Two days before Christmas, headlights roll across the duplex wall. I look out the window. Nice black car in our driveway. Climbing out, shopping bags over his shoulders, is the last person I'd ever expect to see. "It's Greg," I say. Like a twitchy Santa.
Old Saint Tweak.
"What's Dad doing here?" Brayden says.
"He brought presents," I say.
"He ain't my dad," Lila says to the TV.
He ain't my dad neither, but I don't feel the need to say so. I'm the oldest — fourteen, Lila's twelve, Brayden eight. My dad was married to our mom, but now he lives in B.C. with a guy. Lila's dad was married to our neighbor. Then came Greg, who lived with us until he got arrested. The newspaper story said Greg was part of a "burglary ring" — like he was some master criminal, not a tweaker on the lookout for unlocked garage doors.
After that our mom swore off men.
I open the door. Leave the screen locked.
"Hey Manda, where's your mom at?" Greg says.
Greg does his heh-heh machine gun laugh. He's thin. Has a big scab on his forehead. Moves his mouth like he's reminiscing about a stick of gum he once chewed.
"Where'd you get the car, Greg?"
"Where'd I —" He scoffs. "I mean — where does anyone get — at the car ... place. Dealership." He looks over his shoulder sort of nervously.
Brayden says, "Hey Daddy. We're watching Archer. It's dirty."
Lila doesn't look up from the TV.
"Come on, Manda," Greg says. "Let me in." He turns so I can see the bags. "I got presents."
Mom says not to let anyone in, but I don't think she counted on Greg.
Nobody counts on Greg.
The bags are from River Park Square — Banana Republic, Pottery Barn, Macy's, Nordstrom.
Walmart I'd buy, but Nordstrom? Greg's never set foot in a Nordstrom.
"You brought us stolen presents?"
"What?" He shifts his weight, says again: "What?"
Presents are presents. I unlock the screen. Greg comes in, sets the bags down. Plops in a chair. "Got anything to eat, Amanda?"
"What do you want?"
"I don't know. Nutella? Beef jerky?"
Like a neighbor knocking at your door asking for a cup of flour or a tuba.
I make him a peanut butter sandwich. He watches Archer with us. When we laugh he laughs. I don't think he's really getting it. So I test him. A commercial comes on: a poor African girl with huge eyes. This actress says, "You could adopt that African kid for 19 cents a day." I glance over at Greg and laugh. He laughs, too.
"How's school?" Greg asks.
"We're on break," I say. "For Christmas."
"Your mom got any cigarettes around?"
"She quit," Brayden says.
"Quitters never win," Greg says.
Lila sits up, grabs her metal crutches, starts for the bathroom.
Greg leans over to me, "What's she got again?"
"Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy!" Lila calls from the bathroom.
Greg pops the last bite of sandwich in his mouth. "I can never remember if it's MD or MS."
"What'd you bring us, Greg?" Lila says when she comes back from the bathroom.
He rubs his hands together. "Let's see."
He starts with the biggest Nordstrom bag. Pulls out a scarf, wrapped in tissue paper. "This is for your mom."
He pulls out more presents one at a time: blue pajamas. An Estee Lauder Beauty Box. He gives Lila the pajamas and me the makeup.
He opens the Banana Republic bag. There's a men's cardigan sweater, gray with a cowl collar. "For me," he says. That big fluffy collar will look ridiculous on him — like wrapping a turd in velvet. There's also a brown leather messenger bag.
"Merry Christmas Brayden!" he says and tosses him the satchel. Brayden sits up on the couch and looks over the bag. He has a Seahawks backpack that he loves. "Is there blood on this?" he asks.
"Shouldn't be," says Greg.
The Macy's bag is boring: just one little floor rug.
"Welcome mat?" Greg asks.
"No, it's for a bathroom floor," I say. "See, the toilet goes in the middle."
"Oh," he says. I can see it's a big disappointment: a shitter rug.
There's a smaller Nordstrom bag too. He opens this last. It has a pair of sunglasses. And two boxes: one with a bangle bracelet, the other with a nice women's watch.
"Huh," Greg says, like he's disappointed that's all he's stolen.
That's Christmas for you.
I reach over and grab the sunglasses. They're in a nice case. There's a tag. "These sunglasses cost two hundred and forty bucks!"
"No way," Greg says.
I show him the tag.
"Daaaamn," he says.
"Let me see that," Lila says. She shakes her head. "Crazy."
It is crazy.
Greg asks for another sandwich for the road.
The whole time I'm making Greg's sandwich, I keep seeing the 19-cent African kid, her huge eyes. I think: could a person really live on nineteen cents?
Not like we're rich. But Mom got a good job this year, doing medical records. And we get housing assistance and SSI for Lila. But shit, compared to that African girl, we're Kardashians.
But maybe that African girl doesn't know she's so poor. Compared to the people around her, maybe she's normal.
So how much would it suck to know some girl in Spokane, Washington, is in her warm living room, watching you on her big-ass TV, thinking: Aw, you poor African kid. I could save you for nineteen cents.
I guess that's how it felt looking through someone else's Christmas bags and seeing that expensive stuff: like I was seeing back through the TV, like I'm the poor kid and some girl in $240 sunglasses is watching me during a commercial for Million Dollar Real Estate Housewife and feeling sorry for me.
When I come back with his sandwich, Greg has the cowl-neck sweater on.
It looks good.
He grabs the sunglasses and the watch off the table. "I might return these."
At the door, Greg thanks me for the sandwich. "Tell your mom —" but he can't think of what. He holds up the key to the car in our driveway. "Lexus," he says. "Hybrid. Keyless entry. Sensible luxury."
I stand at the screen door and watch Greg back out in the stolen car.
When he's gone, I put my hand against the screen. I imagine the African kid putting her hand up to the TV glass. Our hands touching. There are different worlds in this world.
As I close the door I hear the sirens. A cop car screams past.
Brayden looks up from the TV.
I hope Greg gets to keep the sweater.
"God bless us everyone," Lila says.
Lila always says that at Christmas.
And I always laugh.♦
Jess Walter is the author of eight books, most recently the story collection We Live in Water and the novel Beautiful Ruins. He's still waiting for the G.I. Joe he asked Santa for in 1973.