May 2000

Matt Briggs


Matt Briggs Matt Briggs is the author of The Remains of River Names, a novel in short stories, published by Black Heron Press in October, 1999. His short fiction has appeared in the Northwest Review, The North Atlantic Review, ZYZZYVA and elsewhere. He currently has a fiction fellowship at The Writing Seminar at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

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I keep a brown wool jacket in my car that makes me look like Winston Churchill. It's too big for me now, but I used to wear it with a bowler and an umbrella. Sometimes people stopped me on the street and asked me if I was in the movies. I was a corpulent guy then. I'm not as big, now. The jacket covers the entire back seat of my Toyota.

I lost weight when I worked as a nurse's aid at a rest home in North Bend, Washington, out in the mountains. The home was done up in a rustic theme, the walls built of huge, raw logs like a gigantic Lincoln Log cabin. Tall pine trees lined the yard and green field stones lined the pool. The residents were rustic by default. I lifted the shells of old men from aluminum wheel chairs into steel-framed beds. I escorted women clasping their four-footed walkers to the side of the pool where they played cards. These old people were battered and worn like my old jacket. They struggled to maintain an illusion of health and youth. The women dyed their hair a uniform black, and the men wore freshly-ironed white linen shirts. But I didn't mind the attempts at hiding white hair and crooked backs. As a nurse I had seen them naked and watched them fidget as I drew blood from their arms. I could identify them through their run-down prostates and bad backs. No one was as they wanted to be.

Sometimes their children came out in new, same-make automobiles from Seattle. Each year a new fleet of BMWs, or Acuras, or Lexuses swept into the visitor parking lot. Children sat with their parents and talked, generations connected by voice like car phone to car phone. I felt isolated in the microwave crossfire, as substantial to these people's presence as the country architecture, the cement steps painted red, the wheelchair ramp. As long as I wore the Clorox white of my smock and held the key to the medicine cabinet, I mattered.

Now I know better. I wear a blue suit jacket, khaki pants, and a knit tie to a bank in Whiter Center, a neighborhood some people call Rat City because of the ramshackle taverns and decaying suburbs that were thrown up in the few months after WW2. I deposit blue collar pay checks and manage checking accounts that never reach a thousand dollars. With so little money, these people have no way of ever escaping the rat trap of AM country western stations and Styrofoam cups filled with rancid coffee. The detail of their lives accumulates in the long hours I enter overdrafts into the computer and in the dumpsters behind my apartment building.

For me the good deal is: I am out of work at three o'clock, hours before the end of the factory shift starts a rush hour that freezes the drive to my apartment.

At night I hear police sirens and the heavy growl of freight trucks along Highway 99. I have this thing I do when rain slicks the pavement and a wreck happens on Interstate 5, or State Route 518, or 405; I drive to the line of traffic passing the accident. On the radio, the DJ says, "A two car pileup on I-5 northbound," and I am there, looking at a twisted Toyota, the white hood torn back like a butchered aluminum can. Sometimes a victim is still inside the car, crushed in the metal. A medic in a white suit coaches the pale casualty while the fireman, in a yellow rubber trenchcoat, saws the door away; the metal blades buzz and spit blue sparks across the pulverized hood. I am there, almost on the radio, almost in the ears of all the people stuck in the rain, frozen in the rush hour.

Today is a good day. I weighed in at two hundred and thirty pounds this morning so I can have a little ice cream after dinner. The ritual is: after work, I change into my brown flannel sweatsuit, do three hundred push-ups at fifty a bang, jog in place for a half hour, sit up six hundred times, and then I'm done. I shower for ten minutes, buy groceries, and catch the evening line up. But today—on account of how good it is, on account of how much weight I've lost—I don't feel like the workout, so I walk to the store and buy a Tombstone Pepperoni Pizza, a carton of milk, a head of lettuce, low calorie Italian dressing, a block of cheddar cheese, a six pack of diet RC, and The Seattle Times. I read the paper while I eat my pizza. Using the sports page as a plate, the grease in the cheese turns a picture of a football player clear. I read the column of words through his face. Later the evening lineup of reruns starts—Night Court, Cheers, and Cinema at Ten. After Night Court, I put on my red, plastic overcoat and walk to the store in the drizzle. Fuzzy rain wets my face. As I leave, I pass these three people I've never seen at my apartment before. Obscured by water beading on their windshield, they sit inside a Cadillac Seville. The license plates are the old Washington plates, without the decoration of Mt. Rainier. The strangers' skins are different. They aren't black or white. One guy in the car has a typical Anglo face, but something like disease or starvation or parasites has hollowed and yellowed his flesh until it looks waxy and blunt like the white plastic of laundromat chairs. The other two men in the car may have been black once, but the roundness, the human appearance of their faces has been drawn away until their bony cheeks and cartilage of their noses stands away from their skin like the edges of knives. Their skin spreads pasty and luminous over cheeks, reflecting light like oil slicks. The pale man says something, and they all smile without laughing. In the clean refrigerator atmosphere of the supermarket, I feel secure among the bins of frozen orange juice and stacks of microwave meals.

I buy Rocky Road in a gallon carton. The clerk smiles and nods and bags the carton in a plastic freezer bag. I walk back to the apartment swinging the bag. One of the black guys stands by the car. "Good evening," he says. A silk cloth wraps his head, and he wears a black jogging suit with a red stripe along the side. It's a nice suit.

"Hello," I say.

"Shopping?" he says.

"Evening snack," I say as I hurry past him. Inside my apartment, I strip the plastic bag from the Rocky Road, wet a spoon under the tap, and then sit on the sofa by the window. From apartment number twelve, the white guy limps to the Seville. He slides into the passenger seat. I don't know anyone in that apartment. Whoever lives there keeps the drapes drawn back night and day. After the white guy slams the door closed, the three men sit in the car. Finally, a woman, wearing black jeans and a grey ski jacket, leaves apartment twelve. I've never seen her in the building before. Her hair pulls back in a blonde clump. I would remember this woman, because her legs are straight, without fat, and her butt fits round in the pockets of the jeans, just like one of the women from a magazine's cigarette advertisement. She sits in the back seat. Her head lays back against the seat, and she bends forward as one of the men raises something up. I see the thin plastic casing of a hypodermic needle.

I pick up the phone, which I really only use to call the pizza place after I see their commercial on TV. Sometimes the last seconds of the commercial are still on the screen when I get the voice on the other side of the line. And then, a quarter of an hour later an actual knock sounds from my door and I open the box, letting out the doughy odor of crust and the heavy smell of melted cheese. I call Ms. Krantz, the manager, because something is assuredly happening outside.

The manager always dresses in her bedroom jacket over a silk bathrobe. She calls out for maintenance. She calls out for groceries. A repairman will show up on weekends, mysteriously summoned from the nexus of phone lines in her office. Her voice has been altered by a succession of half-burnt cigarettes into a raspy and charcoaled wheeze. "What?" she says. "This is Reese Clarrington, number eight.

"There are people doing things in the parking lot." I tell her about the movements of the woman from number twelve, suspicious.

"I've got it handled," she says. A call, I know, goes out as soon as I hang up. I poke my spoon around at the bottom of the empty ice cream carton. The manager circles the parking lot like a robed monk, her head bowed, like she's looking for cigarette butts. She even bends over in disguise. She isn't actually picking them up because she never does.

I turn the TV on to the start of a movie until blue lights flash from outside. In the parking lot, a police cruiser blocks the exit, shines a floodlight across the parking lot and reveals the pale faces of the three men as insubstantial triangles. They run toward the Seville. A uniformed officer—his pant legs ironed so that the crease falls in a vertical line—stands in front of the police car. I have caused this. I am behind the policeman's movements. It was my voice that set in motion the manager's voice, and now my actions speak through the police officer. In the floodlight, they move in slow motion like guttering images from a TV with a broken horizontal adjust. The officer grabs the white guy by his wrists and twists them. Something flips into the air, sparkles as it rattles across the ground and slides under a truck.

The policeman pushes the man and prostrates him, the policeman who acts as the incarnation of my will. He quickly captures the other two.

The police deposit the men into the white cruiser that blocks the entrance to the parking lot. A spat of radio traffic flies skyward to connect the event to the nearest police station. The crackle of numbers rattles my window. As the cruiser backs away, I see the glint of metal on the asphalt. In the empty parking lot, I watch cigarette butts float down the trickle of runoff.

I turn the radio station on to hear if there is any news. I bet these events play on the police band radios but I don't own one. I use the remote to check the channels on TV. A high school band marches on channel 7; on 5 and on 6 anchor men point at clouds and rain drops as big as their fists. It will rain tomorrow. An accident will probably be somewhere on the freeways. No one says anything about me. My actions are not reported or recorded or accounted for.

At a quarter to twelve, I wake to the rustle of rain on the roof. A harsh floodlight from the used car lot next door permeates my room like smoke. Through a crack in the drapes, a slash of white-blue light cascades across the ruffle of sheets, across my chest of drawers, onto the poster of a Berlin street, tacked to the wall. In the poster, an old building on an abandoned street corner juts over a door painted a startling bright red. Everything in my room is as it is every night and already the event, the particular sequence of things, has begun to fade. I remember the cold watery trickle in my stomach when the men noticed me in the parking lot, and the electric tingle in my arms as I watched them getting arrested in the parking lot as a result of my tip, but already I'm aware of the distorting of my memory. I don't remember what I said to them. My involvement in these moments of my own life seems as subliminal and uninvolved as my listening to a stream of mid-morning radio ads.

Sweat collects in my pillow. The damp linen feels slimy against my cheek. My body does things; if I concentrate, I can change the beat of my heart. Sometimes my cheeks flash red while I'm at the bank. I think the other plain faces I work with consider me—quiet, trembling, servile—a pervert. They imagine my thoughts are identical to the confessions of convicted rapists, child molesters, and necrophiliacs they've seen on day-time talk shows. But my face turns red for no reason.

At midnight, I dress in my brown flannel sweat suit. I put on my red plastic overcoat. I ignite my flashlight; the rubber nipple over the switch depresses and the light jumps into the parking lot. Outside, under a truck, I find the silver cache of strewn keys, six slices of metal, two labeled with the Seville logo. Before I go to their car, I slip into the cramped space of my Toyota, and I slip off the red raincoat, with water beading across the surface. I put on my old Churchill raincoat. I pull the shoulders out, and even though it barely fits, I feel like I fill it out again.

The plastic interior of the Seville smells like cigarette smoke and my old gym locker. The rain takes the blue street lamp and waves the light in pulses across my face. It makes my hands white. I grip the smooth leatherette with my outspread fingers; it feels like a bed of cold, human skin.

I fit the key into the ignition slot. I turn the headlights on, and I fire the engine; it rolls and clicks and clicks and hums until the defrosters strip the windows clear. Clear of traffic, the empty streets unfold before me. This car is not much of a prize, the paint is battered, and the clatter of the engine is like shaking keys, but it's now mine; it belonged to someone else, someone whom I put in jail. I can do as I will. I turn on the radio. But it just has the AM dial, so I turn past the familiar drawl of country, over the murmur of Motown love songs until I come to an unfamiliar language. German sputters into the car. Der Kommissar, Oh, Uh, Oh.

Through the unfamiliar windshield, the passage of houses I normally don't notice suddenly gains a strangeness. I notice buildings and streets that I had once just driven past. I feel as if I had stepped out of a long, slow movie into a sunlit street and realized that I could go anywhere now that the movie was over. I drive on the freeway feeling the wet wind gush through the rolled down window, looking at dark houses with people sleeping there, and I feel free, even though the gas needle hangs down regardless of the E and F. I can drive anywhere.




Matt Briggs: Fiction
Copyright 2000 The Cortland Review Issue 11The Cortland Review