Dream On by Shannon Brazil

Editor Matty Byloos, Music, December 14th, 2016

"Nobody in my whole family ever, ever spoke of Uncle again."

Shannon Brazil Essay Nailed


Memory becomes its own living thing through the years, the way it changes and grows with you until you don’t know anymore what’s memory and what’s dream, until the dream is all you have left of a person.

Christmas night, our apartment in East Boston. A blue album cover with funny longhair guys on the front and a word I didn’t know across the top: A E R O S M I T H. In red letters. The empty sleeve on an orange shag rug next to the record player in the living room. While the whole extended family was up late, eating, drinking, and shout-talking broken Italian around my Nonni’s kitchen table, Uncle lay quiet with me on the yellow couch listening to a scratchy voice rock n’roll singer.

I was seven. Uncle was twenty.

My body snuggled into his, one of his arms behind his head, the other around me, big hand on top of my blonde hair, soft. We watched the lights from the fake Christmas tree blink patterns across the living room. Red, green, blue, pink spiderweb snowflakes on the ceiling, falling in our eyes, and on the white of Uncle’s tank top.

Every day of his life in my dream memory, even snow days and nights, Uncle wears a white ribbed cotton tank top. He’s wearing that tank top in the photo on the card that reads: “In Loving Memory of Gary A. Brunette”He wore it that last Christmas too. My cheek on the tiny lines of cotton, the up down of his chest. The scent of fresh laundry, gas from his silver flip lighter, and the smoke of the funny cigarettes Uncle rolled himself from a heap of smelly green.

We watched those lights not because of the funny cigarette-rolls that made Uncle’s eyes sleepy red, and his voice dreamy slow like the singer on the record. We watched them because it was magic. Because the patterns really did match the music. Sad guitar pushing colors around the living room just for us.

The music made pictures in my head, but I didn’t understand what they were, why they were. Orange shag. Orange red sun in my mind.

“What does he mean, Uncle?”I said. “Dusk to dawn?”

Uncle’s voice quiet as a whisper, “Fast,”he said. “He means it went by too fast.”Uncle’s words were slow.

Too many questions in the words. What went by too fast? What books is he talking about? What are Sages? If the good lord takes you away, does that mean you go to heaven? Does everybody go to heaven when they die?

Uncle’s eyes were closed, a million black eyelashes. His lips, darker and fatter than pink.

“Shhhh,”he said  “Listen to the song. Go to sleep.”


I never could picture Uncle as an old man. I just couldn’t imagine him with Gramp’s gray scraggly beard, same yellow around the mouth as his smoking fingers. There were no lines on Uncle’s face except for his straight pointy nose. Beautiful smooth skin, brown from sun, browner against the white tank top, even in winter.

Uncle’s feet, at the end of the yellow couch, swayed to the song, and the singer cried long and loud…all the things come back to you.

Sometimes I forget to breathe when I think of that Christmas, how safe I felt when I was seven years old on that couch, how it felt like those lights and the song were just for us. The only two people left in the whole world.

Uncle was right. It went by too fast. Winter to spring, spring to summer, the year I was seven. The way the apartment became a yelling-place. Not talk-yelling, but yell-yelling. Nonni, Gramp, Auntie, my parents shouting angry words at Uncle. Words like Grass, which shouldn’t have been bad since there wasn’t much of it in the city where we lived. Words like Angel Dust. Which could only have been sparkles from the sky. I stood on the night porch, the piazza, my Nonni called it, hoping the angels would dust me with sparkles too.

My mom and dad said I couldn’t hang with Uncle anymore until he cleaned up. But I snuck with him in his bedroom, and he was soapy clean with the flip lighter smell on his skin and the funny green smoke in his brown hair. Uncle on his bed, he stretched the giant headphones apart and smooshed the side of my cheekbone to his, then he put one headphone on one of my ears, and the other on his so we could listen to the music together. Even without the lights blinking on the ceiling, the song felt important. Scratchy voice singing dream on about three hundred times before the over-and-over sound at the end. An ambulance sound.

The last time I saw Uncle it was almost fall. He grabbed his jean jacket, and ran fast down the stairs of our apartment. Our entire family screamed behind him, a confusion of voices shouting over one another.

“What are you doing, Gary? Stay home! Those kids are no good!”

The front door slammed open and shut, and this was bad, and my heart wasn’t right so I joined in, “Wait, Uncle! You said you’d babysit sit me! Stay home!”But I didn’t know how to shout that loud without crying at the same time so I cried with my whole body and all of my eyes, “Don’t go, Uncle! Please don’t go!”

And then there were hands under my arms lifting me high, my father’s hands. He put me down on the yellow couch. Everyone sat quiet, worried. They stared at the TV, but they weren’t watching the show. I don’t know why I cried so hard that night, there were so many fights back then it was hard to know what was the matter besides everything. I just knew I loved it always better when Uncle was home. That’s why I cried.

Maybe part of my kid-self knew that Uncle would never come home again.


Shot. In the head, I think. Drugs. An argument. Ran his mouth off at the no-good people. I don’t know for sure, because after that, the apartment went silent black. And after the longest long winter with the most-most snow, we moved away to a place with less cement, more grass. A house with blue sky and white clouds all stacked up like volcano puffs. Whiter than Uncle’s tank top ever was. Whiter than in the picture that reads, “In Loving Memory of Gary A. Brunette.”

Nobody in my whole family ever, ever spoke of Uncle again. Too painful, I guess.  But how does a seven year old kid process grief? What happens to our memories? They all blend together until you don’t know if they were ever real of if they were always a dream. How does a whole family never talk about him again? Son, brother, Uncle. Gary. He lived. So pretty with his black eyelashes, and his sleepy voice, and the way he always said, “Shhhh, listen to the song.”

Those clouds over the new house, strange and changing all the time, I said to them, “Uncle, if you’re there, send me a sign. Please.”  I said it to the oak trees in my lonely backyard. I said it to the squirrels and the crows. Over and over again, more times than Steven Tyler ever sang in all the Dream Ons in all his life.

But there was never a sign that anyone ever heard me.

I said it a thousand times alone in my new room in my new house where Uncle had never been. And I didn’t understand why I could still see his face there, the straight line of his nose, why I could still feel his skin on mine, and smell his t-shirt, clear as wishes. Why would the good lord take him away and not let him tell me that he was OK, that he made it to the clouds, to where heaven was supposed to be?

I got so used to saying, “Uncle, show me a sign,”and never hearing back, I hardly noticed it the night I crawled into my old new bed. Force of habit, Show me a sign, Uncle. But that night, in the dark of my old new room, I turned on my nightstand radio, put the headphones over my ears, and there it was… Joe Perry’s sad guitar, Christmas lights in my eyes, Steven Tyler’s voice, always young.

Uncle’s voice quiet as a whisper.

“Shhhhh…listen to the song.”

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Header image courtesy of Robert Monaghan. To view his photo essay, “The Exhaust Clears,” go here.

Shannon Brazil Essay Nailed MagazineShannon Brazil is an award-winning playwright whose plays have been produced in New York and Los Angeles. She’s the recipient of a Literary Arts Special Fellowship for Women Writers, a devotee of Dangerous Writing, and a member of the Corporeal Writing Revolution. Shannon is currently working on her first novel. She is originally from Boston. Author Photo: Jill Zahm.



Matty Byloos

Matty Byloos is Co-Publisher and a Contributing Editor for NAILED. He was born 7 days after his older twin brother, Kevin Byloos. He is the author of 2 books, including the novel in stories, ROPE ('14 SDP), and the collection of short stories, Don't Smell the Floss ('09 Write Bloody Books).