At our window, we viewed everything from a cold, gray world, looking into a shop where everything was alive, vibrant and sparkling with color; where children played in the street with their new toys, rode new bikes or pulled new sleds in the snow. We could only imagine what it was to know the joy we saw on their faces. Michael and I played our own game at that window: pick a snowflake under the streetlight, track its descent and see which one was the first to "stick." We observed the flakes tumble, separated in the air, united on the ground, dissolved into one. That night we must have watched and counted dozens of them before we fell quiet. Michael looked sad—and I can see myself now, looking down on him from an 8-year-old's height, feeling that same sadness. Then he started to sing:
"Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way Oh what fun it is to ride, In a one horse open sleigh . . ."
It is my first memory of hearing his voice, an angelic sound. He sang softly so that Mother wouldn't hear. I joined in and we started making harmony. We sang verses of "Silent Night" and "Little Drummer Boy." Two boys carol-singing on the doorstep of our exclusion, songs we'd heard at school, not knowing that singing would be our profession.
As we sang, the grin on Michael's face was pure joy because we had stolen a piece of magic. We were happy briefly. But then we stopped, because this temporary sensation only reminded us that we were pretending to participate and the next morning would be like any other. I've read many times that Michael did not like Christmas, based on our family's lack of celebration. This was not true. It had not been true since that moment as a four-year-old when he said, staring at the Whites' house: "When I'm older, I'll have lights. Lots of lights. It will be Christmas every day."
"Go faster! Go faster!" Michael shrieked, hitting an early high note. He was sitting in the front of a shopping cart— knees to chin—while Tito, Marlon and I were running and pushing it down 23rd Avenue, me with both hands on the handlebar, and my two brothers either side as the wheels wobbled and bounced off the road on a summer's day. We built up speed and powered forward like a bobsled team. Except this, in our minds, was a train. We'd find two, sometimes three, shopping carts from the nearby Giants supermarket and couple them together. Giants was about three blocks away, located across the sports field at the back of our home, but its carts were often abandoned and strewn about the streets, so they were easy to commandeer. Michael was "the driver."
He was crazy about Lionel toy trains—small but weighty model steam engines and locomotives, packaged in orange boxes. Whenever Mother took us shopping for clothes at the Salvation Army, he always darted upstairs to the toy section to see if anyone had donated a secondhand Lionel train set. So, in his imagination, our shopping carts became two or three railroad cars, and 23rd Avenue was the straight section of track. It was a train that went too fast to pick up other passengers, thundering along, as Michael provided the sound effects. We hit the brakes when 23rd Avenue ran into a dead end, about 50 yards from the back of our house.