Because Christmas falls on a Wednesday this particular year, the boy wakes on Monday without any particular plans.
On Sunday they had done their Sunday things – church and lunch at Nana’s house. On Tuesday they would do Christmas Eve things.
Monday, the day in between, begins empty.
It will be a long time, a lifetime, before he can see this day in full, illustrated by a single photograph taken with the camera he’d gotten for Christmas the year before.
He wakes softly, light coming in the south-facing window of the bedroom he now shares with his father because Mother needs rest. He is 13, the boy, old enough to spend most of the day on his own, checking in occasionally with Mother or Almyra, but mostly left to his own devices.
He is in his blue and white pinstriped pajamas, the ones that match his father’s pajamas. When he rises he will hang these pajamas on the rod, as his father did earlier that morning. He will comb his light blond hair using the same black comb that his father used before tiptoeing out of the house while Mother and the boy and Friendly, who is mostly, but not entirely, German Shepherd, were still asleep.
It is close to eight o’clock when he wakes, the boy thinks, judging by the light because there is no clock in their bedroom. He has been studying the light and the stars and how to tell time in the wilderness because he is going to be an adventurer and a pilot, and understanding time and position is an important part of being an adventurer.
He hears a faint clattering in the kitchen and knows Almyra is already there in her gray uniform dress and thick-soled shoes. She will cook him scrambled eggs and perhaps a biscuit, remind him that Mother is still sleeping, send him outside with Friendly in tow.
As they had done in the summer, the last time they were all home from school, the boy and his friends will meet in his yard, or Hamp yard, or Frank’s yard. But probably his. They will ride their bicycles to the far end of the road, where the pavement ends and the gravel begins. Then they will turn around and race home, pedaling as fast as their knobby legs will go, riding right up the boy’s driveway and falling into the grass, straw-colored in winter, that stretches across the wide-open space in front of his house. Then they will have sandwiches and tomato soup for lunch and play spy games in the thick brush of the back yard.
This is the shape of the day in the boy’s mind, as he sits at the breakfast table eating eggs, watching birds through the small kitchen window.
He hears voices in his driveway, pushes back in his seat, trades his breakfast plate for the jacket Almyra has already for him from the coat hook. It is warmer today, in the 50s, but not warm enough, she reminds him, for shirtsleeves.
As he walks down the steps from his back door and into the alcove end of his driveway, he sees a third boy in between Hamp and Frank. The new boy’s name is Maurice, and he is 14, almost 15. He has moved from Chicago along with the rest of the Second Army now located in Memphis. Maurice’s father is someone important, Hamp whispers, and Hamp’s parents want them all to become friends.
Maurice is just enough older to look, in the boys’ eyes, more like a man than a boy. He has broad, square shoulders, thick, dark red hair and a shadow above his upper lip. His bicycle is newer and larger than theirs, all of them still riding their presents from bygone Christmases and birthdays. The boy is hoping for a new bike under the tree the day after tomorrow, which seems a long time away.
The boy tethers Friendly to the lead in the yard, checks her water bowl and fetches his bike from the garage. They set out down the driveway toward the main street that runs in front of the boy’s house, planning to turn left and ride their usual route so they can show Maurice the neighborhood.
Maurice has other plans. He wants to ride out to the airport, watch the planes take off and land. It is farther than they usually ride and on busier streets, they worry. But Maurice, who reminds them that he is older, has already found a back route, away from the main parkway. So he leads, and they follow. And they all ride the full way from the boy’s house to the airfield, darting in and out of side streets. They lie in the grass and watch the airplanes lift from the ground into the air, and they imagine where all these strangers are heading for Christmas: New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis.
Maurice, despite his father’s objections, is going to be a pilot, too. He has been studying aircraft construction and aerodynamics. He names the specific parts of the planes as that pass overhead. The boy is at once in awe and struck with jealousy.
It is past 2:00 when they return to a worried Almyra, who reheats the now-cold soup and reports that Mother has gone to lunch with Mrs. McLemore and then to an afternoon bridge game. The sky, clear and bright in the morning, has turned a pale gray. They go back outside.
They would later contest whose idea it had been, exactly, to hoist the bicycle into the tree. It started over lunch, as they were explaining to Maurice the rules of the spy game they had invented over the summer. According to Maurice, according to Maurice’s father, there was a secret plan to build a network of bicycle-riding spies in France. Only the best cyclist – fast, nimble, with an unerring sense of time and direction – could be a candidate.
In addition to riding skills and the ability to tell lies, the covert operators would also have to find clever ways to hide their two-wheeled transports in a cover of vines or shadow of haystacks or, as one of the boys suggested, in the leafy branches of a tree.
And that’s how it started, with a question: How would one hide a bicycle in the branches of a tree? Could one person do it? It would have to be a man, they all agreed. No woman would be strong enough.
They take turns, each one trying a different approach. Frank climbs onto the lowest branch, reaches down and tried, unsuccessfully, to pull up by the handlebars. Hamp balances the bike vertically on its rear wheel, leaning it against the trunk and then pulling, similar to Frank’s method, from the branch above. But he is unable to secure it in any fashion, and he finally gives up.
While Hamp is in the tree pulling, and Frank and Maurice standing below, hands on their hips, trying to coach him, the boy has another idea. He walks to the rear of the house, unties Friendly’s lead from the stake end, and walks the dog, still tethered to the other end, to the side yard where Hamp has finally given up.
The boy instructs Friendly to sit, which she does happily, and he unhooks the lead from her collar. He uses the rope as a pulley, first climbing to the sturdiest mid-tree branch then draping the rope so it dangled on each side, just long enough for him to reach both ends from the ground.
Maurice says that this might just work, this idea of a pulley, and Frank runs inside to get the camera. The boy ties one end of the rope to the front tire, checking the knot twice before pulling up the opposite end and watching as the bike begins to rise off the ground. It clears the first, lowest branch before it begins to tangle and, for a minute, the boy doubts his effort. Still holding the free end of the rope he clambers up parallel to the bike’s vertical path, and he begins to twist and pull until, finally, he is victorious. The bicycle is secure, midway up the tree. It if were summer, if there were leaves, it would be hidden.
The boys below whoop and clap, and Frank takes a picture. The boy beams with pride. He is going to be a pilot and an adventurer and a bicycle spy. This is an abstract idea, connected only to foreign places and faraway stories.
What happens next happens quickly. One minute he is poised on a branch dreaming, and then he hears a crack. The bicycle falls to the ground, spooking Friendly, who races away from the commotion and straight out into the street. There is a squeal, a honk, a yelp, a dull thud.
Maurice is the first to reach her, pulling off his coat as he runs to the street. He places the coat under her head, strokes her muzzle. He is the only one big enough to carry her, and wriggles one arm gently under her hind quarters, the other under her shoulder. She is panting and whimpering; she winces when he begins to lift.
The boy cannot get down from the tree fast enough, and he falls, cutting his temple on the way down. He will have a scar from this cut for the rest of his life.
Almyra comes from the house with a towel, meets Maurice halfway in the front yard. It is late in the afternoon, the day before Christmas Eve. Mother is still playing bridge; Papa is still at work. They tend to Friendly on their own, leaving the broken bicycle in a heap under the leafless tree.
They will be friends forever, all their lives, these four boys. They will sit together, the four of them, until Papa comes home that night, trying to get Friendly to sip water, trying to cheer the boy.
Frank will be the first to go, at 39, from an undetected abnormality in his heart. The boy will be next, but not for 30 more years. At his funeral Maurice, the oldest of the four, will tell how they rode their bikes like wild up and down the streets every summer, every Christmas break, following the planes flying overhead during the war. He will tell the story of their first day, their first Christmas, the last Christmas that they were all boys.
But on this day, the 23rd of December, 1940, they know none of what is to come.
There will be a new bike for Christmas, as the boy had wished. There will also be a model airplane, an intricate one that will take him all of Christmas break to complete, working early in the morning until late at night, sitting on the floor next to Friendly’s bed where she will linger for more than two weeks until Papa convinces the boy that it would be best, kindest to let her go.
When the photographs are printed, he will find the one of the bicycle in the tree. He will turn it over and write “The Problem” in the neat, small block print that will become his characteristic handwriting. He will stick this photograph in his scrapbook and keep it tucked in a safe place among his keeping things.
The following September, when the boy is 14, he will be away at boarding school, in hopes of improving his studies. His hair will have turned dark, matching the dark shadow that begins to form on his upper lip as he waits, impatiently, to come of age. He will watch older friends, older brothers, head to Europe and Japan. He, too, will serve, but he will narrowly miss the worst of the tours, turning 18 three weeks after V-J Day.
Another 40 Christmases will come and go at this house, his growing-up house, before both of his parents are gone, at which time his things, his special keepsakes, will move from house to house before settling, finally, in a crate in his ex-wife’s garage.
There, one Christmas after he, too, is gone, his daughters will unearth the small, square, brown and white photograph. They will find it while looking for wrapping paper to use for blocks and toy airplanes, Christmas presents for children he did not live long enough to meet, children who will race on bicycles of their own, as long as the days will allow.