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Clay Matthews

 

 

About “The Abridged Version of Self-Made

I woke up one day and was thinking I’d like to write a novel, maybe, but I quickly realized I was either too lazy or impatient for such an undertaking. So instead, I decided to settle for an abridged version of whatever I had in my head (as I guess everything is, to some degree). The following is the first of two of abridged pieces, and, like many popular and unpopular contemporary novels it is slightly meta-contextual, slightly autobiographical, slightly fictional, and slight on any actual plot.

 

The Abridged Version of Self-Made

 

Chapter One

 

4:20 as I begin and another version of my self

reaches into the time machine and pulls out

a joint, lights it up, because in one of these memories

there was fire, and in one of these lifetimes

I found I was speaking to someone through the smoke.

After school at the junkyard breaking windows

out of an old bus because it is the bus that transports

and it is the window that holds and we are the creatures

come over the fence to free your soul. I’ve spent

a long time on chain link. There’s something mythic

about a landscape cut up into diamonds. And I

remember the diamonds on some fat, anonymous ring,

sitting at the counter, turning it around and around

on his finger like he was winding up some better version

of his future-perfect self. In the future we were all

perfect. We were astronauts and doctors and race-car drivers

and husbands and fathers and children at heart.

I begin to watch my self sitting inside a tractor tire

singing Black Betty. The rubber tread has stamped out

its own record of oblivion, and late tonight I will

call my friend on the telephone from the other side

of America and do the same. Hey, you, out there.

They’re dancing tonight at the dive outside town.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

We tied the dog up with a leash to the trailer ball

because there were no trailers those days only the memory

of metal holding hands. Every time I close a hook

and eye latch I feel at once an amazement and perversion

at simple technology. The bigger machines only have

bigger vocabularies. So the dog slept under the tire

and I dreamed of sleeping under the tire but there was

that kid at the rodeo once who passed out under a truck

and was run over and dead before he could even come

out of the heavy sleep and into a dream. Or maybe

he was dreaming already of the ocean, of a woman

with long brown legs and a bottle and a beach towel

and a bitter lime with which to chase things away.

It always happens this way. I start with a story

and you tell me it reminds you of this other person

who died tragically. Chapter Two begins to contemplate

the larger questions of the novel. In Chapter One it was

usually just Hi, how’re you doing, pleased to meet you,

I’ve got something to tell you that you won’t believe.

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Sunny-side up and I take mine over easy. Coffee, hash-

browns, silverware in a wax paper bag. You’re trying

to tell me about a thousand things going on in your head

and I’m trying to listen. All we’ve accomplished so far

is making eye contact, and noting the approaching storm

and respective haircuts. More coffee, and if we get warm

enough we will blossom into talk show hosts. With red

cheeks, perfect manners, and a hundred questions

that can take up a half-hour without really going anywhere.

What I want to ask is Does it ever stop hurting? Do you

like to stand outside in a hard rain? Have you ever dreamed

of making love right before the end of the world?

The fork cuts through the egg and the egg cuts through

the toast. And the toast cuts through my nostalgia

for good white bread. Music and laughter behind us.

Laughter and music. It should be what we all ask for

when they offer us that one wish. Who knows,

maybe we already have, silently, since we know that a wish

can never come true once entering language.

 

 

Chapter Four

 

The sound of a dog barking and then a chorus

of dogs barking back in the distance. The line

and refrain. I’m standing beside an old shed behind

the grocery store. The smell of old produce.

Washing machines. Dryers. Big fucking refrigerators.

In spite of their owners and shock collars and fences

the dogs are making music. This is one of my theses

supporting the value of art. Dogs, too. I’m talking

with a mechanic while he raises my car up for an oil

change. I ask him how he got started working on cars,

and he tells me that if you get stranded on the highway

enough you’ll be surprised what you can learn.

I am witnessing a town in progress from here.

I am watching life. Cars move in and out of the bank,

people move in and out of the store, dogs move

in and out of song and I am moving in and out

of conversation and a lovely silence with a man

I’ve just met. His hands are so dirty I want to shake

them until our guards drop off. I want to ask him

everything he knows about an engine, and if he had

only one story to ever tell how would it begin.

 

 

Chapter Five

 

A bed of crosses and flowers at an intersection

on the side of the road. A song somewhere on the radio

to mark happiness, and then grief, and then both

and more time passed. I will stick something in the ground

in this place to remember you. I am stuck in the novel

again. Which means I need to be going somewhere,

and likely I’ve still something important left to learn.

There are a thousand people walking to my left

and my right, there are almost as many books on the shelves.

I want to read them all. I turn right onto a state highway

and let my motor run its course, past the houses, past

the trees, past the corn and past the cotton. Cotton itself

is a very long story. If you’ve ever picked it you understand

that time is a relative bird. And I’ve got relatives all over

the country. We the Matthews and Mitchells have stretched

our names over America like a tight white shirt, threaded,

these many little histories connected by telephone wires.

Clay Matthews, born of a father and mother. I could

pull this yarn a long time. If you are to get to know me

then part of knowing me is knowing from where it was

I sprang. Where it was my feet first touched the soil, where

it was my legs first headed in another direction. There is a grave

in a graveyard to which I owe a visit. There is an obituary

in the paper that needs to go on much longer.

 

 

Chapter Six

 

I helped her out of her dress and asked how she felt

about being my love interest and/or romantic sub-plot

for the rest of our lives. Then I went to the kitchen and made

her a coffee with three spoonfuls of sugar, and brought it

back to bed while we stayed awake dreaming about everything

we’d categorized as the future. There would be children,

of course. And houses, and more coffee, and dogs, and jobs,

and exotic vacations to Italy and Puerto Rico, and marriages

and funerals and music and laughter and bags of groceries

on the dining room table. What is it about a promise

sometimes that makes it so easy to keep? Maybe this is

one of the things in life for which it works better just

to believe. Because I have all this faith left over

but sometimes I’m not sure where to put it. So I sip

my coffee and listen to the birds outside. And pull

the sheets over my head where underneath everything

is white. And I stay this way, and think I could stay

this way forever. But in the next room the answering machine

goes off, and on the other end it’s the family calling again,

because there is work to be done, and still things to say.

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

Plot construction. Pathos. The path to righteousness

or loss after the fact leads past your front door. I stood there

for a long time just thinking about knocking. Welcome

home. Smalltown, US of A. Where the old gas stations

have died and turned into graveyards for tires. This is where

we get caught up in place. Fridays and fried catfish.

Motor oil and spark plugs. Soybeans, Milo, another crop

name finding its way into your heart. It is dark and pleasant

here and on some days otherwise. I know of a wonderful

woman who collects spittoons. I know of a man who carries

in his pockets small jars of salt and pepper, because a table

without good manners is no sort of table at all. Then the way

the diagram of a plot often looks like the Arch in St. Louis,

and all the stories of getting there, of crossing through,

of finding yourself in the top and looking out. All the old

things. I went to a casino and put my money in a slot machine

and wanted to cry when a speaker simulated the sound

of coins hitting the pan. The grease hits the pan and the chicken

hits the grease and I am hungry for something fried

out of self-respect. They’d put your name in the telephone book.

They’d bring fresh bread over to your house. In the in-

between you might feel like you’ve known somebody.

And I would be running my finger through all the numbers

and closing my eyes, envisioning a long and slow conversation.

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

Motorcycles, front wheels, the shoulder of the highway

baring itself in a soft red light. They should never make a road

this sexy. The chapters move on. In the abridged version

of my life I am allowed a voice-over narration. Down the street

glass packs rattle the windows, while inside people are holding

each other, and screaming at each other, and wishing

the other outside would quiet down. Then at the junkyard, high

again and drunk, too. This time I asked him what god was

and he answered by skipping a stone across the black water.

I walked up a lane and down a lane and crawled into

the cab of an old combine and tried to get the radio

to work. Because the beautiful thing about the radio

is that the music is always there, even when you’re sleeping,

even dead, it’s still waiting for someone to find a way

to turn it back on. The wind was blowing through

our hair and in the distance we could see the rain taking

one bounding step at a time, over a tree line, over a field,

over a house and headed towards what we then called home.

 

 

Chapter Nine

 

The thunder was back-talking the lightning and I went in

the house to lay with the woman and watch another movie

about the Stockholm syndrome. If you stole me, I said,

I’m not sure if I could ever forgive you. And I wondered

how long you have to lock a person up before they love

you in spite (of). I went the next day to visit my father in prison

and we sat outside and fed squirrels and talked about

baseball, and I looked at the squirrels and wondered

if it is better to feed or be fed, and rhetorically what was

the difference between the two. There is a difference

between chain link and not chain link. And there is a difference

between old barb and razor wire. And there is a difference

between the difference. And these things I refuse to discuss

at greater length. Number nine. Number nine. Repeat until something

terrifying fills your consciousness. I swallow a sleeping pill

and close my eyes. And in the darkness I have bargained

for a dream about bulldozers and hunting escapades,

an albino deer in the middle of the road, bowing

a great white rack of antlers and allowing me to pass.

 

 

Chapter Ten

 

Fiction and memoir. The first person in a long list of persons.

I start to try and hold them together like a bouquet

of dreams grown wild. In the beginning I was fond

of dandelion necklaces. In the mornings sometimes now

I spray the yard in order to kill the weeds. And I run

the lawnmower back and forth in lines, in squares, in perfect

geometrical patterns to set-off the shapeliness of nature.

She had a dress once, with lines, that made me hold

my breath. And now sometimes when I see her

after work, it’s like I’ve been assigned to remember

her face and body again. If you close your eyes you will

still hear me, inside, but I will then cease to be

the same form. If you’ll hold out your hand I will lead

you through the room. And if the stereo still works we can

maybe turn it on, and listen while we slowly start to dance.

 

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Because it must end, it will. There are trees in places

and other places where the trees have left. Even plants

sometimes lay out migration patterns. Outside the fall

is spreading its cool hush over the beginning, and as

the beginning it makes promises for what will never end.

On the other side of town I can hear the marching band

practicing, as the invisible drum beat beats out for me

some pattern of life. I kiss her goodbye, and with the windows

down a leaf falls into my lap. What began with fire

ends with something just dying to burn. And if the novel

closes then it closes without much of a thud. Who wrote

the book of love? For starters, nearly everyone I’ve known.

And still I have almost a thousand other questions.

And still I haven’t spent enough time watching life grow.

The wind blows and the radio fights against the silence.

I leave myself to drive for a moment, and blank out

to the tune of discord and harmony that surrounds me.

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