hen I was a little kid, I knew that my brother was lucky. He could stay up late. He could shave. He had a Remington .22 rifle. He was the Master Councilor of the local DeMolay Chapter. He could lay his hands on a dead car engine in the morning and have it purring like a tomcat by midafternoon. When he walked out of our house, he could reach up and touch the top of the doorway, a high, faint smudge offering constant proof. He was lucky in everything even his looks. He wore button down shirts and alpaca sweaters, pegged slacks and suede desert boots. He had dark hair and a shy smile--my sisters' friends said in whispered, conspiratorial giggles that he looked like Ricky Nelson--and he smelled of Old Spice, or sometimes motor oil, or sometimes both. But most of all, my brother was lucky because he could go wherever he wanted, and he could go there in his car, a forest green 1950 Chevy two-door with Moon hubcaps and tuck-and-roll upholstery. John was eleven years older, and to me the keys to his car seemed the keys to the world.
Once, a radio station in Los Angeles ran a contest, and whenever you heard a cascade of falling coins, you were supposed to call in. If you were the right caller, you got to guess how much money was in the kitty, and if you guessed right, to the penny, you won it. The caller would guess, and the disc jockey would say, "Puh-leeze repeat that!" After the caller repeated the amount, a buzzer would go off, and the disc jockey would say, "I'm sorry, that's too . . . low." Or too high. The idea was to listen often and zero in on the amount.
John listened, but not often. At the start of the contest, he guessed a number, wrote it on a piece of paper, and tossed it on the dresser in the bedroom we shared. On that dresser he also kept his wallet, his car keys, his Marlboros, his Old Spice aftershave, his spare change (which he often gave me), a few .22 cartridges, and a black Swank jewelry box where he kept his tie tacks, cuff links, DeMolay pin, and a ruby ring that our grandmother had given him.
After he died, I ended up with some of John's things: a stack of his clothes, a few of his automotive tools, a camera he'd bought in Okinawa, and the jewelry box. Its contents hadn't changed much in twenty-some years. The tie tacks and cuff links were tarnished. The ruby ring was gone (he'd found out it was just red glass). There were some lapel pins from the desert races he'd finished, his Rifle Expert medal, an old key with a Chevrolet logo. Under a tray in the jewelry box I discovered a photograph of our oldest sister, Joanne, at her wedding; grade-school photographs of Janice and June, who were the third and fourth oldest, respectively; also a photograph of me, the youngest, when I was little, and one of our parents from a time before I knew them, when they were still, from the looks of it, in love.
Another photograph, a small one of my brother and my father, still filled me with a kind of grinning wonder. In this one photograph, my brother's about two and my father's in his early thirties. My father is standing in front of my grandmother's house with one arm stretched out high, and my brother is standing in the palm of his hand. I remember looking at that photograph when I was little and saying, "And who's that little boy? And who's that man?" When they told me, I accepted it the same way I did when Dad would pull quarters out of my ear or when John somehow knew just when a red light was going to turn green. I knew it was some kind of trick of the adult world, and I played along.
John called the radio station a few times but couldn't get through. He didn't have a lot of time to listen to contests; he was working overtime as a supermarket clerk and saving his money for--though it didn't seem possible--an even better car.
I listened to the radio station every day after school and kept track of the contest. With each call, with each wrong guess, it seemed John was that much closer to winning.
One day, as I rode with my mother to the supermarket in our Oldsmobile, I switched on the radio. I sang along to Ricky Nelson's "Travelin' Man," then quieted down when I heard the familiar cascade of falling coins.
The contest! This was it! A woman caller made a guess, and the disc jockey said, "Puh-leeze repeat that!" Something about that number was familiar, and as she repeated it, I screamed, "That's John's number!" My mother--nervous in her menopausal years--nearly ran the Olds into a parked car. She started yelling at me, but all I could hear just then were the sounds of bells and whistles, and an even greater rush of falling coins.
The radio station played that winning call over and over the next few days. That winning number, John's number, was, I thought, fixed in my memory. But I've forgotten it, just as I'm beginning to forget John's voice. Not surprisingly. He didn't talk much to begin with, and it's been eleven years since his death, and for the last five years of his life he wouldn't talk to me, then he died.
John took the news of the contest, as he did most news, with a shrug. He seemed to have, even in those days, a belief that life was somehow rigged, that even with the right numbers he was destined to lose.
That isn't the way I saw it. But for a phone call he'd won that radio contest. He could work automotive miracles. He could reach impossible heights. He looked like Ricky Nelson. He had the keys to the world and the gas money to get there. My brother was lucky. And I knew that soon, very soon, his number would come up.
His number came up a few days before Christmas in 1965. His draft number. John was ordered to report on January 4, 1966, for induction into the United States Army.
I was thrilled! My brother loved to watch the movie Sergeant York and the TV show Combat, and therefore I loved to watch them too. I knew my brother would be shrewd like Gary Cooper and tough like Vic Morrow. And when he came home, I knew my brother and I would be just like the TV show Route 66--two guys driving around the country in a Corvette convertible in search of excitement. I knew this because John had sold his forest green 1950 Chevy two-door and, with all of his savings, bought an immaculate red 1958 Corvette convertible. The countless TV mythologies of my childhood--shy teen idols, patriotic soldiers, free spirits in fast cars--had become one, it seemed, and achieved flesh and blood in my brother.
Excerpted from Phoenix by J.D. Dolan. Copyright © 2001 by J.D. Dolan. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.