Briggs wandered into my room, lips and fingers orange, hair defiant, shirt disintegrating, hulls of cheese popcorn and confused exhilirated women swirling like whitecaps in his wake. The air in the room swooped out, replaced only by the personal atmosphere of Briggs. How he got in the house I don’t know. As usual he was a little drunk. Off in the empty industrial corridors of the city, businesses appeared, and with them work, but really just the filmy shadow of work, and then they left and nothing took their place, and no one knew why. Unchosen, the people roamed the deserted streets with no promised end in sight.
Briggs glanced around the place. He looked around my small Nebraska room as if I had invited him in so that he could judge it and find it beyond hope. As usual, I didn’t want him to leave. I put down my Henley’s Latin.
-Summer, he declared. The yearly disaster.
-What? Summer’s the best. Grilling out…
I trailed off. I couldn’t think of anything beyond, “Grilling out.”
-Have you or anyone ever had the summer they really wanted to have? No one has. He sat in a chair and looked at the rust-colored wallpaper of our Jesuit house. No one.
I have known Briggs for years but I still meet him like a new figure in my life – one that I do not fully know how to be around. When I am with Briggs my gestures become a bit broader, more intentional. I become aware of everything I do. I become an actor playing myself.
Briggs looked at me as if for the first time. He always looked at me like that. As if I was a survey-taker who had just shown up at his place, which was in fact my place. But when Briggs was there my place was somehow no longer my my place.
-You’re a priest, right?
For the thousandth time:
-I’m in seminary. It’s actually quite a long–
-I’ve thought about that.
-Being a priest? Briggs! I’ve known you all this time, I had no idea you were even reli–
-I’m not. Thought I was. Then I realized I just wanted to yell at people. People become priests because they want to yell at people.
Briggs is a decent-sized man. In fact, he’s overweight. But not in relation to his own ideal body-mass ratio. Just to everyone else’s. Wherever he is, it always seems like there’s more of Briggs than anyone else. His ideas are sometimes like that too. They sort of take over everything. They come off as so truthful and just “the way it is,” sometimes you have to fight them off tooth and nail.
-No it’s not, he said calmly, putting popcorn in his mouth and leaning back in a chair.
-Yes it is. It’s a completely outdated vision of what the priesthood, or any good ministry is about. It’s old school. The all-knowing parson, commanding his flock. It just doesn’t work. People don’t receive things that way anymore.
I took the popcorn from him. O-KE-DOKE cheese popcorn. The most bushleague gas station spiny-edged cheeseless cheese popcorn in the world. I took out a handful and went on.
-Sure, priests do have other issues. I mean, the image is not, these days… It’s like, oh, priest, hah hah, fill in the filthy joke. But truthfully most priests are gentle and–
-You can be gentle as you want, quiet, you’re still yelling at people. Trying to make ‘em do stuff. The priest is the guy you knew who was always making everyone go around the room.
-Go around the room?
-You know, getting everyone to say something about something. You’re on the road. “How was that rest stop we just went to? How were the facilities? Let’s go around the old Charger. Let’s start with you, Bobby! Did you find the vending machine to be appropriately supplied with your favorite snackeroonies? Did they have your cherished brand of plastic-tasting Swiss Cake Rolls? Why do we try to nourish ourselves on Swiss Cake Rolls, anyway? What, Bobby, will really nourish us?” Or, if he didn’t have the guts to actually steer the conversation in the Dodge, he wished he did.
-Briggs, that’s just called being interested in people. Being a conversation starter. I mean, my gosh–
-I was in a class once with a priest. At Metro. I don’t remember what. He had to take the class. Anyway, he was always affirming me. “Hey Briggs! I really like what you had to say there, Briggs.” He’d say my name about six hundred times whenever he talked to me. “You have a gift, Briggs. I really think, Briggs, that you hit the nail on the head. Good, Briggs! I wish I had your talents, Briggs. ” I was like, stop affirming me. And stop saying my name. He was always praising everyone. We were like, just sit there. Take the class with us.
-People want to be affirmed. I mean, are too many people feeling too good about themselves? I actually like it when people say my name. As if I’m a valued–
-He’d look at you and it’d be like, it’d be like, “How are you?” Like, he knew something was wrong with you… something you didn’t even know was wrong with yourself. And he was just dying to be the first one to get it out of you. We were like, take notes, bro. Answer questions. Go home.
-Briggs, you are bringing a lot of your own stuff to the ballgame there, believe me. I mean, I am sorry that was your experience, but you have to realize–
-Of course I’m bringing a lot of my own stuff to the ballgame. Who else’s stuff am I gonna bring? Look, don’t get me wrong. It’s not just priests. Teachers just want to yell at people too. All the controllers do. Priests and teachers and librarians and cheerleaders and prison guards. I’m not faulting them. They just do it because that’s what makes them feel good. That’s what it’s all about anyway, people wanting to feel good about themselves. You just said it yourself. That’s really the whole point. Of everything. Trying to feel good.
Somewhere a white star flared out. A lone wolf howled, starved and bleeding. Great and hopeful movements arose and just as quickly fell as the deep tectonic plates of a wayward mindless culture snapped into place. People just trying to feel good? The whole point of everything? Briggs had just named it as it had never been named before. When bleachy girls on chaotic TV shows say things like, If it feels good do it, it’s one thing. No one takes them seriously. But Briggs – he held sway. Briggs had a certain command. Briggs was from the heartland. He was one of us.
As he spoke, the joyful cry of one of his exhausted nymphs echoed from an empty loft somewhere. She had just woken because she heard the voice of Briggs. Sure she had woken alone, but she was not bitter because she knew he would be back, or he wouldn’t, or whatever, and anyway it wouldn’t matter because nothing really mattered. And besides very soon neither she nor anyone else would exist. Briggs would somehow make her and all of us so, so tiny. And we wouldn’t even realize it before it was too late. Briggs, in his own off-handed way, would take us all down with him.
-The purpose of life, I stared at him coldly, is not to feel good.
Briggs had gotten out of his chair and was at the window looking out curiously, as if a frothy alien horde of ten thousand exact replicas of Miss Brooklyn Decker had begun taking over the streets. And he, Briggs, was on the verge of going out there and, in the name of public safety and the common good, sacrificing himself to them. Then, just as quickly he became bored with the whole enterprise. He looked around, picked up a fleck of orange popcorn off the floor and put it in his mouth.
-Really? It’s not to feel good? Well then, Hoover, what is the purpose of life?
Editor’s Note: read part 2 of Joe Hoover’s “Briggs” here.