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The Huffy and the Whatchamacallit

Before becoming a San Diego private investigator, Ricky Taylor was a combat corpsman, an author, a correctional officer and a published author. This is a story from a day in his life.

She was beautiful. I could hardly believe it. Was I dreaming? I wiped the sleep from my eyes and stared in wonder. She was still there, in all her splendor, leaning against her kickstand, a vision of beauty, standing beside the Christmas tree. I reached out, tentatively, and caressed her handlebars, feeling the cool metal beneath my fingertips. I ran my hand over her black, faux leather seat, over the red Christmas bow stuck to her chassis, down her yellow frame, across the name Huffy emblazoned on her side. I smelled the new rubber, felt the tread of her thick tires. She was real, and she was mine, in all her bicycle beauty. I had longed for her, desired her, the way only a ten-year-old boy could understand, never believing I would have her. Yet here she was. I stood there in a long, white undershirt and wrinkled blue jeans, my bare feet buried in the shag of the living room carpet, admiring the greatest Christmas present I had ever received. The greatest I ever would receive.

My stepfather, Roger, and my mother, Helen, could have had their own reality television show, had such a thing existed in 1981. A few cameramen following them around, documenting the normal activities of Roger and Helen, would have kept America enthralled, glued to their television sets, their collective fingers covered in the orange dust of cheeseballs, their jaws slack and eyes wide at the theatrical antics of the Roger and Helen Show. The neighbors on Highland Street, especially the quiet family occupying the unit in the duplex connecting to ours, experienced a sort of audible version of the Roger and Helen Show, as Roger’s high, nasally voice, weighed heavily by a Missouri accent, pierced the night and carried down the street, arguing with my mother, or yelling at me or one of my brothers. He was not always angry when he yelled or argued. He simply spoke that way, apparently wanting to be heard above all other speakers in his vicinity. This was not isolated to when we were at home. The rare times we went out to a restaurant as a family, my memories are of Roger arguing loudly with my mother over the prices on the menu, the waitress or waiter staring at him in shocked incredulity as Roger’s nasally voice informed the entire restaurant that,

“The boys have to share a plate, Helen. I ain’t got a lot of money. For crying out loud.”

“For crying out loud” was Roger’s favorite phrase. “Cotton picking” was a close second. My mother would invariably offer to share a plate with Roger, allowing us to have our own individual meals. And they would continue to argue back and forth, a spectacle to the stunned wait staff and the sorry people sitting in the tables around our family. My brothers, my sisters and I waited quietly, used to the frequent outbursts and nasally voiced frustrations and outrages coming from Roger, whose round face grew red while his voice ascended to higher octaves with each passing moment, and the voice of my mother, so often in our defense, as she tried to calm him down and enjoy a meal in public. And Roger would have steak. To Roger, eating a steak was the epitome of his existence. To him, it meant all was right in his world. We ate whatever the cheapest item was on the menu, and Roger had a steak with all the trimmings.

Before becoming a private investigator, Ricky Taylor was a combat corpsman, an author, a correctional officer and a published author. This is a story from a day in his life.

One of my clearest memories of Roger was a time when my Aunt Esther was giving us a ride home from church. My brothers and my sister, Beverly, were in the back seat of Aunt Esther’s car. Roger was in the front passenger seat, next to my mother.

“Hey, Esther, can you pull into Farrell’s real quick? I want to get me a malt,” Roger said.

Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor was heaven to a boy my age. A veritable wonder trove of candies and ice cream, malts, shakes and food, glorious food. The staff, dressed like members of a 1940s barber shop quartet, would break into boisterous announcements, beating drums, sounding sirens and flashing lights with every purchase of a large trough of ice cream. And Roger loved their malts.

My Aunt Esther parked in front of Farrell’s, and Roger went inside, returning shortly with a large malt in an oversized glass. He got back in the car and sat, silently drinking his malt through a straw, while we children sat quietly in the back seat. I watched as Roger drank the malt. I saw the cool condensation running down the oversized glass and smelled the sweet aroma of the brownish mixture of genuine malt and real ice cream. And I wanted some.

Want. Want is a feeling deep down in the pit of one’s stomach, a desire, a hunger. Nearly every memory of my childhood contains that feeling. I wanted. Others had. I remember being hungry and opening the refrigerator to find old parsley and a dried-up block of government issued cheese. Nothing more. Once, for several months, we had nothing to eat except a bag of white flour and a large bag of beans, also provided by the government. My mother made tortillas from the flour and we ate tortillas and beans until even looking at a tortilla would nauseate me. My only hope for variety of menu was in the free lunch provided at school. Other children turned their noses up at the food served in the school cafeteria. To me, it was a very fine meal. Even to this day, I remember with fondness the rectangular pepperoni pizza and the Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes and a dinner roll. Compared to the food served at home, these were meals fit for a king. And, as I watched Roger drinking his malt, that feeling of want grew inside of me until I could hold it no more. I broke the silence in the car, my voice low, hungry. I swallowed hard to disperse the growing saliva in my mouth.

“Is it good, Roger?” I said.

He looked back at me, his round face flushing scarlet, his voice high and exasperated at my breach of etiquette.

“Oh, for crying out loud, Ricky!” He said, looking at me over his shoulder. He turned back to his shake, mumbling around the straw as he sipped his malt again. “Cotton picking…”

San Diego private investigator / private investigator San Diego

Christmas was my favorite time of year, but it was also a yearly reminder of our poverty. The excitement of decorating the Christmas tree in early December and watching presents appear with my name on them routinely turned to disappointment. And, on Christmas mornings, I excitedly unwrapped presents only to find a bag of socks, a pair of mittens, or, the worst, underwear. And this Christmas had promised nothing more. I had become something of an expert in discovering the contents of a present, the Sherlock Holmes of Christmas, using carefully honed powers of deduction to learn the contents of each of my presents long before Christmas Day. One squeeze of a paper wrapped parcel let me know if it was an article of clothing, a boxed toy, or something more interesting. A strategically placed tear on a boxed present might reveal a brand name. A knock on the side let me know if it was metal, wood or plastic. Shaking it gave clues of its internal makeup. Was it heavy, in pieces, dense or light? And when I went to bed on Christmas Eve, in the room I shared with my two older brothers, Brian and Gary, I had a pretty good idea what I was getting; more of the same. I lay awake between my sleeping brothers, on a mattress on the floor of our room, the feeling of bitter disappointment growing inside me, knowing that none of the gifts under the tree this year could be the Huffy dirt bike I so desired.

I first saw her in the local K Mart. My mother was in the clothing section with my three younger sisters. Roger was somewhere else in the store. I wandered off with my brothers to the toy section. The toy aisles were filled with shoppers. Christmas music played through the store speakers, interrupted by occasional announcements about blue light specials and reminders about the K Mart layaway program. Tonka Trucks, GI Joes, evil Knievel on a motorcycle, lined the shelves. I looked at the cornucopia of possible gifts with that familiar, sharp hunger, knowing that most of my gifts this year would come from the clothing section. I followed my brothers out of the toy section to sporting goods, my thoughts on Christmas day. I cared little for sports and wandered off while my brothers looked at footballs and basketballs. I ignored the displays of tents and outdoor equipment, the hunting and fishing gear, lawn darts, bows and arrows. Finally, I arrived at the racks of bicycles.

And there she was.

I was in love. Real love; aching love. It was love at first sight. I saw her, standing, fastened by her tires in one of the bike racks, a price tag with the words Huffy Dirt Bike fastened to her glistening, yellow frame. I knew instantly what I wanted, what I needed, for Christmas. I saw myself perched on her seat, feeling the wind in my face as I rode, flew, along the highways and byways of my neighborhood. I would ride to school like the other boys who rode their bicycles and lock her up with a chain and master lock to the bike rack in front of the school, next to all the other bikes. There she would wait for me. She was more than a bicycle. She was freedom. I could go anywhere on that bike. I could do anything. My revelry was ended by the arrival of my two brothers.

“It’s just a Huffy,” Brian said. He saw me staring at the dirt bike and recognized the look of sheer desire on my face. He pointed to where the far more expensive bikes were. “What you want is one of them Schwinn’s.” I glanced over at the Schwinn’s. They were sleek and aerodynamic bicycles, but they did not compare to the beauty in front of me. I looked at the price tag. It read seventy-five dollars, less than half of what the Schwinn’s went for. More money than I had ever seen in one place. My heart fell. Seventy-five dollars. I stood there in clothes too big for me, a hole in the top of one of my tennis shoes, hand me downs from my older brothers, my dreams of freedom, of flying above the blacktop streets of my neighborhood, of being the equal of the other boys with bikes, were crushed by reality. I would never own this bicycle. We simply could not afford it. The feeling of want grew inside me. The sound of someone moving behind me caught my attention.

“Oh, there you boys are,” my mother said, “we have to go. Roger wants to leave.” She glanced at the rows of bicycles. I turned to the Huffy and touched one of the handlebars. Subconsciously, perhaps, I was saying goodbye.

San Diego private investigator / private investigator San Diego

We all piled into our old, faded green sedan. Roger was driving. My mother was in the passenger seat, and we six children filled the rest of the car. I sat in the back seat, sandwiched by my brothers. One of the smaller girls sat on my lap. I watched my mother place the items she purchased into the trunk. Her attempts at discretion let me know she had gifts in there. She had spent all her time in the clothes section. Once again, Christmas would be another, bitter, disappointment.

Before becoming a private investigator, Ricky Taylor was a combat corpsman, an author, a correctional officer and a published author. This is a story from a day in his life.

And, yet, on this Christmas morning, there she was, leaning against her kickstand, next to the Christmas tree. I stood before her in awe, still not believing my eyes.

“Was that the one you wanted?” My mother said. I nodded, turning to my mother.

“How,” I said, “how did you know?”

“There’s a chain for it and a lock,” she said. “Make sure you lock it up, or someone will steal it…”

“Nobody better steal it,” Roger said. He looked at me as though I had already left the bike unlocked and someone had stolen it. “That thing cost a lot of money.”

 “I bought it with my own money,” my mother said, “on layaway.”

“Well,” Roger said, “he had still better not lose it.”

Ten minutes later, I was flying above the streets around my neighborhood, the new rubber of the tires humming on the blacktop, feeling the wind in my face as I pedaled that Huffy bike as fast as it would go. It was better than I had imagined. It was a dirt bike, and I deliberately rode in any dirt I could find, exulting in the deep tread marks left by the tires of the bike. My bike. Mine. I rode for hours, before finally returning, exhausted, but happy, to our duplex. I washed the Huffy with a wet cloth, restoring her earlier shine, before bringing her inside. I fell asleep that night, smiling, content, the Huffy leaning against her kickstand. I dreamed of riding, soaring, on the seat of my brand new, yellow Huffy dirt bike. School was out for another week after Christmas, and I spent every day riding my bike. I covered miles of black top, exploring the areas around my neighborhood, riding bikes with the neighborhood children, and riding the trails in a wooded area near my family’s home.

San Diego private investigator / private investigator San Diego

After Christmas break, I rode my bike to school. I stopped next to the bike racks. I placed the Huffy’s front tire into one of the racks and wrapped the chain through the spokes, securing it to the rack. Three other boys were locking their bikes to the rack. They were all Schwinn’s. One of the boys looked at me. He was a stocky redheaded boy with freckles, wearing a Led Zeppelin tee shirt.

“You got a new bike?” he said, eying my Huffy with an appraising look.

“Yeah,” I said.

He looked at my new, yellow Huffy and shrugged.

“Nice enough, I guess.”

I spent the entire day in anticipation of the moment I would get to ride my bike again. Finally, the bell rang, and school was out. I made my way to the bike rack, through the gathering throng of the other kids who were busy unlocking their bikes. And there was my Huffy, waiting for me. I knelt down, unlocked the lock and removed the chain. I wrapped the chain around the seat post. The three boys who were there earlier were unlocking their bikes. The stocky redheaded boy who had spoken to me earlier nodded at me.

“We’re doing an Albertson’s run,” he said. “You wanna come?”

“Me?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said, “If you can keep up.”

“What’s an Albertson’s run?”

The boys got on their bikes, grinning at each other.

“You will see when we get there. You worried?”

I was worried, but the idea of being part of a group on a “run,” whatever it was, excited me. Not only was I the proud owner of a brand-new dirt bike, but I was part of a group of bike owners. I got on the Huffy.

“I’m not worried,” I said, “let’s go.”

San Diego private investigator / private investigator San Diego

Albertson’s grocery store was located about two miles from the school. The boys looked back at me from atop their Schwinn bicycles. I pedaled as hard as I could, until the Huffy caught up to them. The redheaded boy’s face broke into a grin and he gave my bike an admiring nod. The feel of the new rubber tires on the road, the wind in my hair, the excitement of newly found friends, lifted my emotions to a point of pure ecstasy. This was freedom like I had never known. I looked down at the glistening yellow frame of my bike, feeling the grips of the handlebars in my hands. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. We reached the store and pulled our bikes up to a couple of poles located near the entrance. The boys got off their bikes and began chaining them to the poles. I got off the Huffy and removed the bike chain from around the seat. I threaded the chain through the bike frame and around a pole, fastening the chain with the lock.

“What do we do now?” I said.

“This is where it gets fun,” the redheaded boy said. He motioned to the other boys, and they headed into the store. I followed. The redheaded boy led the way, passing the checkout lanes, to the candy aisle. He motioned to the other boys. “Cover me,” he said. The older boys moved into position, blocking the view of the redheaded boy, who knelt and picked up several candy bars from the shelf. He placed the candy bars into the pocket of his jacket. He stood up and blocked the view of one of the other boys who did the same. The boy bent down, took candy bars from the shelf, and deposited them into his pocket. The third boy did the same. The redheaded boy looked at me. “Your turn,” he said. My mouth went dry. I looked around us. No one appeared to notice the four of us huddled around the candy aisle.

“You’re stealing?” I said. The redheaded boy shrugged.

“Yeah, so what?” He said, “You a chicken or something?”

Stealing. As poor as my family was, stealing from a store had never once crossed my mind. The commandments taught to me in Sunday School included the age-old tenet “Thou shalt not steal,” and, for the most part, I had kept those commandments. One of the other boys looked disdainfully at me.

“Yeah, he’s a chicken,” he pronounced. The third boy frowned up at me.

“You gonna snitch?” He said.

I bit my lip and looked at the boys, at the bulge of the candy bars protruding from their pockets.

“What if we get caught?” I said.

“We do this all the time,” the red headed boy said. “Come on. Get one, man. I will show you how it’s done.”

San Diego private investigator / private investigator San Diego

Thou shalt not steal. The thought, the command, reverberated through my being, but I pushed the thought down. I knelt in front of the rows of candy bars, the other boys blocking my view. I picked up a Whatchamacallit candy bar, a rectangular candy bar in a tan wrapper, and placed it into my coat pocket.

“Okay,” the red headed boy said, “Now follow me.” I expected him to head to the store exit, but he went to the restroom area located near the front of the store. We entered the men’s room together. The boys removed the candy bars from their pockets, knelt down, lifted their pant legs and placed the candy bars into their socks. The red headed boy grinned up at me. “Go ahead,” he said. I pulled the Whatchamacallit from my coat pocket, knelt down, lifted my right pantleg, and placed the candy bar into the elastic of my sock. I pulled the pant leg over the bulge in my sock. Thou shalt not steal. The commandment came to the forefront of my mind again. I looked at the boys who were now nodding their approval of me. I pushed the thought down until it became little more than a whisper.

“What now?” I said.

“Now we leave,” the red headed boy said, “but not together. I will leave first, then come out one by one. Meet up at the bikes.”

With that, the red headed boy left the restroom. A minute or so later, one of the other boys left, soon followed by the last boy, leaving me alone. I felt the Whatchamacallit against the skin of my right ankle. I could take it out. I could leave it in the restroom. It wasn’t stealing, I thought, until I left the store with it. But what if the other boys wanted proof? What if they wouldn’t let me ride with them again? I had just met the boys, but the recent thrill, the freedom, the exultation that came with being accepted, was fresh in my memory. I did not want to lose it. I opened the door to the men’s room and looked out at the store. There were no policemen, no swat team taking the boys into custody. They had made it outside. Taking a deep breath to steady my nerves, I stepped anxiously out of the restroom and walked toward the exit. Through the front store windows, I saw the other boys outside, already sitting on the seats of their bicycles. I saw my Huffy, still chained to the pole. I headed out through the automatic door. Suddenly, a large hand gripped my right shoulder.

San Diego private investigator / private investigator San Diego

“Hold on a minute, Son,” a man said. I stopped and turned. The store manager, a large man in his forties, wearing a white dress shirt and khaki slacks, stared down at me.

“Yes, Sir?” I said. My voice came out in a squeak, just above a whisper. The commandment returned, keeping rhythm with the pounding of my heart. Thou…shalt not…steal…thou…shalt not…steal…

“Where are you going with that candy bar?”

I looked down at the floor.

“What candy bar?” I asked.

“The one you brought into the restroom,” he said. “Did you eat it?”

“No, sir,” I said, my heart pounding in my chest. Thou…shalt…not…steal… Thou…shalt…not…steal…

“Empty out your pockets,” the manager ordered. I put my hands in my coat pocket and pulled them inside out, showing them empty. I did the same with my pant pockets. The manager towered over me. “Did you leave it in the restroom?” He asked.

“No, Sir,” I said again.

“Come with me,” he ordered. I followed him toward the restrooms. I looked outside, through the front windows and saw the other boys leaving on their bicycles. The manager held the restroom door open and I entered. He started searching the restroom, looking in the stalls and the trash bin. The wrapper of the Whatchamacallit seemed to grow hot against the skin of my right ankle, as the manager slowly and methodically searched the restroom. I stood, watching quietly. Finally, after what seemed like hours, but was surely only minutes, the manager gave up. He looked at me and scratched his head.

“Well, young man,” he said, “maybe I was wrong.”

“Yes, Sir,” I said. “Can I go now?”

The manager looked around the restroom once more and reluctantly nodded. He held the door to the men’s room open. I walked out, heading for the exit door. The automatic doors opened with a swoosh and closed behind me. I let out a sigh of relief and walked to my bicycle. I removed the chain from the pole and wrapped it around the seat post of the Huffy. I was home free. Focused on the bike, I barely heard the footsteps behind me. The manager’s voice jolted me from my reverie.

“Lift your pant legs,” he ordered.

“M-my pant legs?”

“Yes. Lift your pant legs.”

I bent down and lifted my left pant leg. Of course, there was nothing there. I stood up and looked dumbly at the manager, who towered over me. He pointed to my right pant leg. The wrapper of the Whatchamacallit felt hot against my skin. Could I roll up my pant leg and still hide the bulge of the offending candy bar inside my sock? Slowly, kneeling down, lifted my pant leg.

“There it is,” the manager said. “Give it to me.”

Before becoming a San Diego private investigator, Ricky Taylor was a combat corpsman, an author, a correctional officer and a published author. This is a story from a day in his life.

Caught. In my guilt, I could not so much as look at the manager. I kept my eyes focused on the ground in front of me, as I removed the Whatchamacallit candy bar from my sock and gave it to him. My mouth went dry. I tried to speak. My voice was barely audible.

I’m sorry,” I said.

The manager stared down at me, shaking his head.

“Sorry doesn’t quite cut it, Son. You have to come with me now.”

He led and I followed him to his small office, where he told me to sit down in one of the chairs. I sat down, obediently. A yellow phone sat on his desk. He picked up the receiver.

“What’s your home phone number?”

I looked at the phone in his hand. I thought about my mother at home. A deep feeling of shame took hold of me. I could not let my mother know. I did not want her to know what I had done, after she had scrimped and saved to purchase my bike on layaway. I also imagined Roger’s reaction. Roger never showed mercy. If he knew what I had done, the terrible thing that I had done, the punishment would far exceed the crime. I would never live it down. My mother would know I was a thief, and Roger would never let her forget it.

“I don’t remember my phone number,” I lied. “We just moved there.”

“You don’t remember your phone number?”

“No, Sir,” I said. The manager studied me, weighing whether I was lying or telling the truth. It was not uncommon for a boy my age not to know his phone number. He placed the phone back in its cradle.

“Then where do you live?” He asked. I pointed vaguely in the opposite direction of Highland Avenue. The manager shook his head and sighed. “You don’t know your address, either?”

“No, Sir,” I lied. The manager stared at me, rubbing his chin.

“I need to speak to your parents,” he said. “If I can’t call them and you don’t know your address, how am I supposed to do that?”

“I don’t know, Sir,” I said, “I could tell them to call you when I get home. I can promise you, Sir.”

“You could promise?” He said. “I should let you leave and trust you will return with your parents? Do I look stupid to you?”

“No, Sir.”

“And how do I know you would keep your promise?” He held up the Whatchamacallit. “I already know you’re a thief. I bet you’re a liar, too.”

Now, I had no intention of keeping that promise. I would have said or done anything to get out of there without my mother and Roger finding out what I had done. Having already broken the seventh of the ten commandments, I was ready to break the eighth. I tried to look as innocent, as honest, as I could. I met the manager’s stare, and I lied.

“I promise, Sir. I will tell my parents. A promise is a promise.”

“Is that right?” The manger considered my words. “A promise is a promise?”

“Yes, Sir.”

He studied me for a long moment. Finally, he nodded to himself.

“Alright, young man,” he said, “I accept your promise.” He stood up from his desk chair, walked to his office door and opened it. “You’re free to go, but I expect to hear from your parents by the end of the day. You’re going to tell them, aren’t you?”

“Yes, Sir,” I lied, stepping out of the office. I looked at the exit from the store. I was mere steps away from freedom. I would leave, get on my Huffy and pedal off into the sunset, never to be seen at Albertson’s again.

San Diego private investigator / private investigator San Diego

“Fine, then,” the manager said. He motioned to the exit. “You’re free to go.”

“Thank you, Sir,” I said. I turned toward the exit and had to stop myself from running. I exited the store through the automatic doors, feeling relieved when they closed behind me. I walked to where my Huffy sat alone, chained to the pole where I had left it. My newfound acquaintances were nowhere to be seen. I unlocked the chain and removed it from the pole. I could hardly believe my luck. I was actually getting away with it! My mother would never know. I bent over and wrapped the chain around the seat post, securing it with the lock. I thought about my situation. I realized I could never show my face at Albertson’s again. It was a small price to pay. My mother shopped there from time to time, but even if the manager saw her, there was no way he could know who she was. Deep in thought, I had not noticed the Albertson’s manager until he stepped up behind me. He placed his hand on the handlebars of my Huffy.

“Why don’t you leave your bike with me,” he said, “until I have that talk with your parents.”

“But I need my bike to get home, Sir,” I said.

“You’ll get it back, just as soon as I talk with your parents. After all, you’re the thief, not me. You have two choices.” He said. “You can call your parents and have them meet you here, or you can walk home.”

I looked down at my beautiful bike. My heart sank. My Huffy. I thought about my mother and how she would feel when she learned I was a thief. It would break her heart. But my bike, the greatest Christmas present I ever had, was in the manager’s hand. The bike, or my mother’s heart? Was the bike worth my mother knowing what I had done? How would she feel when she learned her youngest son was a criminal, a thief and a liar? I looked up at the manager. My eyes were brimming with tears of desperation.

“Please,” I said.

I walked the three miles from Albertson’s to our duplex, torn between two decisions. Would I tell my mother the truth, or would I tell my mother a lie? The walk was mostly uphill and difficult. I was tired and the sun was setting when I finally reached my front door. The moment had come; the moment of truth, or the moment of lies.

San Diego private investigator / private investigator San Diego

I was twenty-seven when I finally told my mother what had really happened to my beautiful Huffy dirt bike. Faced with two decisions, I chose deceit. The story I told my mother was that I had ridden my bike to my friend’s house and left it outside. Someone had stolen it. I remember riding in the car, as my mother drove me around the nearby neighborhoods, searching for my bike. I remember Roger’s scolding about how much that bike cost and how he had told my mother I had better not lose it, and how I could not be trusted with nice things. For crying out loud, dagnabbit, and cotton picking…

Before becoming a San Diego private investigator, Ricky Taylor was a combat corpsman, an author, a correctional officer and a published author. This is a story from a day in his life.

For months, whenever my mother went to Albertson’s with my brothers and sisters, I found an excuse to wait in the car. Dread gripped my heart as I imagined her seeing my Huffy bike in the manager’s office, or, worse, on display with a sign on it announcing that it belonged to a candy bar thief and a liar. But that never happened. After a while, my mother forgot about the bike, and life returned to normal. My beautiful, yellow Huffy dirt bike was lost to me. It was the first and the last new bike of my childhood. I wonder to this day what happened to it. Did it become an after Christmas present for the manager’s son? Probably. If it did, I hope he enjoyed it.

As I sit at my writing desk, sharing this memory with you, it is Christmas time. The beeping of a car horn sounding in front of my house disturbs my quiet solitude and returns me from that day in 1981 to the present day. I stand up, leave my office, and walk into the living room, where my wife and teenage son are.

“Who’s honking?” I ask. My son grins. My wife says,

“Who else do you think would pull up in the driveway and honk their horn?”

I open the front door and look outside. The white Toyota sedan belonging to Roger and my mother is parked halfway in my driveway, behind my own car. Roger is in the passenger seat. My mother is behind the wheel. Roger rolls down the window. My mother calls to me.

“Hey, Ricky, come out here. I have something for you guys.”

I step outside with my wife and son. We walk to the Toyota. My mother hands Roger a large trash bag filled with, what I know from experience, are Christmas presents. This scenario plays out every year at Christmas time. My mother never forgets to bring us presents. I walk to her side of the car, open the car door and kiss her cheek, as my wife takes the bag from Roger.

“Thank you, Mom,” I say. “Thank you, Roger,” I say. Roger mumbles something that could be “your welcome” or “cotton picking.”

We carry the trash bag inside and remove the gifts. They are individually wrapped, and there is a gift for every family member. It has become our tradition to unwrap my mother’s gifts whenever we get them. Gifts range from such unique items as bottles of Juice to a rainbow colored, furry, stuffed piggy bank with a roll of quarters. This year, we get winter boot socks. My son laughs and my wife smiles knowingly.

“Everyone needs socks,” I say.

We have learned that it is not the gift that matters, so much as it is the thought behind it. And, now, when I remember my Huffy dirt bike, the greatest and best Christmas present of my childhood, it is not the bike that matters to me. What matters most to me is knowing that my mother, in her extreme poverty, knew I wanted that bike, and did what she could to get it for me. Because she loved me and wanted me to be happy. That Huffy was more than just a bike. It was the gift of a mother’s love. And it is that love I remember, and always will remember. For, on Christmas, and on every other day, love is, and always will be, the greatest gift of all.

For crying out loud.

Before becoming a San Diego private investigator, Ricky Taylor was a combat corpsman, an author, a correctional officer and a published author. This is a story from a day in his life.

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