The pistol’s presence in Charlie’s hand announced that the night might end suddenly, in a manner altogether different than how it had begun and how it had been expected to proceed. Its presence altered everything at a molecular level, an atmospheric level—the temperature, the mood, the choreography of our bodies, the rate of our breathing and of our still-for-now-beating hearts—such that it couldn’t be said—it would be preposterous, really, to say—that we were then standing in the same room in which we’d been standing before we learned of the gun. Of course it was not the same room, though we hadn’t—any of us—moved from it. This is the kind of paradox a pistol makes possible in a room full of men when all but one of them are unarmed.
He hadn’t pulled the trigger because the message he wished to communicate to me could not be delivered by a spent bullet. The discharge of the slug and its subsequent entrance into my body would have imposed strict limits, would have considerably narrowed the surface area of what it was he could convey. To shoot is to end a story, and thereby declare one’s desire that a story be ended. Or, to shoot is to begin a story, and, upon pulling the trigger, the shooter reveals his wish that a fixed kind of story begin. Which is to say that the act of shooting another is, oddly, rather rangebound; as the bullet closes off a certain set of possibilities for the one in receipt of it, so, too, does the act of shooting close off a certain set of possibilities as it pertains to the shooter’s intention and the event’s meaning.
The narrative opportunities a wielded weapon presents—and Charlie knew this—are endless when one has yet to use it. He knew that the real power was not in firing; it was in flaunting. It was in restraint. It was in calling attention to the options he’d made available to himself by virtue of brandishing the pistol.
Everyone in the room who wasn’t Charlie became aware—and rather immediately—of what they might now be considered: a target; a subject; a victim; an heir to a cruel inheritance; an answer to a question that might, at any second, be posed by a trigger pulled. It was Charlie’s refusal to aim the weapon that allowed for every man in the room to be taken up in a current of threat, all of us doing our best to tread water in the ungentle indeterminacy, the brutal ongoingness of a moment as ambiguous in present meaning as it was interminable in length. Imagine the relief, then, when finally Charlie pointed the pistol at one of us, relieving the others—at least for the moment—from their forced confrontation with mortality.
Imagine the relief is all I can do, because I was the one at whom Charlie pointed the pistol.
Here is what happens when a pistol addresses you: you become instantly conscious of your size—the flesh and muscle and bone that constitute your person—and you understand how every inch of you has now been designated a possible point of entry. You are given an exceptional education in proprioception—the medical term used to describe one’s felt sense of position relative to the space one is inhabiting.
A strange thing happens, too: when it’s pointed at you, a pistol speaks. It says, You are conquerable. It says, You are terrain. It says, What you’ve built I can tear down, and you won’t even be around to see it. It says, Every part of you is potential.
And when it’s no longer trained on you, when it’s placed back in its holster with as many rounds remaining as it held when you were made to think your chest might soon collect one, and when the man who, only a moment ago, had you in his sights walks out of the room without so much as a word—you know you’ve lost something, something more than a bullet could steal, but it takes years to fully comprehend what the something is.
It was the that he could have that kept me up nights. For the better part of a bad decade.
I would sometimes tell a woman—with, I admit, the intention of impressing her—that I’d once had a gun pointed directly at me, a loaded gun, and it hadn’t looked good for me in the moment, not at all, but here I was, no part of me missing and my skin never bullied by a bullet, though it could’ve been, it really could’ve been, and what did she think about that.
Though I stopped doing this eventually, because always they would want to know why, want to know the context. Which wasn’t an irrational desire. It’s just that sometimes you want only to tell the end of things. It’s just that the world is full of people doing regrettable, ill-advised, consequential things, and sometimes those most affected by these callous actions, these lapses in or disavowals of judgment, these unrepented decisions—well, sometimes those people reacted.
And that’s the story. More or less that’s the story.
Vincent Scarpa is a recent graduate of the MFA program at the Michener Center for Writers. His work has appeared in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, StoryQuarterly, Indiana Review, DIAGRAM, and other journals. He lives outside of Atlantic City, where he’s purportedly at work on a novel.