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December 18 and 25, 1997

Rider on the Wind

A Christmas Story

When you give a thing, it's yours forever.

--- James Joyce


I first saw her one rainy Saturday morning in February 1980.

She burst into the room and raced across the floor, waist-length hair streaming behind her, and approached my side of the bed, the bed I was occupying with her mother.

Her name was Tracy, she announced. She was four. Actually, four-and-a-half, she corrected herself. And her birthday was coming up in less than two months. Then she would be five. Not four-and-a-half anymore. Five, as in the three fingers she held up as proof. Did I want to know the exact date of her birthday? The information was provided before I could adjust my head to nod.

She demanded, in turn, to know who I was. She waited patiently, her elbows resting on the edge of the bed. Cowering, with the blankets tightly drawn to my throat, I explained as best I could. Yes, I was a friend of her mom's. Yes, I knew how to play video games. Sure, I liked to eat pizza. And, uh, yes, I had heard that Ronald Reagan was running for president.

We became fast friends, even though I didnít get her a birthday gift (though I did make an attempt). What the hell does the boho-bachelor-boulevardier know to buy for a five-year-old girl? A kid whose mother he had met only recently? My working-stiff sensibilities about the order of importance of the world's doings were also affronted. Had Gramsci or Eugene Debs ever been put in this position? My efforts to smooth things over were unsuccessful: A Chinese dinner and a trip to the Exploratorium, I was informed, didn't count; those were things you did on that day, but they weren't presents. Didn't I understand that?

* * *

On my next visit her mother pulled me aside and handed me a children's book she had hidden on a closet shelf --- your present for my daughter, dummy --- and thus Tracy's and my reading sessions began. Animal stories, these were. Park-animal stories, specifically, with squirrels, field mice, birds, worms and owls, and a human groundskeeper functioning as a Greek chorus. Orwell it wasn't, although the oeuvre was evidently fascinating stuff if you were five and embarking upon your first bit of consciousness-raising. Tracy said "yeah" a lot and looked archly satisfied every time the female animals flew higher, or ran faster, or gathered more food, than the males. When a male was being mean to a female animal, Tracy lingered over the drawing on the page and screwed up her mouth and used the words "gross" and "shit" frequently. At those moments I was ordered to reread certain parts, the better to enhance the little readee's budding sense of outrage, it appeared. And, of course, fatigue was never permitted me during these sessions. I was learning, slowly.

One weekend I made the fatal mistake of picking her up by the arms and swinging her from side to side. By summer I had seemingly signed a blood-oath to swing her alternately by the ankles and by the hands in wide circles, endlessly, until one of us was predictably too dizzy to remain standing. What were initially quiescent July and August evenings in Menlo Park ended when Tracy discovered that my car had a sunroof. It was incomprehensible to her that anyone would stay indoors on a warm evening, and she felt duty-bound to stand on the back seat and ride with her head and arms above the roof. But the radio had to be on, too, she insisted, so she could clap hands if she wanted.

One day, trying to shoo her away, I made what I thought were a couple of effectively grotesque and snide facial contortions. She hovered around me assiduously from then on. For days afterward all her mother heard about was my talent for making funny faces, and one night at 11 p.m. Tracy phoned to tell how the next time I drove down from San Francisco she would show me some faces she was practicing. Mandatory grimacing wars henceforth ensued at a moment's notice, though a couple of weeks later I attempted to warn her of the possibility of permanent disfigurement from such activity, gravely citing a story I had once read about Bell's Palsy. She wrinkled up her nose in a way that suggested incomparable lameness on my part, and declared: "Anyway, my mom said I should be nice to you because you haven't been around kids."

* * *

Regular weekend domesticity amplified the crash course I had embarked upon. After dinner one night Tracy suggested that she should dole out the dessert: The first scoop of ice cream rocketed the six-foot length of the table and splattered against my face and down my chest --- clearly one of the funniest things she had ever seen; one mid-summer afternoon she insisted on helping me with yard work, although her idea of cleaning up cut grass was to carefully rake it into neat piles on the walkway and then run headlong and slide into the piles; later that month she answered a long-distance call from me, said hello, and before I could ask to speak to her mother, apparently went back to what she had been doing, letting the dangling phone bounce against the floor until I was forced to hang up.

Before I knew it I had begun supplementing the family's skimpy finances, despite my own meager resources. I thought bringing Tracy along on a trip to the supermarket --- just the two of us --- might be a pleasant, uneventful excursion. At one point she disappeared and I found her out front in the shopping cart bay where she had enticed some other kids to play bumper cars. I somehow was also bequeathed disciplinarian status, for which none of my extensive readings in diplomatic history had prepared me: Say, Trace, maybe it's not a good idea to try walking in my boots since they come up over your hips and yesterday you almost knocked the bookcase over. Or: Hey, Trace, it might be better if you take R2D2 out of the hallway before you go to bed; that way you won't bump into him if you have to get up and use the bathroom and he won't start beeping and walk into your mom's bedroom again.

About the only time she was not immediately omnipresent was when her seven-year-old brother, Andy, and I rode our bicycles. Her mother wouldn't allow her off the curb, and Tracy's own bike was an ancient, wobbling three-wheeler that always looked as if it were about to tip over. The tires on it were completely warped and out-of-round, and required great effort to propel. She rode along the sidewalk that way all summer, parallel to her brother and me in the street, shouting in a way that she must have hoped would preclude her being left out of things.

* * *

Whatever Tracy's mother and I had together was not destined to continue. What differences we had were exacerbated by her recent divorce and the prospect of a custody fight over the children. By late fall of that year we had split up.

When I left my night job on Friday mornings, I reacclimated myself to solitary weekends in the city. I was 37 years old and beginning to sense the first intimations of middle age, and while I could technically be considered back in circulation, the freedom I had enjoyed through years of single living had suddenly become curtailed. I now found myself in major financial straits, and anything beyond the bare necessities was out of the question. A couple of emergencies, combined with a stretch of freewheeling spending in the late 1970s ó a reaction, no doubt, to having spent the 1960s owning little more than two pairs of jeans óhad caught up with me, and by December I found myself a ward of the bankruptcy court.

I remained in touch with Tracy and her brother. As the holiday season progressed I made a point of contacting them weekly by phone or with a short note. The phone conversations were particularly distressing; each time I rang off the realization that I didn't have the means to provide them much at Christmas hit home.

Fortunately, I still had a job, which seemed secure despite an anticipated recession and with which I could barter against my emotional state. I settled into my work routine, weighing and sifting my personal circumstances relative to the uncertainties of the new era Reagan was heralding. The shock of John Lennon's death provided some ersatz and self-absorbed consolation; I was at least still able to watch the wheels go round and round, I told myself. For the first time since I had begun working at the parking garage I was grateful for the midnight shift. I took refuge in the building's voluminous quiet, tucked away from the daytime and its frantic holiday shoppers. Night didn't completely erase the realities of the season, however. The reminders were all around me: An avalanche of Styrofoam chips, wrapping paper and shopping bags strewn across the floors and churned by the cold wind sweeping over the half-enclosed railings, waiting to be vacuumed into the floor-sweeper rig I operated.

The work load was heaviest at this time of the year, but it helped make the days and weeks go by quickly. Too quickly though, in another respect, and the week before Christmas I was forced to weigh my situation: Providing something for the boy wouldn't be too difficult; I remembered with no little irony that somewhere about my apartment was a bag of old foreign coins and a coin handbook my father had given me when I was growing up. As for Tracy, well, that was something else entirely. I had already demonstrated that I knew squat about shopping for a five-year-old girl, and the one item I did have in mind I couldn't possibly afford.

Four days before Christmas the problem began to resolve itself, although I wouldn't let myself acknowledge it right away. Coming down the east ramp that night I happened to glance over at the enclosed area where customers parked their motorcycles. As usual, at this hour, it was empty of the day's jumble of Vespas, workhorse Hondas and yuppie-ninja Suzukis. Standing alone in the center of empty racks was a bicycle.

It was still there the next night, and the two nights after that. Same spot, evidently unmoved since I'd first noticed it. I got off the sweeper and went over and looked at it: A child's dirt bike, a little worn but intact, its sturdy frame still taut, excellent tires. Some poor kid somewhere probably crestfallen over its loss, I thought. I was amazed it was still there. It had been left unlocked in a public garage where 3,000 people passed through daily.

I hung around for an hour in the morning after my shift ended. I had a decision to make and I knew I was putting it off. I had finished reading the paper and was thinking of heading home when a co-worker came up the near aisle pushing the bicycle.

"This bike's been down at the motorcycle rack since Monday," Frank said. "Can't understand why nobody's come back for it. Stolen, maybe. Or maybe somebody just left it. Hell of a waste to just let it sit there on Christmas Eve."

We stood around and looked at it for a few minutes. It was in even better condition than I had first thought and I felt badly for whoever owned it.

"Ought to be put to good use by somebody," Frank said, his methodical examination complete. We looked at each other in silence.

"Yeah," I heard myself say, finally. "Actually, I've been kind of watching over it, too. I know someone who would enjoy it."

Frank eased the bike over to me, smiled, and said softly: "Well, that's what it was built for."

* * *

No sooner had I placed the bicycle and her brother's present on their front steps early next morning than Tracy swooped past me and in one fluid motion took a quick, comprehensive look at the bike and kicked up the kickstand. The bike crashed onto its side. "Jerkoff!" she yelled, righting it and kicking again, this time at the frame. Just for good measure, I  assumed.

She climbed on without hesitation, lurched awkwardly, and fell a couple of times before turning the corner and fading from sight, yet she was riding, her maze of long braids flouncing from side to side.

She glided back 20 minutes later, flushed and triumphant. She uttered no thanks, but I hadn't expected any, and would have been surprised if she had. I was now certifiably savvy enough to know that that begrudging smile of hers was all she was prepared to admit. Anything more she held tightly and unobligingly in reserve.

I stayed a while longer and watched as she rode up and down the block, thankful we were alone and without other reminders of all that had happened. Her brief smile had become a glow of determination. She stood out of the saddle and accelerated into a sprint, steered fairly steadily through a few slow turns, and managed at one point to go part way up the street with her hands off the bars.

I waved to her as I started the car. She slowed to a halt, stared back for a long moment and slowly raised her hand. In the rear mirror I saw her watching me as I drove off. As I reached the corner she was again pedaling hard, intent upon pursuing the new morning's discoveries. I watched as she receded into the distance and disappeared, bearing the wonder of all that is mysterious and free.

--- Copyright John Hutchison 1997

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