“When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” ~Raymond Chandler’s advice for writer’s block
It was Sunday and the deli downstairs was closed. I’d made myself a sandwich from the mini-fridge for lunch and left it sitting by the coffeemaker. You could make a sandwich and then walk away from it, forget it ever happened. It would sit there half-eaten and never glower at you, getting cold, never wonder what time you’d be home for dinner. It was the kind of meal I could get behind.
I sat there going over what I knew about the case. I could see it from every angle except clear through it. I had all the facts — boy, did I have them. I had them from the first wife who now ran a palm reading parlor on Venice and a star jockey out at Santa Anita. I had them from one son who flew in for a day to see his lawyers and the other one, still dressed for what seemed like a good idea at the time, sleeping the heart right out of another Tuesday in his Malibu villa. The light on the breakers was clearer than an angel’s tears. That was the problem with Southern California: It made you feel so good. The sun congratulated you for just crawling out of bed, and by the time you stumbled out to your convertible, all was forgiven.
Except me. I wasn’t getting anywhere, so I got up. The light sliding through the blinds right now was making me feel lousy at my job. I stood there with my back to the room, watching traffic wash down the avenue. Maybe I had something against feeling good. Maybe I had something against being stumped.
There was a knock. I turned around. A man came through the door with a gun in his hand.
Afterwards, they found themselves at the usual Chinese restaurant. A tiny place whose style had departed, like a glamorous daughter. By the register, the obligatory clipping — some critic’s compliments from the early days — was yellowing in plastic.
Anna set the menu down, brass corners clicking on the tabletop.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she announced.
“What, the egg foo young?” said Clive. “I was thinking of trying something different myself.”
Anna began to cry. Clive sighed. “You know, Graham Greene dedicated The End of the Affair to Catherine Walston, but afterwards, they carried on for another 10 years.” Clive had an unhealthy interest in adultery in the abstract. Just once, he thought, I’d like to share with a woman something illicit that wasn’t tawdry. One of those European affairs that leave you with a profound appreciation of human nature.
“I feel so completely stuck in a rut,” said Anna.
Just then, the bell by the front door jangled. A man in a ski mask dashed in with a gun in his hand.
They had come to what always gummed up this stretch: a highway swooping overhead to merge in from the left. Without fail, cars that sailed by the gridlock, merging only at the very last minute, were let in, a lesson Jerry had taken to heart. The freeway was a distillation of the social contract. Someone was going to be an asshole, and someone else was going to look the other way. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a car length open up to the left, but it was too late. A woman in a blue hatchback had closed the gap.
It was the wave that did it. He wrenched in right after her, to the protests of those behind. Women! What was going on in those pretty little heads? That flutter of the hand, like a royal dismissal — was it supposed to be magic? Was it supposed to make everything all right? He fumbled around behind the passenger seat. He’d been saving something up for just such an occasion.
The grip fit in his hand like a hair dryer’s. It even had a strap for his wrist. He rolled down the window.
“Bitch,” he said. The megaphone gave his voice official heft. It carried and echoed. A few drivers looked around, startled from their audiobooks. “Yeah, you in the blue Prius. I mean, the hell were you thinking?”
He flicked on his high beams. Then her brake lights went dark.
He had not thought it humanly possible for him to be more pissed off than he was. Her car was just sitting there before him, in the road.
The door opened and she stepped out with a gun in her hand.
My dad always figured that whatever happened between him and my mom, and later between the two of us, we’d always have the movies. He only ever really opened up to pronounce upon our national dream life. He liked The Magnificent Seven because they “weren’t in it to get rich.” A red-blooded pacifist, he wasn’t above a Bond ending or a good car chase: “like watching money burn.” His idea of generation gap was how your daddy’s assholes inevitably became your idols: Paul Newman in Hud, say, or that con artist Shane. “There’s no anti-hero so low some hungry-hearted pipsqueak won’t give him credence. Next thing you know, Dirty Harry’s no psycho, just your everyday sumbitch with a sailor’s mouth and a heart of gold.” I thought Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket fit the bill exactly, but when I said so, he almost burst a vein. Six months later, I enlisted. We didn’t speak for three years.
“But these days,” he said the last time we talked, “what really gets my goat is when they can’t be bothered to develop a character we care about, so they put some random kid in danger. No one wants to see that. Sure, Hitchcock himself stooped to it, but it was a cheap twang on the heartstrings even then, and he was the master.”
“It’s a different world, Pops.”
“So they tell me. Anyhow, gotta run, show’s starting.”
I can picture that multiplex perfectly. We wound up there whenever I’d visit. Now when I close my eyes, I see him pocketing his cell phone, ambling down the long slow carpeted slope. Not a single preview leaves him eager, but it gives the yahoos coming in late time to find a seat and crackle open their candy. The movie starts with a bang. Some do-gooder’s getting chased over rooftops. Shots are fired. When the screaming starts, it takes him a minute to figure out it’s coming from the back of the theatre.
In the early hours of November 2, 2013, in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, 19-year-old Renisha McBride stood on the porch of Theodore Wafer, pounding at his door. Her car had broken down, and her cell phone was dead. Her blood alcohol level was at .218 — three times the legal limit — and earlier that evening, she had been smoking marijuana. The door opened, and out came Mr. Wafer with a gun in his hand.
On the night of September 21, 2014, 60-year-old Iphigenia Christian woke up for no particular reason. She had been having trouble sleeping lately, for which her doctor had just that morning prescribed her pills. Remembering she had left them in the kitchen, she went downstairs to look for them. The last thing she saw was her husband, wakened by the noise, coming through the doorway with a gun in his hand.
These are true stories. None of them happened to me, or anyone I know. I read about the first one a week ago, and then the more I read, the more I seemed to find. Psychologists call this “frequency illusion,” in which selective attention is reinforced by confirmation bias, but the colloquial name for it is the “Baader-Meinhof phenomenon,” named for the West German terrorist group also known as the Red Army Faction. A man who’d never heard of them before came up with this name. One day he read about them, and the next thing he knew, there were terrorists everywhere he looked.
This is something that did happen to me: On December 10, 2014, I went to Home Depot with my wife. I guess this is a western, in that my wife is a civilizing influence. When I was a boy I read about a boy and a girl who ran away to a museum. I thought I’d do them one better by running away to a furniture store. Home Depot is kind of like that: a gallery of pretend. There’s a lamp for every kind of lifestyle, more lamps than lives you can ever live, even if you grew up lucky enough to have parents who said you could be anything. The model kitchens make me want to pick a mock domestic spat over some issue my wife and I have yet to face. Not money, we already fight about that. A baby, maybe? She will slam the fridge and cross her arms, and I will flick the tap on and off with an idiot grin, delighted by the lack of water. Through the paneless window we can spy on neighbors waffling over a new dishwasher. But not today. Today we have come shopping for a new front door, one that fits flush and doesn’t let in a draft. A front door is like the face you show the world, she says. In the next department down, doors hang hinged along the aisle like pages in a giant book. One door closes and another opens. Flip, flip, flip. They are running some promotion. Plastered on each door is a life-size Elvis Presley as a cowboy, pistol drawn. The poster is tinged pastel, with DayGlo stars shooting out. I feel dizzy; I have to sit down. My wife asks, “What’s the matter?” but I can’t explain. What should I say? That we’re lucky? That I feel guilty about our luck? That I’m dumb about the problems of the world and don’t know which is worse: that I think we’re safe or that we’re really not, or that no matter how unsafe we are, there will always be someone worse off? I want to hold her and say, in spite of all our problems we have our whole lives ahead of us, but instead I hold my head in my hands. Flip, flip, flip. It’s too ridiculous; it’s just Elvis. It never happens to anyone you know, until someone you know can’t believe it happened to you. Endless choices. Endless doors. And behind every door, a man with a gun in his hand.
When he opens his eyes, the pain is gone. He’s been squeezing them so tightly shut! His tears roll up his cheeks, paths drying behind them along every anguished furrow. They tremble at the edge of his lower lid till, with a blink, he scoops them back inside his eye. Of course his skin is still clammy and his heart a-hammer. Relax, he tells himself, and to his surprise it works — it never seems to at the office. He stretches one leg out and then the other. Was he really in a fetal curl? A woman comes darting at him sideways. Unthinkingly, he receives her with a kick. Before he can apologize, a scream comes funneling back to his wide-open mouth; he gulps it down. His throat feels raw. She backpedals away from him, waving her arms, streaks of mascara vanishing from her cheeks. He clambers out from under the row of seats by the gate.
All around him, people are jogging backward through the terminal. He joins them. When in Rome … Some stop and, without breaking stride, pick up bags they’ve dropped. Others stumble and fall, but they get up again. A flood of Coke sweeps ice cubes back into an empty cup, and when it bounces from the ground, a man’s hand is there to catch it. Nice, he nods at the man. Suddenly, he coughs a piece of gum into his mouth. With every chew it seems to get some snap back, bursts of flavor wriggling into the elastomer. He loves gum, he remembers.
He whips his head around just in time to catch another scream: the delicious whoompf of air in his mouth, a quick pump of receiving gut. His throat feels better with every scream he swallows. There’s a fever in the air, catching. Everyone is swallowing their screams. Is it some new fad?
A whizzing past his ear. From behind, a harsh staccato chatter he knows only from action movies. Wait, so that’s what this is, right? Of course! They’re shooting an action movie at the airport. Why didn’t he remember? Everyone, everything, is being recalled for a second take. A bullet is plucked from a wall; splintered plaster rushes to fill the gap. Another one removes a puncture from a garbage can. A stuntman collects his shattered shin from the floor. This is some next-level stuff! The bullets are thicker in the air now. He backpedals on, chewing gum, untouched. How do you know you’re the hero? he remembers a stuntman telling him once. The bad guys are missing you as closely as possible, expertly accommodating the fickle akimbo of each balletic dodge, like the circus knife-thrower in unrequited love with his bewitching assistant. He must be a hero. He feels his legs pump. It’s like he’s watching himself already. Will he ever do better than this?
But back at security, nothing is explained. There’s a lot of pushing and shoving to get back in line, people insisting on the exact order they were in before. Continuity is key. Where are the cameras? TSA seems to be filling in for PAs on crowd-wrangling duty. The bad guy — is there only one? — seems really angry about the do-over, on the verge of a diva freakout. The guards hold out their hands, trying to calm him down. Finally, the man lowers his assault rifle. The crowd lets out a held breath.
He feels his heart slowing, adrenaline draining away. The worst part of these shoots? The wait.
One last glance and he’s checking his phone, the man with the gun completely forgotten. Around him: grumbling about security checkpoints, anxiety about making flights. His saliva has almost finished restoring full flavor to the gum, just a little more prodding and smoothing. Out it comes with a trick of the tongue, clean-smelling and freshly powdered. He nestles it lovingly, absently in its foil wrapper: a matter of habit, not thought. The little acts we take for granted, in which such care inheres, like pulling covers over a loved one — for, having done them so often, it seems we will go on doing them forever. He slides the stick in beside five others just like it, and tucks the pack into his jacket pocket. Unnoticed, a man backs through the glass doors, just another in a crowd of the coming and going.