A cold spell swooped down on Christmas Eve the year I was eleven. It was North Florida and every Christmas I could remember until that one was warm enough to run around outside in shorts. But on this day, we wore Toughskins and wind breakers as we headed away from our neighborhood into the woods.
I was with my best friend Curtis, the bleach blond kid from next door. Curtis was a year younger, and yet somehow had a BB gun. Despite knowing each other our whole lives, we routinely got into the kinds of scrapes that caused parents to run outside and break us up. On this day were heading into the woods to seek out the means of earning our Christmas money – mistletoe. We harvested mistletoe from the tops of big oaks, and would sell our bounty on the side of the road. After about an hour of climbing through the trees, we ran back to my house to fetch our handmade sign, and then headed to a busy corner at the entrance of our neighborhood where we set up shop. It was a cold afternoon with only one customer and just as we were about to give up and go home, a man pulled up who I didn’t recognize. There were four girls in his truck who giggled at me from the warmth of the vehicle while Curtis did the selling. And boy did he sell.
“This looks like a fresh batch. Did you get it today?” Asked the man.
“Sure did. Right back there in them woods over yonder.” Curtis said, pointing to the trees behind the Pic ‘n Save.
The man looked through the canvas sack surveying different branches. “Well it looks fine, but how do I know that it works?” He asked.
“Oh it works.” Curtis said. “Just last week the Johnsons threw a party at their house, and over every doorway there was some of this here mistletoe from those woods over yonder. Mister, there was more kissing at that party than any party in the history of this neighborhood. Now I ain’t saying that it’s magic or anything, but the mistletoe from those woods – it’s definitely special. If you don’t want to be kissed, you might not want to buy any.”
The man let out a big laugh. “How much for the whole lot, then?”
Curtis looked over at me as if to ask whether I had an idea of how much a sack of mistletoe was worth.
“How about twenty dollars?” The man asked.
We took it. “Merry Christmas!” the truck full of girls yelled as their dad drove away.
“Quick, let’s hide our sign and head over to the Pic ‘n Save so we can get some gifts.” Curtis said.
We split the money and I spent my share on a pair of slippers for my grandmother, and a hair brush for my mom. While in the store I couldn’t help notice that there was only one Daisy BB gun left on the shelf. Boy, did I want one for Christmas. Curtis bought some BBs and some candy for his little brother’s stocking. Then we walked home in the magical twilight of Christmas Eve.
That night we had a freeze, and Curtis’s Dad turned ran their sprinkler all night on their orange tree out front. We thought he was an idiot for doing it, but the next morning when I threw open my curtains, I was treated to a shimmering ball of ice in front of their house. Christmas morning was wonderful. We unwrapped our gifts, and just like in that movie that came out years later, my mom found one extra present hidden behind the tree. It was for me. I knew from the box that it was a Daisy BB gun. My Christmas wish had come true.
After inhaling breakfast, I convinced my uncle to brave the cold and take me into the woods so that I could practice shooting.
“Don’t shoot toward anyone’s windows.” My mom yelled after us. “Oh, and Jimmy! Don’t shoot your eye out.” Which I thought was weird since you’d have to be a real idiot with very long arms to shoot your own eye out with a rifle.
As we breached the boundaries of the neighborhood passing into the woods, my heart raced. I could hardly wait to load my gun and take aim at whatever beast dared cross my path. I had a gun. I was a man, now.
After a couple of minutes, I spied my first victim – a gray catbird foraging for berries on the ground about twenty feet away. I raised the gun to my shoulder and took aim. Then I squeezed the trigger and closed my eyes. When I opened them, I didn’t see the bird. “I missed.” I said.
My uncle lit a cigarette. “You might want to walk over there and make sure.”
When I arrived at the spot where the bird was looking for food seconds before, I saw him laying under a nearby bush. I’d killed him with a shot through the head. A wave of grief washed over me as I stood over the little bird for what seemed like forever. Tears streamed out of my eyes. I’d killed him. On Christmas.
I handed Uncle Junior the gun, and carried the bird home where I dug through the cold ground to bury him.
And I didn’t shoot the gun again for a year.