Right then, soaked with champagne, Dan standing next to me with a mischievous grin on his face, my sudden surge of admiration for him blossomed into something more powerful, nearly overwhelming. The feeling was so new and unexpected I could not find the courage to express it, and besides, words of appreciation had never come easily to either of us. So we drank beer and made dinner and spoke of work and school and other harmless pleasantries. We played a game of Monopoly with his future in-laws, settling back into the rituals of good-natured competition. At one point, apropos of the coming holiday, he mentioned that he planned to take a trip over the long weekend, since he’d have Martin Luther Coon Day off. He smirked when he said it. I couldn’t believe what I’d heard: the great martyred saint of American ideals, among the highest-ranking members in my pantheon of heroes, and he’d slurred him just to show off.
I didn’t want to relinquish my upwelling of brotherly pride, so I tried to ignore him, went to the fridge for another beer. I couldn’t blame him, I figured. He was taking his cues on the postures of masculinity from the men he was hanging around at the time, men you might call, to be gracious about it, illiberal. With time and maturity he’d see the folly of such crudity, hopefully sooner rather than later.
I left the next morning on the long drive home. His fiancée called off their wedding not long afterward, a fact relayed to me by our mother, so our plans to gather as a family that summer in Minnesota were scrapped. Pretty soon he had a new girlfriend, an older woman, still married but separated from her husband, and all thoughts of a wedding were forgotten.
Later I came across a letter my mother had sent me that autumn, in which she’d written, “Dan is still waiting for you to call him back. He called you during a football game, and you said you’d call him at halftime.” The plaintive tone of her note pierced me, and the evening came back to me with awful clarity: my watching a Monday Night Football game at home in Minneapolis, half drunk, answering the phone and wanting nothing to do with him, making a lousy excuse to keep the conversation short, saying I’d call back later. It was the only time he called me over the final year and a half of his life, and I never did return the call, for reasons that remain obscure to me, although they must have had something to do with the words Martin Luther Coon Day. That was the last thing I had of him, and I came to hate him for it. Hated myself, too, for though I’d wanted to bask in the purity of my rediscovered love for him, he’d muddied the water with one off-color comment, for which I could not find it in myself to forgive him.
That was January of 1995. On June 2, 1996, I arrived in New York for a summer internship with a magazine, a final notch on my resume before I graduated with a degree in print journalism. I’d been in the city barely twenty-four hours, bags not yet unpacked, when my father called to say my brother had shot himself with a semiautomatic assault rifle.