Breaking Even For Christmas

I was so angry that I banged the side of my fist into the stockade fence until it hurt, which made me angrier. I wanted to go to the rodeo at the fair, but I didn’t have the five dollars to get in. My dad said he’d pay me ten dollars to clean out the garage, but that would take me all day, and the rodeo would be over.

Walking over to my friend Bobby’s house, I saw an envelope stuck to the bottom of the chain-link fence along with the yellowed newspapers and dry leaves. When I opened the envelope, I sucked in my breath and quickly folded it and put it in my pocket. The envelope contained money. I saw tens and twenties.

I ran home and went upstairs to my room, closing the door quietly. Mom was in the kitchen making chili. As he did every day, Dad would be home for lunch from the hardware store where he worked. I took out thirty dollars and stuck the envelope under my mattress with my copies of magazines my parents didn’t want me to see and went back downstairs.

I shouted from the front door. “I’m going over to Bobby’s house.”

“What about lunch?”

“I’m not hungry. I’ll eat something later.”

When I got to Bobby’s house, he was sitting on his front porch, staring at the street.

“Want to go to the rodeo?” I asked.

“You thinking of sneaking in? If we get caught, we’ll be in a world of trouble.”

“Naw. I got some money, but you got to swear you won’t tell.”

“Where’d you get it?”

I told him where I found it, and he went in and told his mother we were going bike riding down by the creek. His mother yelled to us as we rode off.  “You boys be careful.”

We pedaled toward the creek and then turned down the old dirt road toward the fairgrounds.

As we locked up our bikes, Bobby looked at me with a big grin on his face. “What about lunch?”

I slapped him on the back. “I think hamburgers and curly fries at one of the stands sounds good to me.”

I bought our entrance tickets at the booth and paid the extra three dollars for two tickets to the bareback riding finals. Bareback riding is my favorite event.  Watching those cowboys climb on a horse in the bucking chute and grab the handle with only one hand makes the hair on the back of my neck twitch. When that chute opens and the bronc flies out and starts to buck, everyone is on their feet shouting. Eight seconds must seem like forever to the rider. I want to be a bareback rider, but Pa says they have the greatest risk of injury of any event, even more than the bull riders.

While we watched the first couple of riders, we gobbled our sandwiches and drank our giant Cokes, and waited for the champion bareback rider.

After it was over, we bought some kettle corn and another Coke and walked back to our bikes. Then Bobby asked me how much money was left.

“I still got three dollars. And there’s a hundred and fifteen dollars still in the envelope.”

“Wow, that was a lucky find. Wonder who lost it?”

“Probably some banker. They got plenty. And now we can go to the movies next weekend. And every weekend for the rest of our lives.”

Bobby punched me on the shoulder. “Awesome.”

That evening at dinner, I had a surprise. Mom set the roast on the table and sat down. Pa put a slice of roast and some mashed potatoes and green beans on my plate. I wasn’t hungry after my big lunch, but I had to eat everything.

When Ma took a slice of roast, she shook her head.  “Looks like the Petersons are going to have a thin Christmas this year.”

Pa looked at her as he put some green beans in his mouth. “Why so?”

“Remember that yard sale they had last week? That was all they had for Christmas presents. Ann told me she was on her way to Wally World and had the envelope with the money on the seat of her car. She said it must have fallen out when she stopped for gas.”

I looked at my mother and saw tears in the corners of her eyes. “Is that the Mrs. Peterson who’s Sally’s mom? Sally’s in my class at school. Her brother’s the one in the wheelchair, ain’t he?”

My father corrected me. “Isn’t he. And you’re right. Their ten-year-old son Eddie has MS. Too bad they can’t get him a motorized wheelchair.”

“Is he going to die?”

“Hard to say,” said Ma. “Sometimes they get to a point where they can’t even speak. People with MS can live a long time, but they lose the use of their muscles.”

“Is that why they built that ramp into their house?”

Pa nodded. “And why his sister Sally has to push him everywhere.”

After dinner, I went to my room and wrote I owe you 27 dollars. I put the note in the envelope and took it over to the Petersons’ house. I explained to Mrs. Peterson what I did and felt relieved when she said she understood because her name was not on the envelope. She thanked me for returning the money in time for her to buy gifts for Christmas. 

I explained to Pa what I did and he said I did the right thing. He said he’d still pay me ten dollars to clean out the garage on Sunday and even more for some other chores after school during the week. I earned enough to repay Mrs. Peterson and celebrated Christmas with a clear conscience.

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Mel Goldberg
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