From the Anthology 

Veterans’ Voices

The Greatest Gift

Stanton Cunningham

“Ring, ring. Ring, ring.”


The predawn trilling of the telephone startles me from my sleep. Intuitively, I know who the caller is before my feet hit the cold linoleum floor. It’s my mother. She calls early, a holiday ritual to avoid the soon-to-be rush of telephone callers for my grandmother. 


“Merry Christmas, Mommy,” I say.


“Hi, baby, Merry Christmas. Have you opened your presents?”


Wiping the sleep from my eyes, from the telephone desk Ican see the light of the Christmas tree illuminate the hallway. The telephone desk is a wooden chair with one arm flat and wide enough for the telephone to rest on. One of grandmother's starched white doilies is draped over its hardback.


“No, I just woke up.” 


“Well, let me speak to momma while you go look.”


 “Who is it?” Grandmother says, making her presence known. 


She takes a seat by the black telephone.


“Merry Christmas, Grandmomma,” I say, passing her the telephone. 


I am gone before her reply can be heard.


I stand there admiring the glow of blinking, colored lights. The tree fills me with the spirit of Christmas. “Merry Xmas” has been sprayed on the windows with a can of artificial snow. The fresh scent of pine from the newly cut tree that my grandfather had delivered last night tickles my nose. We stayed up way past late to decorate the tree with strings of popcorn and tinsel. There were no presents under the tree when I fell asleep, but the abundance of gifts now paid tribute to the fact that someone had been there. However, I don’t believe in Santa Claus.


We don't have a chimney, but better still, there's something about the perception of an old White man with a long, white beard creeping through the house as we sleep that doesn’t seem quite acceptable tome. Nevertheless, the plate of cookies that grandmother baked has been eaten, and the glass of milk has been drunk, with the customary thank-you note signed by the Jolly Fat Man himself left on the living room coffee table.


I rip open the festively wrapped bundles and packages of assorted coloring books, Crayola crayons, bags of marbles and little plastic cowboys and indians. My cousin, Alonzo, and I play with the little figures under a cluster of walnut trees in the courtyard.


And there, beneath the holiday tree, unwrapped, is just what I wanted. 


A “Have Gun Will Travel” gun set with Richard Boone’s face on the box. Inside is a cap gun and black leather holster with a black cowboy hat. My grandfather, with the help of a black stick pony that Aunt Maxine bought me, has transformed me into television's “Paladin.” Alonzo and I wanted nothing more than to be cowboys and ride our horses into the sunset.


My mama bought me lots of clothes for school and books for me to read. There are three of them, “The Little Engine That Could,” “The House That Jack Built,” and “The Chicken and The Wheat.” The same bedtime stories she used to read to me. I miss her so much. I put away the books and my feelings.


I realize there is something missing. Mother's special gift. She had promised me that there would be a special gift for only me. I had pleaded my case for a Daisy air rifle or a puppy, but my mother didn’t like dogs or guns. On my knees, I wasn't to be totally disappointed. Behind the tree my attention is captured by a large decorative box wrapped in expensive Christmas paper, with a big, beautiful bow and a card on top. It's two cap guns and a white holster. No BB gun or puppy.


“James, your mother wants to speak with you,” Grandmomma says. 


“Okay, here I come,” I say, leaving everything in disarray. 


“Thank you for the cap guns,” I say immediately into the receiver to hear my mother speak.


“You're welcome, honey. Sorry I couldn’t come for Christmas; the weather is too bad and there’s lots of snow.”


“Yeah, it snowed here, too, last night.” 


Until last night, I had never seen snow. Alonzo and I made a snowman, and we ate homemade ice cream. Grandmother had made the frozen confection from snow mixed with stirred sugar, vanilla extract, and “pet” milk.


“James, I need to tell you something very important.”


I know this is serious because my mother calls me by my given name only when I’m in trouble.


“James, I have a new husband. His name is Frank. What do you think of that?”


She pauses for a response but there isn’t one. I just shrug my shoulders, not conscious of the fact that she can’t see me.


“He loves me and wants to be your father. I want you to say hello, okay?”


Again, I nod. 


“Hey, Jay, how are you doing?” 


He mispronounces my name, I thought. 


“I’m fine.”


“Do you remember me? I came out to Granite Mountain tovisit your mother once before.”


“I think so.”


I vaguely remember he stayed late one night and missed the last bus. He had walked home all the way to North Little Rock. I had almost forgotten, it’s been such a long time ago. He is still talking, but I am not hearing what he is saying. I’m confused, and I struggle within my own thoughts. Why does he want to take my mother from me?


“Well, I’m giving the phone back to your mother,” he says. 


 I say, “Bye.” 


“See, I told you he’s nice. You’re going to really like him. I asked Maxie to help you practice writing your last name. You should be able to write it by the time school reopens.”


“I will be there come Easter break,” she says.


After making me promise to be a good boy, it’s time to hangup.


“Mommy, I love you.” 


“I love you too,” she says and hangs up.


I am dressed and outside with my white cap guns on. The sun is warm and shining brightly, and most of the snow has melted. The snowman we built is with us no more. Alonzo is here with his new red Huffy bike. It has white wall tires, chrome fenders and a seat with springs. Red, white, and blue streamers dangle from the handlebar grips, making it the prettiest bicycle I’ve ever seen. I cannot ride a two-wheeler. I climb aboard the seat and my cousin takes off like a jet. Holding onto his shirt with one hand, I blaze my cap guns into the air with the other. Around and around the courtyard we fly. 


“Man, this bike is fast,” he says. 


“Yeah, I bet it’s the fastest bike on Granite Mountain,” I tell him.


It's getting late. Our shadows have grown long and there is no snow anywhere. Alonso has to go home. I don’t know why, but I didn’t mention my mother’s marriage or my new father, but he stops and asks me, “What do you think about your new Daddy?”


That catches me by surprise, and all I manage to say is, “He’s alright, I guess.”


“How does he know these things?” I thought, as he rides off and out of the courtyard.


The kitchen has been cleaned, and Aunt Maxine with pencil and paper in hand calls me to the kitchen table. Maxie is my mother’s baby sister that graduated from high school last year.


"I promised your mother I would teach you how to write your last name before you go back to school,” she says.


I am in the first grade, and we are only out for the holiday. Sitting down to write, she spells it out. I write it until it is without a mistake, all the while thinking, “Why do I have to change my name? Wasn’t my last name good enough?”


“He didn’t even give me anything,” I thought, until I remembered the card under the Christmas tree. I ran to retrieve it. Maybe there was something special inside. I remove the card from the envelope. It is a nice Christmas card. I open it, and there is nothing inside, except for the words. I read from the card: “From your father and mother, with all of our love, signed Frank and Marie Cummins.” I started to change my thinking. Maybe he is nice after all. Frank has given me a special gift. The greatest gift a man can give a boy. His name.