The Silver Linings Playbook (Chapter 40)

Mad Nipper

When I wake, the rain has stopped, but I am shivering. I sit up, and my whole body hurts. My overcoat is gone. My leather loafers are gone. All the money I had in my pocket is gone. My leather belt is gone. The new watch my mother gave me for Christmas is gone. I touch my fingers to my face, and they turn red.

Looking around, I see that I am on a narrow street full of parked cars. Row houses on either side. Some are boarded up, many of the porches and steps attached to the fronts are in need of repair, and the streetlights above are not on – maybe smashed by rocks – making the whole world look dark. I am not in a good neighborhood, with no money, shoes, or any idea where I am. Part of me wants to lie on the sidewalk forever, but I'm afraid those bad people might come back to finish me off, and before I can really think about anything, I'm on my feet, limping down the block.

My right thigh muscle feels locked in place, and I cannot bend my right knee very well.

One house on the block is decorated for Christmas. On the porch is a manger scene with a plastic Mary and Joseph – both black. I limp toward Baby Jesus, thinking that people celebrating the holiday are more likely to help me than people without Christmas decorations, because – in the Bible – Jesus says we should help shoeless people who have been mugged.

When I finally get to the decorated row house, a funny thing happens. Instead of knocking on the door, I limp over to the black Mary and Joseph because I want to look into the manger and see if Baby Jesus is black too. My cramped leg screams with pain and gives out just as I reach the Nativity scene. On my hands and one knee, between His parents, I see that Baby Jesus is really black and plugged in – his dark face glows like amber, and a stream of white light blasts up through His little baby chest.

Squinting, taking in the light of Baby Jesus, I instantly realize that I was mugged because I cursed God, so I pray and say I'm sorry and I understand what God is telling me – that I need to work on my character some more before I will be allowed to find apart time's end.

My pulse is pounding so hard in my ears that I do not even hear the front door open, nor do I hear a man walk out onto the porch.

"What you doin' to Aunt Jasmine's Nativity scene?" the man says.

And when I turn my head, God lets me know He has accepted my apology.

When they first brought Danny to the bad place, he wouldn't talk. Like me and everyone else, he had a scar, but his was much larger and on the back of his head, making a bright pink line in his Afro. For a month or so, he just sort of sat in a chair by the window of his room as speech therapists visited and left frustrated. Me and the boys would stop in and say hello, but Danny only looked out the window when we talked to him, so we thought he was one of the people whose brain trauma was so bad he was most likely going to be a vegetable for the rest of his life – sort of like my roommate, Jackie. But after a month or so, Danny started taking his meals in the cafeteria with the rest of us, attending music and group therapy sessions, and even going on a few group excursions to the shops by the harbor and the Orioles games down at Camden Yards. It was obvious that he understood words and even was pretty normal – he just wouldn't talk.

I don't remember how long it took, but after a time, Danny started talking again, and I happened to be the first person he spoke to.

A girl from some fancy college in Baltimore came in to provide what we were told were "non-traditional treatments." We had to volunteer for the sessions, as this girl was not a real therapist yet. We were skeptical at first, but when she came to promote the program, we were soon persuaded by her girlish figure and cute, innocent-looking face. She was very nice and quite attractive, so we all did whatever she said, hoping to keep her around – especially since there were no women patients in the bad place and the nurses were extremely ugly.

For the first week, our college student had us look into mirrors a lot as she encouraged us to really get to know ourselves, which was pretty out-there. She'd say things like, "Study your nose. Look at it until you really know it. Watch how it moves when you breathe in deeply. Appreciate the miracle of respiration. Now look at your tongue. Not just the top, but underneath. Study it. Contemplate the miracles of taste and speech."

But then one day she paired us randomly, had us sit facing each other, and told us to stare into our partner's eyes. She had us do this for a long time, and it was quite weird because the room was completely silent, and men do not usually look into each other's eyes for long periods of time. Then she started telling us to imagine that our partner was someone we missed, or someone we had hurt in the past, or a family member we hadn't seen for many years. She told us to see this person through our partner's eyes, until that person was in front of us.

Looking into another person's eyes for an extended period of time proved to be a powerful thing. And if you don't believe me, try it yourself.

Of course I began to see Nikki, which was strange because I was staring into Danny's eyes, and Danny is a six-foot-three black man who looks nothing like my ex-wife. Even still, as my pupils remained locked on Danny's, it was as if I were looking directly into Nikki's eyes. I was the first one to start crying, but others followed. Our college girl came over, said I was brave, and then hugged me, which was nice. Danny said nothing.

That night I woke up to the sound of Jackie's grunting. When I opened my eyes, it took a few seconds for my pupils to adjust, but when they did, I saw Danny standing over me.

"Danny?" I said.

"My name's not Danny."

His voice scared me because I was not expecting him to speak, especially since he had not spoken to anyone since he arrived.

"The name's Mad Nipper."

"What do you want?" I asked him. "Why are you in our room?"

"I only wanted to tell you my street name, so we could be boys. But we're not on the streets right now, so you can keep calling me Danny."

And then Danny walked out of my room and Jackie quit grunting.

Everyone in the bad place was pretty shocked when Danny began speaking regularly the next day. The doctors said he was experiencing a breakthrough, but it wasn't like that. Danny just decided to talk. We really did become boys and did just about everything together in the bad place, including our exercise routine. And little by little I found out Danny's story.

As Mad Nipper he was a rising gansta rapper from North Philadelphia who had signed on with a small record label in NYC called Tougher Trade. He was playing a club in Baltimore when some beef broke loose, and somehow – Danny often changed the details of his story, so I can't say what happened for certain – he was struck in the back of the head with a tire iron, driven to the harbor, and thrown in.

Most of the time Danny claimed that a Baltimore rap group – one that was scheduled to perform before Mad Nipper – asked him to smoke up in an alleyway behind the club, but when he went outside with these other rappers, they started giving him some shit about headlining in their neighborhood. When he brought up his superior record sales, the lights went out, and he woke up dead, which is actually true, as his file says he was dead for a few minutes before the EMTs managed to revive him.

Lucky for Danny, somebody heard the splash Mad Nipper made when he entered the harbor, and this person fished him out and yelled for help right after the other rappers left. Danny claims that the salt in the water kept his brain alive, but I don't understand how that could be, especially since he was thrown into the filthy harbor and not the ocean. After an operation that removed tiny parts of his skull from his brain, and a lengthy stay at the hospital, Danny was brought to the bad place. The worst part was that he lost his ability to rap – he just couldn't make his mouth rap anymore, at least not as fast as he used to – so he took a vow of silence, which he broke only after looking into my eyes for a very long period of time.

Once, I asked Danny who he saw when he looked into my eyes, and he told me he saw his aunt Jasmine. When I asked him why he saw his aunt Jasmine, he told me she was the woman who had raised him up until he became a man.

"Danny?" I say, kneeling before the manger.

"Who are you?"

"It's Pat Peoples."

"White Pat from Baltimore?"

"Yeah."

"How?"

"I don't know."

"You're bloody. What happened?"

"God punished me, but then He led me here."

"What you do to make God angry?"

"I cursed Him, but I said I was sorry."

"If you really Pat People, what's my name?"

"Mad Nipper, a.k.a. Danny."

"You eat Christmas dinner yet?"

"No."

"You like ham?"

"Yes."

"You wanna eat with me and Aunt Jasmine?"

"Okay."

Danny helps me stand, and when I limp into Aunt Jasmine's home, it smells of pine needles and baked ham and pineapple sauce. A small Christmas tree is decorated with popcorn strings and colorful blinking lights, two green-and-red stockings are hung on a fake fireplace mantel, and on the television the Eagles are playing the Cowboys.

"Sit down," Danny says. "Make yourself at home."

"I don't want to get blood on your couch."

"It's got a plastic cover, see?"

I look, and the couch is really covered with plastic, so I sit down and see that the Eagles are winning, which surprises me, since Dallas was favored.

"I've missed you," Danny says after he sits down next to me. "You didn't even say goddamn goodbye when you left."

"Mom came and got me when you were in music relaxation class. When did you get out of the bad place?"

"Just yesterday. Out on good behavior."

I look at my friend's face and see that he is serious. "So you get out of the bad place yesterday, and I just happen to run to your neighborhood and get mugged on your street and find you here?"

"Guess so," Danny says.

"It sort of seems like a miracle, doesn't it?"

"Miracles happen on Christmas, Pat. Everybody knows that shit."

But before we can say more, a petite, serious-looking woman – who is wearing huge black-rimmed glasses – walks into the living room and starts screaming, "Oh, my Lord! Oh, Jesus!" I try to convince Aunt Jasmine I'm okay, but she calls 911, and then I am in an ambulance being driven to Germantown Hospital.

When I arrive at the emergency room, Aunt Jasmine prays for me and yells at a lot of people until I am taken to a private room, where my clothes are removed and my wounds are cleaned.

I am given an IV while I tell a police officer what happened.

After X-rays, the doctors tell me that my leg is really messed up; my mother, Caitlin, and Jake arrive, and then my leg is put in a white cast that starts at my heel and ends just below my hip.

I want to apologize to Danny and Aunt Jasmine for ruining their Christmas dinner, but my mother tells me that they left soon after she arrived, which makes me really sad for some reason.

When I am finally released from the hospital, a nurse puts a purple sock over my bare toes and gives me a pair of crutches, but Jake pushes me in a wheelchair to his BMW. I have to sit sideways in the backseat, with my feet on Mom's lap, because of the cast.

We drive through North Philadelphia in silence, but when we pull out onto the Schuylkill Expressway, Caitlin says, "Well, at least we'll never forget this Christmas." She means it as a joke, but nobody laughs.

"Why isn't anyone asking me how I ended up in North Philadelphia?" I ask.

After a long pause, my mother says, "Tiffany called us from a pay phone and told us everything. We were driving around North Philadelphia looking for you when the hospital called your father. He called Jake's cell phone, and here we are."

"So I ruined everyone's Christmas?"

"That crazy bitch ruined our Christmas."

"Jake," Mom says. "Please."

"Did the Eagles win?" I ask Jake, because I remember that they were winning and am hoping my father will be in a decent mood when I get home.

"Yeah," Jake says in a clipped way that lets me know he is upset with me.

The Eagles beat T.O. and Dallas – in Dallas – on Christmas Day, locking up a play-off spot, and Jake, who has not missed a game since he was in elementary school, misses perhaps the best game of the season because he was searching all of North Philadelphia for his mentally deranged brother. And now I realize why my father is not with the search team – there was no way he'd miss such an important Eagles game, especially against Dallas. I can't help feeling guilty, as it probably would have been a really nice Christmas, especially since my father would have been in a phenomenal mood, and I am sure my mother prepared food, and Caitlin is even wearing an Eagles jersey, and I keep messing up everyone's lives, and maybe it would have been better if the muggers had killed me, and …

I start to cry, but quietly, so that my mom won't be upset.

"I'm sorry I made you miss the game, Jake," I manage to say, but the words make me cry even harder, and soon I am sobbing into my hands again, like a baby.

My mother pats my unbroken leg, but no one says anything.

We ride the rest of the way home in silence.