Matt Izzi


Matt Izzi was born in Rhode Island and lives in East Boston. His short fiction, drama, and humor have appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Post Road, Shenandoah, Third Coast, and other journals.


Dead Weight

We were heading back from a Vermont wedding with a frozen side of beef in the trunk of our rental car. An impulse buy, direct from a cattle farm outside Stowe. My wife and I had recently purchased our first house, and the basement came with this vintage freezer the size of a minivan. The walls must have been built around the damn thing. We couldn’t get it out and we had nothing to put in it. When I saw the farm’s roadside sign, something clicked. Maybe it’s what a painter with a blank canvas feels when he sees a landscape from a new angle. It was what we’d been waiting for without knowing why. That was the empty space—shaped all along like a three-hundred-pound side of beef.

Late afternoon we stopped off at a pizza joint in some downtown nowhere, New Hampshire. We were still a few hours from Rhode Island, but Lisa had to pee and I figured an extra half-hour of thawing wouldn’t spoil the meat. While she hurried to the bathroom, I ordered a ten-inch margherita, took two cans of seltzer from a cooler, and busied myself with the autographs on the back wall: glossy eight-by-tens of old-time pugilists, newspaper cutouts and framed promos of fights from the eighties and nineties. Pictures you’d normally find in a barbershop. By the time Lisa returned, I’d found one of Vinny Pazienza signed “from your world champion.” Paz was a big deal in our little state, and I was eager to tell her about the time my father and I saw him posing with customers at a McDonald’s in Warwick. This was after the car accident that derailed his boxing career. My father asked if I wanted a photo with the Pazmanian Devil, and I said no. It wasn’t out of respect for the man’s privacy or anything. He seemed plenty happy with the attention, probably thrilled his fans were rooting for a comeback. But what good would a photo have done me?

Lisa popped open her can of seltzer. She didn’t care about photos any more than I did. She didn’t have any of me in her classroom; I didn’t have any of her in my wallet. We’d never made a wedding album. Anyway, a photo wouldn’t have captured what was special about Lisa. Her face, like an anthill or an ocean, never kept still. Her eyes were always shifting, as if something remarkable were unfolding in every nook of the world. Like she was a witness to all the billions of stars being born and dying every second.

“We’ll freeze the meat till November,” I suggested, “and make enough beef stew to last us all winter.”

“I love beef stew,” Lisa said, “but I don’t want to eat it every day.”

“Well, we’ll make some beef stew,” I said. “We’ll use some of it for that and some of it for meatballs and some for steak.”

Honestly, the thought of all that red meat made me queasy. But I didn’t want to tell Lisa that. I was afraid to pursue anything when I couldn’t see a clear ending. She believed in tangents and loose ends, while those same things made me feel out of control. I was starting to regret everything—the beef, the freezer, the house—from the smallest decision up to the largest. Something the maid of honor had said up at Lake Champlain came back to me: “Love is the only risk most people take.” In that first year of marriage, every day with Lisa felt like we were renewing the same risk.

“I have an idea,” she said, and she didn’t just say that all the time. When she had an idea I paid attention. Her last one was to rent a cabin instead of staying at a fancy hotel with the other wedding guests. No Wi-Fi, no TV, no mini-fridge. With the money we saved, we booked an extra night, bought a half-wheel of sharp Cabot cheddar and a liter of mixed red wine, and taught ourselves to play Parcheesi. A housewarming gift we’d never opened. We messed up the rules and the game took an hour longer than it should have, but that was typical for us. Like we didn’t know the rules to anything. I would never have thought of the cabin.

“Let’s have a cookout,” she said. “Labor Day weekend. We should have the house and yard settled by then.”

I nodded noncommittally and drank my seltzer because I didn’t want to let on how excited I was. Right then a teenager walked in and asked for a bottle of water. A dark green Chevy idled outside the big picture window. The kid looked nervous, lanky. He said his friend was sick and he couldn’t pay for the water. The cook, barely out of his teens himself, shrugged and thumbed at the cooler.

“That’s perfect,” I said when the kid walked out with his free bottle. “That’s exactly what we’re going to do with all that beef. We could feed two hundred people.”

Lisa laughed.

“We don’t know two hundred people, and we couldn’t fit more than twenty in our backyard.”

“Even so,” I said. “We’ll invite your sister and her kids and the neighbors and everybody. We have a house now and it’s time we had a cookout.”

It was thrilling to see everything link up, no matter Lisa’s objections to that way of thinking. We had a freezer in the basement with nothing to fill it. We bought the beef for the freezer with no plan for it. Now we’d have a party with the beef. It really was a preposterous amount for two people.

“We’ve never thrown a party before,” I said.

“Not a party,” Lisa said. “A cookout. There’s no pressure with a cookout.”

“This is one of your best ideas.”

I was madly in love with her right then, and because I only feel love in moments and not as a kind of continuous state, I wanted to sustain that moment for as long as possible. The last time I’d felt it was during the game of Parcheesi, and that had lasted until checkout.

The cookout was a particularly special idea because Lisa and I met at one. I was twenty-four, a social disaster, planning an early exit when she walked onto the back deck. I couldn’t take my eyes off the single braid that looped over the left side of her head. The asymmetry just shook me up. A braid like a fault line. She raised a ’Gansett tall boy and announced that she was going to run around the block and challenged anyone—man, woman, or dog—to race her. To prove she was serious, she kicked off her flip-flops and marched barefoot into the driveway. Four or five of us followed. I hadn’t run more than ten feet since high school, but I took off at a dead sprint and held the lead for three turns. On the final straightaway, I tied up and Lisa passed me, her ponytail jumping from shoulder to shoulder, and then the whole field went by. Luckily I kept down the half-dozen Swedish meatballs I’d eaten, or Lisa might never have agreed to a date. Later she admitted she’d never worried about winning. She’d run the eight-hundred in college and still jogged four miles a day.

A fifty-something guy walked into the pizza shop. Well-tanned, rhinoceros-necked, in a loose Hawaiian button-down. He started giving orders right away.

“Call an ambulance,” he said. “There’s a kid out here OD’ing.”

The cook stood there with our pie on the peel, ready to dish it into the oven.

“I’m not kidding around.” The man straddled the threshold, one foot inside the restaurant. We looked out at the dark green Chevy. Both doors were open wide. The teen who’d asked for water was leaning over a pair of stiff legs in the backseat, like he was administering CPR. The cook lifted the phone off the hook, and the man went outside and gave the rundown to another concerned passerby, a woman who looked like all of my aunts rolled into one.

I didn’t know how we could help. Enough good Samaritans were already on the scene. The cook was dialing 911. Still, I wondered if our inaction said anything about our characters. If Lisa hadn’t been there, would I have done anything differently?

“OxyContin and meth,” the man said, re-entering the shop. He had such a presence of authority that I assumed, wrongly, that he was the owner, or maybe the mayor. Confidence always impressed me. It was why I couldn’t be a teacher and why I marveled at Lisa being one. I couldn’t fathom imparting wisdom to the next generation. Never mind being a father. Most days I felt like that Dylan song “Idiot Wind.” It was a wonder I could even feed myself.

“The driver said his friend was sick,” Lisa said. “He just needed a bottle of water.”

The man barked at the cook.

“Did you call yet?”

“I’m on the line now.”

“Tell them to hurry.” The man glanced at us. “Bullshit he was sick. He was just covering his ass.”

“Is he breathing?” The cook covered the mouthpiece with his hand. He asked it in the same voice he’d use to say, “Are we out of pepperoni?”

The mayor and the auntish woman began to relay information between the sidewalk and shop. A game of telephone with serious stakes.

“He’s unconscious,” I heard the woman call out. “He’s not responsive.”

“He’s not responsive,” the man repeated.

“What kind of car is it?” said the cook.

“What kind of—who the hell cares what kind of car it is? The kid’s dying. Tell them to come to Angelo’s Pizza, they know where it is. He’s right outside Angelo’s Pizza!”

“I’m just asking you what they’re asking me,” the cook said, getting defensive.

“Tell them to send a goddamn ambulance.”

“They sent one. They want to know what car to look for.”

“Asking me about the car,” the man muttered. He went back outside.

“It’s a dark green Chevy,” Lisa said, trying to be helpful.

“A dark green Chevy,” the cook said into the phone. Then, to us: “Why’s he yelling at me?”

Lisa exited the shop, and I followed, not because I thought we could help, but because watching the scene through the window made it seem like TV, and I wanted it to feel real. I didn’t know what would change, being inside or out. But on the sidewalk everything went into supreme detail. The caterpillar-sized scar on the small of the driver’s back, where his T-shirt had hiked up. The red high-tops, laces undone, poking out the passenger side. The Chevy’s tires caked in mud. The teens must have gone off-roading to get stoned. The dying kid in the backseat—perhaps the already dead kid—looked, if you didn’t know any better, like some innocent child taking a nap.

Lisa took my hand, the way she always did, linking all our fingers.

“Oh my god he’s going to die,” she said.

“No, he won’t,” I said, though it seemed likely. We heard the aunt say, “He’s turning blue.”

“The driver’s on the same stuff,” Lisa said. “He’s fucked.”

“I don’t think he cares,” I said. “I think he just wants his friend to live.”

“He should’ve driven him to the hospital then. Not Angelo’s Pizza.”

The first siren pierced the afternoon. A lone cop pulled up behind the Chevy and got out with the lights flashing. She rounded the passenger side, took one glance inside the car, and radioed for backup. I heard a second siren in the distance, this one belonging to an ambulance. It was then I realized that the driver, who moments ago had been rooting around in the backseat, had vanished.

The mayor gestured wildly toward the cross street, where we’d parked. The kid was scuttling down the road, testing the door handles of every vehicle. Someone might have said, “He’s getting away,” or perhaps the realization went unspoken. But it was plain as anything. The driver hadn’t been helping his friend at all. He’d taken the stash and was now hightailing it from the cops.

I don’t know why anyone tries to escape trouble by committing another crime. Maybe the kid didn’t plan to steal a car. Maybe he only wanted to hide the pills and return for them later. But I couldn’t take that chance. I hadn’t locked the doors. When I saw him closing in on my Toyota Yaris parked two blocks away, I went running after him.

My first worry was for the beef. I imagined the car turning up a week later in a supermarket parking lot, a mortgage payment’s worth of spoiled meat in the trunk—or maybe the kid would offload it in a ditch, not knowing what the hell it was, only that it was dead weight. My next concern was for the car. I’d waived the liability coverage. What would it run me if this dopehead stole my rental and totaled it a half-mile down the road? These scenarios burst and faded like fireworks in my mind, but neither came close to what happened. I’d only gone half a block when Lisa passed me at a full sprint. I was in worse shape than the day we met, five years earlier. Except this time, when she took the lead, I didn’t feel any blow to my pride. I was scared. None of my previous fears compared, in brightness and spectacle, with the finale, the all-too-possible idea that the driver could be armed—and what were we doing, beelining toward an unknown threat?

I called her name. I shouted, “Stop.” It got the driver’s attention instead. He’d reached my Toyota and was jimmying the handle when he finally noticed us. Really, he saw Lisa. She was ten or so yards away and I was half a block back. I didn’t know what she would do, and the kid decided he could live without knowing either. He released the handle and split, abandoning whatever plan he had for the car. He’d never outrun Lisa, but she just wanted to scare him off. All I cared about was her safety. She would have been all right, too, if she’d stopped two seconds sooner.

I saw it happen at the moment I thought everything was OK—with Lisa, with the car, with the beef. A black Honda was parked directly behind our rental. It hadn’t been there twenty minutes earlier. The driver must have been rifling through the glove compartment or listening to the end of a song, otherwise why did he delay getting out? He hadn’t seen the drugged-out kid fleeing down the street, he’d only checked the side mirror for oncoming vehicles, and maybe Lisa was in his blind spot.

She must have seen the door, too, in the split-second before the collision, because as it swung open she put a little hiccup in her step and dodged left. But she reacted too late. Her hip rammed into the door and the sound was a loud pop, a lone firecracker going off after all the duds. She spun awkwardly, like a figure skater under-rotating a jump, and landed face-down on the asphalt. My whole body and mind spun with her. The next thing I knew I was crouching beside her, stroking her forearm, touching and resisting touching because I didn’t know how to fix her. I was useless, unaware I was shouting for help. The driver of the Honda dialed 911 with his cell, oblivious to the ambulance down the road. I was afraid to look below Lisa’s waist. But the watery fear in her eyes was more terrifying than my imagination, so finally I built up the courage. Her pelvis was gashed open. I vomited a little in my mouth and swallowed: an acrid mash of soda, wine, cheese.

The only thing I remember about the ride to the hospital was the EMT, a girl whose pink braided hair I found oddly calming. Lisa was sewn up but had to stay overnight while the nurses monitored her for internal bleeding. I slept on two armchairs in the ER waiting room. Our rental was towed, and when I retrieved it the next morning the meat was rancid, our dreams of a first cookout spoiled, but that no longer mattered.

That afternoon I brought the Parcheesi set to the hospital. Lisa’s face had some kind of temporary paralysis. At first, that was the worst of it for me. All the restless life gone from her face. I couldn’t come to grips with it. We played without enthusiasm, the board balanced on the sheet over her legs, rolling the dice like gamblers who’d stayed too long at the roulette table. I felt busted inside and guilty for feeling that way, since she was the one in the hospital bed; she was the one with six months of in-home rehab ahead of her. But nothing connected. Marriage, a house, an empty freezer, a side of beef—a broken hip? I couldn’t reason a future from a present that defied logic. I thought I would never feel more disoriented, but I was wrong. As I went to capture one of her pieces, she intercepted my hand, drew it to her bandaged pelvis, and told me she had miscarried.

“What do you mean?” I said, like an idiot.

She had been three weeks’ pregnant. She hadn’t known until the surgeon told her. She linked our fingers over the bandage. Her face didn’t betray any emotion; how could it? We’d talked about having children, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever be ready. Maybe we were like those pieces, moving toward a home square but continually being kicked back to our starting point. But, no: in the game, we were opponents. In everything else, we were on the same side. She cradled my head and then the nurse came in with discharge papers and said Lisa could go home.

A week later, I saw mugshots of the teenagers online. The kid in the backseat survived. Of course, there was no mention of us—no story, no photos. We didn’t have any from the trip. And the freezer remained, empty and looming in our basement, until the New Year, when I paid some guys I found on the internet to splinter it with pick-axes and slide the debris through the ground-level window. After it was gone, I realized I’d never taken a picture of the freezer either, and now we had even more space to fill. In its place, I hung up the heavy bag Lisa bought me, as a joke, for Christmas, with a signed photo of Vinny Paz taped across the middle. Next to that we installed the treadmill for her rehab. There were rules for getting better; there was a sequence for improvement. Together we could learn them, no matter how many tries it took. We ran and punched side by side while the snow built up outside our basement window, until the daylight refracted through the white crystals into a kind of purple dusk and, finally, there was blackness and the long winter ahead and there, dark underground, the joint steam of us exerting ourselves, testing ourselves, wearing ourselves down and building ourselves back up again.