Monday, March 30, 2009

"The Gift" a story from Solomon's Puzzle

This is a work of fiction, an excerpt from my novel, Solomon's Puzzle, a story within a story.
The Gift
“… I recall his hands,/ two measures of tenderness /he laid against my face,/ the flames of discipline/ he raised above my head.”
On my eighth birthday, my parents gave me my first bicycle. A plumber by trade, my father worked steadily always doing excellent work. My mother cleaned houses and took in ironing. They put what money they could into his business and into the care of my mother’s elderly parents. Dad was fond of saying, “I’m not mean; I’m careful.” So when he took me out to the porch and showed me that gleaming, blue Schwinn, I understood the extra work it cost. “It’s great, Dad,” I whispered.
It took me a bit of practice in our little street to learn to ride the gorgeous thing. Then Dad let me go with it. I rode around our neighborhood and soon I could let one hand off to wave to the kids who came out to admire.
I felt confident, so I peddled uphill past the grocery store, the gas station and on. It was as far as I’d been by myself and as I sailed by on my bike I noticed overflowing trash bins, doors left ajar and a surprising number of adults standing by the curb or sitting on their steps. I reached my goal- the long, sloping, Rivendi Avenue.
I’ll never forget the bliss of speeding down Rivendi on that fine September day with the sun on my face so bright I had to squint. The wind lifted me; it ruffled my bit of hair; it filled up my jacket as if it were a sail. I was flying and free and nothing could catch me.
Nearly dark, I coasted home; so tired were my legs they felt like sticks of gum. I put the bicycle away in the shed, brushing off any noticeable dirt. I shut the door and I remember locking it. Dad kept his tools there. And as I said before, he had taught me to be careful.
Next morning, I woke before my parents. My legs so sore, I could barely move them, I had to have a quick ride before breakfast and church, so I hobbled out into the brief light of dawn. The shed door stood ajar. I saw the odd twist in the handle and the little padlock lying useless on the grass. I made myself look --heart thumping, breath stuck --into the dark shed.
“My astonishment was too great for tears. I ran upstairs, burst into my parents’ room., “It’s gone! My bicycle’s gone!”
There was no question of replacing it. There was no way to justify such a luxury twice. I knew it was gone forever. We all knew that.
My father told the police the thief must have been a child because none of the valuable tools in the shed were missing. Weeks passed; I grew angrier. I told my father that mine was righteous anger, like in the Bible story. My father’s response? “Only God is capable of righteous anger. Your disappointment is understandable, but remember, you’ve made mistakes, too.” My problem with Dad’s advice was that I figured I’d done nothing as bad as stealing a boy’s new bicycle. I figured if God believed in the Ten Commandments, then He was also angry with the thief. Righteously angry, like me.
The first week in October, the police called to say they’d found the bicycle. My mother and I considered it a miracle, but my father asked for the name and address of the suspected thief. He wanted to talk to him.
I went with him. I knew my father to be tough and principled, physically strong and always interested in getting to the heart of the matter. When he said he wanted to talk to me, my life changed. I was convinced Dad would talk first, thrash them righteously, turn them utterly subdued over to the police and hand me back my bicycle.
We met the policeman at the corner of Rivendi Avenue. He led us to an apartment that smelled of grease and boredom. My bicycle stood in the middle of the dim room. Shoes and pillows littered the floor beside stacked magazines; dishes filled the sink. I counted five children who stood very still rubbing their eyes with the gritty concentration of the intensely itchy. I moved toward my bicycle, but my father’s hand dropped on my shoulder.
My father introduced himself and then me to the only adult in the room-- a thin woman who sat at the kitchen table before an open magazine and a full cup of black coffee. Smoke curled from the ashtray beside her magazine in a slow, gray curl. Dad shook her hand, asked the names of the children.
“Kevin’s the culprit,” the mother pointed at the tallest. “He’s a handful and his dad can’t see it.”
“His father lives here, right?”I asked. I knew Dad wouldn’t thrash a woman.
“Course he does, child.”
“My father said, “When do you expect your husband, ma’am?’
“When was he here last, Kev?”
Without looking up, Kevin said, “Yesterday morning.”
“He’ll be back anytime get some clean clothes.”
“I looked around to see where these might possibly be kept. Kevin’s mother said, ‘What’re you going to do to him, officer?’ “That’s up to Mr. MacBride.” Now I had no worries. Especially when my father said, “May I have your permission to talk to Kevin, ma’am?” Dad always talked before he struck justice. He asked Kevin to wheel the bicycle outside. There the policeman, my dad, Kevin and I stood and stared at it.
“How did it get wrecked?” I said when I saw it in the daylight.
Kevin shrugged, rubbing his eyes and squinting. “I’m afraid that’s not the answer I need,” my father said, getting down on one knee, eye level with the criminal.
“You’re not from here,” Kevin said, rudely.
“I was born away.”
“Then how come you have more money than me? My parents were born here.”
My father thought a minute. “God has blessed me with strength to work and I’m paid for my work.”
Kevin pointed to the bicycle. “I hide it under that old truck,” he said, pointing to where a lopsided pick-up with the grocer’s faded logo rusted. “I ride at night. You run into things.”
“You run into things?” my father said.
“It’s dark,” Kevin shrugged. Dad glanced at me. A boy could always find his way in the dark, we both knew. “Like I’m riding along. Boom! Last night I crashed into the steps around front. That’s what bent the wheel. That’s when I got caught.”
A glance at the policeman confirmed this. My father stared at this solidly built boy. His hair looked the same color as his grimy skin; his watery eyes blinked, the eyelids puffed and cracked. In the awkward silence, the boy’s stomach groaned. Dad asked to speak to the policeman.
Alone with me Kevin said, “Your dad’s nice.” I began to tremble. Things were not going according to my liking. Something about the look on my father’s face spoke mercy, not vengeance. I stared at my bicycle, barely recognizable with its bent wheel, scraped paint, dented handlebars, one pedal missing. My father returned and asked to speak to me privately. We stood on the far side of the pick-up. I kept my eye on the boy and my bicycle.
My father went to one knee. “Tommy, there’s something we must do, you and I.”
“Dad--”
“The child is ill. His eyes are infected and he needs food.”
“He stole my bicycle.” I suspected where this was going. What happened to tough and principled? Was there to be no thrashing?
“I’m thinking maybe your bicycle was stolen so we would have a rare opportunity to love our neighbors.”
My dad had a certain inspired look in his eyes that, to my shame, silenced me. The next week we began to fix the bicycle. Kevin and I were to work for Dad on Saturdays, earning the money for each part. Though my mother protested, Dad invited the entire grubby family over for Sunday supper. That same look in his eye vanquished her, too.
When I grumbled, Dad explained the money had to be earned to pay for repairs. I could do it alone, or share the work with the culprit. When Dad took a bag of groceries there Saturday mornings, I glowered at my oatmeal, imagining the bags we took them held Cocoa Puffs-- deemed “too dear” for us MacBrides. The third time they came for dinner, I made sure they knew my resentment. My father asked me to leave the table. After dessert, he came to my room.
“You have a choice, Tommy. You can stand against me or help me. If you refuse to be kind, I’ll leave you to yourself. But if you want peace between us, you’ll have to cooperate.”
If I admitted I’d been rude, I’d have to submit to his plan. I could escape this punishment as long as I was willing to fuel the hostility I felt growing toward Dad. An easy choice except when you love your father as I did mine.
“He stole from us,” I sobbed. “And you’re rewarding him!”
“Don’t you think it’s punishment to make the boy fix what he wrecked, all the time having to face you and me? Being forced to sit at dinner with the people he’s wronged, so his family can have the food they need?”
So I joined him, doubting though I was and prone to bursts of anger. We worked eight months and Kevin looked as healthy as me. His eyes were better; he kept himself clean and he had proven to be an excellent mechanic. The day came when we had no more to do and the three of us stared at the gleaming, souped-up bicycle. It was so beautiful, I felt like crying.
“I was wrong to take it,” Kevin sobbed. “I’m so sorry.” He went to my father who hugged and kissed Kevin just as if he were me. They heard me crying behind them and took me into the hug. I said, “I know. Let’s sell it and buy two cheaper ones.”
Both wiped their eyesFont size and stared at me.
“No,” Kevin said. “It’s yours. You don’t owe me. I owe you.”
“But I forgive you,” I heard myself say.

with thanks to Karl, Joe , Li Young Lee and Steve Larson for inspiration
Copyright by Loris Nebbia 2007

2 comments:

  1. Wow, I haven't visiting in a while and look what I miss: two new posts. I just can't wait until that book gets published. There are a lot of people who will be blessed by it.

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