I  Chapter 1
Chapter 1
I
didn’t know the war was about to begin. I slept as serenely
as any child asleep in the cool fall weather. When the phone
rang in the middle of the night, I answered with the words my
grandfather had drilled into me: “The Wallace Residence; this is
Ben speaking. May I ask who is calling?” This was rote, a sign I was
still asleep, unaware that a call in the middle of the night was either
a wrong number or a disaster. When my grandfather had a heart
attack while I was still in high school, my grandmother had called
in the middle of the night. I still slept. If I’d known who was on the
other line, I would’ve let it go to the answering machine.
“PFC Ben Wallace?” The voice was a woman’s, although I’m not
sure why I thought this. She could have been a teenager playing a
prank on me. She had an official-sounding Southern inflection in
her voice. In the U.S. Army, to say something in a Southern manner
is to speak with authority. Everyone in the army, no matter where
they originally came from—Belize, Skykomish, wherever—acquired
a Southern inflection when they were in charge. This was the kind
of thing some prankster would likely pick up on.
“May I please speak to PFC Wallace?” she asked. “This is
Lieutenant Erickson.”
Matt Briggs
My hands felt heavy and swollen. I blinked. “Hello?” the voice
asked again. It was a teenage boy’s or a young woman’s—in any
case, I had never heard this voice before. The voice asked for
my name and rank. My greasy waiter clothes lay heaped in the
hallway outside of the bathroom; I looked at the open paperback,
Remo Lives, facedown on my nightstand. Dust had collected in
the trough of the spine. The window was open a crack, letting in
the early morning sound of the pine boughs moving in the drizzly
wind, someone trying to start a car down the street, and the far-off
rumble of a jet falling toward the airport. I was, last time I checked,
a civilian. I was a reservist, a citizen soldier—heavy on the citizen.
“Ma’am, it’s the middle of the night. Can you call back
tomorrow?”
“I’m calling to let you know you have to report for duty on
Saturday at six hundred hours.” I had never received a phone call
from my Army Reserve unit before. The time I did spend at drill, I
had mapped out pretty well. I spent those days jogging and working
out at the Madigan VA Hospital gym. After muster, I took a twohour nap in the front seat of my car and then went back inside,
had lunch, talked to the soldiers I drilled with for another hour.
Then I took a swim, was dismissed, and drove directly to my job
as a waiter at Red Robin Gourmet Burger Emporium. I worked the
Saturday night closing shift. When I finished my shift, I went home
and slept for four hours and then got up and did the whole thing
again. I had plans to go to a private university in the fall, using
military money and tip money.
“I don’t drill this weekend,” I told the woman. As I said this, I
noticed how my arm looked in the blue light coming from the car
repair shop behind the apartment building. Tall streetlights poked
over the top of the wall, and their light shone down through my
window into my apartment. Normally, I kept the venetian blinds
turned tight so that I could sleep, but tonight I’d fallen asleep
The Strong Man
without adjusting them. I flexed my muscle and noticed that my
bicep had a new point to it, and that when I flexed, a tightly knotted
ball of rope cinched my arm.
“I can’t drill this weekend. I’m already on the schedule at work.
I’m on the board. I have to go in. No one is going to cover me.”
“I’m giving you a direct order, Private. Muster is not optional.”
“I’m not on duty right now. Work is a little more of a priority to
me, a paycheck, than showing up for drill.”
“This is not a drill, PFC; report for call on Saturday morning or
you will be reported AWOL to the MPs.”
“What do you mean?”
“The balloon has gone up. I have about thirty other people on
my call list. I want to get some sleep tonight.”
“This isn’t a drill?”
“The balloon has gone up.” Lieutenant Erickson didn’t say this
with a shrill edge in her voice. She said it plainly. She didn’t say it
with the irony reservists normally used for the phrase since it had an
end-of-the-world meaning to it. It had the same overblown quality as
plagues, locusts, famine, intercontinental ballistic missiles hurtling
their black-and-white checkered cones toward major metropolitan
areas. The balloon had gone up. We had been called to war.
I wrote the directions to a base at Discovery Park in Seattle, a
base I hadn’t even known was there. I hung up the phone, climbed
back into bed, and lay completely still in an approximation of sleep,
waiting for the alarm to tick.
I recalled something about the Middle East. The countries didn’t
mean much to me because they all had new names. They weren’t
referred to as Arabia and Persia the way they did in storybooks. They
had names like Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, and Iran. They were all over
there, somewhere. I had deliberately not paid attention to a single
thing in the news, even though as a reservist, I might theoretically
get called. Before the phone call I really believed that an activation
Matt Briggs
of the Army Reserve was only hypothetical. The reserves had not
been called since World War II. In Vietnam, in fact, the reserves had
been a good place to hide from the war. The draft dodgers were the
ones who were now in charge of my reserve unit.
I wanted to call Jin. She would be asleep. I could leave a message
on her answering machine, but according to her mother I was only
allowed to leave one message a day. I didn’t want to call until she
was awake.
Lying in the darkness, I realized I had two choices. I could make
the best of it, or I could fight it. My grandfather had made the best
of it when it happened to him. He had been drafted for World War
II. He said war was the best thing that was ever forced on him,
because it was the worst thing. And once you get past the worst
thing, it’s all gravy.
Or I could fight it like my father had. My grandfather said
that my father running to Canada in the late sixties to avoid his
obligation to the war was the worst thing that had ever happened
to my father.
I looked at the shadows shift on the wall. The light pushed light
through the blinds and drapes. Wind blew loose objects against
the Dumpsters outside, a flapping and knocking clatter. I liked
getting up this early and moving through the neighborhood. The
air smelled clear, having come from the far south or from the
mountains. During the day the air didn’t smell like this—it smelled
of bus exhaust, engine oil, and lingering cigarette smoke.
I hadn’t signed up to actually go to war.
Oddly, I felt liberated. What war? I didn’t know there was a
war. I knew there was some trouble in the Middle East. There was
always trouble in the Middle East. There was always armed conflict
somewhere. I had somehow become enmeshed in something beyond
my control. I felt tricked. But, because I had been tricked, I was
relieved of any responsibility. I would go to the war. I would leave
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everything behind in Seattle and go there, though I didn’t even know
where “there” was. I had been asleep, and when I went to sleep I
had planned to wake, when I would be a waiter at Red Robin, a
student at Highline Community College, and the next day would
be planned to the half hour. In the middle of the night, this had
shifted. Instead of knowing almost exactly what would happen in
my future, I knew nothing.
In the morning, I still wanted to call Jin, but it was too early.
I didn’t like to think of her as my girlfriend because that wasn’t
sufficiently clear about how I felt about her. I was certain she didn’t
feel the same way about me. She had talked about her future, and her
future didn’t include any kind of plausible narrative that included
me. She talked about medical school. She wanted to intern in an
urban hospital in Philadelphia or Baltimore, places that seemed as
far away as possible. She said, “Wallace, you worry too much. Who
knows what’s going to happen? It’ll all work out.”
Maybe I was a practice boyfriend or something. That makes her
sound coldhearted, but Jin wasn’t cold. I’d thought she was too
cool when we first started to go out. I’d just come back from Basic
Training. I hadn’t seen her since we were partners in chemistry as
sophomores. When she saw me, she said, “You’ve grown.”
Grown or not, I didn’t feel grown-up then and now I had become
aware of a flutter deep inside my stomach whenever I thought about
her. I thought about Jin. I worried about when I might see her next.
When she went to a cast party after a play and didn’t tell me where
she was, I left five messages on her machine.
“Five messages?” Jin asked. “You’re not going to show up in
my bedroom in the middle of the night? Are you psycho? A lunatic
leaves three messages. Five?”
I might be a lunatic. I didn’t know. No one had given me the
appropriate scale. “I thought maybe you didn’t get my message?”
“My mother is not happy about those messages,” she said. “If it
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was me, I’d probably still date you even if you are a psycho—just as
long as you were, on your meds and could come up with brilliant
mathematical theorems.”
“I was trying to reach you.”
“My mother doesn’t like the answering machine. But my dad
thinks we have to have it. What if there’s an emergency?”
“It’s only for emergencies?”
“If you leave five messages, it sounds urgent.”
“I call. The answering machine comes on. It beeps. I need to say
something.”
Before this had happened, I had already begun to worry about
my general tendency to get obsessed. I wondered if my thoughts
about Jin were just a symptom, or they were real. Maybe I was
just a passionate guy? I wondered if it marked me as some kind
of pathological type. If Jin dumped me, how would I deal with it?
Would I break into her house, stuff her into the trunk of my Nova,
and drive to the abandoned prospector’s cabin I had picked out in
the Central Cascades in a pretty valley full of old fir trees where we
could make a new life together, free of the petty rules of the land?
Not that I hadn’t thought of it. A lot. The thought of using a shrink
ray and shrinking her down into a miniature person and placing
her in one of those capsules that hold twenty-five-cent trinkets in
the supermarket vending machines calmed the fluttering movement
that occurred somewhere behind my belly button. I had to imagine
possessing her, the way I owned a watch or book, just to calm myself
down. I wanted to know, was this normal? Or was there something
seriously wrong with me? Maybe I just wasn’t mature. It could just
be a sign of an unformed nervous system.
At first, I didn’t know what I thought about having a girlfriend.
I didn’t know anything about where Jin’s family came from. She
was Chinese-American. She was born in Tukwila. But her mother
and father came from Mainland China. Her father worked as a
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geneticist, and whenever I saw him, he smiled tightly and quickly
looked away. He seemed old, but had jet-black hair and wore a blue
oxford and pair of crumpled brown trousers. He spent his evenings
on the wooden porch of their house, taking all evening to drink a
single can of beer and chain-smoke a pack of cigarettes. He read
Chinese novels.
Jin’s mother, on the other hand, hurried to the kitchen to begin
making food when I showed up. Jin usually made sure we left as
quickly as possible because she said her Mom wouldn’t rest until I
was out of the house.
I didn’t join the Army Reserve to fight in a war. No one joins
the Army Reserve to fight in a war. If you’re itching to stick your
bayonet into the enemy, you join the regular army and work your
way into an elite unit like the Rangers. The closest I came to an
actual military-style experience was when my basic training first
sergeant lined my company up in a field full of locusts one day. It
was late morning, but the red soil already held the sun’s heat. The
bugs clicked in the dry grass. We folded our blouses into neat squares
and lay them on the dusty earth, scaring locusts up. It’s funny but
we called the shirts to our uniforms blouses. They whirred above
the heads of our company like popcorn blown from a popper. The
sergeant talked us through hand-to-hand combat moves.
“Most likely the only time you’re ever going to get into a brawl
will be when you’re in some bar you are not supposed to be in.
Army boys always win. The reason we win,” he shouted, “is what
I’m about to show you. You have only one blow. You need to make
that blow as rapidly and decisively as you can make it.” He showed
us how to place the ball of our hand under the enemy’s jaw. He used
that word, enemy, and the phrase kept going through my head after
that: “the enemy.” We paired up and then practiced, throwing our
hands up and kicking up clouds of bitter-tasting dust. I wanted to
try this maneuver out; on the march to the mess hall that night, I
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thought about the day I might get to use my move. It wasn’t likely
to happen anytime soon, since I was a 92 Bravo, a laboratory
technician.
During my induction into the reserves, I was asked a number
of questions about my beliefs: whether I was a pacifist, whether I
believed in the justice of the death penalty. At seventeen, my feelings
about these things were hardly articulate. I didn’t know how I felt
about them. I knew what I had been told about them. I didn’t think
a person should kill another person. I also knew war was something
that happened. A lot of things happened that I didn’t want to
believe happened. Whether I believed in them or not, they would
happen. In a war, I would aim my rifle at the enemy and I would
pull my trigger. I would jump from my foxhole, and I would strike
as quickly as possible, laying the ball of my palm into my enemy’s
neck. I believed there were armies and there were enemies and that
people killed their enemies. Whatever I believed didn’t matter very
much; things were what they were no matter what I believed. I
was as willing as the next person to get into fights, eat meat, and
perform actions that resulted, somewhere beyond me, in death. I
was an American. The only sure thing, as far as I could tell, was
that I was entitled to my hunger even if I was full.
But I didn’t join the reserves with any premeditated desire to see
a war, kill anyone, or have anything directly to do with the death
and destruction that resulted from my desire for of ground meat. I
was far happier allowing all this to happen somewhere else. I joined
the Army Reserve for these reasons: I wanted money for college,
and I wanted to piss off my dad and please my grandpa.
In the six months I’d been going to the Highline Athletic Club,
Sandy always arrived before me. No matter how early I woke, he
was already there. He came to the club after his job as a night
janitor cleaning office buildings downtown. He was amped up at
the end of his day. He was strung out on coffee. He drank huge
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amounts from the water bottle he filled with ice and coffee.
Sandy was the first person I made friends with after coming back
from the army. I had moved out to Seattle from Cle Elum, and I
didn’t know anyone. Everyone had graduated a year before me and
cleared off to different parts of the country. Everyone I knew from
east of the mountains didn’t want to go to Seattle. If they were
going to a city, they went to Spokane or Portland or San Francisco.
Seattle was too close and didn’t seem exotic enough to them. In high
school we’d come over the mountains and eat from the strange fastfood places there—hamburger chains you could only find in Seattle,
teriyaki, and other things. If a person were going to the trouble of
moving, why go to Seattle? I never committed to anything whole
hog, I guess.
First thing, I joined the athletic club near my house and started
working out before I went to work. I still woke at the crack of
dawn. Just after my army training, waking up at five o’clock seemed
like sleeping in. I was used to getting up and moving before I could
possibly be awake, and so I would wake up and begin to move;
the morning after the call came in, after the balloon had gone up,
I didn’t even think. I slipped into my sweatpants, grabbed my book
bag and the clothes I’d prepared for the day, and took off. I didn’t
think about it. What was there to think about? I could think during
the weekend. I had set everything out on the weekend and now it
was ready, and since I didn’t have time to think, I didn’t have to
think, and so I didn’t think.
I sat in my car. A fine rain like liquid talc settled from the low
clouds, coming down as it always did in the early hours before the
sun rose. Even if the day were going to be hot, it would have this
faint rain at five o’clock in the morning. The streets were silent
because no one went anywhere at five o’clock in the morning
except prep cooks. I pulled into the lot at the athletic club. One
of their things was that they were open all night long. There was
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always some high school kid at the front desk that they’d tricked
into working from three in the morning to the start of school, and
he would be drinking coffee, half-asleep. There were a few moms
working the treadmills and bicycle machines.
The weight rooms always smelled of rubber mats and the ferric
tang of plates. The few lifters labored through their routines. Sandy
drank his iced coffee and stretched. That is what he did before I
arrived. Sandy stretched, and he tried out new lifts that he then
would teach to me. I was pretty conservative when it came to lifting
weights. I preferred the real power lifts that concentrated on the
long muscles: bench press, squat, incline bench, dead lift, clean
and jerk. I would rotate through my muscle groups and then hit
the stomach; and then I’d spend a half-hour in the sauna drinking
Sandy’s brew and sweating while he and I talked. Only after we had
gone through our routine did Sandy actually start to get tired.
In addition to his janitorial work, Sandy was a professional roleplaying gamer. He ran several games and people paid for a seat at
them. He ran his game out of the back of a hobby shop near the
athletic club. The beauty of his game, as he described it, was that it
occurred in a fully simulated environment that continued to evolve
even if people weren’t playing the game. The game developed at a
slightly faster rate than real time. A week might pass in real life,
and a year might pass in the game. He ran a computer program
that advanced the weather, calculated the inflation rate, and caused
various political developments. In his game, the discovery of a
horde of dragons could result in rapid inflation. A loaf of bread rise
from the cost of a brass to a gold piece. He prepared a newspaper,
environmental reports, and price lists for his games each week.
After working out, Sandy would go home to sleep, and then
around eleven o’clock he’d wake up and work on his world,
updating rate tables and modifying index sheets. Then he’d go and
conduct one of his weekly games in the middle of the day.
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“The balloon has gone up, Sandy.” I told him this right when he
was about to go down with the weight racked on his back, so he
had the entire cycle of the squat to think about it. He had already
shifted the weight off the bar. He had it up on his shoulders across
his back. Sandy believed in the power of the grunt. Sandy looked
directly into his face in the mirror. He curled his lips. He exposed
one yellow tooth, almost black at the edge of the gum. Going down
into seven hundred and fifty pounds of steel, his eyes rolled forward
in his head. They didn’t bug out. Sandy said that even if he could
lift more weight, a bug-eyed weight lifter didn’t deserve any medals,
didn’t deserve the gift of strength. Vigor required discipline. A lack
of discipline resulted in bug eyes and meant the lifter probably
didn’t have the endurance to wake up and go to the gym week after
week, month after month, because only that resulted in strength.
Some study showed that of all sports, only weight lifting could
increase the confidence of all the participants. Everyone could find
a measure of success in lifting metal against gravity. Other sports
had winners, but they also made losers. Nothing else resulted in
strength. Eating protein helped, but it didn’t result in strength.
Taking steroids didn’t help; they resulted in a reliance on something
aside from discipline—and that meant you were not strong. Strength
required endurance and time and the development of muscle. This
was discipline.
Sandy and I referred to the slow burn at the end of the routine
as the “Arms of Fire.”
When he finished, he looked at me. “About fucking time, man.
Maybe you’ll learn something. I sure in hell hope you get to see
some action.”
“I’m a lab technician,” I said.
“I hear hospitals can be brutal during a war. This is a land war
in Asia.”
“A land war in Asia!” That was a punch line to a joke.
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I was never particularly good at schoolwork. I didn’t do poorly. I
read the books assigned. I worked through my assignments because
I’d been told to do them. I was considered a good student, but
“good” in that I was pliant and turned in my homework on time. I
kept a three-ring binder, as instructed, with individual tabs for each
class. I pressed the metal tabs and the metal prongs open with an
audible snap, and I fitted my three-hole-punched notebook sheets
into place. I reviewed my notes each evening while I worked on my
homework. I never excelled. I earned Bs and the occasional A from
teachers who graded on completeness and timeliness. I figured it
took just a certain amount of effort just to get by.
I joined some other students in a calculus class study group.
As soon as we got together, they wanted to play poker instead of
work through the quadratic equations. I left to do my homework.
“Wallace,” one kid said, “do it in the morning like everyone else.”
“But it can take hours,” I said.
“I don’t let my homework take more than an hour,” he said. “If
I can’t wake up before school and do it while I drink my coffee, I
don’t do it.”
I spent the next several days thinking about this. I timed myself,
and after an hour I still had more work. I woke in the morning
and drank coffee. I didn’t like the taste of coffee. I followed the
directions on the tin. Then I cracked open my book and started
working through the problems. The school day started, and I was
still drinking coffee and working on my problems. I missed the day
and had to work on my homework that night.
Just as I didn’t excel in school, I didn’t play sports because I never
stood out in any way. In sports, everyone was supposed to stand
out for some reason. Everyone was supposed to find his talent. In
my case, I was a monotonously average player. For several years I
played soccer, but my playing peaked in the fourth grade, when I
was selected as one of three players to attend a soccer camp. I was
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selected because I had steadfastly followed the coach’s instructions,
and the majority of the other players had just run around doing
stunts like making goals with a head-butt or taking five-yard-long
sliding tackles.
I was never good at stunts; somewhere around the sixth grade,
other kids learned how to follow the rules when it was necessary
and get away with doing whatever they wanted to do when no one
was looking.
I discovered the weight room one morning when I came to school
early to run stairs. I wanted to try out for the wrestling team and
dreaded the tryouts. Months before they happened, I started to run
stairs in my house, but all we had was a flight of six steps down into
the basement. I came to school to run long flights of stairs.
As I left the empty locker room that morning, I saw one of the
football players, a pimply and overweight boy who never actually
played on the field. He was wearing his jersey and sweatpants. I
followed him onto the cement patio next to the parking lot and the
school greenhouse, where the biology glass was replicating Gregor
Mendel’s genetic experiments with planters of peas. The door to
the weight room was held open by a rusted hunk of steel. The
rumbling thud of heavy metal came from the room. A number of
boys from wrestling and football and a few girls I recognized from
the gymnastics team quietly worked at various stations. They were
all concentrating and didn’t even look up as I came in. A football
player stood on a mat and yanked up a barbell. Actually, it wasn’t
that he yanked the weight; rather, his entire body became a coil, and
the metal flew into the air, and he somehow fell under the barbell
and caught it. The plates sang as they clattered back together.
The lifter dropped the weight back to his thighs and then set it on
the ground and repeated the entire motion. Everyone was quietly
occupied at his work. I found a chart on the wall and began to lift
weights. The boy I’d followed into the room was lifting weights at
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the squat station. Although he was someone who always talked in
class, here he quietly began to work.
The chart on the wall had two routines for increasing strength.
One chart covered the upper body, and the other focused on the
legs. Each lift had a diagram showing how to do it, and they all
looked simple. I did the lifts for my arms, careful not to lift too
much weight.
Afterward, I felt tired, and clearheaded the way I did after I ran
stairs. I could tell I had done something, but I wasn’t sure what it
was. Later in the day, I began to feel my strained muscles in a way
I hadn’t felt before. I became aware of muscles I didn’t even know
I had, because they hurt.
My shoulders ached the next morning. It felt as if I had pulled
my bones apart. I limped to school and lifted the weights on the
other side of the chart. By the time I was done lifting on this side,
the pain in my arms had subsided to a dull ache. I felt oddly burned
up and at peace with myself. I became aware of a kind of anxiety
that was there all the time, as if I should be doing something but I
didn’t know what it was.
The next day was the worst that it would ever get. My legs and
arms were both sore, and I could barely get to school and sit down
at my desk. After a few days, though, the pain faded. I kept visiting
the weight room.
Unlike just about anything else, I found that I improved. At first,
I lifted weights that were pretty much what anyone could lift. After
three months I was lifting the same weights as the football players.
By the end of the summer I could lift more than anyone in the school
had lifted before. It was just a matter of steady, patient attendance. I
showed up and lifted my weights, just like I showed up and did my
homework. But unlike my homework, I began to do things other
people couldn’t do. Talent hadn’t chosen me. I just showed up day
after day to lift.
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I parked in an old drive-in movie theater called Midway that held
a vast swap meet during the weekends on the undulating pavement.
Thin lanes led up to parking spots on an embankment for the ideal
angle. Microphones rusted in the rain. Everyone who went to the
community college parked in the old stalls during the week, taking
the spots closest to the door first, and gradually spreading out
across the lot until the last spots were taken and people had to park
on the gravel road behind Midway. Cattails grew in the ditch there;
in the middle of the swampy field the Washington State Department
of Transportation kept their snowplows and road graders. I parked
in the middle of Midway and looked up at the white movie screen.
It was too light now for it to get any use, with Highway 99 and I5 right next to it, but there was still something pleasant about the
vast, blank screen.
I had to leave all of this. A windbreak of cottonwoods stood
between the movie theater and the road. Their swollen roots had
pushed up the cement sections of the sidewalk to mismatched
angles. By the time I crossed the Midway parking lot, I was walking
with the pack of 8:30 a.m. students over Pacific Highway South
and down the new, slightly soft asphalt bicycle trail to the campus.
The community college had thick, green lawns and rhododendrons
and cedar trees. To me the campus seemed like a retiree’s luxuriant
backyard. Totem poles sat in the middle of stands of cedar trees.
Chimes tinkled from under the portables’ awnings. The buildings
themselves were essentially thick wood frames and glass. For a
community college with bustling students getting ready for their
afternoon jobs, it seemed all right; it seemed as though this was
how things should be, rather than the ornate cement Gothic campus
at the University of Washington. The university had terra cotta
gargoyles just as a McDonald’s had vanilla milkshakes.
I didn’t know a single person on the campus besides my instructors.
There was a girl in biology who kept ending up as my lab partner.
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She wore her long brown or blondish hair—depending on the
sunlight—in a ponytail and wore sweaters and pale blue jeans and
new running shoes with huge, bulbous soles. She smiled at me when
I saw her on campus. When we worked on experiments in biology,
she leaned forward and wrote notes with a pink mechanical pencil
in her spiral notebook. She’d written the class name and section
number on the cover in a bleeding black marker. Sometimes she
stopped and gouged the paper, leaving a tear when the lead ran out.
She said “fuck” softly, and then unzipped a compartment on her
backpack and removed a plastic case with replacement leads lined
up like bullets.
I think her name was Sarah.
My first class took place in the last classroom overlooking the
gully that ran behind the school, a deep chasm with storm-drain
runoff gurgling from somewhere under the blackberry bushes and
salmonberries. Nature trails ran through the greenbelt. None of the
female students would travel along the nature trails, because for
several years female students had vanished while jogging along the
trail or hitting the various exercise stations. Streamers of moss now
hung from the pull-up bar. Each station had a padding of crushed
cedar shavings, and in October between class and work I’d take my
lunch bag down into the leafy greenbelt and sit on the sit-up bar and
listen to the bird calls and the stream, or rather storm-drain runoff,
gurgle in its bed of crushed cement blocks that had come from the
apartment building that once stood where the campus now did.
I sat in my History of the Ancient World class taught by a man
who wore blue jeans and sandals, even in the rain. A scarab hung
from a cord necklace. He pressed the scarab into the gap under his
Adam’s apple as he talked to us about the Sumerians. He explained
the agricultural explosion in the fifth millennium BCE.
After class, I told him that I had to withdraw. “My unit has been
activated for the war.”
22
The Strong Man
I followed him to the instructors’ annex, up a flight of stairs.
His office smelled slightly of the outdoors, mildew, alder, and
rotting leaves. A moth tapped his door like a damp wood-chip and
bounced. African tribal totems and pieces of stone from digs stuffed
every shelf.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, you’re getting called up for this Arabian Gulf thing.”
“Desert Shield,” I said.
“Everything is happening in Kuwait?”
“I don’t know where I’m going.”
“Baghdad has really good whores. As good as Rome.”
“What?”
“So I’ve heard. You have to stop in Egypt too. They’ve got Greek
whores there.”
“I don’t know where I’m going.”
“Greek and African.”
“I might not even leave the U.S. I’m in the reserves, obviously.”
“Have you ever had quat? If you’re in the region, go to Egypt—
you won’t be sorry. It’s a pity I can’t go with you. I could show you
a time; yes, I could. A time indeed. But I’m stuck here grading the
work of morons. Sorry. Present company excluded, of course.”
We looked out his window down into the gurgling space of the
gully choked with fir trees behind the school.
I could call Jin and she might answer. I grabbed my gym bag
because I needed to have my routine, and if my routine varied, I
didn’t know how to get through the day. I needed to do one thing
and then the next thing and, if I called Jin, I would want to drop
everything to figure out where this put us. The first thing she would
do was get mad. I’d have to deal with this. She had a list, and her
dating me broke some of her rules.
“I never date men in the military,” she’d said.
23
Matt Briggs
“For how many men have you even had that as an option?” I
asked.
“You’re the first one.”
“So you could have been with me or without me?”
“I also don’t date weight lifters.”
“I’m a bodybuilder,” I had said. “I don’t just lift weights.”
“What does that mean?”
“There is a certain art to what I’m doing.”
“It’s like performance?” she asked.
“I like to think of it as sculpture.”
“That is precisely why I had that particular item on my list. I
didn’t want to date a dude who works on himself as if he’s a piece
of clay.”
“We are all unformed,” I’d said. “It takes a certain will to make
something happen to our raw material.”
“I should have followed my list.”
But I called her anyway. The phone rang, and then I was
committed. She didn’t answer on the second ring, and I was sure
then that she wouldn’t answer, that her phone was off. Finally it
came to her message. “Name and number after the beep.” Even
though the message didn’t have any substance, she said it in a
cheerful way.
“This is Ben,” I said. “Call me at work when you can.”
Before work, I ordered the fettuccine Alfredo and changed into
my white shirt and blue chinos and read the paper, careful to avoid
the sections about Operation Desert Shield. I sat in the break room:
a red table in a cubicle of corkboard covered in company notices
on fluorescent paper and posters for bands the cooks played in. The
kitchen staff all played in bands. The artistically inclined waiters
were either actors or in bands. One of the day cooks was in a band
that had started getting airplay on the AM rock station at the far
end of the dial, Z Rock, and everyone had started asking him for
24
The Strong Man
advice. His band had just signed with a record label. He came to
work with this faraway look, as if he were already gone, ascended
to the stadium stage. He was a short man with long, dark hair he
kept rolled up into his hairnet. He’d been moved off the line and
had started preparing the burgers, arranging the food in the basket,
because everyone saw him as an artist now.
He came into the room now to change into his work clothes.
He looked at me and didn’t say anything. When he came out of the
changing room, I told him.
“They called me up for the war.”
“What war?”
“Operation Desert Shield.”
“That’s not a war,” he said.
He stood in the break room holding his long fingers up to his
jaw. He rocked slightly on the balls of his feet, getting ready to
jump.
“They called me last night and said I had to go.”
“They can’t just call anyone like that. Can they?”
“I’m in the Army Reserve.”
“Well, what are you bitching about? You joined to fight, right?
You joined to pick up your gun and go out there and blow some
motherfuckers away for peace, liberty, and justice for fucking all.”
“I didn’t join to kill anyone.”
“Look,” he shifted his weight. “I got to get going, or they’ll kick
my punk ass out right now.”
“I joined for the money,” I said to him as he walked away. I
turned back and looked at a moving sale flier, and I thought, “here
I was, a young man, and they had really handed me this thing, this
war.”
I went outside into the foggy drizzle, and I walked out to the
railroad tracks as I thought about it. People who went to war were
warriors. I could be a warrior. I could kick some ass, I thought.
25
Matt Briggs
While I bussed my tables after the dinner rush, I told my
news to the floor manager, a woman who’d just graduated from
business school and spent most days sitting on a stool watching
the movement of the night waiters. The shift had gone smoothly
because only businessmen and sedate retired couples came in on
Thursdays. They wanted their food quickly and hot, maybe a drink
or two, and then they left big tips. I’d earned a bunch of money for
three hours. I bussed, and then I told the boss.
“I’ve been activated.”
“Someone’s always pressing your buttons,” she said.
“They called me up.”
“You’ve heard the word,” she said, and then she stopped smiling.
“What are you talking about?”
“My reserve unit was activated for Operation Desert Shield.”
“What?” She swept her hair away from her ear, as if to hear
better. “What does that mean?”
“It means I’m going to go to the war,” I said.
“If there is a war,” she said. “They might not have one.”
“There might not be one,” I said. “But I have to report for muster
this weekend in any case.”
“Muster?”
“I stand in formation, and they call out my name and I say,
‘Here, sergeant.’ ”
“I didn’t know what to do,” I said. “I didn’t know where to go.
Something like that happens, and you think, did I even sign up for
this? I signed up for the Army Reserve, not the real military. I signed
up for one weekend a month.”
“But with the understanding that in a time of crisis they would
call you up.”
“Is this a crisis? It doesn’t seem like a crisis.”
“If they called you up,” she said, “it must be a crisis.”
“They say it’s a crisis, but who trusts them?”
26
The Strong Man
“Still, they called you up.”
“I won’t be able to come in next week. I’m sorry for such short
notice.”
“I’m shocked you even came in today.”
“They just called me last night.”
“And you start on Saturday.”
“Yeah,” I laughed. “I start on Saturday.” Start, like it was a job or
something. It wasn’t even a job: it was, as they say, an adventure.
I broke down some boxes left by the restaurant Dumpster and
took them home and then began to pack. I folded everything, and
then I started looking for my military gear, which I had in a trunk
and a duffel bag at the back of my closet. Soon I had everything
packed and folded. I kept two plates out and some silverware. I
could have the greatest experience in my life. I could rise to the
challenge and become a great warrior unlike any of the soft boys
who wandered around the mall, drooling. I could test my strength
on the field of battle.
At eleven o’clock, when Jin’s rehearsal finished, I drove back to
the college. I parked in the lot and walked into the theater. Jin stood
under the cover of the backstage entrance with her drama cronies.
I smiled at them, and Jin gave me this look: Don’t say anything.
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say how much I hated smoking or
anything. I just stood there, out in the middle of the driveway,
looking at her until she saw something was wrong, and then she
and I walked back to the car.
She kissed me, leaving behind a ghost smudge of lipstick.
“Where do you want to go?” she asked me.
“I don’t have any plans. Back to the apartment?”
“Do you want to know what I’m going to tell you?”
“You’ll tell me when you tell me.”
“I don’t think I’ll tell you. You’re in one of those moods,” she
said.
27
Matt Briggs
“Boys always say that about girls. If you don’t have moods, I
don’t have moods.”
She leaned across the seat and kissed me again.
I pulled through the cloverleaf and stopped at a stoplight. A man
wheeled a shopping cart over the overpass. He had built a tent over
the wire frame out of plastic bags and a packing pallet. He wore a
gray blanket as a turban.
“It’s a cold night,” Jin said.
“They said it might snow,” I said.
“I heard that. But what do they know?”
“They never know when it might snow,” I said.
“I didn’t get my period this month,” she said.
The light turned green. The rain was greasy on the windshield.
I turned on the fluid, and it sprayed frothy cleaner over the car
window.
“Does that mean you’re pregnant?”
“You’d think,” she said.
“Did you take a test?”
“No.” She shrugged and brushed her long black hair from her
face. “I didn’t plan it.”
“This is great,” I said. “I can’t believe it.”
“Unexpected is for sure,” she said.
“I’m going to be a dad!” I almost felt like crying. I would be a
dad. Jin and I would be together forever. Even if she divorced me
sometime, she would still be with me, because once two people
have a child together, they are locked together. There was nothing
she could do about it. I would always be the father of her child.
“Wait a minute,” she said. “I might not be pregnant.”
“You were smoking.” As I said this, I knew it was not the thing
I should say. I felt an urge to protect the baby, if there were a baby,
inside her. It was mine as much as it was hers. This I knew, but
at the same time I couldn’t understand the extension of myself I
28
The Strong Man
suddenly felt. Part of myself that was not myself was growing inside
of her.
“Whoever said I’m going to have a baby? I might not even be
pregnant. I’ve been late before,” she said.
“We’ll figure it out,” I said. “This is a lot to think about. We’ll
get a test. We’ve got to know.”
“There isn’t that much to figure out,” she said.
I parked in the parking lot and we climbed the stairs and she
looked around at my packed apartment.
“What’s going on here?”
“The balloon has gone up,” I said.
29
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