From the collection Three Christmas Stories
By Lee Sarter
-ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2010-
The door to the garage sticks, forcing me to turn the knob then push with all my weight to get it to
open. It rattles as the frame releases, sending a shiver through the old splintering wood, shaking the thick
and imperfect rectangles of glass. The wavy slats chatter in their slots contracted from the cold of the new
day, broadcasting the door as being breeched throughout the small yard and garden of the house. My eyes
turn first, then slowly my head follows to scan behind me, back toward our slightly peeling white Victorian
while thinking casual thoughts. Breath held in preparation, to see if the sound brought her to her feet and to
the window. She’s very sensitive to noises lately, but that’s one of the strange things about sleep
deprivation- you become a zombie and can’t think, but your hearing, your reaction to sharp noises shoots
through the roof. It’s akin to looking though the ancient garage glass- foggy, but you can still make out
enough detail to interpret or assess.
I put the toe of my boot on the woven mat just inside the door with care, attempting to slink into
the stilled air of the garage like a cat. My foot is announced by a plume of dust and particles collected by
the weave, spreading into the heavy air to create fleeting shafts as they drift through and past the window
opposite the entrance- the light flickering between shadow and glare inviting me in. I contort my body to
fit through the gap, as not to open the door farther and tempt it to creak. I make one last look up to the
window of the second floor, pushing the door until it just sticks enough to appear closed.
The morning feels different than usual, like it knows. Like the strange feeling you get- a tingle in your
stomach and behind your eyes- when you graduate from something or the day you get a new job you’ve
been vying for. The day seems to know it is something different than just another Saturday.
The dust whips and whirls as I slide the green canvas cover off and give it a hard shake, particles
gathering on the window of our silver Camry, on the paint cans and solvents, scattered tools, old cabinetry-
rising and relocating the layer to coat each surface again with age and a deep wood smell. I cough and try
to control the urge to sneeze as I inhale lungs full of the thickened air, folding the canvas like a cheap flag
and placing it as the top layer of strata on the workbench. I pull the key ring out of my pocket, which
jingles with the harmonics of each task it locks and keeps secure; the key to the house vibrates with a
deeper, more definitive brass clink, the thin key to my locker twinkles in the cacophony as a fleeting and
personal reminder of a gym membership rarely exercised. I find the chipped silver key and release the
giant rusted lock keeping the latch to the main doors secured. The old paint of the doors somehow sticks
after so many years too- must be the humidity of the morning, as it’s days of sticking from freshness had
past long before any of us were even born. It was fresh, at least the base cotes, back when the garage
would’ve been better known as a carriage house, filled to the brim with buggies and tack and horses
braying every few moments. The worn latch releases and the doors reluctantly part and open onto the
alley, catching the long shadows of the still new light in the weeds and gravel and backs of other centuries
in dwelling form- very old wood slat siding being crisscrossed with power lines and phone wires added
where they could be as technology and affluence required.
From back behind several forgotten boxes of clothes intended for charity I pull out a helmet, deep
shimmering red with a scratched visor, and a brown leather bomber jacket. The leather, like any of us do,
dried out from being moved then hung then worn again for some thirty years, but still grips the Air Force
and base insignias with what tensile strength it and the stitching has left. The jacket belies its serenity with
cracks and repairs, mementos of the missions it had flown on, the towns it moved through somewhere on
the other side of the globe, in a corner different than our own; the lining still smells of a long since smoked
cigar at an officer’s club and the feeling of growing up and being flashed into a man like water to steam.
No cordless phones to connect you to loved ones, nor satellites to pinpoint the target and the enemy. It was
the generation that followed flying fortresses and grit. I can’t help but feel connected to it, to him, through
the memory of the soft leather.
Like wearing his second skin, hoping to absorb some sense of wisdom and responsibility in a time
when the words seem to have changed.
I put the jacket on with a soft, satisfying creak only time can give it. I tuck in my shirt and zip the
cover up half way to keep the lilting breeze out. I run my hand down the black metal of the gas tank of the
shining motorcycle, closing my eyes as if I were blind and had a chance to know the machine through its
contours and components, not as a brand or point of pride. A nice idea that helps to pretend I only ride
because of the feeling of it and I slicing through the barrier between man and bird, gliding through streets
effortlessly and with nothing to stop the wind from flowing through me.
I would like to be that, but it’s just not true. I ride for the feel, but I also ride for a feeling of who I
am, or whom I want to be seen as.
I put my foot on the kickstand and push with all my weight forward and down toward the floor,
releasing it and letting the wheels touch the concrete with a small squeak. I wipe some persistent dust from
the gauges and seat, using one of the shirts from the charity boxes. After, I make sure to get some of the
chrome pieces too and stuff the worn cotton into one of the saddlebags on the back, just in case. I brush the
black plastic side of the container once more, the only whimper of a motion my hands can muster with my
mind racing through a thousand turns and straight-aways that have been conquered as passing scenery. I
lazily step back, almost trying to seal the memory with any strange angle I can find, to remember the small
imperfections or overlooked details that mark good motorcycles like a fingerprint.
I know the bike like a child and have been through most of the situations it will ever go through. I
learned to work on these engines because of this bike. It never took much at all truthfully, but it made me
ask and learn to be ready if it did. Something about its design seems to resist breakdowns, especially when
the basic needs are attended to. I don’t totally understand it. I guess if a bike can have a fingerprint or
something like a personality, it can have DNA too. There hasn’t been much to maintain on it, just the oil
change and such. In spite of that, I’ve still been acting like a doting father, overprotective and over killing
the waxing or buffing, thinking too much about build up on the electrical system, detailing the gauges
whenever possible. My wife joked a few times that the bike was what made her want to get pregnant- she
saw how much care and attention I can give something I truly care about. That’s what she told me,
anyway. I think she’s probably just giving me grief, making fun and seeing first hand how much I have
obsessed over this thing for the few years we’ve been married. At the same time, there could be something
to that, I don’t know.
Check the gas gauge, which shows three quarters of a tank, good oil level, tires have air. Ready to
fly. I brush the surface of the saddlebag again, amplifying the hollow sound of my hand playing the texture
of the thick plastic, scratching as my fingernails push against it’s. The “FOR SALE” sign slides silently
out from the box. The wax paper backing peels from the adhesive tape, which I let fall to the ground,
trying to make sure the sign is centered and sticking to the plastic. All I can do is push until my bent
thumbs turn white with pressure, rubbing left to right and back several times to pretend I have nothing more
to consider beyond what the sign reads.
It means that Monday, when I put out the ad, it won’t be long before the deal is done. The
machine is somewhat rare- the color, the chrome additions, the engine- and so people have asked me if I
would consider selling it long before it ever truly crossed my mind. My care of it has slipped the last few
months and I feel guilty about it, like I’m not being fair to it. I don’t know- sometimes it’s just easier to let
go of something if you can wear that connection away. In my experience, it’s the familiar, the intimate
details that really hurt when they’re gone.
I secure the latch closing the plastic box and step back again, absorbing the sheen in the glow of
the morning. The helmet slides on, stopping with a dull thud as my head pushes into its place, secured by
tension with a metal snap of the chinstrap. The shield goes down over the gap of the helmet with the
hinges softly creaking and making the view resemble a movie on a television: black surrounding a window
onto the world outside. I turn the key to “Start” with little resistance and my right thumb hits the ignition
button on the handle. The starter wakes and stutters with a high-pitched cough in bursts, finally turning
over and coaxing the engine to grumble with a pulse. The aging frame shivers when the attached parts start
their circadian rhythm, punctuated with a belch of exhaust that fills the small space of the garage, rolling up
and out into the air in a quickly disappearing plume.
My breaths become shallow as my heart beats faster, sitting on the machine. My body adjusts;
muscles tighten at attention, eyes strain for any more sharpness that can be squinted out of them. A
vibrating hand gently turns the grip, foot eases up, while first gear catches gently and moves the two of us
out of the garage and onto the gravel of the alley. The gas is touched gingerly to minimize the noise until I
hit the street, and then open her up like she should be. The rolling boom of the engine ripples through the
serene trees that line the wide streets of the neighborhood, like a call and response between two old friends
who have seen opposite sides of time’s move forward. The houses shining with their lost workmanship in
stages of reclamation, the machine coughing a phlegm of long since dead animals refined to a commodity
and burned two strokes at a time.
You tend to see things slightly differently holding on to an engine with wheels as opposed to
sitting in the cab of a car. In a car you see the house, the yard, street, the people walking from their vehicle
to a locked front door. On a bike, you see the broken slats on the old wooden siding, the brightly colored
plastic toys that sprinkle the dark green of a well maintained lawn, the pock marked concrete that makes up
the meandering sidewalk, the keys that jingle and twist as the right one is found and the furrowed brow of a
tired resident that punctuates the action. You see the small. You see the glue that holds together the larger
gestures as a residue of an everyday life.
The details remind me of lazy evenings sitting in our manicured grass when I was younger. Mom
would pass the window above the kitchen sink briefly, shining for seconds in the warm yellow glow of the
lights in the house. Her face rang as almost too real, the window taking the look of an old photo set against
the darkening blue of the evening as a frame. I would play with my toys, swing on a grey metal swing set,
and pretend to fly like my father. I loved to sit at the top of the small, shiny slide and hold my hands up as
if they gripped the controls of a jet somewhere over a far off sea. I could feel the gravity become heavy as
I banked hard, not only to test my machine, but for the fun of it, just like he used to talk about with his
friends when they would come over. The summer air played along, providing a soft breeze to fuel my
imagination and help me see my father, there in the plane next to me, waving with the ear-to-ear smile that
embossed his face whenever he talked about being in the air.
My body shakes with the string of cracks and holes the tires roll over and into, accelerating
through the interstate corridor. Both north and southbound are flanked by large sound barriers featuring
concrete renderings of the surrounding area- city billboards in the form of pseudo permanent advertisement.
The economy depends on tourism to a large degree, so any amount they can remind a person of all the
incredible things they are driving through, the better off they are going to be. Most people seek out the
tourism, but the town isn’t exactly that well known, so capturing travelers bound for anywhere else can
only help them.
I weave through what light and distracted traffic there is, opting to exit the interstate to take a cut
off through a backstreet. The houses of this neighborhood are smaller and newer by about thirty years
compared with what my wife and I live in. Yet, they look older, like the years that have been seen by one
place have been harder or different than another. Maybe the same realm the bike finds itself in now. These
houses are where I always imagined myself living at this point in my life, just really getting started with
everything. I imagined a ranch style like my old house. I could see an attached garage with handles to lift
it up, ready for an automatic opener any day soon. My children could sit and play with their toys in the
backyard, hugged by the “L” shape of the house and being watched with a smile by my wife and me,
finishing dishes from dinner. I always wanted that feeling I got from my parents, that life was vital and
chaotic, but the direction, the reason to risk was as simple as coming home to it. Being present for your
family, for yourself, for your own imagination; acting as the catalyst for a life well lived.
After several more blocks of houses shimmering with blinking lights and plastic saints the bike
rumbles and hiccups to a stop at the stiff hand of a uniformed guard. “Morning Sir, what can we do for you
today?” The man spoke with a stiff lip, his uniformed body still without twitching a single regimented
“Hello there, “I said while lifting my visor, my voice muffled by the padding of the helmet. “I
was hoping to get a ride in before the day takes off on me.” I took my driver’s license out and gave it to
“Understand completely, Sir. If there isn’t going to be snow, we should at least have a beautiful
morning like today.” He took the license, looked at it carefully then slid it through a card reader in the
shadow of his booth. His computer beeped twice, showing my name and the date, December 25 th, on the
large glowing monitor for the daily log and handed it back to me. “Ride safe and slowly, Sir. And Merry
Christmas” he said with a halfhearted salute.
“Thank you, Duncan,” I said as I squinted to read the embroidered name on his uniform. “Same to
you and thank you for all that you do,” I gave him a strong salute I learned from watching my father when
he would take me in or out of a base. It’s strong, but somehow informal at the same time. I don’t ever feel
comfortable saluting, like I don’t have the right because I never joined up. At the same time, I have so
much of that just burned into my brain, most of the time I do it without thinking. I just mechanically salute,
like some people when they say “God bless you” after someone sneezes. These things are like remainders
of where we’ve been, sometimes who we are on some unconscious level, when the filter or editor is away.
The bike sputtered a bit, but kicked into gear and pushed on from the gate, flowing through the
staggered concrete barriers used for extra security; my father told me all about it once when I went with
him on a job for the commissary. No matter what rank he had, he always volunteered to get supplies for
the café in the back, near the deli in the decrepit old grocery building, if he could fit it into his day; he had
to drive a small refrigerator van off base, get food or dishes or whatever they needed faster than the Air
Force system could provide, and come back as quickly as he could. It was far below what his rank
should’ve been concerned with, but that’s how he was with everything- he simply did what needed to be
done. I rode with him occasionally and he told me the barriers were there to make sure no one could just
drive straight through and force their way onto the base. After he told me that, I had this daydream of me
kind of losing my mind and flooring the accelerator of the van one time when we came back from a pickup.
It was always very dramatic, and in slow motion in my head. I told him about that and he just laughed
hard, after shaking a finger and reminding me to never actually try something so stupid.
I passed signs giving directions to the planetarium or chapel, to the football stadium or B- 52
display and memorial, each followed by a “Welcome to the Air Force Academy” sign shortly after. There
are a few entrances to the large academy, so when you are going through it you will see a lot of repeats of
the same signs, military redundancy, I suppose. Literally at every cross street, you’re likely to be told how
far you are from everything else and given an arrow as a guide to the direction of it. Of course, just like the
rest of the military, the roads often go far out of the way of your destination to accommodate some strange
corner that’s a training ground or range. The entire place is so wide open and expansive, you just have to
read the signs as best you can, get on a road and trust that it will lead somewhere you want to go, no matter
how much it seems to twist and turn.
I’ve been through the tangle of roads enough times that I pretty much know which ones to use. I
follow one through a small grove of pine trees that seem to float on top of the long golden grass converting
breeze into waves below the dark needles of the thick trunks and branches. The road has a canopy of them
covering it and blocking the sun, giving way to chunks of deep blue sky in flashes of pure daylight as they
stream by you. Suddenly, and as abruptly as the thicket of trees appeared, they stop and the road is exhaled
onto the ascending edge of a large rock valley. The two lanes turn west and climb toward the sloping
foothills that rise quickly like rocky fins of the earth’s crust. The sun coats the surrounding forest, making
florescent the green of countless cones marking the edge of another wood on the far side of the valley.
It then turns north and cuts a barrier between the stone slopes just to the west and undulations that
form the anchor of the Great Plains, extending far beyond the eastern horizon. The asphalt straightens and
comes to the dormitories and classrooms of the institution, placed as a stark contrast to the land in the form
of angular concrete boxes set in geometric platforms of paving tiles and peppered by rigid metal tables and
benches. The campus lays in silence, freezing the theory and tactics taught there as fleeting moments of a
darker humanity, one stopped for a moment when the souls of men are allowed to measure and renew
themselves, and the year, during the holidays.
Our family came to these grounds and this town at the end of my time in elementary school. My
father flew in many more missions than he ever talked about with his young son, so his experiences were
never made that clear to me. I know he ran rescues of wounded soldiers so they could return to their
families after healing as much as that type of situation will allow. I had heard references to formations and
actual dog fights hundreds or thousands of feet in the air. In empty moments after dinner and before the
adults had their cocktails and I had to go to sleep, my father’s friends would tell me snippets of stories
featuring him as the warrior or savior or strong will that brought them all through somehow. Often, lost in
their memories and just beginning their highballs or vodka tonics, I saw their eyes cloud with tears as they
told me they wouldn’t be talking to me if it weren’t for my father. All I could do was tug automatically at
my worn cotton pajamas, look ahead as I saw each of them do when not knowing what to say, and wait for
the pregnant silence that followed their confession to be broken by something, anything. Often, it was my
mom or my father entering with a friendly offering of a cigar or a joke, which was usually followed by me
being shuttled off to bed.
We came in the mid sixties after living in Canada for several years. My father was stationed at a
base shared by both Americans and Canadians as a test pilot and occasional instructor for refreshing
techniques. As I have been told, he rose quickly through the ranks there as his reputation was validated by
the calm and charismatic way he interacted with his fellow soldiers. I was very young, so I mostly
remember ice-skating on the frozen river that cuts through the city or stopping at a chips stand for a cone of
newspaper filled with French fries doused in malt vinegar. I remember the strongly scented steam that
fogged my small glasses as it rose from the cone on the cold days and the mounted police that would
chuckle and say hello as I pushed my face into the potatoes. The Mounties loved watching me come home
from school on base and would usually talk to me and let me pet their beautiful horses. One of their watch
stations was just yards away from our little bungalow in the tangle of residences on one side of the
compound, so they would always have some joke to tell or trick to show me. I do remember their deep
laughs at how independent I wanted to be for such a small person. After our conversations, they always
said, with a sort of twinkle in their eyes, that I was becoming more and more like my father every day.
As we went into our later years being on the base, I recall father being around less and less. Mom
made dinner for three every night, but usually only set the table for two, as he would be called away on a
flight, which over time turned to a procedural meeting, which eventually gave way to constant briefings
others gave him as the new base commander. She made a plate for him and placed it in the oven with care
so it would be waiting when he eventually made it home. It seems confusing so many years past, but in
spite of all the time he spent away from us then, I don’t remember feeling like he had abandoned us. I was
never sure of what time he would find himself home again, but every night, regardless of what had
happened or how tired he was, he always gave me a kiss on the forehead and a few pats on the shoulder
before going to bed. He spoke in such a hushed tone I could never understand his words, but he talked to
me while sitting on the edge of my bed. Usually I was asleep, but there were many times that I simply
faked sleep, feeling restless unless I knew he was home for the evening. I never told him I was awake for
those moments. I can’t explain it even now, those were somehow our anchors- him saying what he wanted
to say to me in near silence, me soaking in the radiant glow of his quiet affection and neither of us ever
acknowledging it happened.
A short time after his promotion to base commander, the word came down that we would be
moving back stateside, so he could become the base commander and chancellor of the Air Force Academy.
The move was a blur, but I recall feeling anxious about leaving my friends and going to a country that,
even though I was born in, I didn’t remember at all. We arrived to the wide-open spaces of the town, were
given a very nice house with new walls in what was then the outskirts, and were driven to the Academy
everyday by friendly Air Force chauffeurs to work and school. He was happy, mom was happy he was
around more and I was struck by all the time we had together, all the families we were in contact with.
Not that long after arriving and getting settled into our new life, he volunteered to go over to
Vietnam to help establish a crucial base for the escalating war. He went back and forth several times
without any problems. The government wasn’t that crazy about it, but he had a way of convincing anyone
around him that the risks he took were not that at all; that somehow, with some kind of unique logic, it was
his duty to do anything and everything he could for the cause of people, no matter who or where they were.
According to the official report, or at least what part of it I have seen, his transport plane was hit
by enemy fire and disappeared somewhere over the jungles of Vietnam. Some wreckage was found
burning, but not all the bodies of the people that were on the plane. Mom told me he had been killed when
it happened, but I have always wondered what actually happened, if he could be out in the world
somewhere. From that year on, during the holidays, mom and I would visit the sharp spires of the Crystal
Chapel at the Academy and light a candle for peace, one for ourselves, and two in his name: one each for
his memory and our ability to move closer, inch by inch, toward a meaningful life without him. Mom
made a point, especially in December, to try and make things as they had always been: happy and grateful.
I can think of so many Christmases that were warm, that smelled of strong spices and the dust that
collects when decorations are used once a year. I can remember the satisfying tear of wrapping paper or
the sleepless excitement that melted to joy when the box was opened. I think of these and reluctantly
wonder why, twenty plus years on, I must come to this place- a beautiful bench overlooking the vast
formation fields below and the looming structures holding classrooms, all sitting at the foot of monuments
both of nature and to the destructive force of humanity- to share it all with him. To update him somehow
with this act of repetition, year after year, in a hushed tone. Only a plaque, gilded and placed in a well-
manicured spot he called his favorite amongst the expansive grounds, to remind me that he is gone; that he
lived to love and seek himself out, but also to be someone to look to in times of need. I think of it and wish
I could touch his hand, not his name in relief on a metal surface. With each ridge of the letters, I feel in
myself more and more a resolve, a need to know that I will not allow a chance of missing my life. I cannot
allow some desire of my own to temper a future that I am responsible for. He will not be made brittle
because of my influence.
So I cry for more minutes than I’d like to admit, just as I have every year since it all happened,
letting the tears roll down my face with a warm tickle and soak into the skin of my cheek. I lean in and
give a small kiss to his name, wishing it a Merry Christmas, look to the haze floating amongst the line of
foothills, and start the bike to shatter the silence. I push it hard to prove nothing to myself or anyone else,
but just to push it. My hand squeezes with rage and twists the grip, trying to get the bike to howl as loud as
I have always wanted to, but never could.
This is the last ride of my old self, my old direction. I am different now, I have to be. I have to
feel this speed to remember, to see it has no place, no function. I have to release this need, this impulse to
fly. I have no use for my phantom wings, they need clipping.
I push harder, but the engine doesn’t respond. I push again, watching the trees slow as I pass. The
engine roars, then buckles and sputters with a metallic grinding sound I have never heard. I push and push,
making it through an exit gate with a backfire shot and out to the still deserted streets of town. I throttle
harder, but the momentum is slipping, the engine is grinding louder and louder, when the frame pops and
shutters hard enough to lift me off the seat for a moment. I push and push, but the engine has given it’s all
and stops running. I feel the breath leak out of the machine between my legs and guide it to the side of the
road. The key turns, but the starter doesn’t, giving off some remainder black smoke and wafts of burning
oil and components. I put the kickstand down and sit on the crumbling curb, keeping my helmet on to hide
my angry and tear soaked eyes from the few that might see a sunken frame on the road as they pass.
My mind races, recounting a myriad of moments from this life, obscuring themselves as distant. I
stare at the concrete, tracing cracks with my eyes and wondering, when and in what sense, I will return
home for his first Christmas Day. I lose myself and hope, above all other hopes, this can be the beginning
of a new tradition for me and more importantly, for my young family waiting at home to craft our own
memories as fodder for an unseen future.