If you are very lucky, there will be one day in your life on which your brother becomes your hero.
I was hoofing home from choir practice, the December I was 10, toting a shoulder bag of science fiction books and a fair weight of embarrassment. That year the fifth graders had to sing carols before the older kids did their Christmas play. We were all sopranos, any voice change years away, so we sounded like girls, which mortified us, because actual girls had better voices and we knew it. It was a flat stroll from school to Main Street, then the shortcut behind the depot that I was forbidden to use because some kid a century ago got hit by a train, which I took anyway, then the long climb of Hill Street as the early dark descended.
A boy came wheeling down the hill on a bicycle, making S shapes as he careened from the road's far left to far right, no great risk at that quiet hour. It had been a dry December, too, cold but no ice or snowbanks.
Not until he zoomed past did I realize that his bike was the same model as my brother Neil's, the same green. But it couldn't have been Neil's bike, because there were no streamers flying from the handlebar grips. There was no motor sound from the playing card clothespinned to the front fork so that the spokes strummed it as the wheel spun. Otherwise, it was Neil's bike exactly. The boy riding it was tall and confident, barely pedaling as he swooped side to side.
I heard the slap of shoes, and two smaller boys ran past downhill full tilt, almost faster than their legs could go. As the biker turned left, down Marshall Street toward the Farm, I heard the younger ones call out, "Hey, wait up." Then they all were gone, and I resumed my climb.
It was not a farm anymore. EJ Moulton had raised beef there for years, put in a trailer home for a hired hand, then another, and pretty soon there was a whole neighborhood of them, all in rows, with a big sign at the head of the dirt driveway: "The Farm." They weren't the poorest folks in town, but almost. Our outgrown boots went there via the food shelf, along with jeans, gloves and sturdy shirts if we hadn't worn holes in them.
That boy was riding a nice bike for a kid from the Farm. Maybe Christmas had come early.
The house was warm when I got home, a rarity for that time of day, and the wood box filled. That meant Neil was back to doing his chores again, instead of complaining about them. The desire for allowance had prevailed. I found him in our room, an arm over his eyes and his boots on the bedspread. Such drama. We did not greet one another. He was a tyrant to me. I was an annoyance to him. We lived under a fragile truce. The least hello could prove explosive.
I flumped onto my bed and dug the latest Ray Bradbury out of my bag. I'd loved Fahrenheit 451. Now I was trying Something Wicked This Way Comes, but struggling. When I'd checked the book out, the school librarian had called me "a precocious reader," which steeled my determination to finish. I spoke into the open book. "I saw a kid today with a bike like yours."
"What do you mean?"
"Same kind, same color. But no streamers."
Neil sniffed. "I took them off last week, stupid. Little kid stuff."
"Well, it didn't have any motor, either."
He sat up. "Was my bike by the front steps when you came in?"
"I didn't notice."
We raced outside, and there were only brown leaves beside the steps. I remembered once the previous summer on a dare I had shoplifted a pack of gum from the Martin Store on Main Street, old Mrs. Martin oblivious with her nose in a soap opera magazine. But I lost my nerve and put it back, choosing hazing from my friends over the weight on my conscience. That kid, though, he'd ridden a stolen bike right past me without a blink of shame. The nerve of it stunned me.
My mother felt much the same way, after we told her when she got home from work. Not that she said so outright. We just knew. My mother was not much for words. She could stare at you and burn a hole in your skin. She could bear down with her jaw and you would expect lightning bolts. But she was not all toughness. Her job was running the three laundromats our family owned, and it was well known around town that if a person handed her a dollar for change for the dryers, she always gave 11 dimes. She knew what kind of people didn't have their own dryer. Still, at home her sternness came out naturally, in gestures we always knew how to interpret.
So when I described the kid sailing this way and that down the hill, she pursed her lips and shook her head, and I was scared for him and his whole family. Then she put a chicken in to roast and told Neil and me to go do our homework.
Of course we did nothing of the kind. Instead in our room we speculated: Would our father call the police? Or beat somebody up? What might happen? It was exciting for me, allying with my brother, though he had the righteousness of being the victim. When my father came home, my mother pulled him into the bathroom — the only truly private place in the house — and Neil and I could hear them murmuring.
In general, we did our best not to bother Dad when he first came home. He wasn't stern like our mother, just tired. He ran a tiny insurance company, him and a secretary. But he also snowplowed schools and parking lots to make ends meet. That meant getting up at ungodly hours, and the harder the storm, the earlier he'd have to work. I think the man was probably exhausted all winter. Even so, a dry December like that year was a problem, because it meant less cash on hand for Christmas. There were fat years, he'd explained, and lean years, and this was a lean one. At least we weren't living at the Farm.
My father gulped a handful of peanuts, then put his boots and coat back on. "Boys," he said, "you might could come with me."
I looked at Neil, expecting him to challenge my father like he did about everything in those days. But he just pulled on his gear and went to the door.
None of us spoke on the way down. It was dark by then, nearly six o'clock, the town lights pretty below us. My father whistled absently, like he did while weeding the garden or stacking wood. When we turned left onto Marshall Street, though, he went quiet.
The sign that read "The Farm" creaked on its hinges as we passed. I had never gone past it before. My father told us to wait in the road while he checked one trailer home after another. Most had lights on inside. On a few, Christmas decorations hung here and there. One of them smelled like apple pie, and my stomach growled.
"Shut up," Neil said.
It didn't take but five or six trailers before my father called out, "Here we go."
We ran up and there was Neil's bike, no question. He grabbed the handlebars like he was ready to fight for it. I gave him room, figuring the case was solved and we would turn for home. But my father, to my astonishment, marched onto the cinder-block front stoop and knocked on the door.
"What are you doing?" Neil asked, backing up a few steps.
"Who's there?" a gruff voice called from inside. "Just a gol' dang minute."
We heard latches sliding, unlocking, and the door pulled back. An old man with a stringy gray beard poked his head out and gave us the once-over. I admit, I did it to him, too. He was wearing a military jacket that was frayed at the end of the sleeves. "Gave at the office," he growled, then coughed for fully half a minute.
My father waited, not saying a thing 'til the man caught his breath. Then he stood square. "We're not here asking for money. Nor selling anything. We found my son's bike, which had been stolen, in your side yard just now."
The old man squinted at him. "You saying I stole it?"
"Of course not." My father peered into the house. Whatever he observed, we could not see from where we stood. "But I thought you might want to know, in case you felt you had anything to ask the people who live here with you."
"Well, now." The old man combed his beard a moment with his fingers. Without turning his head, he called out, "Peter."
"Yes, sir?" we heard from inside.
"Front and center."
A boy came up by the old man's elbow, and he didn't look so tall anymore. One glance at us, and his face went white with fear.
"What-all do you know about that bicycle there?"
"Well, sir, I found it in a ditch this afternoon."
"Did you now?"
The boy gulped hard. "And took it for a joyride down the hill."
"Your brothers see all this happen? They see you find it in a ditch?"
Peter blanched and did not answer. Neil threw a leg over the bike and, although his head was turned, somehow he still gave the boy his hardest expression.
"Thought so." The old man stepped toward my father. "Please to excuse my grandson. We're in a bit of a hard time here."
"I know what hard times are," my father said. It was one of those statements that make a man a mystery to his sons. A whole interrogation came to me: When did you experience them? How did you make it through? I never did ask, of course. "We'll just be taking the bike back now, and no hard feelings."
"Maybe Peter could do some chores for you all, make it up to you?"
"That's all right. It's the bike we were after." My father looked past him again, then down along the side of the trailer. He chewed on his lip for a second. "Listen, you got any heat on in there?"
"Don't you be worrying about us, sir. We're fine."
"All right, then."
The old man coughed, but it didn't last as long that time. "I promise you," he said, "Peter and I'll be having a long talk." He closed the door slowly, the latches sliding into place.
The walk home seemed longer. Our breath rose up like ghosts. Neil rode the whole way, wheeling ahead as we hiked the steep part. When we reached the house, his bike was not leaning by the steps but back behind the shed.
Dinner was quiet, the chicken comforting and delicious. Only after everyone had finished eating, including Neil's seconds, my mother spoke. "Anyone going to tell me what went on down there?"
"You tell it," my father said to Neil.
And he did, describing it perfectly, from the old man's worn sleeves to every word Peter said. My brother hadn't missed a thing. He even noticed something I hadn't: a chimney pipe for a woodstove and no smoke coming out of it.
As she listened, my mother leaned forward in her chair, occasionally glancing at my father before focusing again on her 13-year-old. Her jaw looked like she was chewing, but I knew that actually meant she was calculating.
When Neil finished, she addressed my father. "Did he get it right?"
"Yes. And the house looked cold inside."
"Those trailers have thin walls."
"There was no supper on the table, Cora."
She made a quick nod. "You boys clear. Dishes in the sink."
While we obeyed, she set to packing things up: the rest of the chicken, a sack of potatoes, turnips, cider. My father went to the shed and filled a wheelbarrow with firewood. We could have loaded everything in the pickup and been down and back in five minutes. But we walked it again, the air sharply colder now, the wheelbarrow trying to run away on my father so that he had to lean back. My mother carried food in a basket in each hand. Neil insisted on riding his bike.
"Don't you think that will aggravate these people?" my mother asked.
Neil just stared into the distance, his jaw set in a way so similar to my mother right before she loses her temper, it scared me. I knew she was right, though. When we passed the sign for the Farm, I couldn't help feeling nervous.
My father knocked again.
"Gol' dang train station round here," we heard the old man complain, and when he opened the door and saw my father, he turned his head aslant. "Something else wrong now?"
"In the world, yes," my father answered. "Between you and me, no. My family and I just thought to bring a few things down tonight, to share our good fortune with our neighbors."
The old man scanned us with a skeptical eye. There we were, the wheelbarrow of wood, my mother with her baskets; I had three old sweaters, while Neil stayed at a remove on his bike. "We don't take no charity."
"This isn't charity," my mother answered.
"Sure looks like it," he said. Peter appeared at his elbow, half out of sight.
"For it to be charity," my mother said, "we would have to think we were better than you. We're not. We're just luckier."
"For today anyway," my father added.
Peter slid his arm around his grandfather's waist, and the old man looked down at him. When he straightened again, he seemed stiffer, flintier. "OK," he said, coughing one hard bark. "Come on in with it."
My mother went first. My father dumped the wheelbarrow, then tidied the wood into a pile by the front step. "Feel like pitching in, boys?"
I set to stacking but Neil hung back, pondering something, wringing the handlebar grips, quiet as a church on Monday. I thought he was taunting them, which under the circumstances was unkind.
My mother called me to bring the sweaters. I saw the inside of a trailer for the first time: narrow rooms, faded curtains, small furniture that was worn. But it was clean, everything in its place, the little brothers at the table with spelling workbooks open in front of them. They were doing their homework wearing coats.
My mother and I went back outside. My father offered to bring hay bales, to tuck against the trailer's apron for insulation. The old man said it was a good idea but he'd find hay himself. My mother said Merry Christmas, and the old man started to say thank you, but his cough interrupted and he just waved. When we reached the end of the walk, we looked back. Peter and the old man stood in the doorway, the light on behind them. Smoke rose from the chimney pipe.
"Damn it," Neil said. I was thunderstruck that he had cussed in front of our parents. Before they rebuked him, though, he rode back across the frozen grass. Stepping off the bike, he tilted it against the house with special care. When it was set just so, he stormed past us to the road.
"Neil—" my mother called out.
"Leave me alone." He stomped on ahead.
And we did, my mother's lips pressed against one another in a way I didn't know how to interpret. My father understood, though, and put an arm around her.
"We could bring a tree tomorrow," she said. "Some lights."
"It's enough," my father said. "They have their pride."
At the top of Marshall Street I dawdled a moment more. Peter had come outside to stand in front of the bike, not moving, as if he was afraid to touch it, as if it might not be real. I trotted up the road, then, to reach my parents. Instead of joining them, though, I broke into a run. My brother was ahead of me on the hill, and I needed to catch up.