The three sons of Verna Underwood were Darren, Dana, and Darwin, and when they were young she drove them around Buckhead to spend imaginary cash. Each boy had a million dollars. She took them to Formula One Imports, where they caressed the Porsches and Lamborghinis, and she showed them the mansions on Tuxedo Road. You see that? she said. Work hard and you can have that. They were not poor. Verna drove a Cadillac Eldorado, and her new husband was a construction superintendent. They lived in a respectable ranch house outside Marietta. But Verna told her boys they could have more, if they wanted it enough. The imaginary million could become real.
|Photograph courtesy of Yamma Brown
Darwin died first. He was the youngest, twenty-two, with the word Trouble tattooed on his right arm. He picked a fight with a friend, and the friend put a five-inch diver’s knife through Darwin’s right femoral artery. Darwin bled to death. When Darren heard the news, he drove ninety miles an hour to find Dana and hugged his remaining brother so hard that Dana’s feet came off the floor. After that Dana got a tattoo on his right arm. It was Darwin’s name, with a rose and a cross.
Dana washed dishes at Red Lobster for a while and worked his way up to line cook and apprentice pastry chef at various other restaurants. By 1998 he was stuck making seven bucks an hour, so he moved into the furniture-moving industry for a dollar per hundredweight. He worked hard and bought his own truck and worked harder and bought a better truck and hired his own workers. Soon he was crisscrossing the country in eighteen-wheelers, moving other people from one big house to another, straining under the weight of baby grand pianos that nobody played, spending most of his capital on labor and fuel. In 2008 a dresser fell on his midsection. Since then he has lived on workers compensation.
Darren made other plans. As they cruised up Tuxedo Road all those years ago, he looked at his mother across the front seat of the Eldorado and pointed to one of the mansions and said, “I’m going to live there one day.”
And he did.
You can have that.
That’s what Americans told themselves in this manic-depressive decade, and for a while it was true. No money down. Bad credit, slow credit, no credit, no problem. You could be like Dana and pour eleven years of sweat into something and suddenly find yourself thirty-six years old in Jonesboro, too broken to lift a boxspring. Or you could skip the preliminaries. This is what Darren did, as Dana saw it: He threw a rope toward the sky and tried to pull down a star.
One day when they were grown men, Darren and Dana walked into McDonald’s. “They’re all with me,” Darren told the cashier, waving a hand at the customers behind him. Dana protested, because he had seen this behavior before—at the GA 400 tollbooth, at the Taco Bell drive-thru—but Darren jabbed him with an elbow and continued. He watched the people order their Egg McMuffins and coffee and hash browns and he paid for all of it, even though some would not have minded buying their own breakfast, including the weatherbeaten guy in the ball cap who said, finally, grudgingly, “Thank you, sir.” A man discovers some things as he goes through life, hardly any so stunning as the paradoxical power of giving.
What Darren Lumar learned is this: With enough persistence, intelligence, and charisma, with enough shortcuts, anything is possible. You can live in a mansion without actually being rich, hire landscapers without actually paying them, drive a Mercedes that is registered to someone else, sleep with any number of women even though you have already married James Brown’s daughter, take hold of a multinational corporation that does basically nothing, pal around with celebrities who are ultimately ashamed to speak your name, hurl yourself into the fight over James Brown’s fortune even though you personally have no right to anything, throw lavish parties when you are about to lose your home. You can even drive yourself to the hospital when you have a mortal wound.