Vortex of the Sinking Ship
Chuck’s office is just down the street from mine, so I took an hour off to go see him. He’s in worse shape than I am. His wife kicked him out, so he sleeps here. We sat down and started playing chess underneath a beautiful baroque painting he had of two men playing chess. This was something we often did. I would slip in for an hour or so, smoke a little, play chess and listen to the city chugging away out there and look through the window at that parking lot on the other side of the street, tilting down its old skid-row way, looking like what locals called it: the sinking ship. Meet you at the sinking ship. We’ll park by the sinking ship. Everyone knows what the sinking ship is, and I love that optical illusion, since it’s level and functional. But it does look like a ship plunging into the waves of the ground.
“You know,” Chuck said, hunching over the board, his mind churning so that I could almost see the little gears working, “You play a pretty attacky game.”
“Yeah?” I said, smiling, because Chuck and I are old friends, and we’ve always eyed each other from the soul. We’ve always been adversaries in a way, but that goes back to the very first time I met him. He was living with my friend Eddie at the time down in Berkeley. I was just back from a year abroad, stationed in Spain. Yes I was. I actually did that. And I met him and Eddie at a bar down on Shattuck or maybe it was Oxford—I can’t remember which, but we got to talking, and he was very drunk. And somehow we got onto the subject of Lenny Bruce, and I said something about Lenny Bruce, and he just stopped and stared at me for a full beat, eyeballing me fierce and sneering and then said, “You only know that because you watched that movie with Dustin Hoffman in it.” And then he looked away and took a drink.
What could I say? He was right. And I burned for being exposed like that, with such a precision cut, and yet I had to respect that he knew that and knew I was bullshitting. So I smiled. One for you, Chuck. Game on. And that’s when our chess playing really began.
“Know what else?” he said.
“This place has a second life at night.”
“You making some new friends?”
“There’s this completely separate world that goes on here at night: cleaners, third-shifters, other people like me, squatters, staying here at night.” He laughed at the strangeness. “It’s like it comes alive with ghost people.”
“Check,” I said.
“What?” He looked down at the board more closely. He had his squinty, concentrated face on. “Man you play an attacky game.”
Chuck was going through a divorce at the time, and his soon to be ex-wife had taken out a restraining order on him. “Isn’t there anything you can do?” he’d asked me. But, no, there wasn’t anything I could do. It was mean and unfair, but he and his ex were in battle, and people in battle don’t always fight fair. What is fighting fair, anyway? So Chuck was sleeping in his office. Not a bad space. Small, of course, and depressing, especially if you feel like your world is falling apart, which I’m sure he did feel. But he still had a sense of humor, and Chuck’s humor had always been twisted. This was the third divorce, in fact, that I’d seen him go through, and he maintained this head-shaking, snarling half-laugh approach like Boethius watching the wheel of Fortuna turn. Last time, he was washing the carpets while his then-wife was out in a car fucking a date. “The worst thing of all, though,” he said, “is the food.”
“Have you ever had a sandwich made with hate?”
On another wall, he had a big piece of butcher paper on which he was designing a novel. At the center of it was a massive crucifix hanging in the middle of these red slashes of color like flames and some kind of flying machine exploding above.
He was working out his move. He was a good chess player. I may have won a little more often, but it was always a pretty equal match. I take risks, play bold. He scrutinized his possible moves some more, brow gathered, then looked up, realizing what was happening and said, “God dammit.”
“It’s just luck,” I said.
The Ghost Players
Seems I’m getting quite curmudgeonly—sitting in this coffee shop on California Avenue. I find myself wanting everyone to just shut up. Their voices are like sandpaper on the back of my neck—old guys playing bridge and laughing those big-chested laughs that resolve into phlegm-gargle gasping. And I love them, you know, in the world, their freedom sitting out a Wednesday with buddies they’ve probably known for years, war buddies, buddies they maybe faced death and loss together with and have lived long enough together to relax on a day like this. It’s beautiful, it’s something I aspire to but will probably never have. I’m too much of a loner. I’m like my father that way, and don’t let me get started on that.
Here comes that laughter again. It’s a like a big blast of wind. It’s like that shotgun motorcycle spitting by on the street. And funny that I hear in their talk one of them say something about Chelan, like “Oh, yeah, it’s been cold out there…” And I’ve been thinking of getting out there to see my father and when a good time would be and how I need to get my sons out there more to be with him. I know Stephen wants to. I feel his spirit sort of longing for more family, something I feel I’ve failed to give him as my life continues to dissimilate. And just this morning I asked him, “Hey, do you ever feel like these days—you know, youth and carefree time hanging with your friends and your brother and none of those adult responsibilities—do you ever feel like it’s passing quickly and you just want to kind of hang on to it?”
I looked over, and he just sort of squinted and said, “I never really thought about it, but I know what you mean.”Being with him is like being with my father, just being. We can drive and not say a word, just like time with my father when I was a kid, not talking but doing stuff, mostly working—tearing out lathe and plaster walls, nailing up framing, digging a foundation. So, it struck me as an even more mysterious role reversal when I said to him yesterday, “Hey, you want to help me do some work on the house this summer, fixing up the decks and stuff?”
“I don’t really know how to do that stuff,” he said. And I said, “I’ll show you,” feeling like I am passing on some sacred masonic knowledge. But he doesn’t seem as hungry for whatever it is I can give him, which is probably a good thing, a glimmer of having done something right as a father, I suppose, in that he’s not feeling cut-off or abandoned the way I felt, such that I would do whatever it took to be with him—Stephen isn’t going to leave all his friends behind to come live with me and work and be virtually alone at some house painting or demolishing or whatever—man, I think back on those summers, getting dropped off at 7:30 at Oregon Street, scraping old paint from under the eaves for hours, sitting in that empty, stinking house eating a sandwich, listening to talk radio so as not to go completely insane, Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story…with that enigmatic ending: “Now you know…the rest of the story.” I can’t see Stephen doing that. Nor Anthony. Although Anthony will say he misses me. He’s big, too, and throws that bear hug on me. He’s got such a different style of being—I see him someday sitting with his buddies in a coffee shop on a Wednesday morning playing cards and laughing his big laugh—he’s got that. Robust of spirit in a way I don’t feel. I’m more like a grit-squint white knuckle and hang on kind of person. I’ve sat in so many of these coffee shops and bars alone, blasted by the acid conflicts and fantasizing about climbing into that truck and driving off forever—Mexico, there, somewhere south on the coast or the gulf where the waters are always warm. Living in some thatch hut drinking mescal and Dos Equis and letting time grind down to a slow sunset.
Yeah, but instead I’m stuck, feeling this vague nauseating feeling that invisible forces are at work, like these ghost players you might catch a glimpse of, like those angels in Wim Wender’sWings of Desire, something a scientist might call genetics or a sociologist “conditioning,” but I don’t think that really covers it. I’m struck by the coincidence that Stephen and Anthony were the same ages when I left as my sister and I when my father split. I guess most people would just shrug and say, “never really thought about it, but I know what you mean.” And I get this feeling that even if I did jump into that truck and head down to Mexico, I’d end up in some similar kind of trap—space—because it’s me, you know? Something in me that seems already written or chosen a long time ago, and there’s no getting out of that bargain. That sounds a little too cosmic. I think the truths are more boring, like genetics and conditioning. I’m just a curmudgeon sitting in a coffee shop with my ears ringing from the noise, holding back from jumping up and shouting, “Can you just keep it down?!” How would that be? And there, the shape of the ghost players flickering just out of sight.
I would have asked Chuck to stay with me, but I was already a guest in my own house. No room at the inn. What makes love die a slow death in fractions, ever reducing, mathematically, but never reaching zero? Chuck walks like a paralytic, or a cynical priest. He has a permanent scowl and vertical lines on his brow between his eyes. “It’s so fucked up. I can’t even see my son,” he said.
Around the sinking ship parking lot and on the corner of Yesler and Second Street there’s a mural that comes around the corner of a building there from one side to the next, and it looks like a giant severed worm, like something out of Dune, twisting and extending and obscene, purple on the outside and pink in the open end with little anemone nodules, and it’s hard to look at and hard not to look at. “Digestive graffiti,” Chuck said. He has a talent for labeling the world.
Under the electric trolley power lines, across Fourth Avenue and the traffic, over by the maw of the stadium open to the gray sky, where the big bridge arterials throb as they rise over I-5 and head east into 90, between the red dragons coiled around the posts at the opening of King Street, we went up into the narrow streets of the International District. The smells. The fighting fish urns and big-bellied golden Buddhas. Red awnings and fluttering yellow banners. Another world within a world and about that moment Chuck was telling about his childhood years when he was allergic to everything and found himself in a grass field heading home from school, there in Montana in the spring, and falling to his knees, his eyes swelling shut, his throat swelling shut, the world telescoping out to the end of a far tub and blackness of night and the cloak of death. It’s amazing we’re alive at all.
“You’ve never been here?” he asked.
Inside the soup shop the young lady showed us to our seat next to the big steamed up window. On the table was a jar of chopsticks and soup spoons and napkins and Sriracha sauce and hoisin sauce and soy sauce. We both ordered the rare beef soup.
“So how’s work going?” he asked.
“Don’t you get tired of saying that?”
“Cause I get tired of hearing it…”
“I do have a new case that’s kind of interesting, a guy in West Seattle, a poet.”
“Sounds like you’re investigating yourself.”
“Maybe I am.”
All strange realities were possible with Chuck.
“But you like the strange stuff.”
“Did I say it was strange?”
“Is it strange?”
“Why is it strange?”
“No real suspect yet, no motives. He has a girlfriend, and she doesn’t seem very sad about it. And I think she’s flirting with me.”
“She is flirting with you.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you’ve got an open valence.”
“I’ve got a what?”
“An open valence, a space in your shell for an electron to dock, but in your case it’s the crazy ones who find shelter there. And I’ll bet she thinks you’re cute and kind and safe, and she has no idea what a depraved character you really are.”
“You think I’m a depraved character?”
“You should be given a warning label.”
I laughed. “An open valence, huh?”
“You’re designed for the weird.”
“Does that include you?”
“All the crazy, insane, broken, schizo spirits come to you. You’re like a country without extradition.”
The soup arrived, dark brew, steam coils rising up. Chuck put his face down into the opening of his bowl and inhaled the steam deeply. Might as well—I did the same.
“It’s magic soup,” Chuck said.
“Yeah—it enters you at the molecular level…”
I inhaled again.
“So how are you holding up,” I asked.
“Medium shitty.” He tore a few mint leaves and squeezed the lime into the broth. “How would you feel if you were almost homeless?”
“Sometimes I am.”
“Yeah. I know. But at least she hasn’t taken out a restraining order on you.”
“True. We seem to operate with civility.”
“She still seeing that other guy?”
“I don’t ask.”
“Why don’t you see someone?”
“Oh, I’m a great package: living in my own basement in a defunct marriage. Would you like to come home with me?”
“Oh, you could work that into a serious sympathy fuck, if nothing else.”
“I’m not really interested in that kind of work.”
“Oh…you probably want love…” and he said it with that perfect sneering tone that communicated the alternate truth that he had read the code of my soul and found it simple and pedestrian and foolish. This is what I loved about Chuck, I suppose; he was a beautiful misanthrope.
“I suppose love wouldn’t be so bad.”
“It’s a slippery slope, my friend.”
“Ruin. Abuse. Warfare. Suicide.”
Ah, the hot soup tasted like salvation. We ate in silence for a few moments. I admit that I thought he might be right about its powers. And as I ate it, I felt myself transformed.
The Weight of the Soul
Pioneer Square in the afternoon, the old guys were playing big chess on the ground near the sculpture of the firemen killed in the Ping warehouse fire, an insurance fraud case. Everywhere you look a crime was committed there. Chuck was up ahead strolling down the center groove of Occidental Avenue, a brick courtyard that is the other half of Pioneer Square, and the clock tower over the King Street train station, cut off from below by a wandering cloud, floated there above the bulb streetlamps and the bare limb trees and the trolley coming out of nowhere. Everything old. A nineteen thirties vision of the future. Nearly empty of people this blustery afternoon.
I wandered into some gallery hallway. I wasn’t sure where the actual gallery was. So I kept on going, down a set of stairs, up another, back around to another hallway, with soldiers bearing pikes walking on the ceilings and columns of real outside light coming down shafts cut into the brick wall where you could, and I did, stick your head out and look up and see the sky, and along the way I encountered one after another of these closed off spaces behind The Big Sleep doors of frosted glass with ambiguous titles like Omega Designs.
I became a little disoriented. And then I found myself in an open court or foyer, standing in front of a tall iron scale with a round dial and a big black pointer with coiled arrow tip and splayed tail and perfect black numbers and hash marks on the face. I stepped onto its metal, corrugated platform, and the arrow went crazy. It was bouncing back and forth wildly. And it wouldn’t settle on my weight. It seemed that even breathing made it move. This will take forever, I thought, and then a ghost face appeared in the glass of the dial before me and I heard, “I did the same thing.”
Chuck was standing there behind me, laughing. I started to laugh, too.
“It’s measuring the weight of your soul,” he said.
I waited, though, but the arrow wouldn’t settle. It just kept moving back and forth and never stopped, no matter how close it seemed to actually determining my weight. Down to the last hash mark, the trembling arrow hovered in its unending calculation.
Douglas Cole has published six collections of poetry, a novella, and The White Field, a novel. His work has appeared in several anthologies as well as The Chicago Quarterly Review, The Galway Review, Bitter Oleander, Louisiana Literature and Slipstream. He has been nominated twice for a Pushcart and Best of the Net and received the Leslie Hunt Memorial Prize in Poetry. He lives and teaches in Seattle. His website is https://douglastcole.com/.