Afterward, Darrell Garrett was consumed by his tongue’s ragged inventory (two broken teeth; jaw swollen, not broken; mouth filling with blood) when the strangest idea emerged from the cymbal crash in his head: There should be a word for the thing he’d just experienced, a word for the simultaneous revelation of thought and action, the feeling of naming something at the precise moment it occurs.
He could still feel Lisa’s new boyfriend standing over him, breathing through gritted teeth. “Next time I’ll shoot you with it, you fucker.”
Probably there was a French word, or more likely, German. Germans had words for abstractions like that.
Wait. His tongue had missed something: a tiny hole in his left cheek, as if someone had jabbed through with a pencil. He lay face down, curled in a ball on his knees, his arms covering his head, spraying blood as he breathed through his nose.
Pistol-whipped. That was the phrase. And it had arrived at the exact moment as the action it described — a synaptic tick after Darrell first struggled to name the thing, with Jason lunging forward and Darrell registering relief at not being shot at the same moment he tried to remember the name of that thing, a phrase he couldn’t come up with until Jason’s arm came forward, swinging the big handgun, and — bang: it hit him. Both ways.
“Leave him alone, Jason. He’s done.” Even curled up over his battered face, Darrell was lightened by the sound of Lisa speaking. There was an edge to her voice, though, and Darrell wondered for a moment what was wrong. He’d been trained to worry about her moods. But he knew what was wrong with Lisa: He was wrong.
So this was a bad idea, coming here. He could see it now, just as he could see that the note she’d left was not an opening, a plea for him to finally show some spontaneity — what did she call it? That’s what he’d imagined he was doing as he drove over: being spontaneous. Spontaneously driving over and pounding on her door. Spontaneously saying to Jason: I need to see Lisa. She’s coming home with me.
“He’s not moving, Jason. Maybe we should call an ambulance.”
An ambulance sounded good to Darrell, Lisa watching him loaded on a stretcher and driven off like a World War I hero. He would decline any pain medication and stare through the back doors as the medics shook their heads at his courage and the ambulance pulled away and the lights rolled over Lisa’s tortured face.
Darrell reached into his coat to make sure his Group Health card was in his wallet. It was. Things were definitely looking up. He felt better. One thing about pain: it both redeemed and sobered. Probably a German word for that, too.
They decided against the ambulance and drove him to the emergency room in Jason’s pickup. It was a big white passenger truck with four doors and a step on the side. Darrell tripped climbing in and felt like a kid scrambling up in the narrow back seat. Lisa packed his face with towels so he wouldn’t bleed on the buff leather interior. He sat back there alone, like their child, watching the backs of their heads as tidal streetlights rolled through the interior of the truck and country music thrummed quietly on stereo speakers behind his head. Lisa’s long hair was pulled into a ponytail and he could just see the curve of her jaw, the tip of her nose. She glanced quickly at Jason, then back to the road. Jason’s hair was squared at the neck. Darrell knew she liked that kind of haircut but his barber wouldn’t do it; he said Darrell had the wrong head for it.
He hoped to get a moment alone with Lisa at the hospital, but Jason pulled up to the automatic double doors and left the truck running.
“Give Lisa your keys,” Jason said, without looking back. “We’ll get your car and drop it off in the parking lot. I’ll leave the keys under the mat.”
Darrell felt in his coat, found his keys and handed them to Lisa.
“What about the towels?” Darrell asked, but what came out sounded like “Whabouda Fowth?”
“Keep ‘em,” Jason said.
Darrell watched the truck pull away. “Mewwy Fifmuff,” he said.
I need to come by to get my stuff. I can wait until you’re back in class if you want. I hope you have a good Christmas.
He turned the note over. How had he read any hope into that? It wasn’t a note of atonement or apology. She just wanted her stuff. But which stuff? She already had her clothes and her bathroom supplies and her kitchen things.
She and Jason had grabbed as much as they could carry the day she’d suddenly moved out, while Darrell was taking an Immigration Law final. Did Lisa want those things they’d bought together: CDs, dishes, the laptop? Did she consider these her “stuff?”
There were some obvious things. Darrell looked around his apartment: the wood floors were covered by two throw rugs Lisa had picked out, on her coffee table were the Pottery Barn candlesticks he’d given her for her last birthday, along with two small photo albums filled with pictures of her nieces and nephews. But Darrell knew what Lisa really wanted — her father’s sea chest, crammed with a hundred little things she’d been collecting for eight years in anticipation of her wedding.
Darrell had assumed that it would be their wedding, though he never got around to asking her. They’d lived together about eighteen months when Darrell began watching for a signal from her that he should ask. But the signal never came. This was the recurring trouble in their relationship, one that she saw as catastrophic and that he saw as simply a reflection of their different personalities.
“You’re too passive, too logical,” she would say. “You never sweep me off my feet. You’re not romantic or intimate. A woman wants a man who takes charge.”
Every time she said this, Darrell would buy a dozen roses or some lingerie, or he’d rent a hotel room, and Lisa would be happy for a few days. When she’d get mad the next time about his passivity, Darrell would mention the lingerie or the flowers, but Lisa said that it didn’t count because he was just reacting to her asking him to be less passive, which was another kind of passivity. Sometimes it would occur to him to be more assertive in between these episodes, and he’d sit in the law library staring off into space, imagining scenarios in which he marched into the call center and carried her outside to a waiting limo. But he never did this and she always chided him for not being assertive at the very moment he was trying to figure out how to assert himself.
That afternoon, his mouth still aching from the oral surgery, Darrell packed her belongings in his car and drove to a pawnshop near his apartment, called EZ Pawn 1. The woman working was Chinese-American. Darrell thought she had a nice ass. The pawn shop was full of men last-minute Christmas shopping, hefting used X-Boxes and Play Stations, testing boom boxes and power tools.
The woman with the ass looked over Darrell’s stuff and asked if he was selling or trading. He thought about saying that he would trade the stuff for a date, but it seemed like a corny line to use on a pawnshop employee. Anyway, he thought she might be with the other guy in the shop — big tattooed arms — and Darrell didn’t want another beating. He said he’d just take cash.
She took some time looking the stuff over, and only paused to glance up when a couple of kids came into the store. Finally, she went to the till and pulled out the money. She gave Darrell three bucks for the rugs, two for the candlesticks, five for the coffee table and fifteen for the sea chest. When she asked if Darrell wanted a claim ticket, he said no thanks, he wouldn’t be reclaiming these things.
Afterward, he dropped Lisa’s photo albums off at Jason’s house, on the porch. He wasn’t without feelings.
Darrell went to his grandparents’ house for Christmas dinner. He told his father and stepmother that he’d been beaten up by a burglar.
“When?” His father tilted his head back to see through his bifocals.
“Four days ago.”
“Was Lisa there?”
“No. She was gone already.” Darrell had told his parents that Lisa went home to her parents’ house in Fullerton for Christmas.
“Jesus H. You should sue somebody.”
“Who am I going to sue, Dad?”
“Don’t ask me. You’re the one in law school.”
“You want me to sue someone because I got mugged?”
“People sue over everything now. Was the burglar smoking? Sue the tobacco companies.”
“I’m studying international law, Dad. Where am I supposed to file this landmark tobacco mugging case? The Hague?”
Darrell’s stepmother Barb was leaning forward, staring at him. Her fork rested against the corner of her mouth. “I didn’t read anything about it in the paper,” she said.
“They don’t write about things like that in the paper,” Darrell said.
Because it was a holiday, Barb was wearing pleated stretch pants — which Darrell thought were stretched beyond the manufacturer’s intentions — and a big black sweater studded with red beads and white sparkles in a pattern that was supposed to be a reindeer but looked like a St. Bernard with a boozy nose. “There was that lady who was in her bathtub when a colored man broke in through her window and tried to rape her. They wrote about that in the paper.”
“Nobody tried to rape Darrell,” his father said without looking up from his plate.
“What about that young couple who were house-sitting and that man came in, tied them up and set them on fire. The newspaper wrote about that.”
“Goddamn it, Barb,” Darrell’s father said. “Nobody set him on fire.”
Darrell’s grandmother sat with the same heap of sweet potatoes on her fork through all of this, open-mouthed, looking from Barb to Darrell’s father and back again. At the head of the table, in a flannel shirt and upswooped gray hair, Darrell’s grandfather ignored them all, chewing and glancing sideways at the muted basketball game on the living room TV.
Darrell ran his tongue over the rough stitches and capped teeth. Advil had done away with most of the throbbing, but if he pushed on the stitches in his cheek from the inside he could make his eyes roll back. He wondered if he pushed hard enough if he might cause himself to pass out.
“What about the old man who got lost in his car and the drifter found him and locked him in a basement and used his credit cards and starved him to death? They wrote about that.”
“Nobody starved him, Barb,” said Darrell’s father. But this seemed to give him an idea. “Maybe you could sue the newspaper for not writing about you.”
After dinner, Darrell sat in the living room with his grandfather. His father snored on the couch. His grandfather was eating a slice of pie.
“You and your girlfriend break up?”
“Yeah,” Darrell said. “How’d you know?”
His grandfather didn’t look away from the TV. “You said she went home for Christmas. No way a girl like that goes home alone. That girl would make you drive her to hell.”
It was halftime and the network was doing a Christmas piece about a professional basketball player whose grandmother had died a few weeks earlier. The player was driving around in a gold Escalade, talking about how his Grand-mama had raised him by herself and how he cut off his braids for the rest of the season in memory of her. More than anything, he said, Grand-mama would want his team to return to the Eastern Conference finals and for him to get a long-term contract.
“Lisa got a new boyfriend,” Darrell told his grandfather. “She said I wasn’t assertive enough. I went over to their house to be assertive but her boyfriend answered the door with a gun and hit me in the face with it.”
Darrell’s grandfather didn’t say anything.
“So I took all her stuff to a pawn shop,” Darrell said, thinking it might show how he’d gotten even, or had stood up for himself.
His grandfather took a bite of pie. “That make you feel better?”
“No.” Darrell was ashamed, but he wasn’t entirely sure why. “Not really.”
Darrell’s father snored on the couch.
His grandfather looked over his shoulder, to make sure the women weren’t listening. “C’mere,” he said. Darrell leaned in. “Listen to me. It don’t matter if you get married or if you’re a bachelor your whole life, you’re all alone. Nobody can ever get in.” He tapped the side of his head with his fork and a piece of piecrust stuck to his wild silver hair.
“But that also means nobody can hurt you. See? So be mad. Be happy. Be sad …” he shook his head wildly from side to side. “It don’t matter. Other people … fuck ‘em. They don’t exist. So be mad at yourself.” He tapped his head with the fork again and the piecrust fell to the carpet between the chairs.
They continued leaning toward each other for a moment. “Do you know,” Darrell asked, “if there’s a word for when you think of something right as it happens? Like you can’t think of the word rain and right when a drop hits your head, you think: Rain. Is there a word for that? Like onomatopoeia or déjà vu? Or one of those German words for weird feelings. Like schadenfreude?”
“I’ve never heard of such a word.”
“Well,” Darrell said, “there ought to be one.”
His grandfather settled back in his chair. “Nah. There are enough words.”
The day after Christmas, Darrell drove to EZ Pawn 1 and asked the girl with the ass if he could buy Lisa’s stuff back. They found the candlesticks, which she’d marked up to fifteen bucks, and the rugs, which were now ten each, but the coffee table and the sea chest had been sold. He found the majority of items that were inside the chest — china, cloth napkins, picture frames, stationery and doilies — in various places throughout the store, marked up with outrageous prices written on strips of masking tape.
“I didn’t think you’d sell my stuff right away. I thought there would be some kind of grace period.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know, just a period of time in which people can change their minds, buy their stuff back.”
“You said you didn’t want a ticket.”
“Well … I didn’t know you’d sell everything right away.”
“You see a sign that reads storage shed? It’s a pawnshop, dude.”
Darrell tried to buy back the candlesticks and rugs and the contents of the chest for what she’d given him plus five bucks for her trouble, but the girl said no. She finally said she’d give him two rugs for the price of one, the candlesticks and the rugs for twenty-five total. Twenty more than she’d paid him for them. She didn’t mention the contents of the trunk.
“You’re robbing me,” Darrell said.
“These are nice rugs,” she said.
“I know they’re nice rugs,” Darrell said. “I sold them to you two days ago.”
“These candlesticks are from Pottery Barn,” she said.
“You gave me two bucks for them,” Darrell said.
“Twenty-two for all of it.” The girl gestured to the guy with tattooed biceps taking a bicycle from a pregnant woman. “He won’t let me go below twenty-two.”
“What about the stuff from the chest?” Darrell asked.
The girl threw up her arms. “Look. That’s a hundred bucks worth of shit, easy. I can’t give it to you for less than fifty.”
“But it was free to you. It was inside the chest.”
“Look, I can’t go lower than forty.”
Darrell bitterly agreed and she went to gather his stuff. Her ass was too wide, on second thought — saddlebaggy. His hand shook as he peeled the bills from his wallet — all of the Christmas money he’d gotten from his grandparents. He held up a ten. “Listen,” Darrell said to the girl, “I have to get that sea chest back. It’s my girlfriend’s and I shouldn’t have sold it. Do you know who bought it?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
Darrell pressed the ten into her hand. “Please.” He turned his head so she could see the stitches in his face. “It’s Christmas.”
Darrell parked in front of Val’s Anteeks and Collectabulls. Vintage clothing was draped over pale mannequins in the front window. When he opened the door, a cow doorbell mooed. The wooden floor beneath his feet sagged and creaked. Val specialized in furniture set in odd little tableaus, too tight for actual use, and covered with odd knickknacks, but strangely complete — as if the owners might come back any moment and reclaim their lives: a little art-deco bedroom set here, a pioneer kitchen over there, oak rambler dining room set in the middle. If he had to weigh the room, Darrell would’ve guessed it’d come out about 40 percent anteeks and 60 percent collectabulls.
There was a glass counter with jewelry beneath it. Next to the counter, a display had old binoculars, a musket and some crackly maps sitting smack on top of Lisa’s sea trunk. A price tag was looped around one of its handles. With dread, Darrell bent over and read: “One of a Kind! Certified 150 years old. $1,400.”
That’s when a droopy-eyed man in his fifties came from a curtained back room. He wore corduroy pants and matching corduroy jacket. “What can I do for you?”
Darrell stood dumbly, staring at the sea chest.
“Can I help you, son?”
Darrell looked up and felt, finally, after everything. beaten. He tried to explain how this trunk had belonged to his girlfriend, how she’d used it to collect stuff for her marriage, how Darrell had been afraid of commitment and had relied on his emotionless, passive personality as an excuse to never ask her to marry him. How he’d spent his whole life drifting and here he was, 29, and alone.
“It’s like I’ve been waiting for my life to happen,” Darrell said. “I don’t want to do that anymore. Do you know what I mean, Mr.–”
The man had thick black eyebrows that rose to two points, an inch apart, in the center of his head. He said, “Val. Sure, I know what you mean.”
Darrell explained how this guy Jason had begun asking Lisa out and how they’d carried on behind Darrell’s back for two months. How one day, two weeks ago, he came home early and found Jason and Lisa having rough sex in the bed that he and Lisa shared.
Val winced. “By rough, you mean–”
“Look, I don’t want to get into the details.”
“Sure, sure.” Val was clearly disappointed.
Afterward, there had been yelling and Jason had gathered his clothes and left. Darrell stormed around slamming things, but he and Lisa finally sat down to talk, and then stayed up all night until she finally apologized and said that she would leave if he wanted her to go.
“What did you say?”
“I told her it was up to her,” Darrell said. “I said that I could forgive her if she wanted to stay, but it was up to her. Next day … all of her stuff was gone.”
Darrell had sat around moping until he realized his mistake. Then, a few days later, she left him a note saying she wanted her stuff. He read the note over and over, got drunk and drove over there to get her back. But Jason answered the door with a big gun and he pistol-whipped Darrell with it. He showed Val the stitches in his cheek. Then Darrell explained how he’d sold her stuff to a pawnshop in anger and now regretted it. “I’m ready to change,” he said. “I don’t want to take the easy way all the time.” The trunk was the most important of Lisa’s belongings, he said, and he’d sold it for fifteen lousy bucks. Fifteen bucks. Now he needed to buy it back.
“What kind of gun was it?” Val’s big eyebrows nearly reached his hair.
“What?” Darrell asked.
“You said you got pistol-whipped. I was just wondering what kind of gun.”
Darrell stared at him. “I don’t … I don’t know. It was a big, shiny gun.”
“Round, or squarish?”
“Round, I guess.”
“Like a cowboy gun? Or the kind Dirty Harry carried.”
Val cocked his head. “Yeah, that sounds like a revolver.”
“Okay,” Darrell said.
“Yeah if the bullets go in a revolving cylinder, it’s technically a revolver. A pistol usually has a clip, like your nine-milimeter.” He shrugged. “Most people use the words interchangeably, but if you’re being technical, it’s not really pistol-whipping to hit someone with a revolver.”
“Let me see.” Val reached out and grabbed Darrell’s chin, turned him so that he could see the cut on his face. “Was it deep? The wound?”
“All the way through.”
“No shit?” He let go of Darrell’s face. “Must’ve hurt.”
“Look,” Darrell said, “I know you probably paid a lot for this trunk and obviously, it’s worth more than–”
Val took off his corduroy jacket and began unbuttoning his shirt.
Darrell took a step back.
Val bent forward and pointed to a round, black scar on his shoulder. Darrell stepped closer. It looked like a small black knothole.
“I was living with this gal six years ago. Real sweet, but kinda mousy. One day, this big retarded-looking prick shows up at my door and asks if Marilyn is there. I don’t know any Marilyn, I say. This asshole pulls out a fucking Magnum — just like that asshole hit you with — only this asshole shoots me with it. Right in the shoulder. No warning. Nothing. Just bam! I didn’t even have time to flinch. You know? I was in the hospital for a month. There was a big write-up in the paper.”
Darrell shifted his weight. “They write stories about stuff like that?”
“Sure they do.” Val shook his head. “Christ, I replayed that thing in my mind for weeks afterward. I still don’t like to answer the door.”
“So … what was the deal with Marilyn?”
Val stared at him as if he’d missed the point. “I don’t know. It was like a wrong number. She was with some other guy.”
“Huh,” Darrell said, unsure what to make of any of this. “Huh,” he said again.
Val buttoned his shirt. “Yeah,” he said, “That’s a sad story you got to tell, but trust me kid, you got the sweet end of that gun.”
Darrell drove away with the sea trunk. In the end, Val gave it to him for the thirty bucks he paid for it at the pawnshop, only twice what Darrell had gotten. “It’d probably just sit here gathering dust,” Val said.
Darrell tried to give him ten more for his trouble, but Val shook his head. “We got a forty-eight hour return policy here. People make mistakes. You should get a period of…” He wasn’t able to think of the word.
“Grace?” Darrell asked.
“Anyway,” Val said. “I’d hate to profit from a man improving himself.”
And so Darrell drove home, his car full of Lisa’s belongings. He went into his apartment, sat at the table and wrote a long note. He apologized to Lisa for not asking her to marry him. He drank a beer. He wrote that she was right: he’d been passive and logical his whole life and he was tired of it. He said that his grandfather had convinced him that he wasn’t really mad at her, or even at Jason, that he was mad at himself for lacking courage and spontaneity. This was about him, not her. At the end of the note, he promised that he’d never bother them again, that this was it — he considered them even after tonight — and he extended his wishes that they be very happy together. He read the note and decided that his grandfather was right; there were more than enough words.
He sat in his apartment watching TV until after midnight. Then he drove across town. Jason lived in the front half of a duplex in a neighborhood of 70s ranches spread out in a neighborhood of cul-de-sacs, like spilled noodles, on this hill in the suburbs. Jason’s white pickup truck sat in the driveway.
The lights inside were off. Lisa liked to go to bed early. It used to be a point of contention the way Darrell would get up after sex to go watch TV or study. She always wanted him to stay in bed. She liked to spoon after sex, to cuddle his front to her back. She said it felt made her feel dirty when he left after sex. Apparently, Jason liked to spoon.
It was cold outside; his breath escaped in short puffs of steam. First, Darrell slid the note to Lisa in Jason’s mailbox. Then he went back to his car and carried the sea chest by the handles to the pickup and set it in back, on top of Jason’s white bed-liner. He stacked Lisa’s belongings in it carefully, trying to remember how she’d had the doilies and candle sticks and picture frames. When the sea chest was full, he closed it and threw the rugs on top. He stood staring at the sea chest.
Then he returned to his car trunk and took out the can of gasoline. He shook the can over the truck bed, dousing everything. Then he lit a match and dropped it on top. The gas arced and the rugs began to curl up on the edges, and then the chest sparked and the old wood began to burn like a yule log. After a minute, flames were dancing two feet above the cab of the truck.
Darrell returned to his car, started it, and lay on the horn for a moment, until he saw a light come on upstairs. Darrell rolled down his window: “How’s the spooning, you lousy son of a bitch!”
He backed up and drove away slowly, watching the red glow in his rearview. He had the urge to go back and yell something else — You can’t pistol-whip someone with a revolver! But he didn’t want to ruin the moment, the quiet peace of being in a moving car at night, the neighborhood falling away from as he curled onto the freeway.