Garrett Rowlan

The July Selected Writer is Garrett Rowlan

Please feel free to email Garrett at: garrettrowlan@att.net


by Garrett Rowlan

The deal, the handoff of a briefcase, was a simple one, though I knew well enough that even the simple deals can blow up in your face, as had happened to me.

It was a broken kneecap in my case. Hence my limp as I moved away from the parked car and toward the movie theater at ten PM on a weeknight. I carried the briefcase in one hand and with the other I waved at Lupe as she sat in the passenger seat.

I made my way to the box office, where a pair of hands dealt me a ticket through a scooped-out slot below the glass that separated us. “Theater number one,” was all I said. I didn’t even know the movie’s title.

I went inside the arty movie theater, its devotion to cutting edge cinema reflected in the empty lobby. A ticket taker didn’t look up from her novel, nor notice the briefcase I carried. Theater number one was right next to the parking lot exit.

Entering the small theater, I saw a dozen or less people in attendance, most solitary and sitting apart from each other. As instructed, I sat in the next-to-last row, putting the briefcase between my legs. I didn’t like the thought of someone behind me, someone likely to want to wrap a wire around my neck. But they wanted the handoff to be that way, face forward so that I couldn’t see my contact.

They were playing commercials before the show. I saw well-dressed people laughing from balconies and walkways in high-end hotels. I saw an ad for beer with an Italian name, a bottle hoisted by a skinny brunette as she drove a Vespa around Rome.

And then I saw a car commercial where a man and a woman leave some casino or upscale business. The man almost looked like me, or how I looked before, years ago, a business associate took a tire iron to my face over some gratuities I awarded myself as part of the deal. Once the titanium screws had been removed from my forehead and cheekbones, I saw how the weakness, the almost fashion-model androgyny of my features had hardened. I now looked like a detective or a cowboy, a trustworthy appearance useful in my line of work.

The woman bore a resemblance to Lupe, though Lupe without the wig and heavy makeup she used to disguise her facial scars.

In the car commercial, the couple got in the black car the off-scene valet has brought for them. The man is wearing a tux. As the actor steps into the car, I saw he held a briefcase exactly like the one under my theater seat.

Lupe told me not to open ours, “because they’ll know,” she insisted.

I saw the man in the ad exchange a smile with the woman as he headed down a desert road. It was the kind of smile you see in commercials that you don’t see anywhere else, a smile of utter confidence, like someone about to cast loaded dice onto a crap table.

Uncanny how the commercial, its split-second view of the desert expanse around the car, synced with our assignment. Our briefcase was exchanged down a spur road off the Mojave. The man who carried it to us wore an eye-patch and the sloshing sound he made was, I realized, that of booze rolling in his massive gut, hanging over his belt like an elephant on a diving board. The smell radiated from his mouth and the pores of his beefy neck and face. As he handed over the briefcase he said, “Don’t open it,” and turned away.

Lupe had said the same thing. This was her deal. There was money in it, she claimed, but we had to follow instructions to the letter. When I asked her just who these people were, she said the fat man’s female boss was someone she’d met in prison, serving time for forging checks. “She’s a straight-shooter,” Lupe said, “but don’t cross her.”

When I asked for details, she said, “Trust me on this one.” She touched a scar. “You owe me, right?”

I nodded. My substitution of flour for cocaine had been detected at the point of exchange. They had broken only two of my fingers but cut her up good.

On the screen, the British accent of the voice-over announcer praised the car’s quality, making it sound like a winged god moving through the empyrean of German engineering. Something in the voice reminded me of those of Hammer Horror Films my dad loved to play on VHS.

“The smooth styling of the new Sycorax 7000,” the voice droned. “Luxury and freedom from the worry that you screwed up another deal.”

“Did you hear that?” I burst out saying.

“Quiet!” someone said from in front.

My phone rang. It was Lupe. “I think I saw him,” she said. “A car parked around the corner and a man is approaching the box office.I have to squish down so he don’t see me. He should be there in a minute.”

“You know,” I said, “I still don’t get it. Why would we exchange money for money?”

“You know when you go to a laundromat and your blood-stained clothes come out clean? Or when you go to a plastic surgeon and they can’t really fix your face when someone took a knife to it?”

“All right,” I said. “I know I screwed that one up. I was just asking.”

“Well, it’s like that with money, is what I’m saying. Hang in there. We’re close to closing the deal.  You think too much.”

“That has to be the first time you said that to me.”

“Hey!” a man said, two rows in front of me, “take it outside. The movie is going to start in a minute.”

“Soon,” Lupe said into my ear, excitement in her voice, “I’ll have that briefcase.” Her voice almost shuddered with excitement. The phone went dead.

“What the hell?”

“Quiet,” someone said from in front.

“It’s only the commercial,” I said. “I can talk.”

But no one else was talking. Nor were they watching apparently, lost in whispers or looking at the small screens they held.

The couple was still there, still traveling, though I thought the 20-second commercial had ended. As if maybe I was now living it, or I was beside myself, in two places at once, the “me” sitting there watching and the “me”  who had somehow become the man in the commercial, driving in from the desert to LA with a smile of confidence slowly edging into doubt and worry.

I saw the woman look anxiously into the back seat, like something was there and straining at the briefcase locks. The man changed lanes as his steering wheel was kicked as the woman was being dragged into the back seat, making sounds of struggle. The man tried to pull her back.

“Oh, my God,” I said, nearly shouting.

“What’s your problem?” a woman asked me. She sat at the entrance to my row, effectively blocking me in.

“You didn’t see that?” I asked.

“I saw nothing,” she said. It sounded like a blanket denial, something that might be said in an interrogation room.

Then the commercial was over they switched to a coming attraction, a European mystery where people muttered ominous subtitles.

Movement behind me, someone heavy. Sitting, he breathed through his mouth. Where did he come from?

He tapped me on the shoulder. Wanting just to be out of this place, I reached down between my feet and took the briefcase and handed it back. I heard brass locks snapped open. Briefly, faintly, I heard a growl, before a lid was quickly shut again.

A briefcase was handed to me, money for transporting money.

“Don’t open it until you’re in the car,” he said. “And don’t look at me.”

I stood up and shuffled to the aisle, squeezing past the frowning woman at the end of the row. Stepping onto the short, lighted runway that led to the exit, I looked back at the screen and froze.
They were running the same car commercial again, or a movie of the commercial. The people were speaking French and then the beautiful lady who resembled Lupe was being dragged into the back seat.

I couldn’t take it anymore and got out of there. As I stepped out on the carpet runway that went past the seven theaters in the complex, I could look down the stem of the T-shaped entrance and see a man handing a ticket to the ticket-taker and in his other hand was a briefcase. He walked up the ramp and approached me. I had no idea what to do. He walked past me with a sheepish smile as if to say, we bring our work with us, don’t we? Before he walked in the theater I’d just left.

I know he’d seen my briefcase. It had to have been a coincidence. I didn’t want to think anymore about it and went outside. I twisted my knee stepping out the door, the old knee once beat into pulp with a tire iron.

As I limped to the sidewalk, I noticed something I hadn’t before, how little the briefcase weighed as if almost nothing was inside it. I told her this as I sat in the driver’s seat and handed over the briefcase.

“I know,” Lupe said, “he gave the money to me.” She flashed a wad of bills. “Twenty-thousand,” she said. 

“Wait,” I said, “they just handed you the money.”

“The guy with the briefcase,” she said. “Just after he bought a ticket he walked over to me like he knew I was there all along and handed to me the briefcase and told me to open it and count the money, which I did. Then he closed the briefcase and walked away.”

“And then,” I asked, “what did he do?”

“You know,” she said, “I was so busy recounting the money I didn’t really notice.” Causally, she tossed the briefcase in the back seat.

“That was a very strange theater,” I said.

“Whatever,” she said. “Let’s scram. We got what we came for.”

I started the engine. We pulled out to traffic and soon we were on the 210, heading back into the desert.

Lupe kept counting the money and waving it in my face and grinning and I thought of the woman in the commercial, which I tried to tell her about but she wasn’t interested. Then, around Clairemont, she started checking her face in the compact. “I think my scars are getting better,” she said. “The doctor said they’d get better with time.’

“I don’t remember him saying that.”

“Well, he did.”

“You know,” I said, a few miles later, “I’m beginning to think that briefcase wasn’t completely empty.”

“I’ll check,” she said, but she had difficulty lifting it and told me to pull by the side of the road. Traffic was light at this hour. When I had done so, she leaned back and was crawling over the seats like the woman in the commercial. Only the sound of her struggle wasn’t pain but an eagerness.

As her legs cleared the front seats, she said, “This is something I’ve waited for since you fucked up with the lousy cocaine scam and they fucking thought I was in on it and they cut me like a mother—”

The briefcase locks snapped open. I caught the faint smell of wet rot. “Yes,” she said, her voice mushy like her teeth had turned to fangs and her tongue thickened, as if she had turned into some kind of animal. Yet I was able to understand when she added, “I made a deal with them.”

Her hand crept over my vision. The hand had claws, or was she only holding a knife? “A life for a new life, sounded good to me.”

And I felt something sharp rip my cheek and open a wound, and even though I knew it was the end there was still a part of me thinking, This is just like the commercial!

Garrett Rowlan lives in Los Angeles with his cat Ted. He’s published 70 stories and essays, a novel, a novella, and is working on his first play. His website is garrettrowlan.com.