It was Christmas Eve when Joey pressed his nose against the window of the Manhattan department store.
Fat flakes of snow settled on the shoulders of his worn jacket. He thrust his numb hands into his pockets and rubbed the rigid lines where his mother had sewn and re-sewn the material. The air was turning frigid with night and Joey’s breath froze on the window. He breathed hard to fog the glass. As the moisture dried, the gift he longed for, just on the other side of the window, emerged once again. Oh, there were other toys: electronic marvels dusted with white against a painted background of snow-peaked mountains. The life-size plastic Santa’s belly shook with laughter that emanated from outside speakers and mixed with crisp sounds of Christmas bells. Artificial snow sifted down like a reflection of the real storm. But for Joey, there was only one gift, with its bright red bow, and his heart swelled as the window cleared once again and he stared at the shiny red bicycle. Behind him boots crunched through icy slush as late shoppers hurried to catch buses or trains or find their cars in parking lots for the long commute to the suburbs.
]Joey lifted one foot, then the other, and rubbed them against his jeans to ease the creeping cold that worked its way up his wet shoes. More than glass separated him from the bicycle, he knew, as he warmed his wet hands in empty pockets. He looked around and realized that night was settling. “Uh oh,” he whispered to himself. Momma would be worried.
]He skipped and leaped through deepening puddles, pretending to be astride the red bike, his wet feet snug on pedals as tires cracked through ice. The smell of hotdogs simmering in a pot at a street-side hotdog stand made him lick his lips.
]Streetlights flicked on and caught crystalline flakes in circles of light as Joey hurried to the Harlem tenement where he lived with his mother.
]“Momma!” he called as he raced up steps that creaked under his weight. Smells of cooking seeped through thin apartment doors. “Momma.” He threw open the door to their apartment. “I’m home,” he panted and locked the door behind him. “I’m home.”
]“I’m in here, Joey.”
]Momma sat in the small kitchen, wiping her feet with a towel. Her socks lay in a wet pool beside her cracked boots. She looked at Joey’s soaked pants, the balls of ice that dangled off the cuffs, and shook her head. “I swear, I don’t know how we’re gonna make it through this winter.” A heavy-set woman with gray hairs among the black and a slow way of moving that expressed the pain in her joints, her features still held a calm, enduring expression.
Joey breathed in a sweet aroma. “Pie?”
“It’s for after supper. A Christmas treat.”
A small artificial tree stood atop the kitchen counter with a few painted bulbs, some silver tinsel, and a Nativity scene below the stiff branches. A gift-wrapped package poked out from beneath the tree.
“Joey,” Momma said softly and scraped a crust of pie dough off her apron, “Joey, you know I don’t ... “
She smiled. “You know I don’t set these rules for my own sake. I want you home before dark for a very good reason.”
“I know, Momma. I meant to.”
“Meant to an’ doin’ ain’t the same thing, child. This is not a good neighborhood on the best o’ days.”
Joey lowered his head.
“You were down by the store looking at that bicycle again, wasn’t you? And you forgot the time.”
He sat on her lap.
“You know,” she started, “you the only thing I got in this whole world. If I lose you, baby, I don’t know what all I’d do.” She stroked his head. He saw a tear glisten on her cheek.
“I’ll be careful from now on. I promise, Momma.”
She nodded. “Now get out of them wet clothes and come an’ have supper. That pie’s getting cold, an’ I’m getting hungry.”
He kissed her forehead and ran into his bedroom.
Joey sat at the kitchen table over his supper of fish and veggies, head lowered, while Momma said grace. From outside the living room window he heard the whine of a police siren and held his breath as it grew and then faded. Momma stumbled over the words. His great fear was that the sirens would wind down in front of his tenement. Months earlier he and Momma had crouched in the tile bathroom. She had covered his shivering body with her own as shots rang out from downstairs. He remembered the violence in the harsh shouts and curses from below.
“Momma, someday I’m gonna get you out of here.” “Just mind your schoolwork an’ the rest will take care of itself.”
After supper and a piece of warm, rich apple pie, Joey felt drowsy and crawled into his bed.
Momma came in and tucked the covers around him. “You can open your present tomorrow morning, baby.”
“Guess I can’t tell you Santa brought it with his flying reindeer anymore.”
Joey smiled. “Guess not, Momma.”
“Good night, baby.” She kissed him and closed the door behind her.
Joey had drifted into a dream when it happened.
A frosted globe hovered outside his window like a giant snowball lit from within. Gossamer shapes moved inside it as it pressed against the glass, then slid through and into his room. Joey sat up. Was he still dreaming? He wasn’t sure. “Momma?”
The light expanded and enveloped the room in waves of frost. Joey was on his feet, heading for the door. “Momma!” But he stopped with his hand on the doorknob. The Christmas scene from the department store materialized, there in his room. The red bicycle took form before his wide eyes.
“Oh, Lord,” he whispered. Beside the bicycle a black amorphous shape resolved itself into a pair of new large winter boots. They would fit Momma, he knew. Why else would they be part of this magical scene? The Santa emerged and laughed his jolly laugh. Silver sounds of music rang out from the throat of Christmas bells in the early morning air.
And then, as suddenly as it appeared, he watched the frosted light begin to shrink. The dark, peeled walls of his bedroom showed around its edges. The sound of bells slowed to a hoarse whisper and died.
Joey made a leap for the bicycle and felt the cold metal handlebars beneath his tight grip. But the boots were growing paler and he knew that in seconds they would be gone. With a last glance at the bicycle, he dived for the boots and held them tightly.
The frosted ball shrank back to a globe. The globe drifted through the window as though glass barriers were nothing. The ball fled upward to become a bright star in a sky that was growing light around the angular shoulders of buildings. Joey watched the star with longing for his red bicycle. He clasped the boots against his chest. They were real as ice and snow, but were a stone upon his heart.
He got up with a sigh and went to the living room sofa where Momma slept in its unfolded bed.
“What?” She sat up quickly. “What’s wrong, Joey?”
“Nothing, Momma. I just wanted to give you your Christmas present a little early. I didn’t have no wrapping paper.” He thrust the boots at her. “I hope you like them.”
Momma took the boots gingerly. “Like them? Joey, where did you get these?”
“They’re your gift.”
“Please, Joey, tell me you didn’t steal them from that department store.”
“No, Momma. I swear! They just kinda showed up near my
bed ... honest,” he added at her suspicious frown.
“Honest? Things don’t just kinda show up in this world, Joey.”
The smell of apple pie still hung in the air. “Can - can I have another piece of pie,” he asked, as much to pry her thoughts off his wild explanation.
She went to the kitchen and turned on the light, then looked back at him. “Joey, we got to talk about this!” She threw a frightened glance at the door. “You want the police showin’ up here, asking questions about you? Lord, child, you’ll make your momma old.”
“But I swear ... “
“Things don’t just appear near your bed. The world don’t work that way.”
Joey’s eyes widened as he stared past Momma. Next to the small Christmas tree, decorated with a bow, and propped on its kickstand, stood the red bicycle.
“What?” Momma said at his startled look. She turned quickly, then put a hand to her mouth and lowered herself into a chair. “Oh, Lordy.” She stared at the Nativity scene below the tree. “Lord.”
Joey went to the bicycle and eased himself onto the seat. It held his weight. He felt the rubber grips in his curled hands. He thought he heard the melody of Christmas bells outside the window.
“I don’t know how the world works, Momma.” He stroked the cool metal handlebars and grinned. “But I guess we both got our Christmas wish.”