I found the pistol when I was twelve, in the cedar-plank chest that had long fascinated me, with its antiquated muzzle-loading muskets and cap-and-ball revolvers, rusted spurs and bayonets, embossed sabers and powder flasks. Like the house itself, the assortment had been handed down or left behind for generations — unsolicited and rarely inventoried, relegated to the back of the house with outmoded suitcases, heat-warped photo albums, and bankers boxes full of National Geographic magazines. The pistol was a semiautomatic, .45-caliber M1911 Colt, a model formerly issued to American servicemen. Because it appeared in the chest not long after my grandfather had died, and the holster seemed to match the one he wore in a photo from World War II, I gathered that it had been his.
Over the next few years I would periodically go to the back of the house, take the pistol from the chest, and slip it free of its veined leather holster. I’d pass my fingers over the textured wooden grip, the UNITED STATES PROPERTY inscription, and marvel at the efficiency of the design — just springs, pins, and levers. There were no bullets, and that was just as well: I didn’t want to fire the gun, only to admire and hold it.
As I grew up, I never forgot about the pistol, and after graduating college, when I took a job as a caretaker on a remote apple orchard, I decided it might be put to practical use — a just-in-case instrument of personal protection. Though I’d never fired a handgun before, a visit to the library showed me how to load the clip and chamber a round. I didn’t think to research the rounds themselves. When I stopped at a bait shop on the way out of Charleston to buy a box, the clerk asked me if I wanted “hollow points” or “FMJs.” I said I didn’t know, whichever were cheaper. The clerk looked askance at me for a moment, then rang up the purchase.
Early in my stay at the orchard I had a go with the pistol, partly out of curiosity but also to get a feel for its action. For my target I chose a toppled poplar stump behind a grove of apple trees. I inserted the clip and tamped it in with the base of my palm, then racked the slide, took aim, and squeezed. The power of the blast — my arm flung sideways — stunned me, and the slug traveled well wide of the stump. I moved closer, braced the pistol with two hands like I had seen in movies, and squeezed off three rounds with the tentative, uneven cadence of a dog barking at the dark: BLAHP. . . . . . . BLAHP. . . . BLAHP. The first two shots went wide, two tiny gusts through the pokeberry, but the third hit its mark. Emboldened, I fired off the last four rounds in rapid succession, then approached the stump.
Pocked with warped lead, the poplar grain looked all wrong — degraded, violated. Standing there, my ears ringing, I felt not empowered but ashamed, foolish. Who did I think I was? What did I think I was doing? Absent some kind of emergency, I would not do this again.
Throughout my twenties, as I moved from place to place and job to job — framing crews, trawlers, a traveling circus — the pistol went with me. It didn’t take up much space; like a spare watchband or keychain, it lay in the top drawer of the dresser, behind the socks and handkerchiefs. Maybe it offered a vague sense of security — against what or whom, I could not say. Outwardly life was good. No catastrophic car wrecks, no booze-soaked brawls, no cancer. Even the dog I got — a big, floppy-eared sweetheart I named Sut — turned out uncommonly good. He was cheerful and easygoing, my regular companion to neighborhood bars, backyard barbecues, and work sites. Still, there was no harm in having the pistol around, just in case.
When there was trouble to contend with, it struck from within. It was shapeless, erratic, not something a person could take aim at. It had a name, this trouble, but because the name was also used to describe how sports fans felt when their team lost the playoffs, or to suggest a low mood that might be cured by a good workout or a cup of soup, I was reluctant to claim it. The D-word was grossly inadequate. Even as a malady exhaustively defined in medical literature, a sickness that had ravaged the lives of numerous kin, the word had the ring of a first-world indulgence, a kind of luxury. I followed the news. I knew what was going down in Juárez and Mogadishu. What right had I to complain? That’s all this was — a complaint.
In a way the pistol complemented this posture, enforced it. A man with a pistol is concerned with demonstrable dangers in the physical world. A man with a pistol has a pistol, not a problem.
Sometime in my mid to late twenties, the trouble I had never wanted to name or claim grew bolder, hungrier, harder to shrug off. Where before it had seemed to stalk me from the shadows, it would now spring, knock me down, and stand slavering over me. These episodes included a thrumming at the base of my skull, like my brain pressing against my cranium. The sensation would intensify as the day progressed, until by night it revved so fiercely that I often found myself cinching a rolled-up undershirt around my temples like a tourniquet. Sut tended to draw close during these madcap spells, as if he knew I wasn’t well, but there was only so much his presence could do. At some point, lying in the predawn hours with my brain rattling and burning, I began to think there was a use for the pistol in the drawer after all.
It started as a proposition, a simple What if? considered but not elaborated upon. At first I did not go so far as to picture the pistol in the drawer. It was the idea of the pistol in the drawer that interested me. The idea was palliative, a way to muffle for a moment the frenzied rattle and roar of my brain.
There is always that, I began to think. That is always there.
The thought itself spooked me into finally seeking some help. Not from a psychiatrist or a therapist, mind you, but rather from a local doctor who was said to be loose with the script pad. A five-to-ten-minute conversation was usually enough to get a prescription for the antidepressant du jour, and on those few occasions when I committed myself to a prescription long enough to refill it, a quick call to the doctor’s receptionist typically sufficed. Such was my approach to a sickness that had already killed two cousins and an uncle.
I had once hoped not to have to fall back on the cliché of grad school — real writers didn’t, I thought — but I was almost thirty now, my youthful dreams of literary triumph bumping up hard against reality. When the University of Florida MFA program offered me a plum deal — all expenses paid and time to write in exchange for light teaching work — I was hard-pressed to refuse it. Before moving to Gainesville, I dropped by the family home to collect some odds and ends. It was as good a time as any to return the pistol to its former place, but the thought never occurred to me.
I arrived at school in high spirits, stabilized by the medication I was taking and animated by some recent news: a well-regarded New York agent was preparing to send a manuscript of mine out to the bigger publishers. After years of rejections, false starts, rewrites, and revisions, my efforts looked set to pay off. In Gainesville my work was admired by other writers. A public reading at the local bookstore was well received, not least by a bright, freckled young undergrad named Claudia, whom I soon started dating.
It was all rather marvelous. I felt confident, energized. If my enthusiasm had something to do with the medication, I was too caught up in the heady rush of recognition to appreciate that. I didn’t need to find a local professional to oversee the prescription. I didn’t need to familiarize myself with the university’s mental-health facilities. What I needed to do — what I did do — was begin weaning myself off my current medication.
The danger of pegging your value as a human being to external circumstances seems obvious. A counselor, had I ever seen fit to talk to one, might have impressed upon me the importance of distinguishing between the world’s estimation of the writing I produced and my own estimation of who I was. We might have worked on building a baseline ballast of self-respect to help keep me righted. As it was, when the externals came together so spectacularly that fall, I hitched myself to them with glee.
But that spring, with the casually prescribed pharmaceutical long since washed out of my system, the scaffolding began to fall out from under me. In March the well-regarded New York agent reported that she had not been able to find a home for the manuscript. She was terribly sorry, she’d had high hopes, but she would be stepping aside. This, just as a fellow student and good friend got word from his own agent that the esteemed literary publisher FSG was interested in his debut story collection. My friend’s good news turned all of the program’s attention toward him and his work. I desperately wanted to be happy for him, I pretended to be happy for him, but the timing crushed me. His victory was another measure of my defeat.
In late spring the program’s attention turned to another, even brighter star, so bright as to actually be courted — brought to town and publicly wined and dined — for a prestigious new scholarship. A tall, handsome Virginian, the candidate was said to already be publishing pieces in the bigger magazines. “He’s gorgeous and brilliant!” a classmate swooned. The reading he gave at the local bookstore was wickedly funny and smart, but really it was his cool confidence, his apparent ease with himself, that most undid me. Whatever else I accomplished in life, however successful I might somehow manage to become, I was sure I would never know what it meant to possess such poise.
As if to drive the point home, in June, Claudia moved to Paris and started seeing a film-director sort who liked to take her zooming through Montmartre on his motorbike. I had been cavalier about the relationship, even dismissive — just another feather in my richly feathered cap. Younger and deeply wounded by my treatment of her, she was not above sharing the details of her new life with me. Older and deeply repentant, I was not above tormenting myself with them.
These are not grave emergencies. They are ordinary setbacks that might eventually recede unremarkably into the past. But that presumes we are dealing with a well mind, a mind wired to defend rather than destroy itself.
Through June I am still able to go through the social and scholastic motions, but I am rapidly retreating, the cheerful engagement that once charmed my peers giving way to a flat detachment that repels them. When it comes time to teach summer school, my brain is a mess, my classes an embarrassment. In lectures I lose myself midsentence. It is then, when I am struggling, that students invariably perk up and pay attention, twenty faces looking to me to pull it together, which only compounds the issue.
On the inside things are getting noisier, the thrumming in my skull ever more strident. By night it reaches its ugly crescendo, a jackhammer rattle that finds me again tying an undershirt around my head, trying to still the storm. Sut starts sleeping in the kitchen, on the cool linoleum, away from me.
I start thinking of the pistol. It is there, in the drawer, just a few steps across the room.
Unraveling, I reach out to family and friends, but over the phone it is impossible to properly convey what’s happening. To the people I call, I sound a little disengaged, a little down. They cannot see my haunted eyes and hollowed-out face, the shorts hanging low on my thinning waist. They do not know that when I talk, I hear my voice as if my head were wrapped in gauze. Addressing the recent downturns — what happened with the agent and with Claudia — is counterproductive. Voiced out loud, the complaints seem even more frivolous. I’m told to cheer up, get a beer, go for a bike ride. Plenty of fish in the sea. You’re young yet. You’ll be fine.
I play along with this as best I can, but the diagnosis — a little low, a little blue — falls way short. This is not on them, of course. They are working with a woefully incomplete triage sheet. The people who love me don’t have all the facts. They don’t know about the pistol in the drawer.
The pistol has always been my private affair, a kind of secret lover, more seductive for being clandestine and dangerous. We have this thing, the pistol and I, and I don’t want to betray that. Reporting the pistol would surely mean losing it — after what my uncle did to himself with the pistol he kept in his drawer, nobody who cares about me would rest easy knowing I keep one in mine. Ever since I first slipped it into my duffel bag those many years ago, I have guarded the pistol jealously, like a miser his coin. The more cause someone might have to take the pistol from me, the more care I have taken to conceal it.
By day I look desperately forward to night; by night I look desperately forward to day. Sleep, the thing I need and want more than any other, will not take me. I lie awake, the folds of my brain beating against the base of my skull, my breathing loud and labored. I try to read; I recognize the patterns — a word and another word — but there the process ends. I turn, spin, lunge from one side of the bed to the other. I lie inverted, my head at the foot of the bed, the sheet doubled back over me. I sit up, exhale forcefully, and consider the pistol.
Here is a clear, certain solution to the problem.
In the early hours of a late-July morning, I rehearse the details of how it will go down, run through the steps in my head. For the first time in weeks my thinking is clear. This is all just a procedure now. I rise, walk to the bureau. After I part the socks and the handkerchiefs, feel around for the pistol and the box of bullets, I return to the bed and sit with my back against the wall. I draw a single round from the box, press it into the clip, then drive the clip into the receiver with the base of my palm. When I rack the slide, the bullet springs into the chamber and the hammer hinges into position. I admire one last time the weight of the pistol, the authority of it, relax my jaw. I clench my teeth on the barrel, feel the chill of steel on my lips, taste its tang on my tongue. I suck my breath in, all the way in, then exhale. I am sucking my breath in again — Do it already, just fucking do it — when Sut, stirred from sleep in the kitchen, approaches the bed.
At first his presence puzzles me. I had forgotten about him. I had not placed him anywhere in the arrangement. Now he is here, nosing my free hand, and I do not know how to respond. I need to push him away, but I cannot. I have never been able to push him away.
He snuffles, noses my hand again, fishes for an ear rub. Gentle envoy from the land of the living, oblivious to the terrible thoughts his companion harbors, Sut has been with me through triumph and heartache, sickness and delight. He has never asked anything more of me in return than that I be here, too — alive, close. The dog’s utter incomprehension — But where did my companion go? — is dreadful to imagine, even more dreadful to imagine than the anguish of my family, who will comprehend only too well, who will even recognize exactly what has happened here.
I don’t do it. I reach for the dog, and then for the phone.
I ’d like to say that was the moment when I finally separated myself from the pistol; when I recognized the danger it posed, how terribly easy it could make the most terrible outcome; when I went back to the family home and returned the pistol to the cedar-plank chest, or simply hurled it butt over barrel into the Florida swamp. But I kept the pistol in the dresser drawer.
Even as weekly office visits and a carefully supervised pharmaceutical protocol worked to peel back the gauze and quiet the thrum, even as I began to eat and sleep again, I held on to the pistol. Having conceived the contingency plan, I was reluctant to let go of it.
With the help of a university psychiatrist and the accommodations of a sympathetic thesis adviser, I managed to graduate in 2001, then moved back to Charleston to work as a visiting instructor at a local college. In Charleston the flat I shared with my younger brother, Drew, was less than two miles from the family home; Sut, Drew, and I visited my parents often, for Sunday dinners, late-afternoon porch sits, computer servicing. Not once did I consider taking the pistol with me and quietly returning it to its place in the back of the house. In my five years back in Charleston, I kept the pistol as close as ever, in the sock drawer. I never once pulled it from the drawer, never once even handled it, but I never forgot that it was there, and I never thought that maybe it shouldn’t be.
When at last I let go of the pistol, it was only because I had to. I’d been hired to teach in Andalusia, and Spain took firearms rather more seriously than my native country did. I checked. With a negligible amount of paperwork, Sut was welcome to join me in Spain, but bringing a pistol would have entailed applications, tests, and background checks. I would have had to credibly demonstrate that, without the pistol, my life would be in danger. The irony of that was hard to miss. In the end it was rules made by people I didn’t know in a land I’d never seen that finally separated me from the pistol.
I brought the pistol and the box of bullets, hidden in a knapsack, to the farewell dinner my family hosted for me. After dinner I went to the back of the house with the knapsack over my shoulder. The cedar chest was just as I’d left it, a ragtag accidental arsenal.
I tended to the bullets first. It occurs to me now that I might simply have disposed of them. The pistol had never truly belonged to me, but I’d bought the bullets. Why not fling them into the harbor, let them sink into the mud? Was I honoring the spirit of that musty room, the custom of my people, which was never to discard a thing that someone might find a use for someday? Even as I prepared for a new life in another country, was I still wedded to that grim just-in-case? After considering the box of bullets for a moment, I carefully seated it between two rusty bayonets.
Next, the pistol. I did not remove it from the holster, did not admire it, did not handle it any more than was necessary to take it from the knapsack and put it back where I had found it. Situated among archaic sabers, bayonets, and powder flasks, the pistol looked like just another museum piece.
It looked harmless enough.