wool sock draped beside the swamp cooler in our living-room window confirmed it: one bottle of Hai Karate after shave, a tube of Crest, a roll of nickels and a candy bar. The milk and cookies I’d left on the TV for Old Saint Nick were uneaten, as were the carrot sticks for Rudolph and his eight tiny reindeer friends. My dejection clouded the living room like the smoke from mom’s smoldering Marlboro Red. It wafted down the hallway and into her room. I was taking a whiff of my cheap cologne when mom plodded past the Christmas tree. “What did you get?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said.

“That’s more than you deserve. What’s in your stocking?”

“An orange.”

“What else?”

“Some perfume, and a roll of nickels.”

“ Hell, son—that’s two dollars. I’d say you did pretty well for yourself. Did you look under the tree?”


“Dig around under there—I’m going to make some coffee.”

I didn’t move from the couch. If there wasn’t a bike or a TV or a gun in plain sight, what was the point. Eventually I groveled beneath the tree long enough to find about a dozen packages with my name on them. Before I could start opening the first one, mom returned to the living room. The clinking of the spoon inside her coffee cup couldn’t mask the unmistakable noise that accompanied her. Although I’d never heard one in real life, I could recognize the sound of a Suntour five-speed freewheel anywhere. Mom was pushing a ‘73 Schwinn Orange Krate. My face lit up like the bulb in the ass of the angel on our Christmas tree.

“Thanks mom—you’re the best! Can I take it for a ride?”

“No, but you can open the rest of your presents while I smoke this cigarette. Start with the package from Aunt Nancy and Uncle Steve.”

Maniacal disection of box number one revealed a digital alarm clock—not what I would have expected from my hippie aunt and her Florida cracker husband, but I prided myself on my punctuality, so their gift wouldn’t go unloved. Boxes two through ten contained all the holiday booty I’d braced myself to expect: shirts and pants, a couple sweaters, matching twin bedsheets, a six-pack of tube socks and an electric blanket.

“I’m done… now can I go for a ride?”

“Just open the goddamned gifts so you know who to thank when we go to grandma’s this afternoon.”

Mom’s mock exasperation made the giver of those last two presents obvious. To muster up an appropriately joyful response to what would surely pale in comparison to my new bicycle, I opened the eleventh package slowly. After all, not even the gun I had been wishing for could top that Orange Krate.

Yet a gun was exactly what I got. A .22 caliper Ruger semi-automatic rifle with a 10X scope. If the Schwinn made me giddy and the Ruger left me speechless, Mom’s last gift rendered me practically incontinent: a Magnavox 12-inch black-and-white TV.

“What did you get? mom asked.

“You know what I got… a bike and a gun and a TV!”

“Do you like them?”

“ I love them!”

“Good, because I worked my ass off for them. Now for Christ’s sake, don’t let any of your goddamned friends get their filthy meat hooks on your new shit or I’ll pull out your arm and beat you with the bloody stump.”

Sweeter words have never been spoken.

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