100 WATTS
Matthew Summers-Sparks

At 11:00 a.m. on October 26, Mccabe, who had a cold, buttoned his jacket before leaving the hardware store with four sets of 100-watt lightbulbs in a bag in his right hand. He looked outside. It was overcast, chilly. Mccabe, who had not yet figured today to be the clearest day of his life, left the hardware store with the bag of bulbs, sneezed, and headed to the barely lit underground parking garage.

Mccabe worked second shift at the Chevrolet plant in Milton Heights, a distant suburb of Denver, where he installed control knobs and buttons on instrument panels. He had built part of his car. It was a four-door sedan Chevrolet 808. He unlocked the door, opened it, got in, closed the door. He started the engine, turned on the heater, switched on the radio. He removed his jacket, tossed it to the backseat. When he threw it back there, two things happened. He remembered that he had a tape he wanted to listen to in a pocket of the jacket, and he heard a sound as it landed, as if something had broken, or split, or splintered, or grown too fast, or molted, or morphed. He wasn’t sure. Mccabe turned around, checked the backseat. He couldn’t see his jacket.

This was the first time since the beginning of summer four months ago that Mccabe had looked closely at his backseat. He’d tossed numerous things back there, such as old cups, hamburger wrappers, napkins, credit card receipts, coconuts, drinking glasses, a tape ball, old pictures, paper cups, tapes, a shoe, keys, a small fern, and so forth—218,450 things in total. He turned back ahead quickly, about to sneeze. It was a little hitch before his sneeze. He heard the radio, tuned to a jazzy-sounding commercial. Just the night before, at home:

Mccabe opened the door, and old friend Luis walked into the house. He said, “Listen to this, Mccabe. Got something you’re going to love: Underwater Miles Davis.” He pulled out his Underwater Miles Davis cassette. He knew that Mccabe enjoyed music underwater and got a thrill from it. But Mccabe’s real, secret thrill was that he actually enjoyed not the music being played and produced out of its natural element, but the simple way that he, Mccabe, was in something that was not his own; he was the music, unaware of what was going on, what the rules or obligations were. He was released while listening to it - - - - -

Mccabe looked at the tape and said, “Davis! Favorite. Nutty, nutty, man from what I hear.”

“Well, listen to this.”

“Whoa . . . Dig that scuba beat!”

Mccabe sneezed. Luis sniffled.

“Luis! You listen to this?”

“Underwater Miles Davis.”

“You know, this is the feel-good song of the year, the chance of a lifetime on tape, and it’s solid gold, like listening to a frozen bumblebee in free fall, like watching spring butter melt on black marble stairs. It’s like ounce after ounce of sake lapped from stolen ladles. It’s like the claptrap from the second-largest white oak in Colorado gripped and torn so you can’t count its rings, like you can’t count the rings on this music.”

“Underwater Miles Davis. Nutty, nutty man. He’s the king of jazz.”

“Reminds me . . .”

- - - - - because Mccabe secretly enjoyed having ideas bounced off his head, on the tiny tropical island on which he imagined himself. Coconuts, tapes, rocks, pens, soda cans, fluffy slippers, cats, a toothbrush, overdue library books, a shoe, and so forth, seemed to fall randomly from above, down, bouncing off his head. He picked up the coconuts, toothbrush, cats, whatnot fallen on the sand around him, and tossed them over his shoulder into the sea, where they splashed into the waves and sank.

 

Mccabe grabbed a Kleenex, sneezed, then tossed it to the backseat. He changed the radio station. Nothing good was on the preset buttons on his stereo. He turned again to the backseat, hoping to find the tape in the pocket of the jacket. He sniffled. He saw an old Burger King coffee cup. He picked it up. It read $40,000 Fortune. An unpeeled $40,000 Fortune game piece plastered on its side. This, he figured, probably isn’t what just grew too fast or maybe molted or morphed. He tossed the cup in the passenger seat next to the bag of 100-watt lightbulbs. Mccabe looked around, but still couldn’t see his jacket. He sniffled, then turned ahead. He hit the preset radio station buttons again, settled on something news-related. The radio said the coffin of Prime Minister Ferdinand Bertoya of Belize, recently assassinated, was to be on display an unprecedented twenty-four hours in Bolivar Square. He looked at the part of the dash he’d assembled. The buttons were arrayed on the black matte panel that encased the stereo. The panel included the rear-window defrost controls, the stereo, cigarette lighter, seat warmers, and the dome light.

Mccabe flipped on the seat warmers. He lighted the dome light, which illuminated the pile of junk in his backseat. He looked through the backseat some more. He found a bag of unpopped popcorn kernels. Popcorn kernels were tied to Deborah. Their conversations of late were not going well. Mccabe remembered growing up, how there was a wood-burning stove in the basement of his house, and on cold winter days he could spit across its smooth steel top and watch the spittles hop like flat stones across water. Which was bad, not good at all because Mccabe and Deborah believed or intuited that their understanding of the world, with one and the other in it, arose and revolved not from their ability to talk about it, but from their inability to not talk about it.

Two days ago. “I simply can’t eat this popcorn,” said Deborah. “It’s
too—”

“Salty?”

“That goes without saying,” Deborah said. “Unfortunately, it’s also lost its duende, which is some word I vaguely remember from Elle magazine meaning ‘sexually alluring.’ This popcorn isn’t as physically and mentally enticing as I’d like it to be.”

“I’d never really thought about this before, but there are too many kernels,” Mccabe said. “They’re in overabundance. Supersaturated.”

“Kernels! Tres bien! Kernels are one of the few redeeming qualities about this popcorn. Kernels are considered a delicacy in many Western European nations, such as France.” Deborah popped a kernel in her mouth and savored it.

“Like England?”

“Mmm. No, no, no. Portugal, Spain, and sprinkled provinces of northern Germany. They serve them on crackers similar to Triscuits. The half-popped ones”—she ate a half-popped one—“yum, are considered spiritual, and on Kernel Day there is no violence in the streets. Except for a few piddly things stolen here and there.”

Mccabe gave a Well-I-can-relate-since-I-used-to-swipe-Snickers-from-Ben-Franklin-Five-and-Dime-stores-when-I-was-a-kid-but-no-one-caught-me nod.

Deborah popped a kernel in her mouth and was silent in thought.

Mccabe gave a Once-an-unidentifiable-but-overwhelming-Belching-of-the-Gods-noise-rendered-my-dog-incoherent-and-he-fetched-all-the-wrong-things-and-I-hated-to-see-it-so-I-just-patted-his-head-gently-and-looked-away-at-the-waterlogged-tennis-ball-I’d-thrown-over-by-the-tree nod.

Deborah ate a dainty handful of kernels. “You see, many Europeans aren’t as obsessed with ‘patty’-type foods as we are”—she held eye contact, threw her finger into the air—“except for peppermint patties. They eat, in general, quite a lot of those like this . . . nibble nibble nibble.”

“Europeans, huh? Which ones?” said Mccabe as he tried to eat a kernel.

“Guess, you.”

“The French. The French must love peppermint patties!”

“No, they don’t, no. Portugal, sprinkled provinces of northern Germany, Wales, Ireland, Iceland, and—surprise!—Chile, the most patty-loving country, per capita, after us, where they put kernels in pancakes and call it money.”

 

Mccabe took the kernel out of his mouth, put it back in the bag. Mccabe turned around and set the bag of kernels back into the backseat. He rummaged around some more and found a pack of matches. There were two left. He figured he might as well light them. The striking surface was worn away, so he turned back around, hit the cigarette lighter that he had installed. It popped up: orange-hot excitement. He lit the matches, tossed the lighter in the backseat, shook out the matches, smelled their smoke, then remembered the lighter.

He turned around and rummaged among the items. He couldn’t find it. Mccabe turned back ahead. He looked around. He was in Tenant 248’s parking spot. He wasn’t Tenant 248. The heater was on too high, he turned it down. He switched off the seat warmers. He looked at the passenger seat and saw the bag of 100-watt lightbulbs and the old Burger King coffee cup with the $40,000 Fortune game piece beside it. The radio said, “The event happens for a second time, and that’s memory. As in—”

Mccabe pulled the $40,000 Fortune game piece. It read You Win $40,000! Mccabe started jumping in his seat, hitting the roof of the car with his head and fists. He thought of things this would allow him to buy: a great vacation, his own parking space, a well-maintained used jet. He smelled something burning a little, turned around. Beside a drinking glass, a shoe, and a plastic Coke bottle, he spotted a tiny fire at the base of the fern’s planter—a credit card receipt was burning. He blew it out, saw his cigarette lighter, felt a sneeze slowly come on. He picked up the lighter, turned around, popped it in its receptacle, sneezed, then rolled down the windows. He again looked at the winning ticket, smiling robustly, and admired himself and the ticket in the rearview mirror. He looked away and considered where to store it, maybe in his pocket or with the lightbulbs or in his wallet. He felt like kissing the $40,000 Fortune ticket.

Before kissing anything that had been in his backseat for so long, Mccabe decided to examine it more closely. He read that the game piece had expired the month before. He held the game piece in front of his face and stared. He double-checked today’s date on his watch. Confirmed: the piece had expired. He said angry things. He looked closely at the game piece and cursed every section. He cursed the $40,000, Burger King, and wished farting demons upon the printer, Dayton Print Company of Ohio. He read The Fortune, which foretold, This Will Be the Clearest Day of Your Life. Mccabe punched the steering wheel, not sure what was going on. He leaned into the horn. Over the steady sound of the horn, he said, “I definitely remember days clearer than this.” But something in his brain kept thinking, “Maybe today’s my Clearest Day.” He felt a sneeze coming on.

He let off the horn, sneezed. He hit the horn again. He looked around the four-door car with lots of storage room. Someday, he’d like to tell someone, “Sit down by the fireside and I’ll tell you a tale about my Chevy. It had four doors.” He let off the horn. He hit it again. Mccabe pulled out of his parking space, abstractly hoping that someone would be behind him, some vent for anger. It would have been sweet if one of those crash-test dummies was behind him, for some reason. But there wasn’t. He knew the horn had scared everyone away. He let go of the horn. He decided to skip work. He rolled up the windows, put the car into gear.

He drove through the parking garage toward the exit, toward the overcast day. Mccabe decided that with his day off work, he needed to figure things out. He’d strip all problems away, layer after layer, until he reached the ground floor of his existence, the foundation upon which he’d built all his confusion. Then, with an idea of what was going on, he’d re-ascend easily, deliberately marking off the floors on the way back up: “Floor 1: Junior high; Floor 2: Ham fire; Floor 3: Crazy cat; . . . Floor 253: The time I won $40,000 one month too late.” He’d call Deborah and say, “Hi, Peanut Butter, it’s me. I’m not going to work today, on account of it being my Clearest Day. Aw yeah!” And then, as he’d once glazed over the ham fire, he’d glaze over the expired $40,000 and again talk about the Clearest Day, and how certain he’d be of certain things relatively soon, possibly by the time the six o’clock news ended.

She’d relate the story to a friend of hers. “Right, Mccabe’s not going to work today, since this is his Clearest Day. Yes! It is a thrill the size of an evil tourist’s head! Well, unless it expired with the forty thousand dollars. Either way, he’s not going to work.” Maneuvering slowly through the dim underground parking garage, Mccabe felt this was a time to be at one with the world, to go to the park and have his own flock of non-pooping birds circling and looping above, a pack of frisky dogs running around like electrons, barking wildly, and he’d be in the middle, the nucleus of a big ol’ dog/bird/Mccabe molecule. He’d walk through Armist Park, where he’d once seen Miles Davis play for three hours. Then Miles laced up his sneakers and ran around, just Miles and his horn, high-fiving the trees. It was some of his best work of the day, exploring new ground, hitting low-lying branches. He died about a year later. Mccabe sneezed twice. The heater was still on too high. He turned it off, lowered the window a crack as he drove toward the exit. Outside the parking garage, the day was still overcast and cold as Mccabe’s car rolled along the street, through the air.

Mccabe switched the radio to NPR, listened to a commentary about the reporter’s childhood recollection, which had to do with being sent to his room for a temper tantrum at age eleven, when a building in downtown Denver was demolished. It was a 170-floor skyscraper that had been billed as the Sears Tower for Denver, but it had become inoperable because of high maintenance expenses, poor management. It also attracted clouds, which flooded its sewer system. It smelled; it was dilapidated. The day it was demolished, the commentator was, along with having been sent to his room without dinner, denied “the sweet taste of destruction of a Denver eyesore.” He went on about how the building was used—for reasons he didn’t give—only on the upper seventy floors. The future NPR commentator recalled the single day he was actually in the skyscraper. It was his ninth birthday. The rain clouds were located near Floor 130, and he and his family took the express elevator to the viewing area on Floor 170, where he blew past the souvenir shop in order to look out the western side, and instead of being able to see their house or his grandmother’s home, he saw Nevada.

As Mccabe drove by the Milton Heights Amtrak station, he recalled that his bedroom window had a view of a bike rack. He decided that to be truly free, he had to leave security at the station, hop a train in search of thrills the size of a tourist’s head, stripping away layer after layer until he reached what it meant to be truly alive, and only then could he wake every morning to the gentle rumblings of a hefty rock rolling by with Hi, Sunshine!! printed brightly on it. Mccabe would rise, put on his slippers, stop the rock, and find the truest part of his essence, something enormously pure and purely enormous, every day at about 10:00 a.m. Mccabe hit the turn signal and merged into the traffic on the highway leading to his house. Donovan was on the radio singing, “I love my shirt, I love my shirt / In fact I love my wardrobe.” Mccabe cranked it. He looked at the seat beside him and made sure he hadn’t thrown the bulbs in the backseat.

Mccabe raised the window as he pulled into his parking lot, opened the door, got out, closed the door. He walked to the front door, briskly. He wished he’d found his jacket.

He told Deborah about his plan to outline his life and to plot where certain things went wrong. “I need a new jacket, but the coffee cup”—he raised the Burger King cup—“has given me perspective.” He mentioned the parts about the 253 floors, ham fire, the crazy cat incident, the $40,000, the jet, the rumbling boulder. Deborah nodded along and thought of the big rock they’d placed among the shrub-garden landscaping, wondering if that had something to do with whatever he was talking about. She recalled this past summer in the river, when Mccabe hefted the rock out of the water, dripping, its ripplemarks shining in the sunlight, as Mccabe’s face was full red, a vein pulsing on his forehead, the water and the rock matting down the hair on his arms, on his chest. She remembered his steady, splashing steps from the river to the flatbed of Luis’s borrowed truck, and how Mccabe had gotten just enough of his shorts wet to make a dark oval on his ass, and how she wanted to push him into the river, to cool him off, get him wet, get rid of the vein and ass oval, both of which cut through his protected buffer between Relatively Suave and Genuinely Trembling.

Deborah calmly asked a few questions, reconciled the $40,000, Clearest Day, dog/bird/Mccabe molecule, the gentle rumbling boulder, and stored it all away like a slight anecdote to relate ten times in letters. Dear Somesuch, Guess what happened, you? Then she’d explain the $40,000 and the Clearest Day. Then, Twenty-six stinkin’ days late, right. Expiration dates—why, they’re considered a faux pas in Chile. If you put one on a package, villages shun, then burn the product. And in Russia, they’ll just spit in your face, they will.

Deborah said, “Well, good, you need a day off. And if you’re going to be busy sorting and counting, I’m going to ask you to wait for my UPS delivery—I need to run back to work.” Mccabe said fine, he’d call when it arrived. And as Deborah looked around for her keys, he absently joined in the search.

He looked over the coffee table, along the carpet, around the sofa. Mccabe picked up and pawed through the mail at the end of the couch. He rummaged around the sofa and noticed that the apartment was dark, needed brightening. He held the bulbs in his hand and remembered driving home with the bag and how this had been the first day of cold weather of the year. He re-realized the sharp contrast between warm and cold weather, as today he had headed from the warm hardware store to the cold, overcast day to the warm car to the overcast day again. To winter from fall, the reawakening of the contrasts took him back to, he felt, a truer level. Not a 253-story skyscraper, but he was at a place where he felt safe and warm and could stay there ad-more-or-less-infinitium. A little kid in the backseat, looking out the rear window as his mom drives him home from school, safe, warm, and he’s looking at anyone who’s driving Volkswagens, Hondas, Chevys, anything, and there are lights, Christmas lights and stoplights and brake lights burning off houses, lamps, and cars all around. Mccabe held on to the memory for a moment, then decided: Floor 1: Start here.

 

Matthew Summers-Sparks’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, Mississippi Review, McSweeney’s, The Morning News, and in May Contain Nuts: A Very Loose Canon of American Humor. He lives in Washington, D.C.

 

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