Volume 1, Issue 2. Winter 2014.


Letter from the Editors...........

Interview: Peter Mountford...........

Customer Care, Eric Severn...........
Professor M, Corinne Manning...........

Interview: T.V. Reed on Robert Cantwell...........
Hills Around Centralia, Robert Cantwell (1935)...........

Essays: Simple Pleasures, Charles Finn...........
Essay: Falling and Always Falling, Matt Briggs...........

About Moss...........
Issue Archive...........
Call for Papers: Issue 3...........







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Letter from the Editors
Seattle, WA  ·  January 2015

For our second issue, we’ve taken the commitment we made at our launch—to bring fresh, ambitious, cutting-edge literature from the Northwest to new audiences online and across the country—and pushed it even further. The work in this issue spans over 80 years of Northwest writing history, thanks to the inclusion of a story by Robert Cantwell, a vitally important but often overlooked writer and critic from Aberdeen, Washington who has been credited with writing “the first modern novel to come out of the Northwest.” His story, originally published in 1935 and now appearing for the first time since, points to exactly what excites us about Northwest literature today; at once personal and political, modern in style but still heartfelt and richly imagined, “Hills Around Centralia” is an early example of the vision and potency of Northwest writers.

Our contemporary selections take new turns. Eric Severn’s lonesome hero takes us on a strange journey through sleep deprivation, customer service call centers, and the remote landscapes of the internet; Corinne Manning offers a provocative portrait of a queer theorist’s break-up; Charles Finn explores how small, often-discounted everyday activities can add up to become the fabric of our lives; and Matt Briggs looks at how David Lynch's Twin Peaks mourns both the destruction of the natural environment by the logging industry, and the erasure of small town locations where the show was filmed—including Briggs’s own hometown of Snoqualmie—by subsequent suburban development. In our interviews, Washington State Book Award-winning author Peter Mountford considers the malleability of identity and the American obsession with reinvention, and professor and author T.V. Reed gives a rich background to Robert Cantwell’s life and work, speaking to the relationship between art, protest, and politics.

United in their skill and imagination, but diverse in their styles and forms, all of the work included in this issue comes together to form a portrait of Northwest literature today, and across history, reminding us that the Northwest is a place unparalleled in its creativity and expression.

    —  Connor Guy and Alex Davis-Lawrence
      Editors, Moss

2  ·    ·  

An Interview with Peter Mountford
Seattle, WA  ·  November 2014  ·  Interviewed by Connor Guy

Peter Mountford is the author of two novels—A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, which won the Washington State Book Award, and The Dismal Science, a New York Times Editor’s Choice. His work has appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines, including The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Granta, Conjunctions, Salon, and Boston Review. He lives in Seattle and works as an events curator for Hugo House, where he also teaches.
Your first novel was called A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, and the second and latest, which I have here in front of me, is The Dismal Science—after Thomas Carlyle’s famous term for economics, I’m guessing. So even just from your titles one can intuit that economics is a prominent concern in your work. Why did you decide to center so much of your writing around economics?
These two books are linked to each other in a number of ways, and economics is one of the main bridges between them. The first book tells of this young guy who works for a hedge fund, he’s been broke for a while, so he’s alarmed and delighted to be suddenly making this enormous, laughable amount of money. He also feels like he doesn’t belong in this place—or any place, maybe. And he thinks, ‘Well let me just see how long I can trick these people into keeping me on the payroll.’ I felt this way myself as a kid—maybe everyone does. The second book, The

3  ·    ·  

Dismal Science, tells of this middle-aged Italian vice president at the World Bank—he’s a career economist—who is also struggling with his sense of identity. His relationship to money is very different, of course. He’s ready to retire early.

So both books deal with the subtle and pervasive ways that money operates on us: how we lust after it, how we hate it, we’re ashamed of it. It’s everywhere, and people refuse to talk about it honestly. “What do you do?” is the question people ask at parties. They mean profession, of course, but it’s all code for money, too, and yet the verb is so general it could mean anything. What do I do? I breathe and sleep and eat. “How much are you worth?” is the corollary question, but we don’t ask that of people because it’s thought of as crude. We talk about it in gossip magazines, but not to someone's face.

Still, this is all in our guts—capitalism is tattooed onto the DNA of people who are born and raised in the U.S. Upper middle class people are sort of aware of this, and like to act horrified by it, which is why they don’t ever want to talk about money. You’re more likely to know the dirty details of someone’s divorce, than the dirty details of their bank account.
The flap copy on The Dismal Science calls it “an exploration of the fragile nature of identity.” What brought this topic to your attention? Were you thinking about your own identity—as a writer or otherwise?
Like a lot of writers, I feel like an alien species. As a child I spent a few years in Sri Lanka during the early years of their civil war—we arrived about two weeks

4  ·    ·  

before the war broke out, and stayed for years. And then I returned to Washington DC, which is where everyone’s mask is surgically attached to their face. I was at a very preppy school, and I didn’t fit in at all—I was odd, I had this slight Sri Lankan accent, was listening to punk rock already. And a few months after we were back, I was in fourth grade, my mother died of lung cancer, pretty abruptly. So, if I wasn’t already an alien, now I was strange and I was marked by death. To complicate matters, I was also very outgoing and social, was tall and witty. So I wasn’t really a shy kid in the typical sense, but at the same time I found it almost impossible to participate in communal activities. I was always, after that, an observer of the strangeness of everything. And I think that way of interacting with the world sort of makes people into writers.
Well, in your identity as an observer then, I kind of saw this journalist character, Vincenzo’s friend Walter—is he a stand-in for you, or do you relate particularly to him?
No, no, I don’t think so—I mean, I can identify with Vincenzo and I can also identify with his daughter. My father was an executive at the IMF, so I know that world intimately. But I wasn’t outside protesting as Vincenzo’s daughter does. Still, I did always feel like I was trying on identities. But that’s a failing project. That’s the problem with Gabriel in A Young Man’s Guide—he truly believes he is no one, or that he can be whoever he wants to be in a given situation. He’s unaware of his center, of his true self, and it’s ruinous.

Vincenzo, meanwhile, is all too certain about who he is, and doesn’t care for it.

5  ·    ·  

He’s an accomplished individual in a lot of ways, but the sense of satisfaction from the achievement is gone. There’s just no pleasure to be had there. His wife died a few years earlier, his daughter has moved away. He doesn’t really have a community, he doesn’t necessarily believe in the moral imperatives of his job. And so he begins to realize that he had set up his life to have a certain type of existence, and it’s not going to work without his wife. All of the structures of his identity, the whole architecture of his sense of self, is in danger. And so he sets about a kind of kamikaze movement, a strategy of just breaking things that keep his identity intact, he’s just torpedoing himself into things in his life to further dismantle himself.

I think there’s a kind of natural fear about, ‘How far am I going to go toward erasure?’ But the reality is that complete self-erasure is impossible, short of suicide, and that doesn’t even work.

There’s a kind of myth—in our country in particular—about reinvention. Our popular culture promulgates this idea that you can be whatever you want to be, and that you can somehow remake yourself, that your history can be erased and you can then start over. And I think that is completely impossible. I think you cannot and should not attempt to erase your history. Mary Ruefle, at the beginning of Madness, Rack, and Honey, writes, ‘In life, the number of beginnings is exactly equal to the number of endings: no one has yet to begin a life who will not end it.’

You cannot pretend that your past is not your past—how could you squander your time like that, to reject a part of yourself? I think our job is less to try and reinvent ourselves than to sort of get right with our past and try to live with the things we have inherited from ourselves. Vincenzo’s a person who’s struggling with that, he’s looking at his past and finding not a lot that he is excited about.

6  ·    ·  

What struck me about Vincenzo’s unraveling is that there’s a kind of passivity to his destruction; he’s profoundly ambivalent. It kind of reminded me of Bartleby the Scrivener. The world is entirely overwhelming to him, and he simply has no choice but to go along with it. Is this a position with which you sympathize?
Definitely. Growing up in DC, you come up against a lot of impossibly complex issues. I’d listen to people talk about, say, a gasoline subsidy in Brazil. There are easy answers that appeal to people on the left and the right, but the reality is that if you take this subsidy away, you might wreak havoc on millions of people’s lives. It’s terrible for the environment, but maybe it benefits some poor people. But then again, you could spend that money on schools and medicine instead of gasoline. And if you take it away, there’ll be riots in the streets. There isn’t a clear answer, and the more you learn about these things, they only get thornier and more complex. It’s paralyzing.

Personally, I want to honor complexity—political complexity, personal. I want to study people who are overwhelmed by the complexity but choose to act anyway, to overcome the paralysis.
Yeah, it’s kind of like, writing, isn’t it? You have to be arbitrary.
It does feel that way. Choices, in life, can feel terribly arbitrary. Should I go to Harvard or the University of Maryland? Everyone says ‘go to Harvard,’ but that’s

7  ·    ·  

madness—the Harvard people I know are often very tortured, they fail horribly and never recover. If you look at the lives of these people when they’re 36 years old—the Maryland grads and the Harvard grads—it’s not quite so clear why everyone’s scrambling to get into Harvard.

Once you stare at the question long enough, you realize you’ve built in certain assumptions that are kind of ludicrous. And I think that this is the case with most real questions in life. Once you get comfortable with that arbitrariness, it’s hard to make a decision without feeling like you’re putting a blindfold on and throwing a dart in approximate the direction of a dartboard.
People argue so much about politics and ideology in supposedly literary writing. Politics, international relations, the exercise of power between countries—these are all concerns you address in The Dismal Science, but you also do this clever thing where you refract extreme political stances through a character who is a little unbalanced and also incredibly ambivalent. How did you arrive at this decision?
Well, novels are stories about people, not ideas. That said, I love ideas—I love essays, in particular—and I feel that ideas per se resonate deeply and personally within my own existence. I live very much an idea-driven life. And it’s the same with these characters I write, I suppose. They’re self-reflexive, reasonably self-aware. But they’re not stand-ins for ideas. I really can’t stand to read allegory books—I just can’t sit through it, it’s too thudding. There are just waves of contrivance coming off the page. And it’s hard to take the thing seriously as a representation of the world we inhabit.

8  ·    ·  

That said, I think it was Carolyn Forché who said that effective political writing erases the boundary between public and private discourse. This is very true.
I noticed that one way you handle this in The Dismal Science is with these passages that ponder topics ranging from Dante to Machiavelli to economic policy. They read like very engaging nonfiction and it’s not entirely clear whether they represent your protagonist Vincenzo’s thoughts, or yours. It blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction. What are the opportunities of playing with that boundary? Why do you think so many fiction writers are afraid of doing so?
I love the energy and velocity of a good essay as much as I love the energy of good fiction. They’re different, yes, but I want them together, or at least I want them weaving together. But in writing classes people are forever wagging their fingers when you depart from the narrative march to talk about something interesting and relevant but perhaps grounded more in the drama of ideas than in the drama of events. Maybe this gesture is a bit tangential to the architecture of the story. So what? I get bored if it’s all just story, story, story.
Well, our journal’s mission is to bring Northwest writing, and especially the work of emerging writers, to a wider audience. And from the beginning, we've encountered this question of: ‘what, if anything, is distinct about Northwest writing?’ What do you think about that? In your own work and in the work of the writers in your community—is there a distinction to be made?

9  ·    ·  

I don’t know what is distinct about Northwest writing. There’s a good deal of it, of course. Everyone from David Shields to Elizabeth George, Chuck Palahniuk. There are legions of genre authors, poets of all stripes. Sherman Alexie lives in Seattle, of course. I see no common ground, frankly. I just see oceans of reading and writing here. There aren’t a lot of writers of color here, and I wish there were more. I guess it’s related to the demographics of the area, but I also don’t think it’s that simple—that’s an easy cop out. I’ve taught a lot of incredibly talented teens who are black, for example—these young writers who seem bound for greatness. But then I never hear from them again. Maybe it’s just going to take some time, but I think we need to pay attention, too.
When I interviewed Ryan Boudinot for the previous issue, he talked about his feeling that Seattle is on the verge of a literary renaissance—do you see that, too?
Absolutely. There are several major literary events a week here—for a city of this size, that’s quite strange. We have so many fantastic indie bookstores, libraries, literary centers. People always blame the weather—Tim Egan wrote a piece for the Times about that a couple years ago. I think there’s some truth to this. It’s miserable out nine months of the year, and so people go inside, and there’s only so much TV you can watch.

10  ·    ·  

Customer Care
Eric Severn

Another August night with the spiders. Some great exodus from the heat sending them dueling for dark spaces. I hunch at my desk and fiercely perspire. Northern Canada, the deepest Dakotas. The state I’m in has driven me to the Internet for vast landscapes. And while I’m particularly drawn to empty swaths of plains, a craggy bluff or fog-haunted coast will surely do. They afford me a certain forgetfulness. And then I’m an old, old man, listless and indifferent, triumphantly alone. I double-click on a wind-lashed fishing village somewhere in Norway. The photo fills my screen and I know I should be lost, should be captaining a boat, a boat christened Valhalla, Valhalla in cursive on the bow.
Two more hours online. Three more spiders swatted with the spatula. The sheer heft of their bodies raises questions of ethics, but it’s two a.m. and sleep finally seems possible. When I attempt to log off, the mouse refuses. To coax and treat it tenderly does no good. Nor abrupt thrusts. Centered on a derelict barn swept up in an effusion of Nova Scotia tundra, the little white arrow holds firm. More sweat. I curse the laptop’s obstinacy, curse its hushed technical chambers. Outside my archaic studio, the black stillness is broken by a passing car. It trails off into heat-crowded streets. A shower seems the best solution.
Turned all the way to cold but spurting lukewarm. Dripping wet I return to the same frozen barn. Nothing. Even the power button refuses me now. Lifting the thing, a few tender shakes do no good. I’m sent into a mild tantrum. Scraping at the pile of dirty clothes where I last cast the manual, but two spiders guard the creased book. They’re swift, wildly athletic, breaking one way then scurrying another. The first down a floor crack, but in a full-arch-slap I spatula its lover and for a moment swell. It’s a primal vigor and it encourages me back to my desk to decipher the manual’s language. File paths, disk drives, gigabytes—no reference to freeze-up, if that’s even what this is called. But in the back of the manual, a list.

11  ·    ·  

Phone numbers for all manner of technical support, all manner of country. Tehran. I want to call Tehran. Sounds of soft blown sand against rock cottages. But I don’t.
Three rings and then the electronic tones of some sexless being. My host provides seven numbers for seven common problems, and none of them are a freeze-up. So now I’m of an unpractical and severe mind. My want is to fling the nastiest obscenities in hope of overwhelming the circuits, in hope of being delivered to a real person, but I wither. It’s quickly approaching three a.m. After pressing two for monitor troubleshooting, the voice blooms with a new list of options. Soon nearly half an hour’s sucked up in the 1-800-labyrinth of suggestions and redirections. Finally, I find a customer service representative, awaiting behind a simple press of zero. Though it’s ten more minutes to an instrumental version of Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence before a voice, feminine and real, rises from the chorus. I tell her my name. Rhythmic finger pecking on a keyboard, and then more questions: the computer model, the serial number, which Windows program, etc. Silence billows as she retrieves the information. “Sir,” her voice returns, “I’ll have to transfer you to a representative familiar with your model.”
Sent back to the music, this time synthesized, vaguely industrial, a trance-like beat, a sense of movement, of great distances traveled in seconds.
“Service desk. Your name, please?”
An accent slow and spacious, as if each vowel were its own word. He and I go through the same routine. First and last name, make and model. When he asks what seems to be the problem, I explain the freeze-up. “The mouse,” I say. “It’s completely stuck.”
He pauses, absorbing. “Do you have a back-up disk?”
“What do I need that for?”
“If it crashes you’ll want your files saved.”
“It’s not crashing. It’s just frozen. And no, I don’t have a backup disk.”
“You should consider having—”
“Fine. But what about my current problem?”

12  ·    ·  

“Okay, Mr. Flinders. And you tried turning it off?”
His words rise and fall with a breezy inflection so dimly familiar. I say, “Listen. I’ve explained this. It won’t turn off. That’s the problem.”
“I understand. But have you tried manually turning it off?”
To keep from losing my self-possession, from slipping into growling fury, I ask where he’s from. “Your accent, I can’t place it.”
“Canadian,” he says. “I’m out here in Nova Scotia.”
Still frozen, my screen, the image of a barn, tundra. “You’re kidding me.”
“I don’t kid. All the way in Eastern Canada.”
“Amazing,” I murmur.
Through the window above my desk seeps thick smells of mud flats and stagnant salt water. I was looking up photos of Nova Scotia, I tell him how I was doing this before the freeze-up, and on the other end I hear him breathing, attentive, receptive. I’m tempted to tell him about the calming effect the images produce, to issue forth to this man the facts of last night, the situation, my guilt. “Geography,” I say, “it’s always interested me.”
“I can see the bay from here. It’s beautiful country.”
Then representative and customer both fall quiet, a flutter of connection, glint of a bond. My voice quivers slightly. “What’s your name?”
Craig, alone in his call center, with the window, looking out over the bay. “Take out the battery, stick it back in, reboot,” He says, “Simple as that.”
I do as I’m told. A flickering screen. Crackling circuits. Life once again. In his gentle satisfaction Craig imparts a few tips to prevent another lockup, and then his work is done.
“Wait,” I say, “Nova Scotia…” To know about the winters, the fall colors, the coastlines, and somehow an hour zips by. He tells of restaurants, hidden lakes, seafood and big game, or storms and the northern lights. Craig, he goes on and on. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. You can’t imagine the colors of the trees.”

13  ·    ·  

At four in the morning the conversation reaches its zenith on the topic of Prince Edward Island, and as our parting nears there’s the feeling of participating in something forbidden, even dirty. We say goodnight. One of us puts in a hasty thank you. I fall asleep and dream of Halifax.

Ten the next morning, wide awake. Two nights behind me. Stand in the kitchen, stare out the window. Two crows clutching a telephone wire and pecking at each other, beating their wings and exchanging desperate caws. Leave the house, that’d be the best thing, and Nick and Zoe, they’ll surely feed me. Like a family rescuing an orphan they’ve taken me in, provided a couch when I had no bed, cash when I was broke. Married, they own the coffee shop where I’m employed, one of those freestanding, drive-through gigs with the cutest of names: Bean Town. Zoe’s idea.
Sputtering down State Street in my beater Nissan, windows open to waves of heat rippling off parked cars. At the edge of town a cluster of scrubby blueberry farms, rows shuddering in the sun. It’s the 15th, I remember, bill day. Guiding the steering wheel with my knee, I pull over, find my phone, dial my credit card company. The automated voice answers and I give a quick, stern shout. “Representative!”
No hold music, just yawning frontiers. An old white house sits outside my window, a willow tree swaying mournfully in dry wind. Then a woman’s husky voice. “This is Brittany, how may I help you?” Before we take care of my balance, there are formalities: credit card number, social security number, address, zip. Authenticated and trusted, I pay. The confirmation number I pen on my palm. I ask her to repeat it, always sure to double-check. Is there anything else?
“Wait, Brittany. How are you?”
She hesitates, clears her throat. “I’m okay.”
“Wonderful. Listen, where am I calling?”
Again, hesitation. “Nebraska.”
“Nebraska. Like the Bruce Springsteen album.”
“I don’t really listen to him. Is there anything else I can help you with, sir?”
“Wait. What’s Nebraska like? I’ve always been curious.”

14  ·    ·  

“It’s hot,” she says.
I tell her it’s hot here, too, sweltering, in fact. “I’m out in Washington,” I say. “State. I’m in Bellingham.”
She’s interested now. Bellingham, it sounds so familiar, and then the connection: A childhood visit to an aunt and cousin, a little harbor town on Puget Sound. Bellingham, of course—and so I boast of the harbor, the evening strolls on the boardwalk, that scarlet blush of our sunsetted Cascades. “But how about Nebraska? Flat, right?”
No, there’re mountains. But then she corrects herself. More like hills, little nubs, really. I say, “What about tornadoes?”
“We’re used to them,” she says, “like Californians with earthquakes,” and then she’s going on and on. Reveals a mind brimming with Nebraskan facts. The home of Buffalo Bill Cody’s first rodeo, the origin of the Reuben sandwich, the residence of the world’s largest porch-swing and how the honey bee’s their state insect.
Sun catches on my dirty windshield, casts its glare, and I’m forced to stanch Brittany’s reservoir of knowledge.
“I’ve got to get going, Brittany.”
“And there’s nothing else I can help you with?”

Inside Nick hovers over the stove, boxers, shirtless, free and open in his own home. The two dogs do laps around my feet, paw at my clothes, then roll over to pant at the ceiling. Zoe, in sundress, sets the table. By the smell, it’s hot sausage to peppers, onions and garlic. I mumble hello and Nick turns from the spitting pan to blink at me. “You look like shit,” he says.
Zoe hands me a glass of orange juice, appraises, and agrees with her husband. They’re in love, these two, and I have often caught them in that furtive communication lovers share, though I have never once let on I’m aware of their secret language. I take a determined sip of my juice, sending it down the wrong pipe. It burns my throat, tears my eyes. To the table as a defeated boat finds its berth, I slump in a chair, rest my head in my hands. “I had a late night,” I say.

15  ·    ·  

Steam trails from the pan as Nick walks across the kitchen. Eggs and sausage all around. I pretend to be greedy with my food, to attack it mercilessly, but I’m too aware of Nick’s knowing look.
“You’ve done something—I can tell by your face.”
I watch him across the table but say nothing. One of the dogs barks at a truck rumbling down the road. Nick turns to his wife, not long, then back to me. “What about Susan?”
Through the screen door a warm wind sweeps up the curtains and I resolve to pick at my breakfast.

Breakfast is finished, strained small-talk finished. After, I mope around the kitchen. Nick and Zoe do the dishes but I leave them to burn a half hour on their back deck staring at oak trees. The sky bunches with inky clouds. Inside the married couple communicates in their secret language. Without a goodbye, I slip around the side of the house, get in my truck. Driving for home, rain drops turn month-old windshield dust to mud. In the distance a dull flash of heat lightning and I’m back in my studio. We sulk on repeat. Heat. Dirty and mist-heavy, it rises from wet concrete and presses against my windows. A final bill to pay, then the oblivion of another August afternoon. I pick up my phone and dial my cell phone company. The automated system is curt and efficient, collapsing time and distance into seconds. I’m transferred to someone named Erin. Bubbly and optimistic, she asks how my day’s been and I explain the manic weather, the broken clouds and torrid rain. I explain the sticky streets and on the other end she’s skeptical when I ask about hers. But then she loves summer, or so she says, and we take care of my payment. When she asks if there’s anything else, I tell her I’m calling from Bellingham. You know, northern Washington, I say, and there’s the chasm of a delay on her end. I fill it.
“Washington. It’s really great. Everything is always green. And where are you?”
“Idaho,” she forces.

16  ·    ·  

“Idaho, wonderful. I hear Moscow’s nice? Moscow, Idaho? Are you close? Have you ever been there?”
“Once,” she says flatly.
“So how was it?”
“It was cold. Sir, is there anything else I can help you with?”
“Wait,” I say. “Yes. You can spare a second, yes? Where am I calling in Idaho?”
She goes mute. One count, two. Three. Then she’s all business. “I’m sorry, Sir, but I can’t tell you where in Idaho.”
“What? Why?”
“Sir, do you need me to take care of anything else on your account?”
“I guess not, but—”
“Have a nice day, Sir,” and she hangs up before I can say goodbye.
Crouched on my bed, the phone burns against my ear. I lay back on the sweaty mattress. The lump in my stomach returns. From the corner of my eye I catch a spider making a break from under the fridge. I club it with a rolled magazine. The crunch of its blameless body leaves a streak across the glossy cover. I’m standing there unable to muster any pride when my phone rings and it’s Susan.
After four rings I answer. That familiar, ever up-lifting voice. Clear across the country, and I can feel her body almost, touch her hair almost, inhale that vanilla scent. Almost, and she tells me about the package she sent today. It’s something handmade, full of beach and sea secrets from Rhode Island. Through these tired pangs of regret, I promise I’ll send her something too, something of Washington, of myself. Don’t, she tells me. Because the package would arrive too late and we’ll already be together, be here.
“I need to tell you something.”
“What?” she says. “Is everything ok?”
“It’s, it’s just...”
“You can tell me. You can tell me anything you want.”
I fidget with my car keys. From the cracks between the slats, two more spiders emerge.

17  ·    ·  

“What is it?” she says. “We can talk to each other.”
Oblivious, the bugs scuttle around my kitchen. But I unroll the periodical because they’ll just keep coming.
“It’s just, I’ve got these damn spiders in my house. The heat’s bringing them in. I think. All over. I just wanted you to know before you get back and you’re here.”
She calls me silly. And I tell her I know. Very silly. I lie back on my bed, peeling sheets, bare blue mattress. After possibly a too-deep breath I tell her I want more about Rhode Island, more about the people, the beaches, and she says I’d love it. The houses, they’re just like those New England cottages you see in pictures. Stone chimneys and shake siding. We’ve been getting these storms with thunder that echoes through the whole city. And the salt off of the Atlantic. It’s different here. I wish you could taste it too, with me. Wonderful. Wonderful, I say. Wonderful, and there she goes, riding her bike down narrow streets, and covered bridges, and a basket of fruit, warm rain just rolling off her skin.

Eric Severn received his MFA from the University of Idaho. He has worked as fiction editor of the literary journal Fugue and was the recipient of the University of Idaho’s Hemingway Fellowship. His writing is forthcoming in Beloit Fiction, Lake Effect, and Pleiades.

18  ·    ·  

Professor M
Corinne Manning

The dog wasn’t mine anymore. It belonged to her and so did the house and the sixties-style turquoise bookshelf that we purchased together, the pots and pans, the soap dish in the bathroom. The reason was that they were her idea.
“Intellectual property,” she shouted at me during a fight in which we were both sobbing.
“That’s for articles and screenplays, not Boris.” I pressed my face into Boris’s neck and gave a deep moan that came from somewhere untouched, like the socket of my hip. It startled all of us. Boris turned and licked at my face.
“I can’t be without this dog.”
“Well, I don’t know what to do.” Julia bit her lip. She watched me from across the room and tore at this one sad piece of her hair that took all the brunt of her stress. Back when we weren’t in the process of breaking up I would pull her hand away. Sometimes I kissed it. But now she tore her hand through and it made an awful snapping sound and I could picture the day when, without my interference, that patch of hair would wilt and crumple to the floor leaving a quarter-sized bald spot. I tugged between the satisfaction of that image and the dwindling part of me that wanted only sweet, good things for her.
“We would have to see each other pretty regularly and I just don’t think I could handle that after what you’ve done.” These words worked like a spell. I kissed Boris’s neck and smelled pine and shit and some chemical from her shampoo. I rubbed between her eyes and then stood with my duffle bag.
“I’ll come by next weekend to pick up my books.”
When Boris was a puppy she sat in my lap and I held her, totally enamored by her softness, her buttery bones and joints; how she seemed ready to spill out into my hands.
“This is why people have babies,” I said to Julia. “When they’re soft like this I bet you can really feel their souls.”

19  ·    ·  

Of course, I can’t imagine what it would feel like to hold a human soul in my hand. I’ve never held a baby, but holding Boris, her soul available and pliable like paraffin, like hands dipped in oil was one of the greatest things I’d ever done. I felt like I was connected to her soul in this very pure way so by the time she became muscled and formed, the proud broad chest of a bull dog, I could stare into her eyes and still feel the—how else can I say it?—availability of her spirit.

There is a trauma to making a mistake and not being forgiven. To being held so accountable that your life is stripped from you. That act is unforgiveable and though I know I should feel guilty, and do, though I know I caused Julia pain, nothing I did warrants her reaction to a student’s email.
This is not supposed to happen to “Queer theory” professors, or as my university prefers “Women and Gender Studies.” But my young queer students always fall in love with me. They love my well fitting slacks, my bow ties. I’ve watched them follow the line of my waist to my jaw as I speak. When I grade while they work in small groups I can feel their eyes on me as I sit, stoic, fucking their essays. I’m a scholar who prefers to be a teacher and it doesn’t matter that most of my students are bad lays. I get a queer, aching joy from their misfired connections, their wimpy arguments, my red pen circling a clause like a tongue.
“I want you to stun me,” I told this group at the beginning of the semester. “Give me a reason to hold my pen up but not actually put it down.” I watched them all scribble this into their notebooks except for one student, Taylor, who watched me as acutely as I liked to watch them. In my first few years of teaching, if a student did something like this, it would really throw me off. I’d look down, mess with my papers, look at the clock, cough. Now, I’m a professional. They only needed to share their names once at the beginning of class and already I had them memorized.
“Is there a problem, Taylor? Something you want to question?” But she was a professional in her own way because she didn’t sway.
“I’m good. Just watching.”

20  ·    ·  

“It might serve you to write some of this information down.”
“Don’t need to. It’s in the syllabus.” The other students popped their heads up at me. This was the opportunity to get my class size down. Taylor had served me for a spike.
“If you are someone who does very well in all your other classes I guarantee you’ll do poorly in this class.” Taylor released the briefest twitch and it satisfied me deeply, like scratching an itch in my lungs. It never took very much. Twenty year olds are still children. I continued my rant.
“I can spot a complacent intellect as quickly as I can determine a weak argument: by the end of the first sentence. So have your intentions clear. Life is too short and this tuition too expensive to waste anyone’s time.”
Taylor was too prideful at that point to actually start writing but she did pick up her pen. Everyone stared rapt, including me. Lord, what other way can I say this? The picking up of her pen stirred me.
Taylor, with her long swept bangs and hair cut short at the back and her rainbow earring and over sized boy’s jeans didn’t continue to challenge me. In fact, she worked so hard that I would read her papers and feel on the brink of orgasm. The thesis was well thought through, the arguments, though sometimes faulty, were cited with precision and taken as far as they could go. To read her essays was to have someone knelt before you undoing your zipper. Then came the paper on the photographer Catherine Opie and I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to email her.


Your paper Queer Eye of Opie is an above satisfactory achievement. We’ll discuss more in conference but I wanted to commend you on taking such an overused topic and turning it into something much deeper. There may be a possibility of publishing this. Let’s talk.

Professor M

21  ·    ·  

The idea of publishing came out in a flurry of passion and even though it felt good to type it, afterwards I felt a kind of remorse. In the time it took me to stand, assemble my papers, and get my bag, the inbox chimed. Her response was there, like she had been expecting my email and her message had already been written, waiting in her drafts. I pictured her sitting at the computer, waiting to send it, finger poised on the mouse and I started to sweat. I read it smiling like a goof ball.

Dear Prof M, (Prof! So sweet I could hardly stand it.)

I am literally sitting here giddy. I’m looking forward to our conference. I just read Van Der Meer’s “Tribades on Trial” for Professor Leon’s history of sexuality class and I found our discussion of it pretty boring and am hoping I could start a discourse with you. Let me know if you need it. I can attach it as a pdf.


Here was the moment when I was guilty. Here was the moment when I knew what I was doing. That my response would make her shift and buckle over her hand.


No need to send. I think I have the text on my shelf.

Professor M

That night, when Julia and I had sex, I tried not to think about this exchange but I felt cold and disconnected so finally I pictured the T. at the end of her email. Her offer to attach it as a pdf. I came loudly, holding Julia’s head in my hands as I pictured the textbook, edited by John C. Fout glowing on my shelf, like it had always been waiting for Taylor.

22  ·    ·  

“You’re something else tonight,” Julia said. Her hand was inside of me, well past the knuckles, and I twitched, I buckled, like Taylor did over my email. I suppose I could have told Julia then, because then she would have known that what I was doing with Taylor was helping both of us.

We sat across from each other awkwardly. She looked at all of the items on my desk—the books I was reading or blurbing, the small tchotchkies that Julia gave me, a picture of the two of us on a hike somewhere. I was sweaty and tan in that photo, wearing a tank top. Julia’s long curly hair was pulled behind one shoulder. She was the only person in the world who could go on a ten-mile hike and look refreshed, like she’d just showered. Taylor’s eyes had settled on this photo. I used my finger to direct the angle of the picture a little more towards me.
“I appreciated getting to review that text again. It had been a few years,” I offered. She nodded. She twisted something in her fingers, but it wasn’t a tissue. It was brown, soft. A piece of yarn? My phone rang. I bowed my head to her and leaned over to answer it. Taylor stood to leave but I held my hand up to her. She stayed completely still in the position I froze her in. I couldn’t look at that, so I swiveled away.
“Hello?” I said. I covered the mouth piece. Taylor was still bent. “It’s my partner, please relax. No, I’m here. I’m with a student in conference.” I listened to Julia. Taylor began to play with her earring. “Strawberries sound good. If there isn’t enough arugula in the garden let me know.”
I worried that I would have to say I love you but I didn’t. We hung up the phone without a goodbye like business partners.
“Sorry about that,” I said to Taylor. The brown thing was displayed on her knee. She smiled.
“Sounds like a nice dinner.”
“It’s our anniversary.”
“Oh,” she said sitting up a little more. “Congratulations.”

23  ·    ·  

“What are your thoughts on this essay?” I asked. She held up the brown thing.
“I have a little gift for you,” she said. “I just noticed how your pens were always all over the place in your bag so I knitted you this thing. So you know where your pens are.”
It was brown and unevenly knitted, but I could see now how it would work. It had a little flap secured by a button.
“That is so clever,” I said. I reached for it and she hesitated before giving it to me. I could feel the tug of her end from my end. The yarn was so soft. I undid the button and put three pens inside. I held it up to her like tada! And she giggled probably like she did as a baby. I kept the gift on my desk underneath my fingers.
“You know the part,” she said, “where the villagers are watching the two women have sex through the hole in the attic wall, apparently for hours and one woman just couldn’t take it anymore and says ‘Haven’t you had enough fouling around?’ or something?”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“In the article. I just found that so striking and I keep thinking about it. We didn’t even touch on that in class aside from the fact that it was bizarre. There’s something about voyeurism, the eye, which I find really haunting.” She looked at me for courage to go on and I leaned forward in my chair, which I never do. She leaned a little forward too.
“I kind of just want to write a paper on the fact that there is documentation that the villagers watched for four hours. And if that woman hadn’t called out maybe everyone would have kept watching. And there’s all these views of queer sex being ugly, but that document proves that even then it was, is, quite the opposite.” She ran her hand through her hair and I saw that her cheeks were flushed.
“Quite the opposite.” I repeated it knowing it was the wrong thing to do. I glanced at the clock and stood. She jumped to her feet.
“Write it. I’ll work on it with you. You can do this for our final paper.”

24  ·    ·  

“Really? I know you don’t like people to change their topics so late in the semester.”
“Don’t remind me of that.” I grabbed the knitted thing and dropped it in my bag.
She stood there still for a moment and I paused and looked at her, the bag over my shoulder. Her face had a slight chubbyness to it, that puppy softness of youth—and I could see it all over her body. I imagined how it would start to redistribute or disappear forever over the next three years. I didn’t move to hold her, I didn’t quite feel compelled to, but I was curious about the availability of her spirit. If I held her in that office, would I have felt it on the sides of her thighs, around her ribs? What is it like for someone with a spirit so available to hold someone like me? Am I a heavy cold thing? Boris at least appeared to love me. The longing in Taylor’s eyes was so present. I looked away. I opened the door.
“I have a bus to catch,” I said. I’d never seen anyone move so slowly.

I arrived home with my arms full of groceries. I felt lavish after my meeting with Taylor or maybe guilty so I bought cheeses and chocolate. I bought a smoked trout spread to have alongside our salads. Boris and Julia greeted me at the door. Boris whimpered, her back claws clattering as she jumped into the air. Midway she remembered not to put her paws on me and tilted back down to the floor. The house was warm and sunny, fabric and leather strips were strewn over the furniture, the sewing machine out on the coffee table.
“I’m sorry about the mess,” Julia said. She fixed the bobby pin that kept the wily piece of hair back then took the bundle of groceries from my arms. I followed her into the kitchen.
“I decided to start a new shoulder bag for you. It’s officially seven years since you’ve been carrying that one and I’m much better than I was then. Look.” I followed her to the table where the bag rested. She was using the leather we’d purchased from a lesbian couple on our block that sold skins.

25  ·    ·  

“See that?” she pointed to a small pocket in the lining of the bag. “That’s for your pens. After I gave you the old bag I was mortified because you’d come to class and I would watch you go searching for pens. They were all loose and I just couldn’t believe I hadn’t considered that. And I thought, my god—I’ll never be a theorist. Too many details to pay attention to.” She wrapped her arms around me and kissed me deeply. I tasted onions. I ran my fingers through her hair and brought my lips to her ear.
“I thought you dropped because of all the Foucault.” I felt a ripple through her body.
“Foucault,” I said again.
“Stop it.” She pinched my side. We walked together into the kitchen. The table by the back window was set formally. She opened up the wine and I realized I had seen her open probably hundreds of bottles of wine and every time I still stared in awe at her hands, the way the fingers make every action seem like a rare skill. This was the kind of thing I tried not to notice when she was a student but no matter how hard I tried to look away I could see her hands moving, with that pen, moving.
“Foucault was part of it, but it was also just too painful to see you use that bag while you still felt so unattainable. That seems so long ago. I don’t think I’ve felt that kind of awe about you for years. It’s nice how things shift.”
I put Boris’s front paws up on the chair and rubbed down the sides of her body. I stared at the blood spots on her eye, and kissed the top of her snout.
“We’re coming up on seven years for Boris, too,” I said.
“I think that’s when I knew we were really together,” she said. “That I wasn’t just this kid you passed notes with through campus mail. It blew my mind—I was living with you and we had a dog.”
I took a sliver of trout and let Boris lick it off my finger.

I left the knitted case at school. In my desk. I did not take it with me to class. Taylor noticed my new bag. Saw the pocket where my pens were kept. I didn’t

26  ·    ·  

make eye contact with her until I was settled. She did not send me an annotated bibliography or consult me about her project again. In fact, on the last day of the term, she didn’t hand anything in. She was the first to leave class. I felt a flash of anger as she walked out the door. Nothing happened between us, I wanted to shout at her. There was an article and an email in which I said I owned the book. The only thing I almost said out loud then, and I felt my head rush with rage, was act like an adult.
I was fuming when I got back to my office. I tossed the papers on my desk and paced for a moment. What made her think that just because I was going to help her with a paper, because I appreciated her work that I would give up my life for her? How dare she be so petty as to not hand in that paper? I found myself at the computer. My fingers flew on the keys and I couldn’t stop. How dare you, I wrote. To act slighted when nothing happened. To think that anything would happen. I typed and typed. I noticed a red squiggly line underneath one of the words, and then a green squiggly line under a fragment but I just kept going. I clicked save and then sped out of my office to get home in time to take Julia out to dinner.
My intention had been to read through the email after dinner, which was what I did. I stripped down to a t-shirt and sat with a beer only to find that there was nothing in my draft folder.
The beer swam thinly in my belly. I opened up my sent folder and there it was, delivered that afternoon when I intended to save it. No subject, no salutation, no closing. The email was enraged and unhinged. I glanced at the first few lines and wanted to disintegrate.
“M.,” Julia called. “I’m on the phone with Max. Do we have plans Saturday?”
I couldn’t answer. What was Saturday? How could I fix this? I went back to my inbox and there in bold was Taylor’s name. The damn RE:. My cursor hovered over it. I didn’t want to read what it said. I wanted a meteor to land right then, right over Silicon Valley or wherever it was that the internet lived and shut it out, the lights, the internet, make it gone for good.

27  ·    ·  

“M?” she called again. I couldn’t wait for the meteor to fall. I double clicked.

At first I was going to write that I was sorry because no one had ever sent me an email so mean. I think you should know that it hurt my feelings so much that it made me cry. I’ve been feeling confused about what theorists are supposed to feel. My roommate is majoring in Buddhist studies and in many ways it seems like I’m supposed to feel and act the same way as her, as a theorist, but I don’t know if we have the same kind of tools. It seems like a theorist’s brain would just self-destruct one day, which maybe is what yours just did? I was going to apologize but now I’m not going to. What you said to me was inappropriate and should be reported because you did lead me on. No one else got comments on their papers the way that I did. No one else got an uninvited email from you. I know how to read this and you’re just as bad as those fiction authors you talked about who claim they are unaccountable for what their work does because they are just making art, when the fact is that you were fulfilling the role of seducer and I was fulfilling the role of seduced. Maybe I’m not a theorist after all. I’m too used to feeling things.
I’m not going to tell anyone about this email but I do want you to give me an incomplete and sign me into an independent study with Professor Leon. He and I both think we could count it for the credits your class would have filled.
If you didn’t want the pen holder you should have said it wasn’t your style and no thank you.

Taylor Fisher

“Is this a joke?” Julia asked. She stood behind me, her cell phone clutched to the base of her throat.
“A misunderstanding,” I said. I shouldn’t have been so cavalier in that moment with her but it didn’t occur to me that she would be upset, since I hadn’t heard her come up behind me and figured she’d only had enough time to infer that a student was upset about something the way students often are. I stood

28  ·    ·  

up slowly and looked at her. She hung up the phone. Her fists were clenched. Is it fair to say that in seven years I had never seen Julia’s fists clenched? And that fact struck me as odd even as her hands struck me as beautiful. She pushed a fist into my chest. Lightly. I could tell she wanted to push more.
“She gave you a pen holder?”
“I never used it. This isn’t like us.” I could see that there was trouble. She wasn’t breathing, her eyes looked angry and I didn’t know that eyes could look that way but I wanted them to look at me softly and I knew, looking into them, that I would never feel that from her again and that was the first thing that made me cry.
“I used your bag when you gave it to me back then. I didn’t use her case. I only wrote to her once about her paper. She acted like something more had happened and her entitlement made me mad.”
I couldn’t stop weeping—it was a hysterical cry, terrible whinnying sounds on my inhale. Julia was calm. I saw her breath heave in and at first that made me feel better but she returned right to her stony self.
“Back then I knew you had a reputation but I thought I was the only one—.”
“You were. You are. I promise.”
“How many students?”
“None. This isn’t even a thing that happened.”
“It was such a risk to be with you,” she said. She rubbed at her eye and I moved to hold her but she put her hand up, the way I’d done when asking Taylor to wait for me to finish my phone call. I would have stayed frozen like that forever if it would have made a difference.
“Write her an apology and then please go, please leave. I don’t think I can be in the house with you right now.”

Every time I came back to the house to get more things I hoped that Julia would see me and change her mind but each time she seemed more withdrawn, as if she never saw anything worth anything in me. She called me a sex addict, said she read about it for a few hours on the internet and thought I should get help.

29  ·    ·  

“It’s your relationship with power,” she said.
There was one box of books left to get and this time we arranged it so she wouldn’t be home. This was the beginning of our no contact period. When I turned the key, which I was instructed to leave on the kitchen table, I heard Boris whimpering, I heard her claws on the door. It was like it always was, it was like it hadn’t been a week since I’d last seen her. I let her put her paws on me. I knelt down and hugged her. I moved her front legs over my shoulders. I felt a swell of affection for Julia. She had done this on purpose. This was not something that she had to do. My box was right by the door, with a note on top of it. At what point would her handwriting no longer be the most intimate, most familiar thing to me?

Take Boris for this month. We’ll figure out next month.


Next to the box were Boris’s belongings: her bowl, her leash, her bed. I jumped up with the most joy I’d felt in years. Boris acted in response. Once in the car we settled in next to each other. Boris rested her head on my lap and I felt soft and available. I don’t know if either of us felt aware of my spirit, I’m not certain theorists have one, but I felt free knowing that in the end, Julia and I, at least in this one thing, acted in opposition to what we were set up to act towards. This is a theorist’s happy ending.

Corinne Manning is the founding editor of The James Franco Review, an online journal dedicated to the visibility of underrepresented artists. “Professor M” is part of a collection called We Had No Rules, stories from which have also appeared in Story Quarterly and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. Additional writing has appeared in The Nervous Breakdown, The Oxford American, Arts & Letters, and as a chapbook through alice blue review's Shotgun Wedding Series. She co-runs The Furnace Reading Series in Seattle and teaches for Writers in the Schools.

30  ·    ·  

An Interview with T.V. Reed on Robert Cantwell
Digital exchange  ·  November 2014, January 2015  ·  Interviewed by Alex Davis-Lawrence

T. V. Reed is a Professor of American Studies and English at Washington State University. A scholar-activist, his work focuses on digital cultures, cultural theory, contemporary American fiction, social movements, and popular culture. His new book Robert Cantwell and the Literary Left is a critical study of the life, career, and broader cultural significance of Robert Cantwell, a protelarian novelist of the 1930s from Aberdeen, Washington. Reed is also the author of Digitized Lives: Culture, Power and Social Change in the Internet Era and The Art of Protest, which is receiving a 10th anniversary reprinting later this year.
I’ll start with a confession—I hadn’t heard of Robert Cantwell before your book crossed my path. As someone who grew up in Seattle, with family from around the region, it seems like Cantwell is a writer I should have been at least peripherally familiar with. But I hadn’t heard of him in school, stumbled across his name in the library, or read references to his work in any sort of Northwest history or cultural criticism. How is it that a writer like Cantwell has gone so thoroughly under the radar?
I think several factors account for the eclipse of Cantwell’s reputation. Being a regional writer is certainly part of it. Had he been writing about New York or Chicago he’d have been harder to ignore. But mostly it was being a radical writer

31  ·    ·  

in an era when being a radical writer actually seemed to matter. Most of the time, dominant forces in society tolerate a little radical writing; in fact they tout it as proof that the system is a fair and open one. But Cantwell was part of an entire movement that sought to overthrow capitalism in the 1930s, and given the depth of the Depression, that seemed to be a real possibility.

In a sense, Cantwell’s entire generation of writers has gone under the radar. He is definitely one of the most gifted, if not the most gifted, of the writers arising from what some called the “proletarian literary movement,” but really that whole body of work was disappeared by the anti-communism and McCarthyism of the 1950s. My goal in the book is not simply to rescue one talented fiction writer and critic from oblivion. I also want to draw greater attention to a much larger gap in popular knowledge about American literature and culture. Cantwell was at the heart of a large-scale transformation that occurred in mid-twentieth-century U.S. culture, a transformation that Michael Denning has called “the laboring of American culture.”

That movement was largely destroyed by post-WWII repression and by a series of compromises made by labor leaders at a time when the economic pie was large enough that workers could get a pretty good deal. The postwar period brought the largest sustained economic growth in world history, and all Americans benefitted, for some time. Unfortunately, the failure to keep a progressive labor movement going meant that when that period of growth ended (in the early 1970s), the infrastructure of worker resistance that had been the heart of progressive change was pretty weak. Moreover, the right successfully used racism and so-called social issues (abortion, gay rights, gun rights, etc.) to divide and conquer the “working class.” How often do you even hear that word anymore? That set us on a path of increasing income inequality that now has become staggeringly unfair.

32  ·    ·  

It’s certainly astonishing how relevant, how of-the-moment Cantwell’s work feels today. Reading The Land of Plenty, it was hard to shake the feeling that not much had changed. I was particularly struck by the sections on the media—the manipulative media coverage of the logging strike, which always seems to go out of its way to demean and reduce the workers’ action, has such close parallels to the recent coverage of Occupy, and of the protests following the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. What do you think is the media’s role in all of this?
Most working journalists outside of clearly biased places like Fox News work hard to achieve some degree of distance and objectivity. But mainstream journalistic enterprises are inherently biased towards a corporate worldview. Those with wealth and power simply have a far better PR systems in place than those who dissent or are marginalized by poverty or skin color or speaking a language other than standard English. In Cantwell’s day, sometimes the bias was easier to spot in the case of media moguls like William Randolph Hearst (the model for Citizen Kane); the only one of these left is Rupert Murdoch. But a subtler corporate philosophy shapes the newsrooms of even so-called liberal papers like the New York Times. They have a financial page and a business section. But there is no poverty page, no workers’ section. When the Occupy Movement was in full swing I got dozens of calls from journalists because I am a so-called academic expert on social movements, and I was consistently struck by how dismissive journalists were of protest, how they had to be led to see the movement from the movement’s perspective. They used phrases like “sixties-style” protest to trivialize, as if the choice to challenge injustice were a nostalgic lifestyle choice. Things are

33  ·    ·  

somewhat improved by internet activism these days which can sometimes, as in the case of Occupy and Ferguson, force the issue into the mainstream press through the power of viral narratives.
I’m interested in hearing more about the “proletarian literary movement” you mentioned. What did that movement look like? Who were the key players, and what were they writing?
The proletarian movement derived originally from writers in Russia in the wake of the revolution of 1917 who sought to articulate the world of ordinary workers, rather than just middle and upper classes. In the United States, Mike Gold, a writer of Jewish immigrant stories in New York in the 20s and 30s, put out a call for ordinary working folks—“factory hands, waitresses, shopgirls”—to become writers, to tell their stories in a context where fiction writing was largely, as it is now, a middle class phenomenon. When he first put out this call in the roaring 20s, the response was moderate. But when the Depression hit in 1929, the proletarian literary movement took off and led to the creation of dozens of novels, poems, and plays written by and about the lives, loves and political struggles of working class Americans. As with any emergent literature, much of this was less than stellar, but a few truly great voices—Cantwell, Edward Dahlberg, Henry Roth, Meridel LeSuer, Tillie Olsen—emerged and a fascinating body of work was created. The work in turn shaped better known writers like Dos Passos, Hemingway and Steinbeck. But those closest to the proletarian movement, sometimes correctly, sometimes wrongly, came to be associated with the Communist Party USA (which had indeed championed proletarian

34  ·    ·  

literature) so that when the vicious anti-communist crusades of the McCarthy era hit in the 1950s, much proletarian literature was buried, politically suppressed, or declared to be not literary because it didn’t conform to certain “refined” standards that were biased toward the political status quo.
So how did you personally come across Cantwell? What led you to embark on this study of his work?
I pretty much stumbled onto Cantwell by accident. Way back in 1976 I was looking for a Master’s thesis topic while a grad student in History at the University of Oregon. I was researching what I thought would be my topic: “The IWW in Literature.” As I was reading everything I could find in the way of fiction written about the Wobblies, I came across a Cantwell story about the Wobblies, and then I read The Land of Plenty. It blew me away. Here was a book as rich as a Faulkner or Henry James novel written about a strike in Aberdeen, Washington. Why wasn’t this book well-known? Why wasn’t it on reading lists in American Literature classes? So I ended up writing my thesis on Cantwell.

Over the intervening decades I kept expecting someone to rediscover him, to write a book about him. When that seemed never to happen, I decided to do it myself, working at first from my thesis but then greatly expanding it. When I was almost finished with the book, I got word that someone finally was doing a biography of Cantwell—a Swedish scholar, since passed, named Per Seyersted.

35  ·    ·  

That set me back for a while. But his book turned out to be a disappointment because it downplayed Cantwell’s radicalism and did not really understand his aesthetic politics, which brilliantly argued for and then created a stylistically rich, but politically committed and radical kind of writing. So, finally, I hooked up with a great editor at University of Washington Press, Ranjit Arab, who understood the importance of what I was trying to do, and graciously supported the creation of what became Robert Cantwell and the Literary Left.
Where do you see the Northwest most clearly in Cantwell’s work? How did growing up in the region influence Cantwell as a writer? As a person?
With the exception of a couple of short stories, virtually all the fiction Cantwell wrote, including two novels and a number of stories, is set in the Northwest. He grew up in a series of small lumber towns around the region (Little Falls, Carlisle, Onalaska), and he was right in the heart of radical labor movement. Eventually, Cantwell ended up in Aberdeen for his high school years. After a subsequent not very happy year in college at University of Washington, he was forced by his father’s illness and family poverty to go to work in a factory, Harbor Plywood, in Hoquiam. That four-year experience profoundly shaped his respect for working people, and was the basis for his novel The Land of Plenty (that novel, by the way, was recently reissued in a lovely edition from Pharos Editions, with an introduction by the terrific novelist Jess Walter).

36  ·    ·  

The most significant force in the labor movement in the Northwest was the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW, know colloquially as the Wobblies. They were formed in 1905, and while they had influence all over the country, they were nowhere stronger than in the Northwest, partly due to the horrendous conditions in the lumber industry where deaths and maimings were a daily occurrence, wages were miserable, and 12-hour days and longer were not uncommon. The Wobblies were the first major union to racially integrate, and one of the first to have significant numbers of women, including as leaders. Cantwell’s lumberjack uncle August (his mother’s brother) was a Wobbly for a time, and Robert came into contact with Wobblies and ex-Wobblies during his time as mill worker in the mid-1920s. He also read avidly about the IWW in both conservative and labor publications.

Clearly, the IWW made a deep impression on him, one that profoundly influenced his political views and his writing as both evolved steadily leftward in the thirties. This influence is seen most directly in a story Cantwell wrote in 1934 titled “Hills around Centralia” that richly recreates the tense atmosphere surrounding the Centralia Massacre of 1919, in which Wobblies and American Legionnaires clashed in a town not far from where he was living at the time. The story is told from the point of view of a young teen (Cantwell himself was eleven at the time of the events) who experiences the clash among the antiradical ideology represented by his school principal and local authorities, a Wobbly handbill he finds describing their version of the massacre, and an encounter in the woods with two actual Wobblies who bear no resemblance to their stereotype and who give an eyewitness account of the attack on the IWW hall in Centralia, along with the horrendous details of the subsequent vigilante lynching of a young Wobbly organizer, Wesley Everett. Cantwell’s story impressively juxtaposes the conservative and progressive rhetorics of this earlier time in ways that could not

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help but echo ones very much in play in the mid-1930s when he published it, and that sound a lot like the conversation around the Occupy Wall Street movement of recent years.
Today, the Northwest still strikes me as a region with a fairly unique political and economic landscape. I’m immediately reminded, of course, of Kshama Sawant, whose election to the Seattle City Council as a Socialist candidate and continued fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage have made national headlines. And yet, at the same time, Seattle is home to some of the world’s biggest companies, including Amazon, a company that’s arguably pioneering a new era of automation-, surveillance-, and algorithm-based labor exploitation. How does the modern Northwest tie back to the Northwest of Cantwell’s time? Can Cantwell’s life or work help us understand the connections and disconnects between these two seemingly-conflicting sides of the contemporary Northwest?
The Northwest, like the rest of the United States, has always been politically split. Seattle had a female mayor in the early 20th century, and a number of socialists in government. But during the era when all those labor struggles were happening, there was also vicious repression by the government; the FBI was pretty much born to carry out the repression of leftists during the first Red Scare of 1918-20. And there was repression by right-wing organizations like the American Legion, which was responsible for horrible beatings and the hanging of Wobbly Wesley Everest in the Centralia Massacre of 1919, as well as the Ku Klux Klan, which was also active in the region.

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In 1936, the communist movement in the state was so strong that the U.S. postmaster joked, “There are forty-seven states and the Soviet of Washington,” but there were also deeply reactionary strands in the 30s too. The WTO Battle of Seattle events at the turn of the 21st century exemplify this progressive spirit, but also in its global focus reminds us that regions are never separable from larger forces. We cannot, for example, champion our electronics industry without talking about the horribly exploitative labor practices in China, Southeast Asia, Mexico, and elsewhere that make our shiny smart phones and PCs possible. We now have the phenomenon of what we might call “progressive elites,” who vote liberal on social issues but who live off very economically oppressive profit-taking.
I think your description of “progressive elites” is exactly right. It certainly captures the nature of a lot of the elites in the Northwest right now, as well as in cities like San Francisco and New York, where lip service to liberalism is paired with extreme income inequality and increasingly crippling issues of gentrification and real estate pricing. It feels like a fundamental disconnect between culture and politics. Do you think bringing writers like Cantwell back into the public dialogue can help address this issue? What lessons can the career of a writer like Cantwell teach us today?
One of the rhetorical tricks of recent years in our political discourse is the disappearance of the term “working class.” We are all middle class now, or poor. That is demonstrably false in demographic terms but it profoundly shapes our ability to think politically. You don’t need to be an old school Marxist to see that

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when you deny a class of people acknowledgement, you deny them a democratic voice. Cantwell may have been writing about an era when class lines were somewhat easier to see, but they are just as present today. It is just that the fog around talk of class is thicker. The Occupy Movement cleared some of the fog for a while, but a lot of it has returned. Reading the work of Cantwell and his peers can sharpen our ability to see just how profoundly political economy shapes even the most intimate dimensions of our lives.
A continued theme I noticed in The Land of Plenty is the difficulty of communication across classes. It often feels like the managers literally can’t hear or understand the workers, as in the exchange between MacMahon and Hagen about the source of the power outage on page 181; the back-and-forth between the two sides, which almost inevitably leads nowhere, can be excruciating at times. Do you see communication as an important theme in Cantwell’s work? And how might this tie into his political and aesthetic goals?
For Cantwell, communication between classes is not rooted in individual behavior or individual qualities. He sees that our social positioning in the world—our jobs, our gender, our race—determines to a large extent our way of viewing the world. It is much more difficult than is often claimed, though not utterly impossible, to see the world through the eyes of another. And he believed that fundamentally the wealthy and powerful were incapable of seeing those who worked for them as much more than instruments of profit. It is not a matter of

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good bosses versus bad bosses, but of basic differences in power. All the instances of miscommunication in his work arise from seeing the world from either the perspective of those who have a vested interest in corporate capitalism, or those who realize that they are in one way or another misused by that system. In his work, certain folks are caught in the middle, between bosses and workers, and they have to choose in the old union song’s words “which side are you on.” The late great Northwest folksinger Utah Philips called it the blame game. Either you blame the poor and the working class for their condition, pushing the blame down on those already downtrodden, or you push the blame up onto those who reap great wealth from the labor of others. In the United States, that still largely determines our political affiliations: do you push the blame down on immigrants and so-called “welfare chiselers,” or do you push the blame up towards the 1% who benefit immensely from the corporate welfare of tax loopholes, lobbyists, oil subsidies, a biased legal system, et cetera.
Absolutely. I loved the note about Kurt Cobain at the end of your book, who, like Cantwell, grew up in working-class Aberdeen: “It is a sign of Cobain’s time, and our current time, that his much-heralded social anger is almost never analyzed in class terms but only through the cliché of youthful rebellion.” I think this is a powerful point, and speaks to how important context is to understanding a creative work. Do you think that seeing a figure like Cantwell or Cobain as a regional writer also has the potential to open up new forms of analysis?
I think it important to always respect the particularities of place, to see yourself connected to a particular geography and a history. At the same time, we are

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clearly also living in a time when recognition of our embeddedness in larger global forces is equally important. Cantwell’s story matters to our understanding of the Northwest, and matters because it gives insight into a larger mid-twentieth-century cultural process that moved millions of working-class U.S. citizens from the margins to the center of the society, only to subtly and not-so-subtly re-marginalize them during and after the Cold War era. My point about Cobain was that by the time grunge arose, the United States had virtually no language to talk about class politics. In contrast to the U.K. where punk clearly was understood initially as a working class reaction to economic inequality, grunge was just read as adolescent angst. I believe deeply that the failure to acknowledge the worker’s literature movement of the 1930s has contributed greatly to a denial of the role of economic exploitation in undermining real democracy in this country. It meant that millions of everyday American workers have remained largely absent from the story of American literature and the wider story of U.S. culture. In turn, that allowed the political right to place blame for the ills of the working class not on corporate greed, but on the alleged laziness of the portion of the working class benefitting from our (ever diminishing) social safety net. The Occupy Wall Street movement dramatically brought this conversation back into the American household. I hope my book will play a small role in reminding us of the point driven home by Occupy, that social class inequality in America is the key fact we must face head-on if we are to honor our pledge of liberty and justice for all.

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Hills Around Centralia
Robert Cantwell (1935)

Credited with writing “the first modern novel to come out of the Northwest” and praised by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway as one of the most promising writers of his generation, Cantwell is a vitally important but often overlooked figure in the Northwest’s rich literary history. In “Hills Around Centralia,” originally published in the anthology Proletarian Literature in the United States, he depicts a small town in Western Washington responding to a real historic event that took place during his childhood—the Centralia Massacre of 1919. The story appears here for the first time since its original publication.

To learn more about Cantwell’s unique life and writing career, readers may turn to our interview with T.V. Reed (p. 31), whose recent book Robert Cantwell and the Literary Left examines the personal history of Cantwell and the broader cultural significance of his creative and critical work.
The whole community was in a frenzy of fear. Travelers were wounded for not halting immediately on command from the searchers. One posseman was shot and killed by his Companions.... Throughout the state over a thousand men were arrested without warrants in the first days after the tragedy in an effort to stifle publicity and prevent an adequate defense.
    —Was it Murder? The Truth about Centralia

As soon as they marched into school Kelly knew that something serious had happened, and for the next four days, until they met the wobblies in the woods, until they burnt the handbills and ran for their lives through the rain, he lived with a sense of danger and excitement confusing him and speeding up his life.

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Things happened, suddenly and unexpectedly, and everything was changed. The people became different and the town and the woods were strange. He waited for the wobblies to shoot, but they only passed out handbills. He hunted for a wobbly army but there was only a crazy old man and a logger who was running away. And on the first morning, as soon as they came into school and Miss Greer forgot to call the roll, he knew it was serious. The kids knew it. They began to whisper; even the girls whispered. Paul Collins punched him between the shoulder-blades and said, “Progermans again.” Before he could ask Paul how he knew, the assembly bell rang, loud and startling.
Miss Greer said Rise. Stand. March. Ever since the War they had marched in and out of class. The big phonograph played The Stars and Stripes Forever March. As Kelly turned into the assembly hall, marking time as the line swung around, he could see the little kids at their side of the hall marking time irregularly, and as the music grew louder and the classes surged up the aisles together excitement grew in him and he trembled. He marked time beside his place; the Stars and Stripes Forever played its way through; the kids stamped heavily on the oiled floor; the windows shook. Paul Collins shouted to him, “Progermans again! What did I tell you?” On the platform the principal lifted his arm slowly, bringing it down as a signal to stop marking time just as the music stopped.
Then the excitement began and did not let up.... The principal faced the flag on the wall and extended his arm toward it. His head was thrown back proudly. Below the platform, the teachers raised their arms toward the flag. For a long time, until the room became still, they did not stir. In the silence Kelly could hear the steady drumming of the sawmill and sometimes the shrill haulback whistle from the logging engines in the woods. Around him the hands pointed toward the flag pinned lifelessly to the wall and the stars and stripes forever marching repeated in his memory, repeated until shivers swept up and down his spine, and the grave words, obediently murmured, swelled like the roll of drums

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in a march. I pledge allegiance to my flag, the teachers said, and the children murmured in response, I pledge allegiance to my flag.
And to the Republic for which it stands.
And to the Republic for which it stands.
The words grew louder and more assured and more moving. One nation. One nation! he cried, holding his arm higher, Indivisible! With Liberty—with Liberty!—and Justice—and Justice!
For all.
They sang. Now they knew it was serious. The teachers were pale. Awed and alarmed, the children found the singing a relief. When they came to the high place their voices swelled free: Long may thy land be bright, with freedom’s holy light. At the next song the strange and half-painful excitement that held Kelly grew stronger, lifting him with a strong, exultant pride. America! America! God rest His grace on thee! And crown thy good. With brotherhood. From sea to shining sea. From the shining seas and from the alabaster cities the brave words rose, and when the song ended a vision of the great rich fields and forests lived and glowed in his mind. Alabaster, alabaster, he thought, treasuring the strange rare word, a church word that you could not use, putting it with the other deep words, freedom and majesty and liberty, in the hoard of precious words that could only be sung.
They sat down, and the principal faced them gravely. “Boys and girls,” he said, “I do not know how to begin telling you of the terrible thing that I must tell you. A terrible thing has happened, something almost more terrible than the War—I know you will understand how terrible this crime is and when you leave here today and go to your homes—for we are not going to have school today—I know you will go quietly and not shout or play on the schoolground. For this is not a holiday for you. I want you to remember—I hope that you will never forget—that we are closing our school to-day in memory of four brave men who have died, who were killed, defending their country and all that it means. These four men are dead, and we can honor them in the only way that we can: by leaving the schoolground quietly.”

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He looked out over the assembly. His voice was grave and shaken. “I do not know how to tell you,” he said again. “These four men did not die fighting an enemy from some foreign country. They were shot down by traitors in their own country.... In Centralia yesterday they were marching in a parade to celebrate the return to peace to the world. Remember that. They were not marching toward enemy trenches where they knew they faced death. No. They were not marching into battle. They were marching just as you children marched into this assembly, peacefully, to do honor to brave men, their comrades in arms, who had died in the War. At their head was a young captain whose name you all know, a very brave and very young man who had fought bravely in Siberia and faced death a thousand times without fear. His name was Warren Grimm.” He paused, and the children stirred. “Suddenly, as the parade passed a radical hall, someone shot down. Warren Grimm and three others were killed.”
He stopped again. The strained look came back on his features. He started to speak and stopped abruptly, moving across the platform as he sought for the right words. There was a faint rustling from the crowded hall. Kelly drew a deep breath, awed and alarmed because the principal was no longer like someone he knew, no longer the old man who taught civics and snooped through the halls, but changed and gray and subdued—What did I tell you? Paul whispered, and Kelly thought it was wrong to whisper in a moment so solemn.
The principal said slowly, “I do not know what you children have heard of an organization that is called the Industrial Workers of the World, the I.W.W.—it may even be that some of your fathers are in sympathy with this organization—I do not know, and it is not my place to say. But I do know that the members of this organization, no matter what they claim to believe, and how many innocent workmen they deceive, have been guilty of a terrible crime. I know that they killed four young soldiers who had returned safely from the terrible carnage of War. And I am sure that if those of your parents who are in sympathy with this organization could only know the truth about it, could glimpse the suffering and distress and agony that this organization has caused, and see the anguish of the

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parents of these poor murdered boys—I know then they would have nothing more to do with it, I know they would revile and curse whoever came to them preaching its traitorous unamerican doctrines.”
His voice became angrily accusing. Kelly watched him with an absorbed oppression and fear. He thought the principal looked at him when he said your fathers. He wondered if the principal knew his father had said: This is a rich man’s war. “Murderers!” the principal cried. “Do you know what that means? Can you think of what it means to lie in ambush and hide and wait with murder and envy in your heart and then shoot to kill—to kill innocent, unsuspecting, men? If you have been to Centralia you will understand how easily anyone with murder in his heart could hide on Seminary Hill and in the buildings on Main Street and shoot down into a crowd and escape safely. That is what the murderers who killed Warren Grimm and Dale Hubbard have done. Warren Grimm was shot in the abdomen and died in terrible agony. Dale Hubbard was killed by a fiend who wanted one last victim before he was captured—by Wesley Everest, who has paid for his crime with his life. I do not want you to think of these murdered men as mere names that mean nothing to you. You must think of them as someone you know and love—as young Americans, like your own brothers, as young men only a few years older than you are, with mothers and fathers who are grieving for them now, just as your own parents would grieve for you if you were killed, as young men with arms and hands and clear bright eyes and ready smiles, fearless and friendly, shot down from behind, crying out in terrible agony as they died. Remember them! Remember, when you leave here today, that we have closed the school in memory of four brave Americans who died for their country—who died for you—as truly as ever four men died on the field of battle. I know I can trust you to remember and go quietly and not shout on the schoolground. I want you to rise now—quietly—and stand for a full minute in silent prayer while I repeat the names of these four men who died that America might live.”
They rose quietly. In a deep voice he read the names.

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“Captain Warren Grimm.”
They bowed their heads.
“Dale Hubbard,
Ben Cassagranda,
Alfred McAllresh,
we pledge ourselves never to forget that you have died for us.”
Never to forget! They left the building quietly. But the excitement and the exaltation and the sense of pain and grief did not go away, and by nightfall so much had happened that Kelly thought life would never get back to normal. He went with Paul Collins to look at the guns that Paul’s father had stored in his closet; he saw the new watchmen standing around the mill gate and at the edge of the town. Then he delivered his papers and the boy scouts collected the progerman handbills that appeared, mysteriously, in the streets; there was a fight and a logger was driven out of town. Then his father made him keep off the streets and in the morning all the handbill they had burned were back on the streets again and they burned them again. Then they went into the hills to look for the wobblies and there was only the logger who was sick and an old man whose face was bruised. But mostly there was a sense that the woods were no longer safe, and nobody knew what was going to happen.
When they left school Paul told him: the wobblies and progermans were going to be killed. Paul’s father was the town superintendent, and be knew. There was a wobbly army in the hills and the wobblies wanted to close down all the camps and mills. Paul’s father had a box of army rifles in his closet, and a bullet from an army rifle would go lengthwise through a railroad tie. The wobblies who escaped from Centralia were trying to get to the logging camps in the mountains, and the woods were full of them. Kelly heard all this and looked toward the woods that had never seemed filled with menace before. The day was cloudy. At the base of the logged-off hill the sawmill drummed steadily; the morning logging train had come in from camp and the logs were being dumped into the pond. He

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could hear the whistle signals from the logging engines in the woods and the occasional shrill whistles from the mill as the sawyers signaled for the millwrights when something went wrong. Between the mill and the school the rows of company houses, all alike, ended in the cleared space before the company store and the church and the pool ball, where the stage from Centralia turned around. Beyond the town the fringe of big trees, left as a break for the winds that swept up the valley stretched to the river; and beyond the river the green foothills of the Cascades repeated in ranges that grew higher and higher until they ended in the white wall of the peaks. Snow had already fallen on the higher ranges.
But now it was different. Deep in the shadows, beneath the big trees, safe in the underbrush, the treacherous unamericans moved without sound. He had heard people say, “The woods are full of wobblies.” Before it had only meant that the loggers in the far camps, always going on strike, were slackers and progerman troublemakers during the War. Now the green woods seemed crowded. The wobblies were strong in the camps, but they could not come into Paradise because Mr. Collins and all the new watchmen and the members of the Paradise Lumber Company Baseball Club threatened to horsewhip them and shoot them on sight and tar and feather them and run them out of town if they so much as shot off their mouths there. Now they were in the woods. The woods were alive with them. They slipped with unamerican stealth through the heavy salal bushes and crowded with progerman silence through the thickets of devils clubs. All day long Kelly looked at the green wall of timber and thought of the gray crowd of murderers who had buried themselves within it.
The evening stage came and he delivered his papers. There were twenty-five extra copies of the Tacoma Tribune and the Seattle Star, but no copies of the Union Record. He sold all the extra copies. The old logger who always bought the Union Record asked him, “Why don’t you sell a workingman’s paper?” and Kelly replied proudly, “I peddle American papers.” The old logger looked at him in disgust and said, “You peddle ------, you mean.” The papers said that one of

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the wobblies, Wesley Everest, had already been lynched. There were eight more in jail. They were all going to be killed. It served them right. The papers said that Centralia was tense and the nearby communities were tense and new outbreaks were feared. They said that Governor Hart stood ready. In every paper Governor Hart stood ready, and Kelly wondered what a governor did when he just stood ready all the time.
But at night, during the movie, the trouble started again. The accident siren blew at the mill. The men ran out of the show. A car had driven through town, and in the dim light handbills lay scattered like leaves over the wooden sidewalks and in the yards of the houses. The watchmen at the no trespassing sign had fired at the car as it passed. The crowds formed in front of the movie and the people began to talk. Shadowed under the dim street light, subdued and excited, the men handed the leaflets around. Kelly read one of them hurriedly: Governor Hart, the willing tool of the millowners, he read. Then in big letters: Was it Murder? The Truth About Centralia. They were progerman handbills, and he knew it was wrong to read them. Wesley Everest, lynched and mutilated for defending a workingclass hall.... Workers, defend the victims of the Centralia frameup.
The boy scouts began gathering up the handbills and burning them. The scoutmaster pulled Kelly’s handbill away and tossed it on the fire. “This way, Kelly,” he said sharply. He pulled Kelly over to where the other members of the Black Eagle Patrol were lined up in military formation. Kelly did not like the scoutmaster. His name was Froggy Anderson, and he was the manual training teacher at school and a college graduate, but the kids made fun of him because he talked too much. Whenever they went on a hike Froggy Anderson would explain about the different trees and their leaves and markings, and explain that there were male and female trees just as there were male and female people. The scouts said that whenever Froggy Anderson sneaked out in the woods he sidled up on a good-looking female fir tree. He always made the little kids sit on his lap whenever he told stories around the camp fire or told scout lore after the meetings.
Now he was abrupt and determined. “All right, fellows,” he said. “Pick up

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all the handbills you can get and bring them to me. Don’t stop to argue, just get as many as you can. We’ll give credits to the patrol that gets the most.”
They ran through the streets until almost midnight, gathering the handbills and bringing them to the fire. Paul Collins said that his father was going to buy them all new uniforms for burning the handbills.
Sometime in the night there was a fight in the bunkhouse, and a logger was run out of town by the watchmen. A crowd gathered in the road, and someone tried to make a speech, but the engineer brought the shay out of the roundhouse and tied the whistlecord down so no one could hear what the man was saying. Kelly was still gathering the handbills when his father found him. His father had been looking for him ever since the siren blew. He made him drop the handbills and get home. In the house he shook Kelly and said in a voice that trembled with anger, “You stay out of this, son. Do you understand me? If I catch you doing anything like this again I’ll beat you within an inch of your life.” Kelly went to bed, half-sick with excitement and shame, while the other kids were still running in the streets and the people were still talking on the comers, his mind whirling with thoughts of the wobblies in the woods, the alabaster cities gleaming and free, and the soldiers lying dead in the streets like the four loggers who bad been killed when the headrig came down, and whose bodies had been brought into town, stretched out on the floor of the freight depot until the hearse came to take them away.
In the morning the handbills were there again, and the scouts were excused from school to gather them up. In the night someone had painted on the watertower: Defend the Centralia boys. There were more watchmen around the mill and a crowd of men with Mr. Collins’ guns along the road. The handbills were the same as those they had burned before, but now there were more of them and it was tiresome to collect them again and burn them again after they had already burned them once.... At noon they hiked into the company timber on the east side of Paradise, and Kelly and Paul Collins found the two wobblies who had escaped.

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Froggy Anderson went with them. Ordinarily they made fun of him on a hike and ran on ahead, but now he was serious and military and they were awed by the way he took command. The rain began. They crossed the Newakiaum and climbed into the foothills, following the mill creek, separating into pairs at the first ridge where a tall snag made a landmark they could see for miles. Kelly and Paul went up the creek while the others spread fanwise over the hills. In the deep woods, shadowed and noisy with rain, they hurried to cover their three miles and get back before dark. They had not gone far before they met the wobblies. It happened like this: Paul wanted to go back; he was tired and his feet were wet and he thought they had gone far enough. Kelly wanted to hurry because he had to get back to town by the time the evening papers came in, but he thought it would be disobeying the scout law if they said they had gone three miles when they had only gone two. They were arguing as they came to a narrow place along the creek, and Kelly called back, “What the heck. You baby,” just as he jumped from a half-sunken log in the creek to the bank, just as he looked up and in a spasm of fear saw someone, a logger, a wobbly, a ghost, hiding in the woods right beside him.

Bert and the old soapboxer had left Centralia on the night that Wesley was killed. They headed toward Klaber and Cougar Flat, but when they found the farmers frightened and unfriendly they circled back toward the foothills to try to reach the distant camps where the wobblies were strong. They had no food. The old man had been badly beaten on the last night in town, and after the first day he began agitating to the stumps and the trees. On the second be could only keep going for a few minutes at a time. On the second day Bert began to fear something else—a shape, a shadow, that moved through the woods ahead of them. Then on the third day he saw him clearly—a deputy gliding through the woods as swiftly and silently as a trout slides between the branches of a sunken tree.
Bert could see him clearly, not as a shadow, not as a movement, but as a man—a man dressed in a brown waterproof logger’s jacket, his face pale and

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smiling, a gun swinging idly by his side, hatless and yet dry in the drenched woods, a large man and yet so light on his feet that he seemed to dance soundlessly over the tender brush. Bert saw him clearly and lifted his rifle. The deputy disappeared. Bert could see the tree where he had been standing. Beside it the brush swayed and dipped in the rain. Bert swung his rifle to where the man might have hidden, where he might reappear, but there was no other movement and no sound but the infinite placeless rustle of the rain in the trees, a faint hissing like the sounds of insects on a summer night.
Fear overwhelmed him. He threw himself down and crawled backwards—awkwardly, spasmodically—into the brush that he had left. He could feel the sweat swelling on his flesh inside his wet clothing. He waited for some shot, some sound or sign of life; there was no place where all his body could be covered by the brush. Behind him he heard the soapboxer breaking his way loudly and fearlessly, heard him cough as he pushed against the clogged leafy underbrush. Then the old man cried out to the rain: Beware, beware! Oh, you men who work in these camps and these little sawmill towns. Who are your friends! Are they your friends, the bosses and the company rats? Have they risked jail for you? Did they fight the massacre of war?
Nothing answered him.
In scorn the old man cried: The Loyal Legion! Yes, the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen! With a general for your union secretary! And a millowner for your organizer! And a thief for your treasurer! And the cops for your sergeant of arms! The Loyal Legion!
Bert crawled back toward him. He called back, “Shut up,” but the old man could not hear.
He had seen nothing. His eyes had gone back on him. Nothing had moved. Yes, the old man said. The Four L is a safe union and a patriotic union and a union they will let you join. And I say there never was a union that fought for the workingman that the bosses did not hate and fight and try to destroy. And they cannot destroy.

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Bert could hear the old man cough, and hear the crackling of the brush stop while the old man gagged and caught his breath.
The soapboxer was leaning against a tree, breathing hard because he had been coughing, looking up out of eyes that were sunken and dim, wearied now but normal, as if the coughing and the pain had brought him back to earth. “Stick close to me,” Bert said. “I thought I saw somebody.” He tried to whisper but his voice was hoarse and loud. The old man nodded. “Get down,” Bert said. The old man got down obediently. The heavier drops from the leaves sprinkled over him as he sank into the brush. They waited. Bert could hear the old man breathe and hear the rustle of his water-repellent clothing when he moved. Bert raised himself slowly to where he could look out over the hillside and the patch of shadowed brush he had left. He could see the drenched leaves, the dark glistening trunks of the fir and spruce. Nothing moved.
Beyond the hill daylight showed between the trees. They were near a town, or there was a clearing or a logged-off stretch somewhere ahead. Sometimes he thought he could hear the faint deceptive hum of a mill, indistinguishable from the sound of the rain. The old man lay stretched out on the muddy soil, face down, his forehead resting on his arm. The soles of his loggers were torn and the calks stripped out and twisted. His pants and soaked heavy mackinaw were mud colored; a little pool of muddy water formed where a tiny downhill stream washed against his body. While he watched the old man’s legs stiffened spasmodically, like those of a dog that sleeps and dreams that it is running.
Bert pulled at his shoulder. “Come on, Pop,” he said. “We better get on.” In a few moments the old man got to his feet, staggering, dazed and drunken with fatigue. Against his gray face the bruised and infected places were dark and enlarged. He forced himself into a kind of drugged alertness and Bert said silently, game old bastard, wondering how many miles the old man was good for. The old man asked, “Where are we?”
“We’re in Paradise Lumber Company timber. There was a marker back there. Near Paradise or one of the Paradise Company towns. Paradise, I think.”

54  ·    ·  

The soapboxer swayed on his feet. “It’s full of corruption,” he said.
“We’ll have to go in.”
The old man was starting again. His eyes glazed and he began talking loudly. “Corruption,” he said again. “God forsaken company town. God forsaken highball outfit.” Then he began to cough and Bert quieted him.
The old man tried to whisper, “I know that town. Double rent for them leaky houses. I worked there. God forsaken place.”
“I know,” Bert said. “Take it easy.”
“Company money,” the old man said. “Jesus Christ. That God damn brass money you had to spend at their store.”
Bert nodded. “We’ll have to try it,” he said.
The old man looked at him, straining to keep his mind clear and on the subject while his body sagged in exhaustion. “You go down there they’ll kill you,” he said.
“Come on.”
“They’ll kill you.”
Bert asked, “You want to drown? You want to starve to death?”
There was a long silence. The old man strained to think clearly and not give up or forget again. “They’ll kill you,” he said.
“You want to stay here and drown?”
The old man pulled his drenched mackinaw around his shoulders. “They won’t only kill you,” he said. “They’ll cut you up. What did they do to Wesley? You want your balls cut off?”
Bert turned away from him and looked out over the brush. Hills and trees swayed as his eyes darkened. “Wesley showed them how,” the old man said. “Now they know what to do. And even if nothing had happened they’ed run you out of town.”
That was true. And it must be worse now. Or better. What would it take to awaken the people and make them see? But the mills were still running and the

55  ·    ·  

men had not laid down their tools.
The old man said, “They’re wiping us out, Bert. This is their way. They whip up the people and get them confused. This is their way.”
He knew it was true. But he said stubbornly, “There must be somebody in them little towns. And we can’t make it to camp.”
“How can you find them?”
“I’ll find somebody. Somebody will be friendly.”
The old man said, “The people don’t know, Bert. How can they know? Who will tell them? They’re slow, slow, and there’s a lot of cattle there. They’ll kill you. They won’t ask who you are. They won’t give you a chance to get away.”
“You want to starve? You want to wait here and starve?”
The old man’s face twisted; the strength seemed to go out of him again. After a long time he said slowly, “They turn on the screws and sooner or later somebody is bound to shoot back. Maybe in Centralia or Everett or Butte—it don’t make any difference because it gives them their excuse and they turn the people against us. And they are wiping us out and they won’t stop now. This is their way. This is their chance. This is what they wanted.”
Bert said, “They can’t make these company towns without making the people friendly. They can’t make them live in them houses without making them friendly. They can’t make them pay double for everything without making them friendly. It don’t make any difference how many guards they put around the people will be friendly. They won’t do anything or they’ll be friendly.”
“Friendly,” the old man said. “Friendly to Warren Grimm.” His voice cracked; the speeches started again. He wavered and spread his arms in wide soapbox gestures as he called out to the brush. “Poor misguided bastards! Slaves in mind and body!”
Bert turned away and started down the hill, closing his ears to the anguished words and breaking through the brush without caution. Who are your friends? Are they your friends, the bosses and the company rats, you buckers and

56  ·    ·  

fallers, choker setters and firemen, you loaders and whistlepunks? Are they your friends, you doggers and edgermen, you off-bearers and boom-men and pilers in the rain? Your friends? Do they work as you do? Share the same risks? Dodge under the firs when the widow-makers come down and the snags fall and the butt logs tumble from the cold deck? What have you in common with them? When the price of spruce jumped from twenty to a hundred a thousand, did the raise go to you? Did your wages go up except where we led you and forced them up? Your friends? Who are your friends? Are they your friends, the men who hate us and exploit you?
He broke away from the voice and the old man’s warning. And if the old man was right? If in the little towns the workers were behind the Legion and the deputies, behind Hubbard and Warren Grimm, unstirred and inert and glad that Wesley was dead? Who are your friends? the old man asked, and he cried out in reply, Who are ours? He felt himself tear frantically at the brush because he could not stand the thoughts that flooded him when he stopped. At the base of the hill the underbrush was heavier. The tangle of salal and devils club reached to his shoulders. There was a creek at the base of the hill, swollen over its banks. The dark soil, stained with moss and decayed wood, was cut with hundreds of day-old streams. There was no cleared ground. He pushed into the tangle of brush, too stiff and cold to search for a way through it, and the thought of warmth, even the warmth of jail, pulled at him like the memory of some happy time before his life had darkened and his friends had been killed. Sometimes when he strained at the brush a red haze over his eyes blinded him, and sometimes he thought he could hear the blurred hum of a mill over the rain and the muffled sound of the stream, but he could no longer trust his eyes or his ears or his body, and he did not know if what he heard was a mill whistle in the distance or only a louder singing in his ears.
Then at a turn in the stream he saw the deputy again. This time there was no mistake. He stood in a clump of alders on the bank, pale and smiling, hatless,

57  ·    ·  

dry in the drenched woods, the gun still idly swinging by his side—Bert lifted his rifle and fired. His hands were stiff and he felt a moment’s surprise that the trigger was so heavy. The sound awakened him. The man disappeared. The sound rolled louder through the hills, amplifying with each echo until the trees were shaken with its thunder. He stared at the place where the deputy had been and there was no one there, only a torn place on the tree where his bullet had gone through. An alder waved jerkily as the overflowing stream washed around its roots.
The soapboxer called, “What is it?” He hurried through the brush toward Bert, anxious, awake, calling to him.
Bert said dully, “I thought I saw something.”
The sound hovered, holding them paralyzed. Then they ran downstream, spending their hour of panic-driven strength, fear clearing their minds and awakening them, driving them from the doomed spot where the echoes still roared and repeated like a great bell calling their enemies. The old man collapsed and crawled into the underbrush, where he stretched out choking and coughing, his feet digging into the mud each time a spasm of coughing shook him. Bert sat down with his rifle between his knees, holding the barrel with both hands and resting his head in his arms. He did not know how long he rested. The woods were darker when he looked up again.
He could see a short way down the stream. Again in the rainy shadow someone moved behind the screen of brush. He lifted the rifle again. Two boys came up the stream. He could see them clearly. The one in front pushed on busily, hoisting himself over the fallen snags and stepping far out, sure of himself, on the tree trunks that reached over the water. He was younger, tow-headed, blank-faced, dressed in torn blue overalls and the coat of some uniform—the coat was too large for him and the shoulders sloped down on his arms. Army leggings were wrapped unevenly over the legs of his overalls. Behind him the second boy moved more slowly, with dainty awkwardness. He was taller, wearing a long

58  ·    ·  

raincoat, and his features, dark and thin and almost girlish, twisted with distaste when he put his hand on the wet surface of a log to hoist himself over it. The younger boy called out. He jumped from a half sunken log to the bank where Bert was standing, landing hard with a grunt of satisfaction just as he saw Bert and stiffened with fear. His face went gaping and senseless. The second boy looked up, shuddered and half-bent, as if waiting to be struck.

Bert stepped between them. He looked down the stream to see if they were being followed. From the brush the old man asked, “What’s the matter?”
“Just a couple kids.”
No one followed them. The old man climbed the bank; the boys stared at him and then looked into the woods to see if more were coming. The older boy made an incomplete, convulsive movement, as if he started to run and found his feet caught firmly in the mud. Bert held him. “Where do you think you’re going?” The boy could not answer. His face was strained into an idiot expressionlessness. Bert shook him a little. “What are you doing up here?”
The boy gasped, “Let go. We’re on a hike.”
The younger boy gawked, startled but less afraid, waiting for something to happen. “We’re boy scouts,” he said. “Boy scouts.”
Bert said, “Have you got anything to eat?”
“Nothing,” Bert said. “No sandwiches.”
The boy drew a deep breath and shook his head.
“Where you from?”
“Where’s that?”
The boy nodded backwards. “Five-six miles,” he said.
“What are you doing up here?”
He hesitated. Bert could see the boy’s fear give way a little, trying to think

59  ·    ·  

of what he should say. He said, boldly and hopefully, “We’re looking for the wobblies.” He stared at their faces to see what effect it had.
The old man sat down on a log and began to cough, bending over and gagging. When he straightened up he said, “That’s a pneumonia cough, Bert.”
Bert released the older boy. He said incredulously, “They’ve got the kids after us.” He heard the old man clear his throat and saw the boys shuffle uncertainly. The little kids, he thought dully. Even the little boys. They were staring at the old man, at the bruised and infected places on his face. “Sending the little kids after us,” Bert said. “Look.”
The old man said, “They’re against us. I said they’ed be against us.”
“Little kids,” Bert said dully. “Sending the little kids out.”
“I said they’d be against us. They’ll kill you down there. Time and again I said.” Yes, Bert thought, the little kids. He walked nervously to the younger boy.
“Who else is with you, boy? How many more? How many men?”
The boy said, “Nobody.” Bert’s hand tightened, black and blue, on his arm.
“You want me to throw you in the crick?”
“Nobody! Just the boy scouts! Just the troop!”
“Who put you up to it?”
“Nobody! Just Froggy Anderson.”
“Who’s he?”
“The scoutmaster.”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know. Back at camp, I guess.”
Bert said, “I ought to throw you in the crick.” The older boy began to cry. Bert stood close to the boys so they would not run, listening to the rain draining through the trees and straining for some other sound. Suppose I’d shot, he thought. He felt tired and helpless, defeated more than he had been by the rain and his weariness and his hunger, more than he had been when he shot blindly

60  ·    ·  

into the woods. Let them come, his mind said. All the little kids. All the little kids and all the cripples and all the old women and the old men, send them out in the woods and let them hunt for us. In a dull voice the old man asked, Where is justice for the workingman? and Bert thought: the people are against us. I thought they would be friendly and here the little kids, the little kids.
The little kids, he thought, the little devils scared and cold. The older boy well-dressed and crying, pale as a girl; the little kid gawking with his mouth open while the soapboxer started to rave. The people must be crazy, he thought, and the old soapboxer mumbled, Whose justice? Justice for the millowners, yes. Justice for the Grimms and the Hubbards and for Governor Hart, their willing tool. Why? Because the wobblies stand for the common worker. Fight for the common worker. Die for the common worker. “Shut up!” Bert cried. “How can I think?”
“Little kids,” the old man apologized. “They don’t even know why they’re here.” He put his hand tenderly on the sore places on his face. “Their minds are poisoned,” he said painfully. “How can they know? That hurts me, Bert.” He began to cough again. “I’ll say this,” he said. “I don’t think much of the mother.... You boys! Why ain’t you in school?”
“They let school out.”
They let school out, Bert thought. They made it a holiday. You can go home now, Wesley Everest is dead. The schoolbells ringing. Yes, and all over the state and all over the country the kids would get a holiday and run out in the schoolyards hollering and yelling while his body floated in the Chehalis and the dogs ran loose in the streets. You can go home now, he thought. The wobblies are dead.
The trees drained steadily. The older boy had stopped crying; a little life had come back to him. The old man moved over near them, leaning against a snag as he questioned them, “What’s your name, son?”
The younger one said, “Kelly Hanrahan.”
“What’s yours?”

61  ·    ·  

The boy murmured inaudibly. “You better let us alone,” he said. “My father.” He looked at his feet and his voice trailed off into silence.
“What’s your name?”
“What does your old man do?”
“He’s superintendent...” The boy’s voice was faint and defiant. “You better let me go!” he said. “My father...”
The old man murmured, “The soup’s boy....” He turned to Kelly. “What does your father do?”
“He’s choker-setter.”
“Does he know you’re out here?”
The boy hesitated. “He don’t care what I do.”
The woods were almost dark. Bert could hear the boy’s shaken breathing and see the play of muscles twitching nervously across his cheek. This was the superintendent’s boy, miles from home, in the middle of the woods.... Suddenly his mind was clear and awake.
The old man said in a tired voice, “You boys don’t know why you’re here. You don’t know why you’re against us. You don’t know what happened.”
They did not answer.
The old man said softly, “Boys, listen to me. You hear things about us. You hear that we laid in wait and shot into their parade and you couldn’t count all the lies they tell about us. But this is the truth. This is what happened.”
The younger boy hunched his wet army coat over his shoulders and looked nervously at Bert. The little kids, Bert thought, why would they let them come out? Would they let them come out if the people were against us and hunting in the hills?
“This is the truth,” the old man said softly. “Listen to me now.”
“There were some men in Centralia who gave their lives to the working people. They believed that working people ought to stick together for their rights.

62  ·    ·  

They believed that workmen ought to get the full return for the work they did. They did not believe in the war—they did not believe the workmen of one country should go out and kill the workmen of another country—they believed that all workmen ought to stick together.”
He spoke slowly and painfully, struggling to keep his voice down. “Now listen. All the people who hire men to work for them—all the millowners and the bankers and the business men and the property owners—hated these men. Do you understand that? They said they were going to drive them out of Centralia. They said they were progerman and unamerican and everything else. This is what they did. Listen. Last year there was a parade in Centralia, and when the parade went past our hall, these men, businessmen and ex-soldiers and Legionaires, they broke in the hall and smashed everything there. They smashed the tables and the chairs and tore up the books and beat up everybody there. They did that. The business men did that.”
The boys stirred miserably. The trees darkened and drained; the rain had stopped. “Listen,” the old man said. “Listen to me. The wobblies came back. We fixed up that place again. And this year, when those men raided it again, we were ready for them. We waited. There was nine men inside and three thousand outside. And the nine men fought the three thousand and fought them off, as long as they had ammunition. Did you know that? Did they tell you that?”
He waited. The boys did not answer. “Did they?” The younger boy said, “No,” and the superintendent’s boy whined, “Let go.”
“Wait. There was one boy with the wobblies who would not give up when they ran out of anununition. He had a revolver, and a few bullets left, and he ran out the back way and tried to get across the Chehalis. Now listen. He was only a few years older than you boys—five or six years, maybe. And this is what he did. He held off all those people. He said he’d surrender to the police, and Dale Hubbard kept on coming and Wesley said Stop. Stop or I’ll kill you. Hubbard came on and Wesley killed him.”

63  ·    ·  

In the darkness Bert felt his mind awaken and the broad picture of what had happened formed clear and distinct. There had been trouble in town or the boys would not be out. They had been afraid of trouble or they would not have let out school. The people were not friendly or unfriendly, but confused and afraid.... They would have to start on. Someone would be out looking for these boys.
“This is what they did,” the old man said. “They took Wesley, they took this boy a little bit older than you boys, and locked him up with the others. They beat him first, and broke his teeth. And this is what they did at night. They turned out all the lights in town. Then they went into the jail and dragged him out. They put him in a car and cut off his balls and took him back to the river. He was a little bit older than you boys—not much older, and they did this to him. The business men did this. They took him to the bridge and put a rope around his neck and dropped him over. He didn’t die. They pulled him up again and dropped him again and still he didn’t die. Then they shot him—they shot him and left him hanging there.”
They waited. Bert got up. “Did they tell you that?” the old man asked. “Did they tell you that when they let you out of school?”
The boys were shivering with cold and fear. Bert said, “Come on. Someone will be looking for them.” The old man got to his feet. Bert said roughly, “You boys. Was there any trouble in town?”
The older boy began to whine again. The other said blankly, “Trouble.”
“Was there a fight?”
“No.” Then he said. “Only some handbills.”
His heart leaped. “What about?”
The boy said hesitantly, “They was progerman,” and the older one said, “Nobody read them.”
“Why not?”
“The boy scouts burnt them up.”
He said to the old man, “There’s somebody left,” but the old man did not

64  ·    ·  

hear him. “Just a few years older,” the old man said.
Bert walked to the old man and pulled him around. “They’ll be out looking for these boys.”
The old man said wearily, “Let them look. Let them look.”
“You know what will happen if we send them back.”
“A little older,” the old man said in anguish. “Just a few years. And this is what they did.”
“They’ll be up here looking for them. If we send them back they’ll be looking for us.” The old man swayed on his feet. Bert pulled him roughly. “Snap out of it,” he said. The old man reached over and grabbed the older boy by the arm.
“How old are you?”
The boy said, “Fifteen.”
“Five years older. Four or five.” He did not release the boy. “They knocked out his teeth,” he said. “First. You hear me? You know how it feels? You know what they did?” The boy began to cry.
Bert said, “Listen. Cool off. You know what they’ll do. If we send them back the whole town will be out here after us. And if they don’t come back....”
Slowly the old man understood. He released the boy. Bert began to tremble. He would not say what was in his mind. One of the boys stirred, and be moved over near them. The old man said, “Maybe... Could we drag them along?”
“They’ed hold us back.”
The old man said, “If anything happened to them they’ed blame it on us. Then they’ed be against us. The whole town. The whole god damn working class.”
Bert said, “It would have to be different.... As if they’ed fallen. Or the creek.”
The old man did not answer him. Bert smiled into the darkness. “No,” he said. “But it’s what they’ed do.” The old man said nothing. “Think what they did to Wesley.” Bert picked up his rifle and pulled the old man by the shoulder. “They knocked out his teeth,” he said softly. “They cut him up before they killed him.... And it would help us and hold them back.”
They cut into the heavy brush. The old man said, “You don’t mean it.”
“No. But it’s what they do.”

65  ·    ·  

The brush closed around them. The old man started to call back to the boys, but Bert stopped him. “They won’t know if we left or not. They’ll wait awhile.” They turned away from the stream, up the steep bank, digging their feet into the slippery soil. The rain had left the leaves cupped and soaking, and now that they began to climb the stiffness and fatigue came back. Night closed around them, dense and heavy as the brush itself, until there was nothing left of the world but the damp tangle of vines and stalks that trapped and held them, their heavy breathing, the sound of their feet in the moist leaves and soil. It grew colder after the rain stopped and they climbed into higher ground. The underbrush thinned out; the big trees were far apart.
At the top of the first ridge they rested again. The old man stretched out on the muddy soil, face downward, his forehead resting on his arm, his legs twisting under him. Below the ridge the valley was a gulf of darkness without boundaries, silent and empty and cold, but above them they could see the mountains, lines of darker shadow against the sky, and the strange gray light of the snow. Bert sat beside the old man, holding his rifle between his knees, looking out over the spread of company timber and the county of company towns. Somewhere in the darkness the boys were fumbling back home, people were looking for them, the crowds would gather. In the morning the hills would be crowded. Now he thought of someone still working in the guard-ridden town, getting out the handbills and telling the truth. The thought came back as he dozed. It was warm and reassuring. It came back and went away; it was like a light in the window of some friend’s house, seen and then lost again in the middle of a rainy and miserable night.
Robert Cantwell (1908-1975) was a novelist and critic born in Aberdeen, Washington. The Land of Plenty, Cantwell’s best-known novel, was recently reissued by Pharos Editions, with an introduction by the novelist Jess Walter. “Hills Around Centralia” appears here by arrangement with Mary Nelson of the Cantwell estate, who has generously granted permission for this republication.

66  ·    ·  

Simple Pleasures: “Half-Full” Essays on the Everyday, the Common, and the Famously Mundane
Charles Finn


There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.
— Thích Nhất Hạnh

It is 10:30 at night and I have waved the last of the guests goodbye, coated and shawled them, gently ushered them out the door. I have nodded to their well-wishes and thank yous, to their three-glass promises—Next time, our place!—hugged them, friends all, waving off their compliments, promising them the recipe for my bread. Now, back inside, door closed on the headlight-poked air, I turn the corner to the kitchen and roll up my sleeves.

As my wife clears the table, I fill both sink basins with hot water, adjusting the temperature to just below scalding. Out of all the sounds a house can make, this gush from the faucet is the most reassuring. As my wife brings the serving dishes, I fetch the tea mugs from the living room, and together we pile the pots and pans on the counter and put the leftovers away. The wine glasses, fingerprinted and ruby-kissed, are collected. We will clean these last.

With the sinks full, I slip the bowls and plates into their bath, guiding them under one by one. “The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality,” says the Vietnamese monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh. In my hand is a gaudily-colored sponge with a wiry green bristle on one side. In my other a thick bottle of dish soap with the picture of a bald, muscular man on its side. Florescent light flooding the scene, I tip the brawny fellow upside down and squeeze a citrus-scented blood from his head.

67  ·    ·  

It feels good, this warm soapy water. This this. As I clean, my wife dries and puts away, and there is a warm feeling between us, more than just wine. Like co-conspirators we stand shoulder to shoulder, re-capping the evening, swapping Did you sees and Could you believes. With a towel draped over her shoulder, my wife fishes saucers from the rinse water, quick as a heron. When she holds a plate up for inspection it’s as if she’s looking into a mirror.

Soft music plays in the background as the pile of dishes decreases. At the sink there is music too: the tiny chatter of forks mixing together, the click of plates. There’s the lovely almost dolphin-like squeak of my thumb on their clean soapy faces—a little chirp of approval. With a thumbnail, I scratch at a stubborn piece of food and think of the episodic travels the dishes make from cupboard to table to sink and back, to the weeks, sometimes months of darkness they endure, lying in wait for their next encounter with living hands and the good weight of hot food.

With the plates clean we move on to the pots and pans. More muscle, more scratching. Elbow grease removes all other grease and the corners of the casserole dishes get special attention. I pump more soap onto the sponge.

Now we come to the final blind groping, rooting on the bottom of the sink for that elusive spoon, the sunken sponge. Reaching my forearm through the gray water, I pull the colander-like plug, then watch the water’s slow decent, mesmerized by its spin, anticipating the vulgar gurgle when it empties away. Then comes the final wiping of the sink and counter as every evidence of the struggle is erased. I look over at my wife drying the wine glasses. She passes them to me and I carry them to the cabinet to put them away. Old pros, we navigate the evening like paddling a familiar stretch of river.

And so it is that here in our home, the plates stacked so nicely and spoons doing their thing, we live our lives of quiet glory, where the weight of the ordinary is not a burden to carry, but a gift, and I have never, not once in my life, regretted doing the dishes.

68  ·    ·  


“If I don’t do laundry today, I’m gonna have to buy new clothes tomorrow.”
—Anna Paquin, actor

For two weeks the t-shirts and linens have been piling up, in the bathroom the wicker hamper yawning open like a dog foaming at the mouth. Breathing sour air, the heroics of Carhartts and Levis are mashed together with an alchemy of socks, while across the room the closet runs out of options. In my last pair of jeans and a sweatshirt I seldom wear, I hug a pile of dirty work clothes to my chest and waddle down the hall to the laundry room.

Gone are the days of squatting streamside and slapping clothes on a rock. These days laundry practically does itself. I employ a pair of squat, front-loading trolls (the Bosch brothers my wife calls them)—blunt fellows with little charm but hard workers all the same. Dropping my pile on the Cyclops-eyed washer, I begin patting down each shirt and pair of pants like a policeman frisking a robber. I turn pockets inside-out until a dozen white tongues are exposed. When the interrogation is over, I’m two pens, a highlighter, and $1.53 richer.

Because my mother taught me well, I loosely place the clothes in the washer. I select the appropriate temperature and cycles, and drizzle a ½ cup of detergent where it goes. Closing the hatch and hitting the start button, the metal beast comes to life with a shudder and begins filling with water, which is my signal to retire to the couch, drink coffee, read, and catch up on mail. Far from being onerous, doing the laundry is ancillary. It’s what you do while you’re doing something else. Just one of any number of birds you can kill with a stone and, “good work if you can get it,” I say to the cats.

69  ·    ·  

Keeping a weather-eye out the window and an ear cocked for an unbalanced load, I proceed through the morning with barely a care. The washer clunks into gear, agitates, and then winds itself up into a spin. From where I sit, it’s a whirling dervish, a magical cave, a Lazarus machine. Clothes enter worn out, used up, dead. They emerge in a wet coma but almost ready to go. All they need is 20 minutes in the dryer or a couple hours of sun and they’re miraculously resurrected.

When the first load is done, I empty the tangled mass into a plastic laundry basket and take it out back. It’s such a nice day I can hardly stand it. Setting the basket down in the sun, a small set of breezes makes its way through the trees while a pair of ravens draws dark arabesques against a cloudless blue sky. Clipping the first t-shirt to the line, I wave to a neighbor walking her dog and she waves back.

I lift another t-shirt and give it a sharp snap. There’s an extra measure of satisfaction that comes with it, and a brush with the past. Deep into the last century, housewives hung underwear inside pillowcases to keep their “unmentionables” from view, but I’m not that particular and don’t care who sees my boxers. With a pair of clothes pins in my mouth like jutting buck teeth, I hang each pair next to its brethren. Likewise, pants and shirts are lined up in orderly fashion, and next to them go the socks. The tradecraft of hanging laundry goes back generations and I chance to look down the street around the block and all the way back to Beacon, New York circa 1939.

The entirety of the good long day stretches out before me. I see my mother as a little girl helping her mother hanging the wash. We’re all in this together, she waves across the years. A history of shared chores runs in our veins.

And so it goes, another load in the washer, another load off my back, another

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chapter to read. I even take a stab at a nap. I like the thump-thump of the clothes getting dizzy, the high pitched whine as the washer works itself into frenzy. I stare out the window and watch the breeze play tag with the sheets and then impregnate the shirts. “The true life,” Don DeLillo writes in Point Omega, “takes place when we’re alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, daydreaming self-aware, the submicroscopic moments.”

From one true life to another I go. One microscopic moment to the next. By early afternoon the sheets are baked dry and the jeans unperceptively faded. Back inside, I fold, sort, and put away. I’m pleased with the neat cotton piles and reunion of socks. “All this for such a small price,” I think to myself, “and so little effort.” My underwear drawer full again. Every option of shirt and pants hangs in the closet. I hold a towel up to my nose. I smell sunshine, pine, mowed grass, and a new sense of promise. Somewhere I know my mother is smiling but she doesn’t know why.


“I tried the experiment of sucking with my mouth against the back of a plush seat in a restaurant.”
—Hubert Cecil Booth, 1901, inventor of “Puffing Billy,” the world’s first vacuum cleaner

It is Wednesday afternoon and one by one I stack the dining room chairs on the table. In the living room, I place footstools and plant stands on the couch. Lamps are picked up by their skinny necks and likewise moved to higher ground, while in the bedroom spare slippers, old New Yorkers, and the hamper find their way onto the bed. Everything I can lift I lift, leaving only the heaviest at ground level, the behemoths of sofas and wooden chests of drawers too heavy move. I go from room to room to room, stacking and balancing, clearing the way.

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I’ve read the first vacuum was gasoline powered and so large it needed to be pulled by a horse. The inventor, Hubert Cecil Booth, tested his idea by placing a cloth over his mouth and sucking on the back of a chair—Eureka! Dirt clung to the underside of the cloth. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way from making out with the furniture—and for the next half hour my date is a slim, lightweight, 12-amp wonder I can wield with a finger.

In sweatpants and slippers, I make my way to the closet and wheel the vacuum into the living room. At first sight of the intruder, the cats shoot glances at me and then at the door. More dangerous than any rocking chair, their nemesis is a howling, tail sucking, omnivorous dog. They have a right to be scared. Unspooling the cord, I warn them once, twice, and turn the machine on. With a toe I press the release lever on the power head and step out into my best Fred Astaire. The cats scatter.

I am in charge of a hammer-head shark patrolling the carpet. The power head is a blunt rectangle at the end of a three foot handle and I send it out over the ocean of cream and oatmeal-colored rug. Back and forth, back and forth I sweep it, stalking in a grid-like fashion the plankton of dirt sunk in the fibers. The rotors spin, the vacuum vacuums, and foot-wide stripes of clean pile are left in its wake. With the first few passes I’m just warming up, but it doesn’t take long until the real dancing begins. With my right hand I let my partner glide away, pull her back in, push her away, pull her back again. We twist, turn, bow, and spin—we never let go. It’s a waltz, a cruel flirtation. I bend low and dip the handle to the floor and slide the head under the table and lip of the couch. I bounce it gently off their legs. In the next room, I curtsy to the curtains, careful not to suck them up, then vacuum around the baseboards like an Indy car circling the track.

As I make my way through the house, I can see dirt being collected and a week’s worth of cat hair sucked up. How on earth, I wonder, is there any left on the cats? Periodically I’ll stoop to pick up a dime or penny, and if I don’t pay attention a

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paperclip rattles up the pneumatic tube. With the power cord in one hand, I flip it this way and that like a tail, keeping it always behind me, making sure not to run it over. In the hallway, I dust my wife and I at the rim of the Grand Canyon. On the ski trip we took in Vermont. I have a great respect for spiders, but in this mood their webs don’t stand a chance. I vacuum the ceiling and corners, anywhere I see their fine threads.

For the last half hour I’ve been deep in thought, lost in concentration. In the parlance of my family, I am committing a neatness. I like the clean stripes of carpet I leave behind, and the sense of accomplishment that trails after me room to room. I change the setting for the hardwood floors, and get down on hands and knees to suction dusty bunnies from under the beds. I hip check doors open and closed, making sure to vacuum behind them. Finally, I do one last do-si-do with my partner, and pull the plug.

With my dancing days over, I wind the cord in loose loops and drape it over the handle. I empty the dirt, dust, and cat hair into the garbage in the garage and escort my partner to her home in the closet. Meanwhile, silence reenters to check out the rooms, and like a thief covering his tracks, I go about setting everything back on the floor. With order restored and gravity back on, I fall onto the couch and tip my head back. “All-y all-y in come free,” I call to the cats, but I know it’s for naught.

Charles Finn is the author of Wild Delicate Seconds: 29 Wildlife Encounters and editor of High Desert Journal. His essays and poetry have appeared in a wide variety of literary journals, anthologies, and newspapers, including The Sun, Northern Lights, Big Sky Journal, Montana Quarterly, and Vancouver Sun.

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Falling and Always Falling: Twin Peaks and the Clear-Cut Landscape
Matt Briggs

A note on the Twin Peaks Project: This essay is part of a series of investigations, reflections, and reminiscences by writers, artists, and musicians who were influenced by David Lynch’s seminal television show Twin Peaks. To read more, or to learn about participation, visit www.twinpeaksproject.com.
Although the fictional town of Twin Peaks is meant to be understood as a kind of woodsy American West anyplace, the outdoor shots were taken in the Snoqualmie Valley, nestled in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains only fifty miles east of Seattle—the area where I grew up. Watching the show over the years, I’ve often made a game of identifying the real-world locations of individual shots. But the thrill of recognition almost always brings with it a sense of loss, since many of the locations featured in the show are now gone or irrevocably changed. Indeed, the world represented in Twin Peaks—a world of lumberjacks and small town life—has slowly disappeared over the years, covered up by the creeping suburbs of Seattle’s Eastside, the McMansion planned unit developments, gated compounds, and some of the world’s largest tech companies: Microsoft, Expedia, and Nintendo.
When I grew up in the Snoqualmie Valley in the 1970s through the mid-1980s, it was a place very similar to the one depicted on TV, a rural place where fathers worked at dairies, in the mill, or cut timber. Mothers worked in diners or stayed at home. There were creepy neighbors who, like the Twin Peaks character Leo Johnson, were often out on the road with their eighteen-wheelers. The Weyerhaeuser mill featured in the show’s opening credits closed around the time

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David Lynch filmed Twin Peaks, in 1989—and by the time the show aired in the early 1990s, there was a Nintendo plant and a real estate subdivision larger than the original city of Snoqualmie called “The Snoqualmie Ridge.” The melancholic electronic music that accompanies the opening credits feels almost elegiac to me, an expression of grief for the loss of the old valley. Twin Peaks is set in the wilderness, and yet it is primarily a defeated wilderness that has long been exploited by industry, a fact Lynch underscores by setting the outdoor locations amid the devastation caused by a century of logging. It’s fitting then that ten minutes into the Twin Peaks pilot episode, the body of a girl named Laura Palmer is discovered at the foot of a massive stump.
The first time we see Laura Palmer alive and moving is on a videocassette tape discovered by Dale Cooper, the FBI agent assigned to the case and a central figure in the show. I vividly remember this scene from the first time I watched the show, but what captured my attention was not the foreground, where we see Laura laughing and hugging her friend Donna, but the background, which I recognized as a clear-cut on a Weyerhaeuser logging road in the North Fork Valley, looking out toward the Northern face of Mount Si. The site is now home to the massive Snoqualmie Ridge development.
Weyerhaeuser was the first logging company to actively replant trees and has been celebrated for initiating the American Tree Farm movement. Drawing attention away from the fact that they made their money by cutting trees down, they emphasized that they were also a company that planted a lot of trees, and called themselves “a tree growing company.” Of course, this was blatant misrepresentation. The company had, by the 1970s, cut down a great deal of the forests between the Pacific Ocean and the high divide in the Cascade Range. They were indeed in the tree growing business, not out of any sense of altruism, but because if they didn’t regrow some trees, there wouldn’t be any left to cut down.
When the first European settlers traveled north from the Oregon Trail in

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the middle of the 18th century, they encountered vast, ancient forests composed of unthinkably large trees. At first, loggers cut down trees near rivers and sent the timber down the river to be collected in enormous rafts and floated to mills. In the late 19th century, loggers began to cut railroads into the mountains to carry the lumber away. Ruthlessly efficient, they would remove the tracks behind them once they had extracted what they came for.
By the early 20th century, Weyerhaeuser had switched from trains to trucks as the primary means of moving timber, allowing the company to expand even further to previously inaccessible locations. This also made life easier for the loggers themselves, enabling them to drive to their work sites, enroll their children in school, and live in communities near the mill, usually located in a place accessible by highway, railroad, and rivers. I grew up in one of these communities. My friend’s dads worked either for dairy farmers, at the mill, or as loggers; my dad was a bus driver.

The first time you see a clear-cut, you wonder what disaster has visited the woods. A clear-cut is not a neutral thing; it causes dismay. The entire forest has been removed. Even the stumps of the newly shorn trees are ripped from the ground and either burned or carted away. The forest floor becomes a jumble of branches, stray logs, and potholes filled with leaves and brackish water—scars left by the treads of tractors that expose stones and decaying roots. A blackened stretch of burned forest seems benign by comparison. All that remains in the clear-cut are the silvered stumps too massive to be removed.
In a 1965 issue of the logging industry magazine American Forests, a writer named William B. Morse remarked that “A West Coast clear-cut logging area looks like—well, say it, it looks like the devil.” The carnage of these sites also drew the focus of environmentalists and nature poets. In his 1974 poem, “Elegy for a Forest Clear-Cut by the Weyerhaeuser Company,” David Wagoner writes,

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The chains and cables and steel teeth have left
Nothing of what you were:
I hold my hands over a stump and remember
A hundred and fifty feet above me branches
No longer holding sway. In the pitched battle
You fell and fell again and went on falling
And falling and always falling.

Aside from aesthetic considerations, clear-cuts are also deeply destructive to the environment. They expose soil that erodes into creek beds. The creeks carry silt into rivers, diminishing their capacity and producing huge lowland floods, both during heavy autumn rains and when the snow pack melts in the spring. Growing up in the Snoqualmie Valley in the 1980s, I experienced “hundred year floods”—floods so severe and devastating that they theoretically come only once every 100 years—for three years in a row. Worse, the silt covers the gravel beds where salmon breed. And sure enough, most of the rivers in the lower Snoqualmie Valley have seen a precipitous decline in native salmon populations—largely to due to the destruction of their breeding beds from silt washed in from logging-related erosion.
While Weyerhaeuser does in fact plant some new trees, they are almost always trees of the same age and species, referred to as a monospecies, creating an environment that is completely unlike the ecosystem of an ordinary forest. This is called “second growth,” even if it is forest land that has been clear cut and regrown several times. The ranks of trees are the same size and packed so closely together that little light falls to the forest floor. Acidic evergreen needles hinder even the few plants that could survive the lack of light, resulting in very little species diversity. It is a creepy and unsettling experience to walk through the second growth, to take in its eerie silence and perpetual gloom.
And yet, having grown up in this area, I became accustomed to this kind of environment from a young age. Despite understanding the devastation of this process of clear cutting and regrowth, I find the fireweed, bracken fern, and

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foxglove that grow in the second growth forests beautiful (these are among the few species that can grow in spite of the restrictions of the environment). I like seeing the exposed edge of the forest at the end of the clear-cut where the wall of mature trees rises to the canopy. And I like being able to see the distant mountains and landscape surrounding the clear-cut. Clear-cuts are a marginal place between the privacy of the deep forest and the exposure of public access provided by logging roads and freeways. People often get up to no good in clear-cuts: high school students hold keggers, gun nuts might find an open spot to drink a case of Olympia and shoot empties. Occasionally while driving through a clear-cut, you can hear someone in the distance blowing something up.
Clear-cuts were also one of the places where the serial killers on Pacific Highway would bring their bodies. Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, placed his bodies in accessible and semi-private places. One was at Exit 38 on Interstate 90 near Mount Si—not far from the clear-cut where Laura Palmer danced with Donna; standing there, you can see the naked peaks of the north face of Mount Si rising nearly a thousand feet from the valley floor. You can see clouds dropping drizzle, and above that a sun break.

A clear-cut converts the forest into a blank space. It reduces the land to its commercial utility: the forest has been vanquished in the name of commerce, and the space that once was forest now promises a possible future of human habitation and economic productivity. It is one step in the transition from the primeval forest that existed before human habitation to a new kind of ecosystem: the suburb. Entire new suburbs have sprung up in the areas between Seattle and Mount Rainier in land that had formerly held Weyerhaeuser timberland. And this suburban landscape, too, continues to transform, as residential land gives way to strip malls, convenience stores, parking lots, self-storage complexes, and billboards.
Before Weyerhaeuser began its clear-cutting, before any of this, a complex ecosystem known as the climax forest flourished in the Marine climate between the Pacific Ocean and the Cascade Mountains. The Douglas fir trees that grow in this region take hundreds of years to mature, and once mature, they can be

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hundreds of feet tall and yards around at their bases. Naturally fallen trees rot to form a dense forest floor covered in a thick bed of moss, and between the trees there is enough space that salmon berries, bracken fern, and sword fern grow in thickets. You cannot help but feel in a virgin forest that you’re in a location outside of time. The forest has been growing for thousands of years, and if left unexploited will grow for many thousands of years into the future.
In Twin Peaks, the transitional nature of the clear-cut is pervasive. The forest is beyond man’s domain—the realm of the subconscious and the locus of many of the show’s supernatural elements. In contrast, the clear-cut is man’s domain, the beginning of progress, and a rational space. By locating much of Twin Peaks in the clear-cuts of the Snoqualmie Valley, Lynch sets his story in a world transitioning from the primeval forest to the suburb and eventually death. Walking near my house south of Seattle the other day, I imagined how time might be experienced by someone who had lived as long as trees, and perhaps consumed food in the way that trees do, as a steady accumulation of sunlight and nutrients from dirt. For trees, days are minutes, and years are days. Around me, I could see what are sometimes called junk trees because of their lack of commercial value—the alder, maple, and cottonwoods. From the perspective of a Douglas fir, they would twist toward the sky and wither in the space of a few moments. Around me, the steady drumbeat of the ancient trees, the trees of the climax forest, Douglas fir, would gradually appear and mature. And it is this sense of smallness in the face of nature that creates the special brand of mysteriousness and supernatural suspense that Twin Peaks is known for. The fictional town is a location that reflects the tension between the fecundity of the ancient forests and the constant change of the new. The landscape of Twin Peaks represents loss inside of loss of loss.

Matt Briggs’s most recent book is Virility Rituals of North American Boys. His 2005 novel Shoot the Buffalo won the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award and was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. A recipient of The Stranger’s Genius Award in Literature and a former Hugo House writer-in-residence, he has written for Zyzzyva, MonkeyBicycle, and The Clackamas Review, among other publications. He lives near Seattle.

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About Moss

The Pacific Northwest is home to a thriving, vibrant literary culture. Following in a long tradition of finely crafted regional writing, a new generation of local talent is trying new ideas and crafting cutting-edge, experimental prose. Published three times annually, Moss is an online journal dedicated to bringing Northwest literature to new audiences and exposing the emerging voices of the region to discerning readers, critics, and publishers.

Issue Archive

Volume 01 (2014-2015)

Issue 01 (Summer 2014)   |  Available online or as a downloadable .pdf
Features an interview with Ryan Boudinot, an essay by Donald J. Mitchell, and fiction by Christine Texeira, Clayton McCann, and Nate Liederbach.

Issue 02 (Winter 2015)   |  Available online or as a downloadable .pdf
Features interviews with Peter Mountford and T.V. Reed, essays by Charles Finn and Matt Briggs, and fiction by Eric Severn, Corinne Manning, and Robert Cantwell.

Issue 03 (Spring 2015)   |  Available online or as a downloadable .pdf
Features an interview with Rebecca Brown, essays by Rebecca Brown, JM Miller, and Steven Moore, and fiction by Miriam Cook and Jenn Blair.

Volume 02 (2016)

Issue 04 (Winter 2016)   |  Available online or as a downloadable .pdf
Features an interview with Elissa Washuta, essays by Eric Wagner and Gina Williams, and fiction by Michael Upchurch and Kjerstin Johnson.

Issue 05 (Summer 2016)   |  Available online or as a downloadable .pdf
Features an interview with Mitchell S. Jackson, essays by Tiffany Midge and Leah Sottile, and fiction by Leyna Krow and Sonya Chung.

Issue 06 (Fall 2016)   |  Available online or as a downloadable .pdf
Features interviews with Alexis M. Smith and Amanda Coplin, essays by Monet P. Thomas and Kelly Froh, and fiction by Anca Szilágyi and Chris McCann.

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Call for Papers

We are now accepting fiction and nonfiction submissions for our second volume, which began with this issue. Though we will consider pieces of any length, we prefer submissions of at least 1,800 words; shorter pieces may be paid at a reduced rate. We are not accepting poetry at this time.

Submissions are limited to current residents of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia and those with a substantial connection to the region. Simultaneous submissions are acceptable, with the condition that you notify us immediately if your piece is accepted for publication elsewhere. Please send only one submission, attached as a Word document, to mosslit [at] gmail [dot] com.

Moss pays $125 for each accepted piece. We buy First Serial Rights. There is no fee to submit.
Moss is edited by Connor Guy, an associate editor at a publishing house in New York City, and Alex Davis-Lawrence, a filmmaker and creative producer based on the West Coast. Both were born and raised in Seattle. To contact us, email mosslit [at] gmail [dot] com.

Interested in supporting Moss? Our Moss: Volume One print anthology is now available for purchase in our online store, along with a selection of totes, shirts, and stickers. For occasional updates, including news on our upcoming issue, subscribe to the email list below.

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