“Danny,” is a mostly true story about me as a small boy and how I learned that Christmas is really about giving.It was published in Storyteller magazine and won a First Place People's Choice Award for Non-Fiction.
Most of the story is true, but I've woven some fiction in and collapsed the story's time-line to add dramatic tension.
This one is for ...
“I’m not doing it,” I said.
I folded my arms across my chest. An early Christmas gift, - a tiny, wooden sleigh with eight reindeer and a hand-painted, red cheeked Santa - sat in my lap. Snow swirled and our windshield wipers beat in rhythm to a Christmas song on the radio. Dad turned his head toward me and narrowed his eyes - then jammed on the brakes as a dog dashed in front of our car. We skidded to the left, toward the oncoming traffic. With two hands, Dad turned the wheel. His right foot pumped madly on the brake pedal. I shot an arm toward the dashboard to keep from banging into it. My new, prized possession skittered off my lap and crashed to the floor. Dad jerked the wheel hard to the right, the car’s tires spun, found a dry patch of ground, and we glided safely to a halt across two lanes of traffic.
Unharmed, the dog hurdled the snow piled against the curb and became a dark speck on the white landscape.
Dad inhaled deeply and puffed out his cheeks. He ignored the blaring horns and clutched my arm.
“You okay, Ricky?” he asked.
I nodded and bent to retrieve my sleigh. I held it close to my eyes and examined it, top to bottom, side to side. “No scratches,” I said. “Thank goodness.”
The lines around Dad’s eyes deepened. “That’s exactly what I’ve been talking about,” he said.
A horn blared. Dad waved to the impatient motorist, straightened the car and pulled away. He continued his lecture.
“Things aren’t important, Ricky. People are. You’re twelve now. Time to learn to share.”
My lips became a thin red line. “Not with him,” I said.
“Especially with him,” Dad answered.
I turned away and glared out the window. We finished our last minute errands in silence.
Later, at home, the scent of warm apples and cinnamon floated on the air. I swiveled my head and checked behind me. Mom was busy at the stove. Quickly, I slid my hand past the polished silverware and the good china and plucked a pineapple ring off the top of the glazed ham. I popped it into my mouth and puckered my lips.
“Don’t you dare take another,” said Mom from the kitchen.
How’d she know? Her back was toward me.
“Eyes on every side,” she said, “Now, behave yourself, they’ll be here soon.”
I picked up my sleigh and slinked into the living room. I had never owned a toy like this. Custom made, lacquered and polished. Every detail perfect – from Santa’s blue eyes to the reindeers’ white hooves. As I admired the sleigh, the doorbell rang. I hopped onto the living room couch and parted the curtains. It was them! Ten grinning, grimy, grunting faces packed onto our front porch. Uncle Joe and his horde. I stood on tiptoes to get a better look. Maybe he hadn’t come. He was sick a lot and maybe he had stayed home.
No such luck.
One face looked up. Dull eyes squinted, targeted me. A large meaty paw waved frantically. I jerked the curtains closed. Danny! Darn it! Grabbing my sleigh, I carefully hid it behind the couch.
Mom’s pleated skirt swished past and her heels clicked on the maple floor as she answered the door.
“Merry Christmas!” she said and the hallway erupted into holiday chaos.
I stood behind Mom, hands in pockets, and the chaos stormed my way in the form of a large teenage boy with a huge head, unruly black hair, and teeth coated with remnants of red Twizzlers.
“Ricky!” Danny said.
I cringed as he wrapped his long arms around me, lifted me and squeezed until my ribs ached.
“Danny miss you,” he said with sugary breath. He set me down, placed his hands on his hips and said, “You got new toys?”
My body stiffened and my face turned red. I hesitated. I could feel Dad’s eyes bore into me from behind. I glanced at the couch and then quickly looked away. I’m not gonna do it, I thought. He was clumsy and he broke everything.
“No, nothing,” I answered, avoiding his eyes.
“That’s okay,” Danny said. “It’s Christmas, maybe we both get new toys.” He tugged at my arm. “Let’s play. Just me and you - in your room. You lucky. Wish had own room like you.”
As he pestered me, I overheard Uncle Joe comment to Dad. “Ricky’s a good kid. Danny doesn’t have much time.” I wrinkled my forehead, then surrendered to Danny’s persistence.
After dinner, the party moved to the living room. Silver branches shushed as they brushed the tops of red-ribboned packages. Mom knelt in front of the rotating tree, calling names and distributing Christmas cheer, while her face changed from red to green to blue – courtesy of color wheel technology.
From a quiet corner of the living room, I watched ribbons unfurl and paper fly. I kept one eye on the back of the couch. Didn’t want anyone touching my prize.
Danny scuttled my way. He flashed cranberry stained teeth and shoved a hairy fist toward me. Uncurling his fingers, he revealed a clump of white paper held together with ragged pieces of scotch tape.
“Made it for you,” he said.
What in the world? I thought. I took the clump from Danny’s hand. He bounced excitedly, heel to toe. His voice rose two octaves.
“Open it, open it.”
Carefully, I removed the tape and unfolded the paper. It was a crayon drawing of a stick figure with a big head and crazy black hair holding hands with a smaller figure with straight dark hair.
I tilted my head and looked from the picture to Danny.
He clapped his hands and said, “Me and you. Merry Christmas, Ricky.”
My teeth left indentations in my lower lip. I hadn’t expected this. “I didn’t get you any…” I said.
“Danny!” Mom called above the din and held out a gift.
Danny squealed in delight and hurried to get it. He ripped the paper off his package and tore open a brown cardboard box. His eyes widened and his mouth formed a giant O.
A silver robot with red eyes.
Dad reached over and pressed a button on the back of the metallic toy and the eyes glowed – and the robot spoke.
“I am an atomic powered robot,” said a mechanical voice.
Danny’s head quivered excitedly, his lips curled upward and, for the first time since I had known him, a light came into his eyes. Holding the robot aloft, he ran toward me.
“Look, Ricky, look!” he shouted.
His feet tangled and he tripped.
The robot flew from his hands and, for a moment, appeared to have a jetpack. It rocketed toward the ceiling, then its momentum slowed, it tumbled helmet over boots – and smashed into a thousand red and silver pieces on the hard, wooden floor.
The room quieted.
Danny’s lips curled downward and trembled. He tilted his head until his ear touched his shoulder. The light faded from his eyes.
“It’s okay, Danny,” Dad said. “We’ll get you another.”
Danny bent, snatched up the robot’s box and shoved it into his mouth. He ripped at it with his teeth, tearing the cardboard again and again. Tears streamed down his cheeks.
With a voice like thunder, Uncle Joe yelled, “Stop!”
Danny trembled, but didn’t stop.
“Don’t make me smack you,” said Uncle Joe.
I couldn’t let that happen. I moved quickly from my quiet corner. My fingers crawled behind the couch, found and retrieved the sleigh. Gently, I touched Danny’s arm.
“It’s not a robot,” I said, “and it doesn’t talk – but it’s for you. Merry Christmas, Danny.”
He stopped ripping at the cardboard box. He stopped crying. But even better, the light returned to his eyes.
That spring, Mom, Dad and I drove in silence to the chapel. Two days earlier, on a warm, sunny April morning, Danny had passed away peacefully.
Uncle Joe greeted us at the door. First time I had ever seen him in a suit.
“Glad you came,” he said “Family’s inside.”
“He always seemed so strong,” said Mom.
“Kids with his kind of retardation don’t live past their teens,” said Uncle Joe.
We hugged, then headed in. Our footsteps echoed on the slate floor. Rose incense filled the room. Danny’s family sat in the first pew, the rest were empty.
As we neared the front of the chapel, I whispered to Dad, “Didn’t he have any friends?”
Dad didn’t answer until we knelt before the casket. He wrapped an arm around me.
“I think he had one,” he said. He nodded toward Danny’s hands.
One clasped a rosary. The other cradled a play-worn sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.