From the memoir Phoenix: A Brother's Life
Everything was just where it should be. Santa had gotten me some underwear. June had gotten me a Superman lunch bucket - a really neat present. Janice had asked me a few days earlier if I wanted a pencil box, and I'd told her I didn't use a pencil box, didn't want a pencil box, and wouldn't be caught dead with a pencil box. Janice had gotten me a pencil box. Joanne had gotten me something wrapped so well I couldn't tell what was inside. (It turned out to be a real camera - with flashbulbs!) Then I saw a big present leaning against the wall and realized, with a kind of dull thrill, that the Christmas-gift lobbying of my mother had worked: I knew from its size and shape that my elaborate toy-gun set was inside, and I knew, even without opening the box, that the gun set would never be as shiny and bright as it had been in Penny's toy section; the rifle would be made of plastic, the twirling ducks wouldn't twirl, the target would eventually dent.
But I couldn't find whatever it was that John had gotten me, and I was beginning to wonder if he'd gotten me anything at all.
It wasn't quite dark outside anymore. Our windows had lightened to the color of tin, and the rest of the living room began to take shape: the big buffet over by the door, Dad's La-Z-Boy, the sofa, the swivel-base TV, and something propped up in the corner that hadn't been there before, something tall and thin and dark and - I could just now make out - with a red bow tied around it.
I hadn't expected to see anything in the corner, and therefore didn't quite believe it. I thought I must be seeing things wrong, or that maybe there wasn't enough light yet, or that maybe I was dreaming I was awake, because John always kept his .22 rifle in one corner of our bedroom, but now it was in the corner by the Christmas tree. I took a few steps toward it. From the red bow tied around the walnut stock there hung a small card.
For a few minutes I just stood there - I didn't even touch it. I'd been hoping for a crappy toy gun and twirling duck targets. I hadn't even bothered hoping for a BB gun. But this - this was a real gun, a rifle, a Remington; it had been my father's, then my brother's, and now it was mine. I picked up the rifle, slung its leather strap across my shoulder. The walnut stock was cool and smooth, and the rifle felt even heavier than I remembered - the weight of authority, responsibility. The weight of the whole grown-up world. I stood tall, as if ready to have a war medal pinned on my chest.
Then I ran back into the bedroom with the rifle and scream-whispered, "Hey, John!"
John, about to be drafted into the Army and shipped off to Vietnam, must have also thought he was dreaming, seeing his little brother suddenly standing there in the early morning light beside his bed, holding a rifle in a soldier's pose. He sat up fast and there was a sound like a bat on a softball as his head hit the boards on the underside of the top bunk. The covers on the top mattress lifted slightly, then settled.
"Thanks for the rifle," I said, wincing.
John nodded and, with his hand pressed against his forehead, said, "Merry Christmas."
J.D. Dolan's work has appeared in Esquire, The Nation, Shenandoah, The Antioch Review, The Mississippi Review, New Stories from the South, and Best American Sports Writing. His memoir, Phoenix: A Brother's Life, was published in 2000 by Alfred A. Knopf, and was named one of the best nonfiction books of the year by the Los Angeles Times, and one of the top ten memoirs of the year by the Detroit Free Press. Dolan teaches in the MFA/PhD program in creative writing at Western Michigan University. He is at work on a screenplay based on the life of the 1920s and 1930s pool champion Ralph Greenleaf.
Photo by Marion Ettlinger