Issue 4. Winter 2016.


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

Interview: Elissa Washuta...........

The Widower Muse, Michael Upchurch...........
Alabama, Kjerstin Johnson...........

Essay: The Monolith, Eric Wagner...........
Essay: Splitting the Sun, Gina Williams...........

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






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Letter from the Editors
Seattle, WA  ·  January 2016

We’re proud to begin our second year of publication with an announcement: Moss has officially entered the world of physical print. The release of this issue also marks the publication of a new print anthology, Moss: Volume One, which contains every story, essay, and interview from our first year, offering readers an exciting new way to share and experience the journal. The anthology is now available for purchase in select Seattle bookstores, including Elliott Bay Book Company, Third Place Books, and Phinney Books, and in our new online store, where you’ll also find official Moss merchandise like totes, shirts, and stickers. If you’ve enjoyed the first year of Moss, buying the anthology is a great way to support the journal—all profits go directly back into the Northwest writing community by helping us pay writers for future issues.

In our current issue, we’re pleased to bring you another set of striking and original short stories and essays, as well as an in-depth interview with the critically acclaimed memoirist Elissa Washuta. Michael Upchurch paints a complex portrait of a young artist and his muse; Kjerstin Johnson cleanly skewers a certain type of creative wannabe we’ve all met; Eric Wagner connects the raw naturalism of Beethoven’s Appassionata to his own work with an environmental organization on the Oregon coast; and finally, Gina Williams skillfully interweaves narratives about the transit of Venus, the invention of the camera obscura, and the passage of time in her own life.

As the Northwest continues to grow and change, Moss is honored to celebrate the lifeblood of our community: the writers who help us experience and imagine the place we call home.

    —  Connor Guy and Alex Davis-Lawrence
      Editors, Moss

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An Interview with Elissa Washuta
Edmonds, WA  ·  October 2015  ·  Interviewed by Alex Davis-Lawrence

A finalist for the Washington State Book Award, Elissa Washuta is known for her deft, powerful, and deeply personal creative nonfiction. In her debut book My Body is a Book of Rules, Washuta uses a variety of forms and genres to grapple with issues of mental health, sexual assault, and personal identity; her followup, Starvation Mode, released as an eBook by Future Tense Books’ new digital-only imprint Instant Future, focuses on her life’s history of disordered eating. A recipient of grants and awards from Arist Trust, 4Culture, and Hugo House, her work has appeared in Salon, Third Coast, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, and she’s worked as a contributing editor for both The Rumpus and The James Franco Review. A member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, she serves as an adviser for the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington and on the creative nonfiction faculty for the Institute of American Indian Arts MFA program. Washuta currently lives in Edmonds, WA, where we met to speak about her work, her life, and the Northwest.
I thought we could start by talking a bit about your first book, My Body Is a Book of Rules. What struck me most about the book was how effectively you manage to incorporate all these different ‘non-literary’ forms—the academic essay, the screenplay, advice columns, psychiatrists’ notes, and so forth—into your writing, capturing the essence of these different styles while still maintaining your distinct and consistent voice. How did you arrive at this style?

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I started writing this way when I was starting graduate school. I came in as a fiction writer, but my first quarter I was taking a non-fiction class and I really took to it, and really lost interest in fiction. So from the outset I was writing these essays that were ‘weird,’ you know—I started writing a chapter of the book during my first quarter.

David Shields was my professor, and he was bringing a lot of essays into the class that were in forms that I had never imagined before, and I was energized to get working on essays that were like that. My head just cracked open. I had all of this stuff in it, all these ideas, but also questions—what if I do this, what if I do that, will I be violating copyright, will I run into these kind of logistical problems—and David just said “do it, just do it, worry about that later, or never.” I realize now that this is how I look at the world in general; I make comparisons between my experience and pop culture items, or forms I see in the world. And I think they always have, but now I can bring it to my writing. I go to the drugstore and I get that prescribing information and instead of throwing it out like I always did, one day I just looked at it and thought, right, this is a literary form—and I can use this in my personal nonfiction. For a while I was trying to force myself to write fiction that was recognizable as being like what I had studied during undergraduate years, and I appreciate that sort of traditional fiction approach, but it’s just not something I’m good at.
Do you see that sense of experimentation, that willingness to do something different, as being particularly strong in the Northwest?

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I never thought of it as being specific to this region, although it seems that people have been really receptive to what I do here. When I was trying to find an agent, then a publisher for the book, it was a bit hard, partly because they didn’t know how they were going to sell it—but here, it always seemed obvious to me that readers were interested in my work and curious about it.
From the first lines of My Body Is a Book of Rules, you're locating yourself in both a physical place—the Northwest—and, by tracing your lineage back to Tumalth of the Cascade Indians, in a type of physical history. But as the book goes on, it becomes clear that your relationship with place and history is generally one of deep ambivalence. I think part of me was expecting the narrative arc to build up to you arriving in Seattle, settling in, and feeling in some sense at home—but that’s not how it ends. You said in Book of Rules that ‘you don’t know why you still don’t fit in’ in Seattle. Now that you’ve lived here a little longer and found some success—your first book was selected as a finalist for the Washington State Book Award, you’ve published your second book with Portland's Future Tense—are you starting to feel more in place in the Northwest?
I definitely am. I moved to Seattle when I was 22, and the book sort of ends at age 24—and I think by then I was starting to feel more at home in Seattle. I really took to Seattle quickly, I loved it from the beginning, but moving to Seattle

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was an act of escape. Similarly, I moved to Maryland from New Jersey to improve my life, my situation, by relocation. And when I moved from Maryland to Seattle, I realized that I was just trying to run away from my problems, but they weren’t problems that were specific to Maryland. They were mental health problems and the trauma that I’ve written about in the book. Logically I knew that they wouldn’t be resolved by moving, but I think that was a big part of choosing Seattle instead of choosing to stay in the D.C. area. I sort of thought that if I were to relocate myself I could hit the reset button on everything, and of course that wasn’t the case. I’ve grown so fond of Seattle that I don’t want to leave the area, and a large part of it is because of the writing community, but another part of it was resolving some of those problems—not completely, but resolving them more, to the point where I feel like my life is not the mess that it was when I had to constantly press the reset button.
What are some of the specific people and institutions in the community here that have stood out as important to you?
I came to Seattle in 2007 to start an MFA program at the UW, and that program was super important to me. I learned so much there, I met such amazing people, both in my cohort and the professors, and I was so close with a lot of those people. They were just so influential to me as a writer. It was at the UW that I learned about the non-fiction that I had waiting inside me, that I just needed to find a way to put form to.

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Then, while I was in grad school I started an internship at Hugo House, and that was a really formative place for me as well. I interned there, I volunteered there for long stretches of time, I ran the open mic for a while, I ran a series called ‘In Print’ that they used to have, I worked as their youth program coordinator, I had a fellowship there… I think that was where I really learned about literary community in a big way. I met so many people who modeled literary community for me, and I became really immersed.

And then, I have a pretty strong relationship with Elliot Bay Book Company. I’ve been to tons of readings there. My first outing in Seattle, the first time I really ventured outside my apartment to somewhere I didn’t know, was to go down to Elliot Bay when it was still in Pioneer Square. And it was scary, I didn’t even know how to take the bus—but I just really wanted to do it. It’s been important to me ever since, they’ve been so supportive of my work, and just so great in introducing me to new books.

There are so many more—Artist Trust, Lit Crawl Seattle, all the independent bookstores who have sold me books, literary magazines and other publications.
I loved all the pop culture material in Book of Rules—typically for a Seattle guy, I particularly liked the segments on Kurt Cobain. You write compellingly about the changes Seattle has undergone since that period—“Seattle’s flannel soft focus has sharpened, the film has lifted”—and I was curious if you could talk more about how you see Seattle today, after these changes. How does it compare with the expectations you had about the city as a child, growing up during that time?

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I was slightly familiar with Seattle when I was a kid, because my Mom’s twin lives here and we would come to visit every other year. So I knew that I really loved the evergreens, and I loved the water. I had all these natural things that I loved about the city, and those things lingered in my mind for a long time, and when I got here, there was no sense of letdown, there was no sense that what I remembered was more vivid or more pleasing than what I experienced. I came back and I felt like the natural world pieces of Seattle were in place as I remembered them. And, I think I had expectations that there would always be something happening that I could tap into. Growing up in a pretty rural area of New Jersey, I just really wanted to be somewhere where something was happening all the time. I wanted to be in the city, and Seattle definitely didn’t disappoint in that way. When I got here there was always something going on, and I was always doing something, whether I was going out with friends or going to shows or going to readings. Any time I wanted to do something I could, and that was just exactly what I had been hoping for.

Now, I’ve moved out of the city, and I don’t get in as much. I think I’ve had my fill of that—certainly of “nightlife”—and I’ve had my several years of tapping into that busyness of Seattle and that excitement.
Continuing on Book of Rules, I wanted to ask specifically about the Cascade Autobiography section, which functions as the narrative center of the book—it’s the one section that’s spread out throughout the other chapters. But, read as one

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piece, it could also be seen as one of the more traditional sections in terms of style. How did you come to this form for the Autobiography?
That was a challenge, but there was an interesting opportunity there. As I went through the process of shifting chapters around and trying to find the overall structure for the book, that chapter presented the biggest challenge, because it seemed like it needed to be at the beginning, and at the middle, and at the end—it had to be everywhere. I was working with Nicelle Davis, who is a poet and my editor for the book at Red Hen Press, and she had the amazing idea to split it up. She did the splitting, and showed me where she thought it should go, and it worked beautifully. It was exactly what needed to happen, because I do think it’s the backbone of the book in a lot of ways, and making it into pieces that are inter-chapters actually let it function that way.
In general, there’s such an obsessive quality to the book… partially this ties to the types of writing you’re playing with, but clearly you also have an intense personal relationship to questions of categorization, organization, definition. And that carries into Starvation Mode, too, which is literally presented (at least in Part 1) as a list of rules. Generally, I tend to think of ‘rules’ as oppressive, and limiting; yet, you’re using this mode as a tool to understand your body, to make connections between seemingly disparate things, and to express yourself in a deeply personal way. How do you see this complexity playing out, these different forces coming together?

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I think I do have a personality or temperament that’s obsessive and responds well to clearly defined limits, and yet, there’s also this strongly intuitive part of me. I gravitate towards unexplained things, and unexplainable things. I think in some ways when these sides come together, there’s an interesting tension—between the wild part, that’s a little bit boundless and intense, and these self-imposed rules that I have in so many parts of my life. I respond well to those rules at some times, and at other times I find them absolutely impossible to adhere to.

That comes out in my writing: there needs to be some kind of tension in any kind of work that I do, and some kind of conflict, but the conflict isn’t the same as it would be in a linear, chronological book, with an ‘arc.’ There are plot points, but it’s not really the same set-up, there’s not suspense in the same way, like “what’s gonna happen next.” I just tell it all the beginning of the book. I think the tension there is the internal tension, between what I am and what I think I should be.
That’s certainly how I saw one of the central tensions of Book of Rules—trying to balance this desire for sureness and certainty and clarity with a real concern about the restrictions those things carry with them. In a way, this reminded me of the whole idea of blood quantum, which, while problematic for a huge number of reasons, also seems to persist as a major part of tribal identity and categorization. What’s your impression of that sort of categorization, that form of definition?
I think there has been a movement away from blood quantum among some tribes, and I’m really excited to see that. My tribe doesn’t use blood quantum in

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determining membership, and there are some other tribes that don’t, and I think of that as progressive enrollment policy—to make that movement away.

Since there are more than 500 tribes that are federally recognized, and more that are state-recognized or unrecognized, there’s so many different ways of being a community member. For people who are unfamiliar with the complexities of Native identity and tribal membership, it can be easier to just look at a number, look at blood quantum, and use that to decide how “authentic” someone is. I think it can too often be a way of explaining someone away—of putting someone into a very small box, or set of boxes, so that native people can be “understood” and dismissed. If non-native people are able to look at native people and decide that some of us are not legitimate because we’re not of an acceptable blood quantum, then they’re able to uphold this ongoing genocide by deciding that a lot of us aren’t really Indian, don’t really exist. It cuts down on the number, in people’s minds, of how many “real Indians” there are out there. Blood quantum has been written into U.S. law. It’s functioned as a tool of government assimilation efforts, and it’s no accident that it’s shaped Americans’ understanding of what it means to be Native.
Absolutely. Now, I wanted to talk more directly about your second book, Starvation Mode. How did that book come about?
Instant Future generally publishes books that are between 10,000 and 12,000 words, so I was writing something to try to fit into that length and format. I

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knew that I couldn’t do things that were as weird on the page as I did in My Body Is a Book of Rules because I knew from the process of having that turn into an eBook that some of the formal elements are hard to replicate in eBook form—I could still experiment, but it would be a different kind of experimentation.

I had a couple of failed attempts at writing something, but eventually I decided that I wanted to write about my life’s history of eating. My first book takes up so many different issues and so many different problems, and I thought it might be interesting to narrow it down into a single problem. I let some of the other problems come in, but really I wanted it to be focused on disordered eating, because I had not explored that as much as I thought I could.

I think I was also fueled somewhat by something somebody said in a review… somebody was frustrated by my unapologetic depiction of my self-loathing and fear of being fat when I had an eating disorder. And I really wanted to push back against that, because I won’t apologize for that, for things that sprung from mental illness and were beyond my control. I was trying to be as honest as I could about things that were really eating at me, and the terror that I was experiencing. I wasn’t going to sugar coat anything in the book. What I could do was explore those thoughts more deeply and show people just how hard it was to have an eating disorder—to have many forms of disordered eating over the course of my life—and to be even more unapologetic about how horrible that self-loathing feels and to be really explicit about exactly what it was.
How have you felt about the experience of releasing Starvation Mode as an eBook, specifically?

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I think it’s been really neat. It was so gratifying to have it come out so quickly. The first book took seven years to write and publish, total, and the writing and publication of Starvation Mode happened in under a year. After I was done with the final draft, it came out just a few months later. It’s neat that readers were able to get it instantly on the day it came out. Anyone who wanted it, anyone who still wants it, can order it and receive it instantly. It was nice to be able to write something that was substantial and meaningful, but without going through the very long process of writing a book that was 60,000 words.

My editor at Instant Future, Matthew Simmons, is really great to work with, and the other authors who have released books on Instant Future (Litsa Dremousis and Zach Ellis) are excellent writers, really great people, and it’s fun to be a part of that community.
I would imagine so—they’re certainly doing fabulous work. Have you started work on your next project yet?
Yeah, I’m working on my third book. It’s going to be an essay collection, and it involves a lot of research; I have a few of the essays written, and a lot of them are ideas at this point. It’s really going to focus on Indigenous identity, specifically my Cowlitz and Cascade identity, and I’m bringing in some stuff about pop

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culture and how pop culture warped my sense of who I am as a native person when I was growing up. There’s going to be a lot in there about hauntings. There will be a few essays that are in unusual forms, and others that are not. I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with writing essays that don’t take the form of some weird document, but I still like to do that and am going to keep doing that.
It sounds like this book will also draw a lot from the Northwest. At this point, do you see yourself as, or do you call yourself, a ‘Northwest writer?’
I do. When I was in New Jersey and Maryland, I was only just starting to form as a writer. I was still just learning, not really creating things that were going to be published, for the most part, and still honing my craft. I feel like it was in the Northwest that I really learned how to write about myself—I learned where I fit into the literary world that I saw around me. Also, I’m from a Northwest tribe, and I think of myself as being from the Northwest for that reason, but I’m also from New Jersey. I’m from two places.

When I go down the street in the morning I can smell the Sound, and the trees here are huge, Richmond Beach is a few minutes away, Edmonds Beach is a few minutes away, and the views of the mountains here… when I first moved here, I was just mesmerized by the mountains, and it’s never stopped. In Edmonds, I can see the mountains clearly and often, and every time I see those mountains—it just does something to me.

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Do you see yourself staying around the area for the foreseeable future?
I do. I’ve thought about the possibility of relocating, but I find it really hard to imagine not living here. I really appreciate being in Coast Salish territory and not being far from my tribe—that makes it really feel like home, at a very deep visceral level. And I have a lot of family out here, though my parents, brother, grandma, and other family members are still back east. But I think part of it is the literary community. I know that if I moved to another major metropolitan area I would be able to find a large community there, but it wouldn’t be the same community.

There’s other things about this area that are harder to explain, that I can’t really put in list format. I feel really right in the environment of the Seattle area. The trees, the smell, the arrival of the seasons… they feel like what I was always meant to be living around, and going back east I see how I wasn’t really in harmony with the environment I grew up with. The leaves falling off the trees in the winter and having bare limbs, the snow, the timing of the seasons just didn’t feel right to me, and it feels right here.

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The Widower Muse
Michael Upchurch

Tone is everything. Content is nothing.
Sage Bentham—“the poet of impersonality,” as one critic called him, or “the fastidious seer of the motor-vehicle interior,” according to another—stumbled onto his style early on, in his twenties, and scarcely veered from it in the dozen years that followed, painting after painting. The smooth acrylic surfaces, the sturdy utilitarian shapes, the absence of any human presence—these were the hallmarks of a Bentham canvas.
And the focus of his work?
As the critic said: Vehicle interiors.
Car interiors, bus interiors, train interiors. Ferry interiors, airplane interiors or any enclosed space that, by electro-mechanical or combustion-engine means, transported people from one location to another… the distinguishing trait of these images being that the people these vehicles were designed to carry were nowhere to be seen.
He painted the vacant insides of truckers’ cabs, lit by the metronome of highway halogen lamps. He painted unpopulated ship interiors and showed in them a special fondness for the shallow white curves and repeated wooden doorways of maritime corridors. He once, as a joke, did a completely empty San Francisco cable car plunging down the steepest block of Powell Street without even a driver at the stick—his most fanciful flight of imagination, perhaps, since even in January you hardly ever see a cable car less than half-full with tourists.
Each painting involved obtaining a certain access, for Sage always shot photographs (his “field research”) before getting his brushes out. Obtaining access wasn’t difficult early on when it was just a question of gaining entry to friends’ cars. (Sage had never learned to drive.) The beat-up Volkswagen of his first

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boyfriend Galen, during his last year of high school in Yakima, may have been what got his “Vehicles of Transport” series started. But after he moved to Seattle and his ambitions grew, access became more complicated. And promiscuity, to which he was inclined anyway, became more useful.
He would haunt every gay bar on Capitol Hill and a host of other watering holes to get what he was after. If he needed a trucker, he would find a trucker (“Vehicle of Transport No. 124” through “Vehicle of Transport No. 137”). If he needed a yachtsman from Shilshole, he would find a yachtsman from Shilshole (“Vehicle of Transport No. 202” through “Vehicle of Transport No. 209”).
Other conquests included a Gray Line double-decker bus-tour guide (“Vehicle of Transport No. 78” through “Vehicle of Transport No. 87”) and a pre-9/11 airline baggage-checker (one of few instances where Sage strayed from empty passenger vehicles, the focus here being an empty luggage-conveyor belt). A bisexual Boeing engineer had granted him access to the spanking new interior of the 777 when it was first coming off the assembly line, but hadn’t managed to smuggle him aboard the vessel’s first test flight. An Alaskan ferry steward he knew had arranged to sneak him down into the engine room, but was never able to get him up into the bridge. The never-visited bridge and the 777 in flight were both lasting regrets for Sage—but he held firm against painting any vehicle interior he hadn’t studied himself. Imagination, he liked to say, can only take you so far; what really counts is hard work and careful observation.
Throughout his twenties Sage remained the sprinter, the charmer, the trickster, the dancer, the sprite, dropping in on everyone’s parties and going through boyfriend after boyfriend. The moment he hit thirty—it was as if a clock had struck somewhere—he settled down.
He still went dancing and he still put on his usual sartorial display—scarlet bow-tie, chartreuse sportsjacket, candy-colored saddle shoes. But now he had an anchor in the corner: Wally. His sex-for-access antics simmered down. He had enough of a reputation by now to gain legitimate entry to most of the venues he

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was after without making himself part of the bargain. Also—it was almost as though he hadn’t realized this was possible before—he started painting a number of “vehicles” that any member of the public could enter for the price of a ticket—the elevators up and down the Space Needle, the trolley car along the waterfront, any number of buses easing their way through our newly-built bus tunnel (a “vehicle of transport” within a “corridor of transport” producing an interior-within-an-interior perspective).
The resulting paintings, it has to be said, were brilliant: endlessly inventive within their constraint, full of tension and play and illusory surfaces. Some might call this photo-realism, Richard Estes-style, but it was photorealism with some kind of warp or distortion running through it. And those qualities became especially pronounced with the advent of Wally—Wally who, in turn, came as a surprise to all of us. It made sense for Sage to be hooked up with someone. But why, we asked ourselves, this guy?
Of course we never thought to reverse the question—to ask what Wally saw in Sage, since we felt that was obvious. Each of us had slept with him at some stage of the game… or, if not “slept,” then “cuddled”—for there was nothing Sage liked better than “a good cuddle.” By the time Dan walked out on him, there were dozens of men around town who would have scooped him up (he was just the right size for scooping), and it wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d landed an older, wealthier man who wanted to be his patron. He still had the diminutive, elfin looks to serve as someone’s “trophy prodigy.” At the same time he had crushes of his own—he was obsessed from a distance for years, for instance, with an usher at Benaroya Hall whose dark shaggy eyebrows, leonine eyes, gray flowing beard and upturned mustache promoted ecstasies in him.
“My Scottish sea dog,” Sage called him. Or alternately: “My Scottish sea-god.”
The man did look a bit like Neptune, but as far as I know the two never got anything going with each other.

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Sage had only a passing interest in rock stars or movie actors. Instead he preferred to find his glamour more locally and in the flesh, as he had with his Symphony usher.
“Such a beautiful Asian teller,” he would say, “at Wells Fargo—Westlake branch. You should see him. Nice smile. So graceful, so slender. But slender-strong, you know?”
Or: “I keep winding up at Safeway at night. Such a cute cashier there. His name is Sven—”
Or simply: “I wonder who invented waiters…”
Making it sound as though they, in particular, were a special miracle that had, with intentional effort, deigned to visit his world.
Certainly there was no shortage of dashing, handsome waiters in Seattle—which just made Wally all the more inexplicable.
I argued with Sage about Wally.
“Look,” I said, “you’ve got a name now. You could walk up to almost anyone and say ‘Want to be my boyfriend?’ and they’d probably say yes. Or you could tell them you want to draw them. Use that as your opening. See where it goes.”
“But I don’t do people.”
This was true now, but it hadn’t always been true.
“What about at Cornish?”
“That was just at school.”
“But you could always go back to it. How about your Symphony usher?”
Sage pursed his lips in distaste: “I only want to admire. I don’t want to exploit.”
Here was a fastidious side of him that always took me by surprise. He was willing to use himself to any reckless degree necessary if it was for a painting he wanted to do—but he couldn’t ask the same of other people.
“I’m a soldier of art,” he’d explain sardonically. “But they’re just civilians.

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They don’t deserve that kind of treatment.”
“But what if you did put some figures in the paintings? Having a model would be legitimate, then.”
I knew he could do figures: beautiful sensual Sargent-like life studies. He’d done a charcoal sketch of me in class a dozen years ago—a nude he’d tossed away that I’d rescued from the garbage and treasured ever since, partly out of vanity (I knew I’d never look that good again) and partly because it was so adroitly done. Given his talents, it seemed to me he was cutting off an integral part of himself, ignoring whole avenues of possibility. But that wasn’t how he saw it.
“The figures are there,” he insisted of his paintings. “Especially in these new ones. Everything I know about the human body is at the heart of them. You just aren’t looking hard enough.”
I shrugged as though willing to concede, in theory, that this might be the case. But he could see I wasn’t buying into it. And he wasn’t happy about this.
“Surely you can sense there’s something going on in them, some kind of force inhabiting them, can’t you?”
This startled me. Why so desperate? The way he pleaded made me a little embarrassed for him. So I admitted that I could indeed “sense” something there—but that I wasn’t at all sure what that “something” might be.
This was the truth. The paintings, to my eye, were pregnant with “offscreen” presences that made you want to lean into them and look around, wriggle through the cramped spaces they depicted to see where all the people had gone. His airliner interiors were a particularly strong instance of this: beautiful exercises in frustrations of perspective that made you want to stand up so you could see down the cabin-rows of seats to find someone—anyone!—who might be on board with you.
But it was all a tease, I felt. No one was there. No one had ever been there.
Sage disagreed.
“Wally is there,” he said. “Since September”—the month Sage had met

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him—“Wally’s been in every single picture.”
We were in his studio. On the wall was his latest series, his usual variations on a close-knit theme—the sleeping cars on the Coast Starlight, in this case. He and Wally had gone on a train trip to Santa Barbara.
I tried. I went from one painting to another, and then back again.
But I didn’t see Wally in any of them.
Wally… how to describe Wally?
A spreading heap of sloping flesh, ensconced in size-14 shoes to keep him standing upright.
Wally: a pale expanse of fatty face, beneath the crown of an already balding head (and he was only twenty-three!).
Wally: belly-sphere like a huge balloon, sleek and walrus-like, entirely in proportion with himself but out of scale with everything around him.
Wally was six-foot-four to Sage’s five-foot-two and he weighed at least 300 pounds. He moved as if through molasses. He had the air of being simultaneously tough and fragile—like a brittle, oversized china doll. Sage, with unusual firmness, had made it clear we were not to question Wally’s presence among us. He’d even said, in what we assumed was a deadpan joke, “Wally is my muse. Wally is my inspiration. So you’ll just have to put up with him.”
This, with Wally sitting solemn-faced beside him.
And so we did learn to put up with him. But it wasn’t easy.
I remember one dinner party when the oddity of Wally’s presence among us really hit home.
The setting was Sage’s new house. He had, over the previous year, hit the local bigtime and was selling paintings, lots of paintings—including a whole series of empty elevator interiors—at hefty prices to some of the most prestigious collectors around town. With the proceeds he had bought a small bungalow with

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huge windows, perched on a terraced lot above the Burke-Gilman Trail, near Matthews Beach. From his deck you could see across Lake Washington to Kirkland and Juanita, with the Cascades—a turquoise-white wave foaming into stone—rising up behind them. It was August, it was dry, and had been dry for weeks. Bicyclists and joggers were sweating their way up and down the trail below us, while from just over the crest of the mountains, a wind-driven column-smear of smoke rose up into the atmosphere, sickly yellow at its base: a forest fire that had been burning out of control for days now near Leavenworth, forcing road closures, evacuations, preventative burns. It was strange to be sitting out on a warm evening, drinking wine, enjoying good food and catty conversation, while across the lake, somewhere in the picture-perfect mountains, an inferno was making this parched, warm, windy weather someone else’s emergency. It was also strange to think there wasn’t a single chance that this view—as magnificent as it was—would ever be painted by Sage. It simply didn’t interest him as a subject.
But there were still odder phenomena to observe closer to hand.
Wally, for instance, who announced a propos of nothing, “Schiele had a mistress named Wally,” then shut right up.
Sage, already a little drunk, leaned forward, intoned “Hear! Hear!” and waved his wineless wineglass in front of him. Wally, noticing it was empty and seeing all the bottles on the table were empty too, rose from his chair with a certain portly majesty and soft-shoed it into the kitchen to retrieve more vino.
In his absence the conversation swung around to the erotic hijinks of the current president—the blowjobs in the Oval Office, the besmirching of the famous blue dress, the drawn-out obfuscation as to what the meaning of “is” is.
Her behavior I get entirely!” Sage exclaimed. “I’d do him myself—”
“That’s one way to get into Air Force One,” someone quipped.
Sage, ignoring this, repeated: “I’d do him myself, if he was that way inclined. I mean, look at him—he’s a great big honey-bear of a man!”
At this we all looked in the direction of the kitchen, united in a single

22  ·    ·  

thought: Wally might be big, but none of us could picture him as a honey-bear. He was too pale and hairless and blimplike for that.
“But his behavior I don’t get at all,” Sage continued. “What does he see in her? She’s just a chubby little Jewish girl who affects to wear a beret. And isn’t she from Ohio or somewhere?”
Sage, an instinctively urban creature who’d been raised in irrigated farm country high on the sagebrush flats of the Columbia Plateau, had the native-born provincial’s disdain for all other city-aspiring native-born provincials.
“California, actually,” someone corrected him. “Beverly Hills.”
“Whatever,” Sage said. “I mean, even in my heyday I was more selective than that.”
He talked of his “heyday” as if it had been decades ago instead of the mere year or so since he’d met Wally. And how could he talk about being “selective” when Wally was who he’d ended up with?—Wally who, arriving back on the deck from the kitchen, now had two large bottles of Cabernet clenched in his pudgy fists.
Brent, who like me had once had a thing with Sage back when we were all at Cornish, said: “I don’t really care what he did, per se. But it’s bad news. We’re going to have to live with it for years.”
“You think?” Sage inquired.
“Maybe decades.”
“Oh, come on—how much more can CNN say about a blowjob? And what about the polls?”
“The polls won’t matter come election time,” Brent said. “It’s a blot on his record. On the whole party’s record.”
“I heard,” Sage said airily, “it was more like a series of blots. You know: one big one, and then a series of little trailing after-spurts.”
“Well I wouldn’t want to be in Hillary’s shoes,” Brent said irritably.
“Wouldn’t you?” Sage asked. “She comes out smelling like a saint. Stand By

23  ·    ·  

Your Man and all that?”
“How many shoes do you think she has?” a boozy voice called out. “As many as Imelda? Or maybe only half as many?”
This was Dan, Wally’s immediate predecessor with Sage.
“I’m sure it’s an impressive collection,” someone answered.
“And how about you, dear?” Dan said, turning to Wally. “Would you like to fellate the president?”
Dan had followed the same pattern we all had—thrilled at first to be Sage’s boyfriend, glorying in being the beau of a minor local-arts-scene celebrity, then coming gradually to realize that living with Sage could actually be quite boring since all he ever did was paint.
True, Sage was in his element at dinner parties—but that was virtually the only time he came to life. It was as though he reserved all his peacock energies for when he was sitting at the head of the table. When you were with him on his own, he scarcely spoke. And the sex wasn’t all that spectacular. Once you knew which buttons to push, the whole business was strictly routine—like his gaudy, fanciful wardrobe that consisted, one gradually came to realize, of only two or three strikingly similar outfits.
And a little like his paintings, too, which could look terrific all lined up under just the right light in a cavernous gallery in Pioneer Square. Seeing them that way lent strength to their repetitions—and repetition enhanced their strangeness, their power. But at home those same paintings could seem monotonous at times, especially given the way Sage worked on them. If he finished a canvas at 3:45 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, he would never just call it quits. Instead, he would start on another, before breaking off at his usual time of five o’clock. His joke—if it was a joke—was that he’d made his creative routine as much like a 9-to-5 office routine as possible: “I’m sure that’s how Gilbert and George do it.”
This was fine for the first few months. But then, after nine months, or

24  ·    ·  

maybe a year, the novelty wore off—as did that of the paintings themselves, when you found yourself living with them. There inevitably came a morning when you’d wake up, have some coffee, look in on Sage in his studio, stare at his latest work in progress and think to yourself: “Oh, great… another airplane interior.” Or ferry lobby. Or Toyota backseat.
And you’d pack up your bags soon after that.
Another pattern also held true: that the moment Sage replaced you with someone else—and there appeared to be no shortage of willing successors—you’d immediately regret your decision and yearn to be taken back by him. Hence the dinner parties, which were often nothing but volatile gatherings of Sage’s ex-lovers from the pre-Wally era, all trying to outdo one another, all contending for his attention.
What Sage—who wanted nothing more than a predictable lover to stick predictably by his side while he painted his predictable work—made of this process, I can’t say. If it were me, I would have grown paranoid at being abandoned so frequently and then having all my faithless beaus hang on in my social circle for years afterward.
This particular pattern seemed to be coming to an end, however, with the advent of Wally. Wally, it appeared, was for keeps.
“No,” Wally said, in poker-faced answer to Dan’s bullying question about the president. “I only ever fellate Sage.”
“So why did he do it?” someone else asked. “It just seems nuts. You’d think he’d be too smart to act so dumb.”
Sage chipped in: “Because he could. Because he saw a chance to grab a little something extra. And he took it. Without really thinking about it.”
He leaned forward, brimming wineglass in hand, and smiled hugely at us.
“Like most of you,” he said with emphasis, his smile growing even broader: “You know you have—seen the chance and taken it.”
He turned specifically to me: “I know damn well you have.”

25  ·    ·  

I didn’t know which specific transgression of mine he was referring to, but I had to acknowledge, with a regretful smile, that he was right.
“We probably all have,” Sage said soberly. “Except perhaps for Wally.”
Dan, on a mission, cornered Wally again: “So then, what would you say to our beleaguered president if you were to meet him, once you’d made it clear you weren’t going to fellate him?”
Wally, taking this in stride, sat up a little straighter, pronouncing each word in a bland robotic voice. “I suppose I would tell him: Mr. President, you eat just like everyone else. You sleep just like everyone else. You shit just like everyone else. So you have no special reason to break the rules. Because you really aren’t all that different.”
This was more than Wally had ever said at a single session. We were each a little stunned by it—all except for Sage, who had a small amused look on his face, such a bright, twinkling delight in his eye that you could almost hear him thinking: That’s my boy!
Which was when it sank in for me, when I knew it for sure: Wally was permanent.
I had known by the end of my second year at Cornish that I didn’t have what Sage had in terms of talent—and I began to turn such gifts as I was stuck with toward computer graphics, so as to find work as a commercial artist. What I realized, after getting some of the requisite late-night partying and club-going out of the way, was just how much work it took to be merely mediocre. Sage might be a bit on the facile side, the way he turned out canvas after canvas, all of them a little too instantly recognizable as his. But he was fluent and he drove his fluency in paints like a demon.
I couldn’t begin to approach his output, either in quantity or quality. This

26  ·    ·  

made me jealous of him, of course, and then furious with myself for being jealous. I might mock him for his foibles, but never, beyond the odd sniping quibble, for his art. Even while I was still going out with him and found myself badmouthing him to friends over drinks (“The man can’t even operate a washing machine!”), I would end with: “But of course he’s some weird kind of genius—the closest I’ve ever come to it, anyway.”
The odd thing was: by esteeming Sage so highly, by placing him on this pedestal, I forsook him slightly. I neglected him in the present because I was so busy imagining the rueful, mocking, laudatory things I would say about him in the future, at age sixty, seventy, eighty. I looked forward celebrating his contradictions—how he had come out of Eastern Washington sagebrush country, but had never painted that landscape. He wouldn’t have dreamt of it! And yet he loved the smeary canyon-and-butte paintings, licked through with smoke and piercing flame, of James Lavadour.
“Lavadour is amazing,” he would say, with a flutter of his eyes and a tweaking of his bright bow tie. “Mr. James Lavadour,” he would intone, “is the fucking J.M.W. Turner of the Interior Northwest. No kidding.”
This, about a man whose work, in most respects, was the absolute polar opposite of his own.
Sage, by contrast, was deliberately shallow—but I didn’t think he would always be seen as shallow. I didn’t even think of him, after a while, as a Richard Estes rip-off.
I remember one time we went up to Vancouver to see an Andy Warhol retrospective there. I’d gone out of idle interest because I liked the movies: Trash, Flesh, Heat. But I’d never thought much about the paintings. Silk screens of Elvis, Marilyn, Elizabeth Taylor… what was there to think? But then there were the JFK assassination paintings: the smiles in the motorcade before the gunfire; Lee Harvey Oswald pulling back in a crazy dance move as the bullet got him in the gut; Jackie as widow—in veils, with eyes downcast. And these were followed by

27  ·    ·  

some of the more messed-up self-portraits, the eyes a little piggish, the hair (a wig at this point?) halo-ing out of control.
Sage, in his saddle-shoes and little suit, was weeping. Sage, circling through the gallery again and again, had met his master—or one of his masters.
I, in the meantime, had caught the alluring eye of a museum guard who, on the breast of his handsome blue uniform, was wearing a button saying: “Ask Me About Andy.”
I asked him all the way into the men’s room—corner stall.
And wasn’t much good to Sage for a few years after that.
A year went by, and then another year. And still we couldn’t believe it—that Wally was really what Sage wanted; that Wally was here to stay.
I took Sage’s quip about Wally being his muse as a joke at first—typical Sage! But then I wasn’t so sure. I think I was misled by my feeling that, given the kind of work that he did, Sage had no real need for a muse. Plus, if he needed one, why choose Wally?
My prejudice—my “lookism,” if you will—was showing here. But I couldn’t help myself. Wally was a lump. Wally was a conversation flattener. When we got a new president who seemed even more problematic than the last one, and everyone started griping about him, Wally preposterously chimed in, in a way that shut us all up: “It’s true. He may be a bad president. He may be a dumb president. But he’s the only president we’ve got right now.”
On a less political note, if the skies had been clouded week after week, and it seemed as though the sun would never return, Wally, as though deliberately to aggravate the situation, would take it upon himself to reassure us: “I agree. The weather is awfully gray just now. The weather has been gray for several weeks, I suppose. But the weather is often gray this time of year.”
Thank you, Wally.

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After the country was attacked, and the initial shock and the rallying around the flag had subsided, and it looked as though our “problematic” new president might turn out to be our worst president ever—how sunny, how heavenly, the blowjobs and bubble economy of the Clinton years looked to us now!—we couldn’t help ourselves: we wanted to get Wally’s take on it. We asked what he would say to Bush if he had the opportunity to meet him. But Wally would not be drawn.
“I’m not sure I’d have anything to say to this president,” he answered primly. “Anymore than I had anything to say to the last.”
“Come on, Wally,” Dan said impatiently. “You’re telling me that if you had the chance to meet Bush, one on one, you would have absolutely nothing to ask the man? Nothing to tell him?”
Wally, seeing he had been cornered again, straightened up, inflated himself with his usual bland, resigned dignity, and answered: “Well I suppose, if I was forced to, I would tell him the exact same thing I would have told his predecessor.”
“Which was—?”
We were enjoying this. We were getting a kick out of it. We were eager to serve as Wally’s chorus, in a way. And sure enough he came through for us.
“‘Mister President,’ I would say. ‘You eat just like everyone else. You sleep just like everyone else. You shit just like everyone else…’”
And so on.
We couldn’t help ourselves. As Wally continued with this litany of bodily functions, we all joined in him on the refrain—“Just like everyone else!”—which made him smile cautiously and hopefully. Was he perhaps being included? Had he finally been accepted by the circle of men around him?
No, definitely not.
In fact, after this episode it was agreed upon by all of us that Wally wasn’t human, that Wally was animatronic. And this did, on some level, make a certain

29  ·    ·  

sense. After all, Sage—in his work, in his wardrobe, in his personal routines—had done his best to approximate a robotic regularity of habit, an utter steadiness of regimen. And maybe only someone like Wally could fit so seamlessly, so frictionlessly, into a life so strictly regulated.
Besides, we had to remind ourselves, Sage had never ditched a lover. He’d never had the opportunity! We had all been too quick for him.
So maybe he didn’t know how to pull out of an affair?
Or maybe his allegiance to Wally was merely a symptom of his hankering after the predictable and the practical. He needed someone dependable in his life who could change a lightbulb, cook a meal, fix the lawnmower when it broke. I had no doubt that Wally knew how to do all these things and that Sage didn’t know how to do any of them. He had no clue how to run and maintain a household, anymore than he knew how to drive a car. So it had to be Wally who kept Sage’s pretty new bungalow (and its decks!) in such smart shape, who kept the whole business from leaking, rotting and falling down.
But was that enough? It might be devotion of a sort, but could it really be called love? Then again, why was I, who mostly just acted on impulse, concerned whether it was love or not? Maybe Wally was a compromise Sage was willing to make, for the sake of having some stability in his life. Maybe Wally, for Sage, was a This-Will-Do.
I had heard Sage use this phrase a number of times before—as a feeble plea for me not to leave him (“But don’t you see? This will do”); as an update on his latest boyfriend who perhaps wasn’t thrilling but was pleasant enough company (“Oh, you know how it is—this will do”); or as a description of a teaching arrangement he’d taken on or a piece of gallery business (“I agree, it’s not perfect—but it will do”).
Brent and Alessandro, before they had found their destiny in each other, had been in This-Will-Do relationships with Sage, first one of them, then the other. Dan and Sage had been such a flailing, operatic duo that This-Will-Do

30  ·    ·  

didn’t really apply to them—it was more like “What the hell are we doing together?” But at either extremity of connection, whether placid or turbulent, none of us had ever been decreed Sage’s “muse” that we knew of. And even though “This will do” had become an endlessly repeated joke within our circle, applied to all sorts of situations in all sorts of ways, I never once heard Sage use it in reference to Wally. In fact, I suspected, he wouldn’t have dreamt of it.
This bothered me. This bothered me so much and for so long, I’m afraid, that on the one rare opportunity I had to spirit Sage away from Wally so as to interrogate him, I went for it. It was a Saturday. Wally, who’d been with Sage now for about three years, was en route to North Dakota to visit his ailing 96-year-old grandmother. (Neither Wally’s apparent devotion to his ancient relative nor his family’s evident longevity boded well to me, hinting as they did at Wally’s continued presence in our lives—if we were all still around by then—until circa 2073.) I persuaded Sage to go on a walk with me, for old time’s sake. Sage only worked Monday through Friday. He never painted on the weekend, not even when he was left on his own.
But it still took some doing to talk him into leaving the house.
“Wally might call,” he fretted. “He said he would.”
“But he doesn’t get to Minot till ten, right?”
Wally, with an eccentricity that rather warmed me to him, wasn’t flying but taking the train to North Dakota—an interesting choice. Or maybe it was the only economical way of getting there.
Sage’s other objection was that he’d been thinking of going on a ferryboat ride. He had been on countless ferryboat rides. He had taken countless photographs of ferry-boat interiors. And he had painted countless images of them, in one “Vehicle of Transport” after another. Why he needed to go on yet another ferryboat ride was a little unclear to me. But after putting some strong pressure on him—I explained that I didn’t have time to go all the way to Bainbridge or Bremerton and back—I was able to steer him into taking an hour’s

31  ·    ·  

stroll with me along the lake.
Steep lanes led the way down. Bicyclists hissed along the BurkeGilman Trail, shouting “On your left!” to dawdling pedestrians. Waterfront houses with docks lined the lakefront. Sage, with his sharp features and colorful saddle shoes, his bow tie and shimmering sportsjacket, made his usual striking contrast to the company he was keeping: the Lycra-clad joggers and roller-bladers around us, the denim-clad dogwalkers and stroller-pushers. As we turned down the path that led to the beach, people stared at him and then at me, as if to see if I was aware that I was keeping company with a fashion lunatic. I stared defiantly back at them.
We found a bench and looked out, past the lifeguard and swimmers and ducks, at the lake. We talked about this and that. There was a small exhibition of his work at the Frye that was coming up—a big deal!—and he also mentioned a future project he had in mind: the possibility of doing a “vehicle interior” of a motorcycle. Was there any way, he wondered aloud, of capturing in paint the sensation one had, when riding pillion on the back of a Harley, of being “enclosed” in wind and noise and light? (When, I wondered, had Sage ever ridden pillion on the back of someone’s Harley?)
And then we alighted, as I’d intended to all along, on the subject of Wally.
Sage fretted at the amount of time that Wally was spending with his grandmother in Minot: “I don’t like him being gone so long.” He worried whether, upon Wally’s return the next week, he, Sage, would have remembered to buy all the favorite grocery items that he, Wally, liked to eat. He’d already made several trips by bus up to Lake City.
All this fretting seemed a little ridiculous to me, and before I could stop myself I said with open skepticism, “So how long do you think this thing with Wally is going to last? Another year? Maybe two?”
Sage looked at me in shock.
“Wally is forever,” he said.
“Wally is forever?”

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The words sounded so ridiculous that I couldn’t help but echo them.
“Yes, he is,” Sage insisted.
“So Wally is really ‘it,’ then?”
Sage looked at me with a pitying smile: “Wally is my muse. I thought I told you.”
He fluttered a hand against his heart as he said this, like a swoon-prone Southern belle, tiny but headstrong, who’d corralled her man. Dressed in his parody of male drag, he was still the preening peacock, still the delicate flower. And with his Gallic good looks—deep back in his east-of-the-mountains ancestry on his mother’s side were fur-trapping métis merchant-traders who’d built a series of forts along the Columbia—he retained the élan to carry the whole show off.
I wanted to puncture this line he was giving me. I wanted to show him how deluded he was. And I must have been feeling reckless because I turned our conversation to his work.
“But you’re all about technique,” I said. “It’s the technique that makes the paintings what they are.”
He looked at me warily, not quite sure where I was going with this.
“And it’s an amazing technique,” I continued. “I’ll grant you that. But it’s not like it’s the product of inspiration from on high, is it? I mean, it’s not the kind of thing you need a muse for.”
Here I thought to myself, but did not say aloud, that even the dogged way he went about painting his paintings—on a strictly unvarying schedule, with not a lick of work done on the weekend, not even a sketch, because weekends, and also national holidays, were designated “time off”—merely went to show how very little “muses” and “inspiration” had to do with all the pieces he kept churning out.
To my surprise he took no offense at my comment on his lack of need for a “muse.” I almost had the feeling that if I’d gone ahead and said what I’d been thinking about the markedly uninspirational nature of his weekdays-on, weekends-off painting routine, he wouldn’t have taken offense at that either.

33  ·    ·  

“You don’t understand,” he said mildly, then got up and resumed strolling. I followed him.
Out on the lake, motorboats buzzed and, between their foamy wakes, sailboats slanted precariously. We took in the spectacle of the pleasure-boats, floatplanes and the opposite forested shore. And then Sage asked me: “Have you even looked at the paintings lately? The ones I’ve done since Wally?”
I felt guilty here. I couldn’t really say I had “looked.” It would have been more accurate to say I had glanced at them. But how could I admit to this?
“Of course I’ve looked,” I said.
“I guess I wondered what you had to do to get free access to the Smith Tower elevator car when it was empty.”
Sage turned away from me. And I panicked. I feared I was about to lose him altogether. I had failed him as a lover a dozen years ago at Cornish and now I was in danger, through my own deliberate sabotage, of losing him as a friend, in spite of the fact that I admired him. And I did admire him, admired his work, knew it had a hold on me, even if I sometimes disparaged it. For some reason it was the subject matter, not the work itself, that was a stumbling block for me. Never mind that collectors were now paying thousands for it; and never mind that there were lots of other painters I loved without giving a hoot, one way or the other, what their particular subject matter was.
I was even willing to admit that there were millions of vehicle interiors out there in the world and that no one had ever studied them with quite the intensity Sage had. But how could you spend your whole life painting nothing but vehicle interiors? What about the view from this beachside park, or the view from his house overlooking the lake? It drove me a little crazy that it would never cross Sage’s mind to paint these panoramas—or to paint Wally, for that matter, if he loved him so much.
At the same time I had to concede that the very fact that he didn’t paint

34  ·    ·  

these views, didn’t paint Wally, seemed to speak well of him; seemed to suggest a certain integrity to his actions or lack of action… although what the rationale or source of that integrity was, apart from a certain stubbornness of focus, I couldn’t begin to say.
And here I’ll confess: I never, even after his death, got to the bottom of it—never came close to answering the question “Why vehicle interiors?”
But this is skipping ahead. Right there, by the lakeshore as we walked it, I was stuck more on what Sage thought was happening in the paintings he’d done since Wally.
“I’m sorry,” I finally said. “I just don’t get it. Tell me what you’re driving at.”
He gave me a look so different from his usual playful-sardonic mien that I didn’t quite know what to make of it. If I hadn’t known him better, I would have said there was “mystical fire,” or some other long-outmoded sentiment, shining in his eyes.
“Wally’s in every one of them,” he said.
“You mean you’ve painted him in somewhere, like ‘Where’s Waldo?’”
“No, I haven’t painted him in. But he’s there, if you look. You can feel him.”
This was getting a little too woo-woo for me. “Subliminal presence” wasn’t a concept I could readily associate with the massive Wally. But Sage persisted with it.
“These new ones,” he said, “they’re good. They’re the best I’ve done so far. They have a tension. They have a certain spirit to them: Wally’s spirit. You could say they’re a sort of shrine to him.”
“A shrine,” I repeated.
“A shrine to Wally-the-Muse,” I proposed.
“Yes, exactly,” Sage replied, as though taking me seriously, as though he

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thought I’d finally gotten it.
But I hadn’t gotten it.
“Well,” I said at length, “whatever else he’s done, he’s certainly bumped up your asking price.”
And that was as far as I got. That was as much as he would tolerate.
We turned back from the beach, faced away from the lake-and-mountain view, started up the hillside lanes that led to his house.
As we walked, we said nothing. But I noticed with curiosity, if not quite alarm, that Sage who’d never been much of an athlete—he was the runt of his family, with six or seven older brothers all twice his size and quadruple his strength—scarcely had the breath to say anything anyway. In spite of his charming youthful get-up—boyish cowlick, optimistic tie—he looked strangely worn out, defeated. And in my paranoia I grew certain that this look of his, this drained expression of defeat, was strictly emotional in nature rather than physical, that it stemmed directly from what I’d just said to him.
I haven’t just discouraged him, I thought. I’ve crushed him! Either that, or I’ve given him conclusive proof that mine is not the sort of world that he or anyone with his talents would ever want to live in.
By the time we were in sight of his house, he was so pale I had to ask if he was all right.
“I just need to sit for a second,” he said—and plopped right down by the roadside. “I always get tired coming back up.”
He was sitting in a bed of dead and dusty leaves. But he didn’t seem to notice this. His action made no sense to me. He was so tidy, so dapper in appearance. How could he be this tired? How could he bear to get his clothes dirty?
“The house is right there,” I pointed out.
“In a second,” he panted.
And then, after some minutes on the ground there, he lifted his small self

36  ·    ·  

up and made his labored way to his own front entrance.
He didn’t invite me in. He didn’t even say goodbye, really—just looked at me from his threshold, like a brightly costumed sparrow.
“I should check,” he said. “Maybe Wally called.”
And then he gently closed the door on me.
Sage died—not that day, not that week, and not before Wally got back from North Dakota. But by the end of that month. His heart. He’d had a problem with his heart, and none of us—not his friends, not his doctor, not even Wally—had been smart enough to guess it. He was only thirty-three. Instead of being an early-career retrospective, the show at the Frye became an accidental memorial. And I didn’t just “glance” this time—I looked.
I looked as I’d never looked before.
And I saw.
Sage was right. There had been a leap.
Between “Vehicle of Transport No. 468” (a Toyota Camry interior) and “Vehicle of Transport No. 469” (another Toyota Camry interior) there had been an ascent into a higher tier of accomplishment, difficult to describe in words but obvious to any eye. The paintings were precisely dated, not just with the month and year, but with start dates and finish dates and even, on some of them, the time of day completed. Three years ago, at the age of thirty and within a week or two of meeting Wally, Sage had entered his “late period.” And he’d been intensely conscious of it.
I was no longer a painter. I couldn’t have explained to anyone the technical details involved, beyond his long-ago switch from cotton canvas to linen as soon as he could afford it. But that had been well before Wally; that didn’t explain the leap. I’d scarcely spent any time with Sage in his studio in recent years, so I could only guess at what specifics—what brushes, what brush-strokes, what particular

37  ·    ·  

mix of paints—had been put into action to make this leap take place. All I knew was that the pre-Wally canvases, as clever and inventive and accomplished as they were, came across as mere ingenious exercises, whereas the post-Wally paintings, even when they depicted exactly the same subject matter (that Toyota interior, three sequential escalators at Pacific Place, the lower car deck of the ferry Wenatchee), soared. They had almost an element of protest to them, as though Sage were insisting, “This is beautiful, this is important, I can do something with this—something that’s not just clever.” There was a deliberate imbalance to the later paintings’ composition that charged them with energy. There was a vivifying tint to their colors that drew you into them with an almost three-dimensional effect. I was sure that if he were still alive Sage could have told me exactly which artists he’d “ripped off” to achieve this effect—he knew his Italian Renaissance and Dutch Golden Age inside out. And he could have told me, too, why in his hands these borrowed effects of reflection and counter-reflection, of mirroring glass and burnished surface, were working so well together. For Sage was nothing if not an intelligent analyst—of both his own paintings and anyone else’s. He took pride in what his paintings had accomplished, almost as though they were his children and had done what they’d done all by themselves. Although I suppose, going by our last long conversation on that walk along the lake, he wouldn’t have said it was the paintings that had done it this time. He would have given credit to his “muse”: Wally.
Wally was at the opening, of course, and I felt a little sorry for him. He was having to bridge a strange and painful gap, accepting both condolences and congratulations—condolences on Sage’s loss, congratulations on the incredible show.
I got distracted picturing myself in Wally’s position, bravely enduring my bereavement even as I savored, with pride, my feat in having brought out the best in Sage in his final years—not just the best of his talents, but of his personality. For Sage had been a little less manic, a little more thoughtful and serene in these last few years, hadn’t he? Or had that just been fatigue… a symptom, perhaps, of

38  ·    ·  

his undiagnosed heart condition?
Whatever the case, I envisaged myself in Wally’s place, smiling and emotional, tearful but ecstatic, ready to explain or reminisce about Sage to all the world—especially to any reporters who happened to be in the room.
You can see how desperately I wanted to play the role of widower, and how well I thought I would do at it. But the part wasn’t mine. It belonged to Wally. Turning toward him, I expected to see small arias of display-worthy sentiment playing over his pudgy features. I expected to see him hugging people and shaking his head at the sadness of it all, then spreading his arms out at all the paintings around us, at this legacy, to exalt in what a marvelous visual world Sage had left for us to dwell in…
Wally was doing none of these things. He may have been heartbroken. He may have been traumatized, anguished, in collapse. But not a jot of this showed in his face. He was, in fact, so completely inexpressive that, as usual, there was no real telling what he was feeling.
Wally, when I looked at him, simply stood there. Wally, when I studied him, blinked back at me. Wally inertly accepted the comments and compliments and condolences given him, but gave so little back that it occurred to me to wonder, as I studied him, whether he might not be a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome or some other similar ailment. There was something that damaged, that curtailed, about his whole emotional-cognitive apparatus. How could Sage have loved this lump? Or was being a “muse” not necessarily the same thing as being loved?
I took another turn around the exhibit, examined a Cessna interior Sage had done in his twenties, a yacht’s belowdecks furnishings, a night-trucker’s cab where you could almost taste the blowjob Sage had traded for the view from behind the wheel. These early paintings had plenty to offer too, but they were flashy, they were showy, they were almost snide comments on the world—whereas each of the post-Wally paintings was a whole world unto itself. And as such they were haunting, endlessly viewable and capable of triggering obsessions: Sage’s obsessions.

39  ·    ·  

Even when he wasn’t actively at work on a painting, Sage was preoccupied by it, more attentive to it than he was to any of the people or events unfolding around him. He would try to put a pleasant face on this, especially at dinner parties or gallery openings. But it was always the painting that counted for him, that was uppermost on his mind, not the fuss of openings or review coverage.
So perhaps it made sense for him to have a boyfriend who was also devoid of fuss?
I remembered when Sage first introduced me to Wally and I asked—as soon as was practical—what on earth the attraction was.
He lifted his head dreamily, paused to think, then said, “Well, he’s always punctual, that’s one thing. He’s always so precise! You can count on him being where he says he’s going to be, exactly when he said he would get there.”
“But anyone can do that,” I objected.
Sage shook his head sadly: “Maybe you’re right. Maybe they can. But hardly anyone ever does. And if it’s someone coming to see you—someone who says he’ll be there to meet you when he said he would—”
His smile grew so wide he couldn’t finish his sentence. Instead he just shrugged his shoulders as though in disbelief at his luck, as though recounting the most romantic episode in his life.
“It’s erotic!” he insisted. “Punctuality is an erotic quality. It shows you really like a person.”
I was about to disagree with this, when he laughingly me cut off.
“I mean, look at you,” he said. “You could never make it anywhere on time.”
Which made it clear I didn’t have a leg to stand on.
In the absence of Sage, in the wake of Sage (for that was what it felt like—as though we were all bobbing corks on an ocean, still in agitated motion from the

40  ·    ·  

mighty vessel that had passed us by), what we were left with was… Wally.
Along with what paintings we had, and we all had a few, Wally became our central “connection” to Sage, our way of prolonging our sense of contact with the man we’d loved so inadequately.
But we didn’t quite know how to act upon that contact, how to put it into effect.
It was partly a question of scale, it seemed. Wally was so preposterously tall. Wally was so outrageously wide. Wally was of such incredible heft—a sort of shifting junior manatee, gliding from room to room—that it was awkward to know what to do with him. And what was there left of Sage in Wally? The more we regretted our own personal histories with Sage, the more we tried to find out. It was almost as though we thought of Wally as a shrine now, a shrine containing Sage—just as Sage’s last paintings were a shrine containing Wally.
Shrine or no shrine, Wally was an enigma—and a labyrinth. And there was, we concluded, only one way to find your way through a labyrinth. You had to enter it. Dan was the first to act. He got a jump-start on the process; we hadn’t developed any strategy at this point. His bedding of Wally was more a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing.
But once it happened, we fell quite easily into seeing Dan as our “advance man,” our initial explorer on a quest that was, by its very nature, improbable if not impossible—to find out what it was about Wally that had taken Sage’s art to another level; to uncover what Wally had been able to give Sage that none of the rest of us could give him; to see what Wally had seen in Sage that all of the rest of us had seen inadequately or incompletely. Going even deeper than that, we wanted to find, in the presence and tone of Wally, whatever remained in the world of the tone and presence of Sage.
It was a few weeks before Dan reported back to us on what had happened—those details he could bear to go into, anyway.
Wally, of course, had stayed on in the Matthews Beach house on its hillside ledge overlooking the lake, with its side-garden flowerbeds, its little deck and

41  ·    ·  

patio, its two tinkling fountains. He squatted there like some beast of legend, to guard Sage Bentham’s legacy. The house itself, as I said, was modest. It was the setting that made the place what it was. And, again in a shallow way, it was the setting that we sometimes missed. Since Sage had died, the dinner parties had come to an end and we felt as though we were in exile from one of our favorite aeries in the city.
This naturally made us want to pump Dan for all the information he could give us.
“It must be pretty grim over there,” I suggested.
“It is,” he confirmed, “but partly because it’s not.”
“I guess it’s just weird being alone there with Wally.”
“Wally—” he began. “Wally—” he said again. “I’m not… sure,” he finally stammered out, “where things stand exactly… between me and Wally.”
“What does that mean?” Brent asked.
Wally, these last few months, had been busy, Dan said. There was a ton of material to archive—not just the records related to the more than five-hundred “Vehicles of Transport” Sage had painted, but the dozens of photographs he’d taken for each of them, plus the preliminary sketches he’d done for some of the more elaborate compositions. There was also a surprisingly large shelf of videotapes dating from Wally’s arrival in Sage’s life and perhaps containing vital clues to Sage’s modus operandi, about which Wally remained resolutely uninformative. (It seemed typical of Sage that he’d never bothered updating from VHS to digital.) Dan had tried but hadn’t found the opportunity simply to grab those tapes and go—so he had stayed and offered to help.
There was, in fact, still a lot to do, and Dan went back several weekends in a row to help Wally do it. Sage, in his twenties, had been erratic if not downright cavalier about keeping any kind of photographic trace of his completed paintings. There were some black plastic trays of slides at the bottom of a jumbled closet, but they were unlabeled and in no discernible order. The bills of sale and gallery statements were likewise a mess. Wally was taking it upon himself to document

42  ·    ·  

all of Sage’s career—going back at least as far as his first “Vehicle of Transport”—but this involved tracking down the present owners of the paintings, some of whom were difficult to locate.
Wally went about this in a businesslike manner. But Dan, on his third weekend there had been overwhelmed by the sense that these remnants, these fragments, these paintings, sketches and photographs were all that was left of Sage. And he just couldn’t stand the feeling of loss. Without quite knowing what he was doing, he “fell into” Wally—the way a small desperate boy might fall into his father, hoping to bury himself there, hoping to lose himself in a grown man’s strength.
“You didn’t!” I said.
“I did,” said Dan.
“You couldn’t have.”
“It happened.”
“But what did Wally do?”
“Wally said: ‘Oh’—”
“Wally said, ‘Oh’?”
“—and then he just sort of went with it.”
“You mean the two of you really did it together?”
They had, he said—Wally as inscrutably as always; Dan partly faking it, putting more drama, more sense of occasion into this seduction than he really felt… but desperately wanting something from it too. Maybe absolution from his sins against Sage?
“And?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he answered.
“What do you mean: ‘Nothing’?”
“I can’t—I can’t do it—I just can’t go through with it again,” he said. “I told him I’d be back to help organize. But I can’t. It’s like a funeral over there. It’s like this endless, brutal funeral where everyone keeps missing the point, mimicking the same old emotions.”

43  ·    ·  

“But it was only Wally and you.”
“I know, I know, but it’s like they keep on looking at you—all those photographs, all those paintings. And the sketches too. It’s like there’s people in them now. People I never saw before. And you can’t tell whether Wally sees them or not.”
“Look, I know it sounds crazy. But I can’t. I just can’t. I fucked it up with Sage. I don’t want to fuck it up with Wally.”
Dan had never given Wally’s feelings a second thought in his life. So why now? This was such a surprising turn of events, and so utterly unlike Dan, that we left the situation alone for a while. None of us contacted Wally. What did we have to say to him anyway? Wally, on his own, had never mattered. He had interested us only insofar as he related to Sage. It had always been Sage we were there for—even if, as lovers, we’d never been able to stick by him. And we would, I think, have left the whole thing alone, would have let it heal itself the way that any loss, with passing time, heals itself, rubs itself dim—if it weren’t for Dan’s mention of that VHS archive.
Had Sage, in the Wally Era, undergone a change of direction and moved from canvas to magnetic tape?
Had he, in his very last phase, attempted to become a video-artist?
That would be genuinely shocking, if it were the case, and there seemed only one way to find out—by “infiltrating” Wally again, by getting as close to him as possible.
This time we had a little more discussion about it beforehand. We considered, as we hadn’t considered with Dan’s spontaneous forays, what might be the wisest strategy to take. And finally we agreed that Brent and Alessandro should be the next to try.
They took their challenge gradually, approaching it as a team. First they invited Wally for dinner to their apartment on First Hill. Then they went with him to a show at the 5th Avenue Theatre, and I met them there. They weren’t

44  ·    ·  

small men, but seated on either side of Wally they looked dinky. They looked, in fact, like two debauched children symmetrically flanking an enormous maternal figure who, able to impose her will on them through her sheer physical presence, had no trouble keeping them in line.
Wally as fertility goddess?
Maybe I should have taken this fanciful thought more seriously than I did at the time.
One evening at the Matthews Beach house, when Wally reciprocated their dinner invitation and all three had imbibed sufficient to drink, things careened into the carnal and they steered Wally into the bedroom where they attempted to have some sort of congress with him. Again, at this move, Wally said, “Oh.”
Neither Sandro nor Brent could remember much of what happened after that.
“I guess we overdid it,” Brent said.
“I have-a bruises in a place I never have no bruises before,” Alessandro said in his lilting Italian accent.
He lifted his shirt to show us.
“And what about the tapes?” I asked.
“We never even get close to them,” said Sandro.
“He didn’t give us any time,” Brent added. “He wouldn’t let us.”
Had I seen where this was leading? At what point did I become aware that I was next in line?
I phoned Wally up, asked how he was doing.
He said he was doing well.
I asked if he would like to go for dinner sometime, mentioned a new place that had opened on Capitol Hill, called simply “Food”—which seemed both monosyllabic enough to be trendy and straightforward enough to be in synch with Wally’s appetites.
We went there. We talked about Sage. We somehow talked about Sage without saying all that much about him.

45  ·    ·  

Wally, for instance, mentioned going with Sage to Tacoma to the Museum of Glass there.
“It’s not really made of glass,” he explained. “But it has a lot of glass in it.”
I told him, as gently as I could, that I was aware of this. Then I asked him what Sage had had to say about the exhibits there.
“Sage said he could never have worked in glass. He said he didn’t see how anyone could.”
This didn’t seem to be getting us very far.
Then Wally and I went to see the new Altman, because—“Sage always went to see the new Altman.”
We went. We sat. We watched. But at the end of the show, I couldn’t tell whether Wally had liked the movie or not. I only knew that I hadn’t.
I asked Wally what Sage had thought of Altman.
“Sage said some Altmans were good and some Altmans were bad. But even with the bad Altmans—”
“—he’s the only Altman we have right now,” I finished the sentence for him.
His eyes met mine in the mildest surprise: “Yes, that’s exactly right.”
I thought: This isn’t getting us any further than Sage’s reported opinions on the futility of glass art. But apparently our Altman date was a great success. Wally seemed to think so anyway. He apparently viewed it as a breakthrough of sorts, an initial step on our mutual path toward friendship.
“I so enjoyed talking about Altman with you. Would you like to come back to the house for a drink?”
This was it. This was my chance. I’d been handed my point of entry.
It was a clear and chilly autumn night. As we traced the lamp-lit path to the house, I could hear the wind making trees sway softly and branches rustle. From the deck out back, the houses of Kirkland and Juanita on the opposite shore were a twinkling band of lights. A yellowish moon, a Halloween moon, had risen from behind the Cascade Range and was shedding a pale, buttery path across the water.

46  ·    ·  

Inside, Sage’s final series of paintings was lined up along the wall: “Vehicles of Transport No. 527” through “Vehicles of Transport No. 534.” All were roughly the same size, and each explored a different angle of playfully constrained subject matter: an empty Metro bus interior. First there was the view up the bus’s entry stairs, facing the fare booth and driver’s seat (with no driver in it). Then came the view down the aisle past the wheelchair spaces and seats reserved for the elderly (with no elderly or disabled in them). Then along to the “prize seats,” as I thought of them, on the rise above the tires, with their higher vantage point—but again no occupants. And finally some longer shots down the length of the bus, from front to back, from back to front, with not a soul to be seen in them.
Yet you could almost hear the electric whine of the bus on its overhead trolley wires, the cellphone conversations of the passengers, and the tumbling of coins into the fare box.
Wally brought out some red wine and glasses. I emptied half the bottle. Wally brought out some crackers and cheeses. I ate most of these, then drank more wine. I stood in front of the first bus painting, imagined climbing up those steps to where a driver ought to be and no driver ever was. And then I found myself falling into Wally.
Wally said, “Oh.”
It didn’t take us long to make the move to the bedroom. I felt like a minuscule mountain climber, rappelling up a shallow but strangely challenging peak. I couldn’t get my bearings; I didn’t know where I was. I only knew that Wally’s head was looming up ahead of me somewhere at the summit.
I had never been on an expanse so pale and wide. I assumed that, beneath me, Wally’s penis must be hiding and I felt it only polite to try to search for it—and search for Sage inside it. But then I grew distracted, felt I was adrift on some vast and sacred carnal cloud, and let myself give in to its pleasures. That is, I gave in to my own pleasure, straddling Wally and coaxing my spasm of seed onto his skin—a skin as ripply and rolling as swells upon the ocean. Wally again said, “Oh,” while making no apparent move to secure his own orgasmic release.

47  ·    ·  

I had not found Sage in Wally—just as I’d never found a persuasive reason for Wally to be with Sage. But the advantage I had just taken of Wally apparently disconcerted him. Within thirty seconds after I was finished, he slid out from under me and said, “I think I have to take a bath now.”
If this was what had happened with the others, if they’d even made it this far, they hadn’t mentioned it. Wally withdrew behind the bathroom door, and I heard him turn the faucets on full. Given his size, I thought it was bound to be a very long bath. First he would have to fill the tub. Then he would have to lower himself into it. Finally there would be the even more cumbersome process of lifting himself out.
I knew the house well. I’d had a good account of where the videotapes were from Dan and Brent and Alessandro. And there had been plenty of times when I’d helped technology-impaired Sage operate his VCR.
I found the tapes. I turned on the machine. I popped in a cassette. I adjusted the tracking. I fast-forwarded through some “snow” until I found what I was after. There on the tape, like two genies trapped in a bottle, were Wally and Sage—naked, but not doing what you might expect two naked consenting adult homosexuals to do, especially not two who were videotaping themselves.
Sage was merely painting—and stood in Wally’s embrace.
That is, Sage was in the foreground with a canvas propped in front of him and a palette of paints at his side… while Wally, cloud-like, loomed from behind him.
Sage was working on the picture I’d just looked at, of the rubber-matted stairsteps with their black cushiony grooves and, above them, the apparatus of the fare-box with its dollar-swallowing box and its glass cage for coins. Beyond them was the brown vinyl bus-driver’s seat with no driver in it—while behind Sage stood Wally, half holding, half caressing him, administering to him a kind of “cuddle” I hadn’t seen or heard about before.
It had been a while since I’d glimpsed Sage naked and I’d forgotten how

48  ·    ·  

beautiful he was—a sort of delicate, aging boy-man, with his slender hips, narrow waist, sinewy arms and comical patch of fur at the center of his chest. In this barely moving image—Sage always worked calmly, his brushstrokes anything but dramatic—he held the spotlight, shone in televised miniature.
Wally, behind him, was enormous. Wally, with his large pale arms, was an edifice that swayed. And Wally, with his wandering hands, played a sacred energy up and down Sage’s torso, finding his straining cock and touching it, setting it lightly bobbing into motion, then withdrawing again, as Sage went on painting.
And all the while he whispered something into Sage’s ear.
I couldn’t quite hear what it was.
Quickly I checked at the bathroom door to see what progress Wally’s bath was making. After hearing some reassuring noises from the tub—walrus splashes, manatee wallowings—I rushed back to the VCR and turned up the whisperings loud enough to catch them.
In the fondest of cadences Wally was murmuring to his lover: “You shit just like everyone else. You fuck just like everyone else. You eat and drink and pick your nose, you pee and burp, you walk and get tired, you lick and taste and come—just like everyone else.”
Sage’s cock seemed only to get harder upon hearing this. And his brushwork just got more fastidious.
I punched out the tape, put in another, which after moving through more static snapped into focus.
There the two of them were again, in the same state of undress, in the same state of sexual excitement—on Sage’s part, anyway. The way the camera was positioned made it difficult to say what, exactly, was going on with Wally. Only this time the words coming out of Wally’s mouth were: “It may not be a perfect Bentham. It may not even be a good Bentham. But it’s the only Bentham we’ve got right now…”

49  ·    ·  

I was getting my clue here—and it gave me no real clue at all.
I wasn’t just getting my clue. I was getting my revelation! And still it gave me nothing.
Were these “late” paintings more alive than the earlier ones because they were angry reactions to Wally’s words? Or were they more alive because Sage found painting in Wally’s whispering embrace such a blissful and comforting experience?
Was Wally, by heaping the same ego-flattening remarks on his lover that he had heaped on our two most recent presidents, telling Sage he was as great as any president could be? Or was this whole routine a deliberate provocation, calculated to incite Sage and spur him on with his remarkable work?
Whatever it was, it wasn’t anything I could ever have come up with—not in a million years. And while I knew what Sage had repeatedly insisted—“Wally is my muse… Wally is my inspiration”—I still wasn’t sure of the truth.
All I knew was that I’d gone about as far as any of us in Sage’s surviving circle of friends had been able to go. And I couldn’t see taking this any further.
I found my jacket. I dug out my car keys. I tiptoed toward the door.
As I let myself out into the side garden I could smell wood fires burning nearby, putting their stamp on the moldy scents of autumn. I took a moment to inhale this smell. I also turned to absorb this one last glimpse of the lake I was ever likely to get from this particular angle—the moonlit water, the lights on the opposite shore—because it seemed hardly likely I’d return here again.
And then, I admit, I hesitated.
Somewhere in the midst of my confusion I was countered with a moment of temptation.
What if Wally had it in his power to raise my commercial hackwork to the level of fine craft? What if, through contact with Wally, I could come up with something worthy, something that might actually endure for a while?

50  ·    ·  

I wasn’t thinking of masterpieces. All I had in mind was work that might put me at or near the lowest rungs of what Sage, in his earliest days, had managed.
But no… it still wouldn’t be worth it.
Before Wally could emerge from his bath—clean and huge and purified, ready to let me make further claim on him—I got out of there.

Michael Upchurch grew up in England, the Netherlands and New Jersey, and has lived in Seattle since 1986. His novels include Passive Intruder, The Flame Forest, and Air, and his short stories have appeared in Conjunctions, Glimmer Train, and The Seattle Review, among other periodicals. He was a staff book critic for The Seattle Times for ten years (1998–2008) and has written extensively about books and the arts for other publications, including The New York Times Book Review, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and The American Scholar. He is married to film critic John Hartl.

51  ·    ·  

Kjerstin Johnson

Sean belted Neil Young’s build-up over the empty floor of Hoagie Planet—he was about to hit the best part of the best track on the album. But just as he burst into the chorus, the music fell out, and his righteous blast of “Alabama!” fell unaccompanied over the counter.
There was a clattering in the back. “Goddammit, Drew,” he said, right before the opening lines of Straight Outta Compton came over the speakers.
Drew walked out of the kitchen. His shoulder-length surfer hair fell into his face even though Sean had already told him to tie it back that day. “We’ve been listening to your sad-sack shit for like, an hour. You said I could play this when we were closing.”
“We’re slow, not closed.” It was twenty til ten. And there were only two songs left on Harvest! The Planet Hoagie door dinged open, giving Sean the proof he needed. Drew slinked back to the kitchen and the loud, caustic sound of an unplugged iPhone followed.
“This weather is nuts,” said the man at the door, stomping snow-covered shoes on the carpet without looking up. “Hey—Sean!”
“Lito, long time.”
“Yeah man, I didn’t know you still worked here.”
“Oh, yeah. Well, managing now. I mean, yeah, I’m still working here, but also I became the manager. But, I mean, that was a while ago.” Sean pushed up his glasses. “What can I get you?”
Lito squinted at the menu on the wall. “Footlong beefeater. No onions, thanks. It’s so good to see you, man. I don’t think we’ve seen each other since…”
“Probably since that show at Nate’s.”
“Oh yeah. That was a good time. I thought you guys would open for us

52  ·    ·  

some time. Didn’t he work here too?”
“For a little bit. Before Brooklyn called.”
“What’s his new band called? It has a bunch of letters, I always forget. They’re blowing up.”
“Hatemail,” said Sean. “Well, ‘HTML.’ They’ve got a Nikon commercial now.” He trailed off. “Kinda stupid.”
Lito shrugged. “Kinda funny. My new band is called ‘the Rocky IV,’ so I’m not sure I can talk.”
“Oh. I was talking about the—” He heard the door ding open again. His face changed. “Hey, Naomi.”
Instead of the size-l green Hoagie Planet tee Sean was used to seeing her in, the only one in stock when she started two weeks ago, she had on a regular shirt under her parka. She had two of those bird tattoos beneath her collarbones. “Hey,” she said. “I just came to grab my schedule for next week.” Sean had started making her a mix CD after she had asked about a Dinosaur Jr. song he had played last week. It wasn’t anything serious—twelve 100% platonic tracks, no room to read anything else into it, not unless she wanted to. He hoped she wouldn’t notice that they were working the same shifts.
Naomi headed to the kitchen and Sean turned back to Lito. “I like your name,” he said. “You guys are good. Weren’t you written up in The Weekly recently?”
“Yeah. It’s just that Charles is leaving, and that’s who they mostly talked to.”
“Huh. That’s cool, I mean—it’s not cool. I’m sorry. For your band.”
Lito shrugged. “He was okay. We’re really happy for him.” Lito was such a chill guy. “Hey! We’re doing tryouts for a new front guy this week. You should come, Thursday’s open. I know you’ve got the chops—I’ve seen you at Milo’s.”
Sean laughed and pushed up on his glasses.
“No I’m serious,” Lito continued. “We need someone soon, too. We have a

53  ·    ·  

New Year’s gig at the Central with Antler Spray.”
Antler Spray sucked, if Sean was thinking of the right band. “Wow, thanks man. Let me think about it. I’m gonna see how that sandwich is going.”
Sean stepped back in the kitchen where Drew and Naomi stood nestled against the dishwasher, Naomi smiling at Drew’s stupid California face. The beef hoagie sat chastely on the mottled cutting board. With fanfare, Sean snapped a square of aluminum foil from the industrial size roll above the sandwich fixings. Drew casually looked back; Naomi jumped. “Got my schedule,” she said, guiltily flashing a note-scribbled napkin at Sean as she slipped out, eyes down. Sean finished wrapping the sandwich.
“Naomi’s giving me a ride,” said Drew, grinning. “You know, the weather.”
Back out front, Sean slid the sandwich to Lito. “Sorry about that.”
“No, thank you! Glad I saw you. See you Thursday, I’ll text you my address. Can’t believe this snow.”
“I can’t believe it either,” said Sean, watching Naomi thumb at her phone in an empty booth.
“Just bring your guitar, and maybe check out our Soundcloud,” Lito called on the way out. Sean hoped Naomi heard. He played a real instrument, he didn’t “make beats” or whatever the fuck Drew did. The door shut and N.W.A. began blaring from the speakers again.
“Okay kids,” Sean announced loudly. “I’m gonna go count the till,” and he took the registers upstairs to the office.
As he waited for Hoagie Planet headquarters to confirm the night’s numbers, Sean opened a new browser to check his email. Two camisole-clad brunettes stared at him from a sidebar, offering to chat now for portland ore hook-ups. On a whim he clicked on the image, and was instantly assaulted by seven small windows billowing onto the screen.
“Hey man. Knock knock,” said Drew at the door. “Hands where I can see them—ha, I’m just playin’.” Sean quickly clicked around to close the pop-ups.

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“We’re checking out, I just wanted to see… with the snow and shit… I don’t have to come in tomorrow, right? Lots of places are closing up tomorrow.”
“Like who?” said Sean.
“Like… lots of places! Have you seen the forecast? Go to,” Drew started toward the monitor and Sean quickly pressed a close icon, releasing a new flurry of hungry-eyed Portland singles over the screen.
“No. And yes, we’re open. Nice try.”
“Man I’m just saying, it’s hard to get around without wheels.”
“We have that Coke shipment coming tomorrow. My hands are tied.”
“So wack,” said Drew as he went out the door.
Sean finally closed all the errant windows. There was only one new message in his inbox, from OkCupid. seanster11, someone chose you! He hadn’t logged in for months and was surprised he still remembered his password. The message was from a girl named Valerie. OkCupid said she was 26, she ate meat, and that she hated the question about what movie you could take on a desert island. Her music tastes weren’t objectionable, either, but that just meant she didn’t list HTML.
“Later big guy,” Drew called from below. Naomi giggled at something he couldn’t hear.
Sean clicked the reply button to Valerie and asked if she was free tomorrow night, maybe around eight.

The power went out at five the next day. Sean had just navigated to the Rocky IV’s Soundcloud when he heard a tell-tale click and the living room flickered dark. His laptop screen glowed dully and he stared at their track list, completely unclickable.
“Power’s out,” said Jason, emerging from his bedroom. “I’m going to Teddy’s.”

55  ·    ·  

Sean shut his laptop and walked toward the window. He pulled the blinds up, like the dark outside could light up the dark inside, just a little. Nothing moved outside except for the snow, which fell in sheets.
He sat back down and picked up his guitar from the futon. He had gotten as far as tuning it before getting online. He’d dicked around on Facebook—searching in vain for Valerie, spending too much time on Naomi’s profile, and hate-browsing photos of Nate, whose flash-brightened face smiled back at him from parties in cramped apartments. When Nate left for New York in April, he and Sean had texted for a while—Sean asked Nate how he’d made the decision so easily, and Nate asked Sean why he couldn’t just leave too. Sean had just renewed his lease and been offered the management gig at Hoagie Planet, and he couldn’t really turn down the better hours and pay, especially since Careers—that, of all things, is what they had called their band—would no longer be booking shows. Nate hadn’t even planned on moving—he just couldn’t afford to fly back and had somehow made it work. He had asked Sean to visit, to at least bring the amp he had left in Portland. Sean had texted I would have to sell it to buy a ticket lol. Nate texted back: sell everything else and drive ya dummy.
That was all before the camera commercial. Jason was watching a baseball game when Sean got home from work. He had just opened a beer when he froze at the riff blasting from the next room. He walked slowly into the living room, where a bright, vivid commercial of sunflowers blooming and dancing cameras played chords he had once jotted down on a Hoagie Planet to-go menu, though they were now revved up in a catchy, two-tone synth number.
“What the fuck,” he said, more shocked than mad. He watched a pile of puppies tangle on a beach.
“I know, it’s like, why don’t you fix your crappy 230 model before making an extra crappy 560,” offered Jason.
“I wrote that,” said Sean. “We wrote it. Here.”
Jason grasped Sean’s gravity for a short silent moment. “So you don’t want

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to watch the game?”
Sean downed his beer. “I’m going to Milo’s.”
Now, in the dark, his fingers moved to the familiar frets. He plucked out the original melody, comically neutered on the unamplified instrument. It made him sad. He still liked the way the chords sounded. He played it through a few times, the way he had written it, pretending it had never been twisted three time zones away. He let the strings bite into his uncalloused fingers; the more it stung now the less it’d hurt later.
His phone buzzed. It was a photo text from Drew of the register’s daily sales so far—$16.54. Drew had included a memo at the bottom for emphasis: 8===D~
Sean sneezed, realizing he was sitting alone in a dark room that was getting progressively colder. He got his coat and headed out.

The snow wasn’t falling fast, just steadily, like it was pacing itself. The sky was an unfamiliar purple. With the wet soaking through his canvas shoes and his unlit block now foreboding in the pervasive darkness, he hustled the four blocks to Milo’s, where the neon KARAOKE sign was caked in snow drift.
Sean’s glasses fogged up the moment he stepped through the door. He wiped them off and ordered a double whiskey soda and a burger. At the bar, a glowing plastic Santa welcomed a busier-than-usual weeknight crowd—cold and confused refugees from the neighborhood. Sean wondered if his chances to sing tonight would be slimmer, then felt guilty about it. Another text from Drew: made 5 sammies all day. no coke.
He was on his second drink when a girl with dark, shoulder-length hair and cat-eye makeup walked over. Her face was flushed, like she had been outside for a while. “Sean?” she asked, head askew like he had done something and wasn’t fessing up to it.
“Hi. Yeah, Valerie. I mean, I’m Sean, you’re… Valerie. Hi.” Sean ran his

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hand over his beard and stuck it out, then hesitated, then wiped his hand on his pants. Valerie just sat down.
“This weather is nuts. For Portland I mean.”
“Yeah, I lost power at my place.”
“Oh shit, really? We still have ours. I’m like ten blocks thataway,” she said, nodding her head back toward the Santa. “Where do you live?”
“Pretty close, it’s not a bad walk. It’s like, 21st and Thorn. Between 21st and 22nd. Sorry, that was really specific, you didn’t need that specific a location.”
“That’s funny, I work near there… The ugly brick building on 20th. My cousin’s law firm.” Without warning, Sean’s body shivered and he sneezed.
“Bless you,” said Valerie. “Did you only have a coat on? You realize they make products for problems like that. Hats. Gloves.”
“Sorry, I’m from Wisconsin. It’s just second nature for me to have five layers on when it’s cold out. I had to walk tonight—it’s impossible to bike, and I don’t have a car.” Another biker. At least she wasn’t vegan. Over at the bar, Sean saw the Nikon commercial come on the TV. He ran his thumb over the pads of his left-hand fingers under the table.
“So, you… do… legal stuff?”
“Well, it’s sort of a temporary gig. But yeah, I do admin at this legal firm. Until I figure out grad school or something. Pretty sure I don’t want to be a lawyer though. Not if it means going to work at 7:30 even when there’s a psycho snowstorm.”
Sean nodded sympathetically. “Sucks.”
“What about you, do you have to work tomorrow?”
“Um… maybe? Guess we’ll see what the weather’s like?”
The KJ was setting up. Sean had finished his drink but didn’t want to push another round on her, even as she stabbed at her ice cubes. She was looking at her watch. Fuck.

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“Okay,” said Valerie gravely. “There is only ten minutes of happy hour left. I need to get a drink right now. Do you want another?”
Sean adjusted his glasses. “Oh! Yeah, I mean, if you—I can—I mean, I have a tab—but, yes. Yeah I would.”
“So… yes?”
“Yes,” said Sean. “Thank you. I’ll have what you’re having.”
The KJ placed a songbook on Sean’s table. He realized he had torn his napkin into shreds and quickly wiped the tiny wet bits onto the floor.
Valerie returned with two amber glasses. “What’s this?”
“Laaaaadies and gentleman welcome back to another karaoke night at Milo’s. I’m your host Stevie B and we’re going to get started with… Kaaaaatie! Katie come on up.” Sean preferred it when Stevie B kicked things off—usually with Springsteen. It set a good tone for the night. It was important, like the first track in a mix CD.
Valerie turned back, “Did you know about this?”
“Well I—I mean, yeah—well it’s every Wednesday so—but I didn’t like, plot this. I mean… I come here a lot.”
“I see.”
“Do you… enjoy… karaoke?”
“Uh… well,” Valerie cocked her head again. “I guess—well, I don’t think I’ve done it. So I can’t really say.”
“Oh, it’s the best. You’d be great at it.” Katie finished her Nelly Furtado song to polite applause.
“Let’s hear it for Kaaaaaatie,” said Stevie B. Steve was such a pro. “Now let’s get Sean up here. Come on up Sean!”
Valerie made a “well look at you” face at him and he took a deep drink before heading up to the mic. The signature synth of “When Doves Cry” started up. He liked this song—it was a crowd pleaser. As he sang the first verse, he hit every innuendo without coming off too American Idol. He felt Valerie watching

59  ·    ·  

him, and even though he didn’t need the screen, he found himself glancing at it to avoid her gaze. He nailed the closing Prince ad-libs, and growled them over the robot-chorus refrain.
“Thank you Seaaan! One of our Milo’s regulars performing a little Prince for you fine folks. Next up we have…Cher…isa? Am I saying that right? Cherisa?”
“Bravo,” said Valerie, when he returned to his seat. “I’m definitely not going to go if you’re the competition.”
“It’s not a competition!”
“Do you like, practice or something? You even made that little”—Valerie made a little Ow! sound, which, to be honest was a little more MJ than Prince—“sound pretty hot.”
Sean ran his hand over his beard. “Thanks, it’s just something I like doing.”
“So you work at Hoagie Planet? My friend got sick there once.” There was a pause. “It was the one downtown,” Valerie added quickly. She flipped through the songbook. “I don’t know any of these songs! I mean, I know Ace of Base but I don’t want to sing them. Maybe if they had, like, Antler Spray, I’d sing that.”
“Did you say Antler Spray?” said Sean.
“Yeah,” she said, then gave him a look. “Don’t give me any Pitchfork bullshit about them. I like them. A lot of people like them.”
“No, I mean, well, I have only heard their older stuff—I mean, sorry I didn’t mean it that way, I have seriously only heard one album by them and it happened to be their first one. What I mean is that this band—a band I’m in… we’re actually playing with them—”
What.” said Valerie. “Wait. The New Year’s Eve show? If you are bullshitting me—if this some elaborate hipster joke I swear to god I am going to walk out of this bar right now.”
“No, seriously. The Rocky IV. At the Central.”
“Are you shitting me.”

60  ·    ·  

“I cannot believe this. I’m texting my roommate.” Valerie started typing on her phone. “She is literally going to slit her wrists about this. She is like, their biggest fan.” Her phone chimed almost instantly. Valerie answered and whispered loudly “It’s her” to Sean, pointing at her ear.
She walked to a quieter end of the bar and Sean ordered another round. He rubbed his left thumb around the pads of his fingers over and over. At the mic, a girl watched her Third Eye Blind lyrics reel by. “Whoa. I did not know these were the words to the song.”
Valerie came back a few minutes later with her phone still cocked to her ear. “Hey, I’m trying to figure out work tomorrow. Where do you live again?” Sean told her, even though he didn’t understand the question. Still… he texted Drew. k HQ says we’re closed tomorrow.
Valerie returned and sat down. “Yikes,” she said to Sean, nodding back at an older guy’s off delivery of “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You.”
“Yeah, I feel really bad when this happens. I don’t even think this guy is a bad singer, he’s just like, one note off-key, and he knows it, and he’s just… clawing his way back.”
Valerie kept her eyes on him as he spoke. She put her hand on her heart and in faux earnestness locked eyes with Sean. “Makes you wish there was something you could do.”
“It’s a heartbreaking, completely preventable condition,” he replied in matched concern.
“So but seriously. Is that what you do—sing?”
“Well, I also write music. Figure out the song structure and chords before Nate adds lyrics and like… his pretty-boy production. Probably doing that in Williamsburg right now.”
“Williamsburg? Like, New York? And he’s coming to the show next week? My roommate tried to fly home and said the airports are a complete shitshow.” Sean realized she hadn’t been asking about Careers.

61  ·    ·  

“I’m not worried about it,” he said, and for the first time in a while, he really wasn’t.
The drinks arrived. “Seannnnn, Sean if you could step up to the mic.” Maybe he and Stevie B should be in a band together.
Valerie raised her eyebrows. “You’re singing again?”
“I mean,” Sean stared ahead at the microphone. “I can’t go home. It’s just… cold and roaches there.” Valerie laughed. He hadn’t said it as a joke but he was glad she liked it.
Pink letters reading Sweet Talkin’ Woman—in the style of Electric Light Orchestra bled into a cyan screen. The strings started up and Stevie B put on a pair of sunglasses. “Don’t know what I’m gonna dooooo,” he crooned, stretching his arm out like total cheeseball, then drawing it back and clutching a fist—“I gotta get back to youuuu” he looked at Valerie even though he hadn’t planned to. He had expected her to be browsing the songbook but she had been looking right at him with a bemused expression, and only glanced away when he caught her eye.
About halfway through the song Katie’s table came to the dance floor. This was his favorite part of the song, when the music dropped out for two measures then kicked back in before things got too melodramatic. “Slow down—slow down—sweet talkin’ Lola…” Sean received loud whistles when he was done.
“It’s cold outside but let’s keep things hot with a little R. Kelly from Robbbbbie,” announced Stevie B. “Can we get Robbie up here.”
After that the dancing never let up. Valerie even went up to sing some Gwen Stefani with an amorphous group of middle-aged women. When last call rolled around it seemed like the whole bar was on the dance floor, shouting along every word with Stevie B to “Hungry Heart.” The room’s warm red lights shone on everyone’s face and the tinsel rippled on the wall. Outside, the snow plummeted, the flakes lit up by the orange glow of the streetlights, falling like sparks from a fire.
“The roof is on fire,” he said.

62  ·    ·  

“You’re drunk,” she said.
Then it was over. The house lights came on and Sean’s damp t-shirt stuck coldly to his back. Over a clatter of glasses, “Comes a Time” came over the bar’s speakers. Neil. “Do you know this song?” Sean slurred to Valerie. He was in love with Valerie. He was going to make a mix CD for her. It would have Neil, and Dinosaur Jr., and “Mama You’ve Been on My Mind”—the Jeff Buckley version. “I want to talk to you about this song. You can’t hear it right now, you can’t hear it right, but I need to tell you about it.”
“I bet you do,” said Valerie. They stepped outside. The snow glowed faintly pink from the bar’s red Rainier sign. “Here, wear this,” she gave him her wool hat. Then she grabbed his shoulders and positioned him East. “Lead on.”
He turned to her, fat flakes falling on his face. “You’re coming to my place?”
“I just think…” she blinked and her eye makeup left small black tracks on her cheek. “Sometimes it’s nice to weather these things with someone else.” The thought had never occurred to him. “Also I need to get to work in the morning.”

When Sean woke up, he had a thick headache and a dry mouth. The snow had stopped, his phone was dead. The power was back. Valerie was gone.
He took a hot shower and grabbed the last High Life from the fridge. Cancelling work had been a great decision. Drew was a genius.
A sleeping bag folded in an oblique square sat on the futon. He moved it aside and it crumpled into a soft mess on the floor. He plugged his phone in and played through three Rocky IV songs before his phone buzzed to life. He made himself wait until he had finished the song before texting Valerie. Had a great night. Am free tonight after band thing.
When Sean had run through every Rocky IV song twice and had emptied his High Life, he shut his laptop. He looked at his phone, and at the sleeping bag,

63  ·    ·  

and out the window where everything was white and grey. He couldn’t see anything when he looked back inside. He closed his eyes and let his fingers find their place for the Careers song again. Now amplified, the song seemed sadder, lonelier, with so much energy behind it but no backing band. Working slowly, he picked out a new chord, a bridge that chased the gloom with a knowing nod. He murmured a song with no words somewhere high above it.
At ten til two, his car didn’t start. He counted out bus fare from the kitchen drawers. The snow that had sparkled last night now scrunched with contempt underfoot, and his feet were soggy when he reached the bus stop. A girl with huge headphones, maybe Naomi’s age, was waiting too. She glanced reservedly at him when he approached.
Sean nodded at her and pulled out his phone and dialed the bus alert number. “Thank you for calling Tri-Met. WINTER. WEATHER. ALERT,” annunciated the robot voice. “Arrival times may be indeterminate due to winter forecast. Number FIFTY. FIVE is FOUR minutes OR. TWENTY. ONE. minutes away.”
Sean texted Lito. Bus late. SO sorry. Be there as soon as possible. He paused then hit backspace. Be there asap. He deleted everything. Bus is late. Keep u posted. He hit send.
“S’not coming,” he half-said to the girl, throwing it out with a laugh for her to respond to or not, only then remembering her headphones.
She removed one earphone and he heard a thin, familiar strain of music. Was it—? Probably not. He couldn’t. He wasn’t that guy. She probably had a boyfriend. Why wouldn’t she? What if she didn’t? What was he doing? Valerie had come home with him last night.
“The bus,” Sean threw his thumb back. “I mean,” he held up his phone. “I called it, it’s not coming. I mean, they said it was, but, like—the number, Tri-Met, said—I mean, usually when the weather is like this, it doesn’t come..” He put his phone in his pocket. “Are you… is that Harvest?”

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“Are you listening to Neil Young?” But it was too late. He now heard plainly that what he had mistaken for the signature harmonica of “Heart of Gold” was actually a dark violin riff, a harsh and ugly melody warped through her humongous headphones and this bullshit weather. “Nevermind, I just thought I heard… Okay so this is funny because actually, the other night I was listening to, well, I mean I wouldn’t normally care that you were listening to Neil Young—” He could hear more of the abrasive music now. “But you’re not! So I don’t—”
“It’s Two Days Til Your Tombstone.”
“Oh! Yeah,” said Sean knowingly, like she had just asked if he was wearing clothes or if his body took food he ate and converted it into energy. He pushed up his glasses. “Wait, that’s the name of the band?”
She had removed her headphones. “That’s what you asked, right?”
“Yes, I did,” said Sean.
“You said the bus isn’t coming?”
“It’s either really close or not coming.” He shifted his guitar from one side to the other and ran his hand over his beard. “So not cool. I’m gonna be late for band practice.” She gave him a tight smile and began scrolling through her iPod with her fingerless gloves. “I’m sort of the frontman, not sure what they can do without me right now.”
“It’s here,” the girl said.
“Hm?” said Sean, leaning in.
“The bus.”
He turned to see the 55 plowing over the white horizon in a wake of slushy refuse. “Right. Cool. Yeah.” He pulled out his phone. nm. on my way.

It was 2:50 when he walked up to Lito’s house. A birdbath filled with snow stood nearby, its bowl pockmarked with cigarette butts. Three empty PBR cans lay half-

65  ·    ·  

interred near the front steps.
He tried the door, but the wet brass knob twisted uselessly, making a whiny, tactile squeak. “Hey!” Sean looked up to see Lito’s tapping at a window. “Sean! Try the back.”
Inside it was warm and smelled like weed. Sean left his shoes in a pile of boots by the door and put his coat and guitar by a closet. He could still smell the wet metal of the doorknob on his hand. Five guys sat around a huge television playing Call of Duty. Sean recognized a few of them, he thought, although they looked like a lot of people. They were tall and trim, wore moustaches and North Face. He imagined they drove Jeeps and had girlfriends with names like Dakota and Taryn. An elegant, blown-glass bong sat on the table.
Lito glanced over at him. “Hey man. Sorry, a bunch of guys had work off today. We’re getting a late start with practice.”
“No worries,” said Sean, crossing his arms and leaning on his right foot, then switching to his left. The men twitched and angled in front of the television. Sean wanted to comment on the game, but didn’t know which trajectory to follow on the split screen.
His pocket buzzed. Valerie. Hey. Thanks for letting me crash! Busy tonight, have a good band thing :)
no worries, he typed. some other time :) Now he had time to finish her mix CD. He kept his phone out for a bit but she didn’t text back.
“Ah fuckshit,” said Lito. “I got shot. You want a turn, Sean?”
Sean said sure, though he now wished the 55 had never shown up, that he was still on the curb with Two Days Til Your Tombstone.
“Are we playing co-op?” Sean asked, mimicking what he had overheard Jason say a few times.
“It’s online.”
“Cool,” said Sean. “Cool cool.”
Sean’s camo-clad figure moved at an uncomfortably quick clip through a

66  ·    ·  

cement structure, feeling a sense of command and ineptitude at once. A figure appeared to his right. Sean shifted his sights, aimed, and fired something.
“Dude, what the fuck?” said one of the guys.
“Oh shit, sorry,” said Sean. “Did I get you killed?”
“No,” said Chris, the casualty. “You got both of us killed because you threw a grenade.” Sean stared at the screen, now turning crimson. He pressed on the buttons on his controller just to hear them click.
“I don’t think the two of us can hold them off,” said another guy. Lito exhaled a cloud of smoke “We should probably get started anyway. Ready to play yet?”
Sean checked his phone again as the Rocky IV extricated their lanky frames from the couch and descended to the basement. No new messages. Maybe he hadn’t actually sent the last one? He clicked to his outbox. Okay, he had.
The basement was freezing. Chris settled behind the drum kit.
“What do you want to play, boss?” asked Lito.
“Uh… Well, I mean, I only know—I mean, what do you want to play?” They ran through some Rocky IV songs, Sean successfully coasting through the ones he didn’t know the words to.
After a few songs Lito said, “Well you definitely don’t sound like Charles, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.” It felt good to be part of something again, to feel everything swell up around him, even if he tripped up a few times and his fingers felt a little wooden in the cold. Even if they were opening for Antler Spray.
“Okay, one thing we’ve been making people do,” said Lito, “is show some stuff you’ve been working on that you think maybe we could all play.”
“Sure, sure sure,” said Sean. “Yeah, I uh, I do actually have something. It’s uh,” Sean quickly fingered the frets. “C major 7… B minor 7… then uh… D.” He started at a slow tempo, finger-picking the song he hadn’t shaken for two days. “Oh—hold on actually.” Sean stopped and pulled out a glass slide. Its sound on the guitar seemed to cement what he had been going for, and after a

67  ·    ·  

few stanzas he looked up, almost surprised at himself.
Lito began a bass line beneath it and Chris eventually surrendered a simple beat. The confluence of sound spread a warmth he hadn’t felt in a long time through his body. It carried him somewhere and a melody came to him that he hummed lightly, just off the mic. He closed his eyes and heard his song for the first time.
Lito seemed pleased. “Nice, man. How do you guys feel about it?” The keyboardist shrugged assent.
“Yeah, it’s cool,” said Chris. “Reminds of that one song—”
Sean interrupted. “Well actually I—I mean. Nate didn’t even—this is what it was supposed to be.” Sean stopped talking because he felt his voice tremor.
It was quiet for a second. “No I mean, it sounds like that one song. You know, Duh nuh nuh nuh lotta-love!” Chris sang flatly. “Same chords, right?”
Sean turned to face the drum kit. He thought he felt his phone buzz in his pocket but he left it.
“You guys know what I’m talking about, right? Unhhuh unhhuh lotta love… to get me through dun-uh. Who was that, Clapton?”
“Neil Young,” said Sean. “It was Neil Young.” He ran through the chords on his guitar slow and deliberately, the slide squeaky but clear. “You’re right,” he said, still staring at his fingers on the fret board, disappointed in their betrayal. He slipped the slide off.
Chris held out his drumsticks like he was shrugging. “I mean, maybe your song changes? I don’t know.”
Sean turned the volume down on his guitar but kept playing, humming something over the tinny sound of the strings. Then he stopped. “I don’t know if it does.”
Lito broke the silence. “I like that song, wanna make a go at it?”
Sean looked up, realizing where he was. “Yeah. You know, I actually have a shift at five… that I need to make. And it’ll probably take forever getting over

68  ·    ·  

there… I better—I really appreciate you guys having me over. Good luck with auditions.”
Outside Sean studied the bright, cold landscape in front of him. The small houses, the bicycles left locked to stop signs, the dog turds on the sidewalk—they all sat where they had been two days ago, only now they were enveloped indifferently by a soft three-inch layer of snow. He stood there until he heard a muffled drum beat come from the house he had just left, the real band practice starting, the sound swallowed up by the snow. Sean walked over to one of the snow-covered cars in the street and put his hand on the white-coated roof, pushing through the icy crust to the fluffy snow below. He left it there until it began to hurt.

Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. The former editor-in-chief of Bitch magazine, she has been published in UTNE Reader and Bear Deluxe, among others. She currently teaches at Portland State University.

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The Monolith
Eric Wagner

Some time ago, while visiting my parents in Oregon, I was leafing through their local newspaper and came to the obituaries. I’m not old enough yet to make a habit of reading obituaries, so I was about to move on when I saw one for Betty Phillips, my childhood piano teacher. She had passed away a month before in some small Maryland town, where I heard she had moved to be closer to her daughter. The news of her death had taken some time, apparently, to make its way across the country to this coast. She had been 87.
Stirred by an unexpected melancholy—it has been almost 20 years since I played the piano with any seriousness—I sat down to read. The story began, “People who knew Betty Jane Phillips talk about her as a force of nature.”
I started taking piano lessons when I was eight years old. Like a vast majority of youthful musical conscripts, my relationship with the piano vacillated between indifferent and resentful. I had some talent but not a lot, and in any case I struggled with the rigors of consistent application. Each day I could be made to practice for precisely one half hour, muddling through scales and butchering lite ditties that were the supposed gateway drugs to more complicated works. Then the egg timer would ding! and I would bolt. During weekly lessons, a pack of similarly indifferent and/or resentful kids and I banged away at the upright pianos in Betty’s studio for an hour or so until she sent us home.
The years passed and the other kids drifted away, drawn to the more conventional pastimes of rural life in coastal Oregon—football, hunting, fishing, whatever. I, on the other hand, kept taking lessons. This was due more to spiritual inertia than any great love for music. My most significant artistic

70  ·    ·  

achievement was to perform a simplified version of the theme from Chariots of Fire for my high school concert band, but otherwise I remained defiantly unmotivated, refusing to devote even a second more than the daily half hour. Still, by the time I was 16, I was Betty’s most senior student, and in grudging acknowledgement of mutual longsuffering, she gave me a ticket to see the pianist Andre Watts in recital.
I had never been to a live piano recital. I would perform in Betty’s annual student concerts, but for those I simply had to sit in front of 20 some parents, blunder my way through a Bach two- or three-part invention, and look forward to a blessedly piano-free summer. It never occurred to me that, alone, someone might play the piano in front of thousands of people for almost two hours; much less that anyone would pay to sit through such an event. But the ticket was expensive, so on the appointed night my father drove me into Portland and dropped me off in front of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Only after I’d gone inside the hall and found my seat did I begin to appreciate the full measure of Betty’s generosity. My vantage was excellent, the seat about a third of the way back from the stage, slightly left of center in the orchestra section. I could see the keys of the massive concert grand, the shadows between them. Then the lights dimmed.
Andre Watts entered stage left. He was short but powerfully built, and after an almost perfunctory bow, he advanced on the piano as if he were about to fight it. When he sat at the bench his shoulders strained against the seams of his tuxedo jacket. He leaned forward, took a quick gathering breath, and raised his hands to begin the first piece, a rondo by Mozart. It was a welcoming introduction, glittering and impish. Watts had beautiful hands, with long, slender fingers. He danced across the keys, caressed them. Sometimes he appeared to be dusting off the keyboard, so light was his touch.
The Mozart ended, and then there was another piece, and another. Feeling heavy about the eyelids, I checked the program. The piece closing the first half

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was to be Beethoven’s Sonata in f-minor, Op. 57, better known as the Appassionata.
The atmosphere in the hall became somehow heavier and more severe. Watts arranged himself, glowered at the piano, and began: a slow, descending arpeggio, deep and ominous. The figure repeated, and again, this time with what the program notes called the “fate motif,” which Watts played with such menace that I shivered. Then in the highest registers, minor thirds struck sharply—cracks of lightning—and Watts’s hands tumbled down in a series of broken diminished chords. The first theme returned in powerful dense chords with quieter lines interspersed, whipsawing my ear this way and that, which led to a repeating E-flat in the left hand that beat like a nervous heart as Watts’s right hand leapt fretfully about. At last, in seeming summation, the principal theme returned in warm, reassuring octaves. But then the second theme burst out in a fury of sixteenth notes and the harmonies came in waves, towering up, crashing down, building, towering, crashing once more.
Watts played as if on fire. In the earlier pieces, he sometimes hummed with the music or smiled at the piano, his eyebrows dancing. Now he snarled, tossed his head, snapped his jaws. It was the most visceral art I had ever seen, and I sat, enraptured, as he brought the first movement to its end with a sequence of keening arpeggios that rocketed up and down the keyboard. Then the low growl of the first theme once more, and then silence.
Often, when a movement ends, the hall becomes a chorus of coughing and sneezing, as concertgoers give release to whatever bodily functions they have repressed for the sake of the performer. When Watts finished the first movement everyone was silent. He took a moment to compose himself before starting the second movement, a gentle theme-and-variations. This began with a quiet hymn in D-flat major, which was then syncopated, fragmented, embellished and quickened, the voices switching between the hands in seamless exchange. Where the first movement was wrath, this one was grace, but whatever reprieve it

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allowed was unsettled by a dark lurking energy, which roared out in the third movement that followed without pause. More than the first movement, this one was an exercise in fluid, almost frenetic pace. Watts swayed as he played, gyrating around some axis on the piano bench. His hands shot across the keys like frantic spiders. The sound grew and grew, filled all space, as the movement built to its climax: the coda.
Watts attacked it, stomping as the sonata crashed to a close. The final arpeggios cascaded down, and in a state of seeming savagery he pounded out the last chords, which blasted through the hall. So concluded, he slumped over. We stared at him, then erupted. Watts hauled himself up, bowed once, twice, thrice, and exited. We stayed for minutes more, clapping in unison—clap!-clap!-clap!-clap! The stage door closed and the lights came up. Still we stood, howling for him.
When it was time for my lesson the following week, I marched into Betty’s studio and told her I wanted to learn that piece, the Appassionata, and also that I wanted to become the best pianist in the world. She smiled and said that it was probably too late for that. When I refused to be turned away, swearing up and down that I was prepared to do whatever it would take, she gave me a book of Hanon scale exercises and told me that was as good a place to start as any.
I went home and practiced for three hours without a break, running my hands up and down the keyboard until my knuckles bulged and my fingers felt like they were made of hard rubber. Even then I willed myself to go an hour more, Betty’s parting words rattling in my mind. She had told me that I had to decide whether I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond, or a little fish in the sea.
Betty knew the sea and its meanings were important to me. I grew up half an hour from the Pacific, and had just started working for a local environmental

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group called the Haystack Rock Awareness Program in Cannon Beach. Haystack Rock is a coastal monolith more than 235 feet tall, made of volcanic basalts that are at least 10 million years old. Nearly every calendar that has anything to do with the Oregon coast features a picture of Haystack Rock somewhere, usually backlit by a glowing sunset.
As with most things having to do with natural history, the job was not glamorous. Every time a morning tide was sufficiently low—usually distressingly early—I would put on my monogrammed red anorak and drive from Astoria to the Cannon Beach City Hall. From there, my colleagues and I, a crew of three or four citizen-naturalists, would fetch a rusty municipal pickup and head down to the rock. We put out a few signs and set up a table on sawhorses, on which we laid plastic tubs filled with sand and seawater. Being the youngest of the crew, and thus the sharpest of eye and quickest of hand, I set out with a little net and bucket to collect creatures from the tide pools for display. Peering under algae, hefting barnacle-encrusted rocks, I snatched up an assortment of small shore crabs, sculpin (a type of fish), and sea stars. For the next several hours, we proffered our knowledge to whoever visited our displays, but mostly we patrolled the tide pools, intercepting people as they tried to make off with living souvenirs. We politely explained that removing organisms was illegal, and also whatever they were taking would likely die before they even got home and stink up their car, so, really, what was the point?
Yes: what was the point? For me, that question had other implications. Before the Watts concert, I enjoyed the work at Haystack well enough. I liked being outside, liked the seabirds that nested on the rock, liked all the other little critters. But in the throes of my new musical passions, I grew bitter. Every moment I was on the beach was one I was not at the piano, practicing to make up for all those lost years.
Time could crawl. Sometimes, when the sky was gray and the beach all but deserted, I would sneak off. There was a small passage on one of the large rocks in

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front of Haystack that I could slip through. If no one called after me, I clambered down to a little nook at the base of Haystack proper, concealed from the beach behind subsidiary pillars of rock. The route was treacherous, covered as it was with slick green algae, but the columnar basalts in the nook made a nice chair. I could settle in and watch the waves, losing myself in the white noise of their pleasing and resonant booms. I loved the nook. From the shore it was of course clear that Haystack was huge, but it could also seem oddly formless, like a cardboard cutout of a big rock. When nestled in its side, straining to see its summit, I could better appreciate its enormity.
Some distance from my nook, around the side of the rock, there was a cave. At low tides, those so rare that they occurred only every few years, one could enter it and walk a short way. Years of wave action had excavated the cave into a tunnel, but it curved such that its exit was just beyond view. In this it hinted at larger mysteries. I had heard what was on the other side, on the back of the rock: seals hauling out to bask in the sun, storm petrels bounding among the swells, an ocean unbroken all the way to Japan. But I had never seen this inaccessible world. A previous summer, during one exceptionally low tide, my younger sister and I scrambled as far as we dared until we saw a clammy haze of light. Then a wave hit the tunnel’s seaward side and slopped up to our shins, and it occurred to us just where we were: underneath a massive rock, with the mighty Pacific lying in wait. We shrieked in terror and delight and scampered back.
Perhaps because of this trepidation I was largely content to sit in the nook. It was, of course, flagrantly illegal for me to be there, but I didn’t care. I was an artist, or a burgeoning one. I burned with secret fires.
In the afternoon, once a program at Haystack ended, I would rush home to practice the piano, or to Betty’s studio for a lesson. She lived in a pink rambler in

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a small township between Cannon Beach and Astoria called Lewis and Clark. Her music studio was detached from the house, behind the carport. She had three upright pianos and a small five-foot grand. Little plastic busts of the Great Composers presided atop the pianos—Bach, Schubert, Mozart. The studio windows looked out on fields where her neighbors ran a few cattle. Past them, Young’s River was visible.
Betty was from a small town in northeastern Washington. She was a prodigy, her musical talent apparent early. She started piano lessons when she was six years old. Her first teacher, she told me once, would blindfold her as she played Bach to hone her ear, her touch. During the summer, he locked her in a church to practice for several hours at a time, to keep her focused.
She had moved to Astoria in the early 1980s with her husband, who passed away shortly thereafter. She then opened her piano studio and taught local kids according to the methods of Robert Pace, with whom she’d studied at Columbia University. Weeknights, to earn a little extra money, she played piano at a lounge on the Astoria waterfront. She dazzled the patrons with her perfect pitch, her near total recall of any song she had ever played, and her sight-reading wizardry. When time and circumstance allowed she would perform, as she put it, more seriously. Once I went to hear her play with the community band in the converted church that was Astoria’s performing arts center. She strode out onto the small stage dressed in all black—at nearly six feet tall and in her early 60s, she was an imposing figure—and I watched with some amusement while the musicians struggled to keep up as she thundered through a Rachmaninoff concerto.
Faced with my newfound zeal, Betty told me that if I wanted to take the piano seriously and learn the Appassionata then I would first have to confront the physical limits of expression. Music was as much physiology and biology as artistry, and after years of indolence I was about to ask a lot of my hands. She took mine in hers, which were rough and enormous, and examined the tips of my fingers. “They’re too soft and round,” she said. “They should be flat, broad,

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I redoubled my efforts with the Hanon exercises, playing until my fingers bled.
She suggested we meet earlier, at 6:30 in the morning, when the mind was fresher. As the sun crept over low hills, she told me more about the Beethoven. She did not dwell on his famous deafness, his infatuation with and eventual repudiation of Napoleon, other well-worn anecdotes. She was more interested in the idea of Beethoven as naturalist. Bach had the church, Mozart the court, Chopin the salon, but Beethoven ruled the earth and sky. His were natural affinities. Richard Goode, perhaps his finest living interpreter, had said of his works, “These extraordinary man-made things evoked in me something of the sense of wonder I had felt about animals and natural history.” Just what exactly that meant was unclear to me, but Betty was sure I would figure it out. “You have an earthy technique,” she said. “That’s good. Beethoven is not just about transcendence. Sometimes you have to root around in the dirt.”
A couple of weeks later, after much isolated toil, I brought the first movement of the Appassionata to a lesson and muscled my way through a very un-Watts-like rendition. Wrong notes fell thick and fast, but I felt I had captured something of the essence of the piece. When I finished, I was giddy.
Betty was inscrutable. She told me to start again, and she would stop me should the need for further instruction arise. I nodded, raised my hands, and played the first measure.
“Stop,” she ordered.
I stopped.
“What do you think of when you play this?”
I considered. “I don’t know,” I said. “I guess a big army coming over a hill or something.”
“Really?” she said. “Interesting. When I play it, I think of Death.”
I blanched. Obviously I did not have the proper feeling, or was unwilling

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to test myself against certain metaphysical barriers. I thought for a moment, summoned up whatever capacity for audacious overstatement I had, and said, “When I play I feel like I’m talking to the gods.”
Betty shook her head. “No,” she said. “You aren’t talking to the gods. The gods are talking through you. You are their vessel, their medium.” She paused, searched for words. “You are a priest. And like a priest, if you aren’t careful you mistake your slavery for power. And then you wonder why no one follows you.”
I was silent. Betty had never spoken like this before. Usually she was wry, witty, insouciant. I started to understand there might be something more at stake. We were contending against more powerful forces, while outside the cows chewed their cud.
Spring turned to summer, and I spent more and more time with Betty in her studio. We met three mornings a week, and then I came back in the afternoons to practice on my own. At the piano, I tried to translate my bursting heart and muddled head into something that resembled musical coherence—that tricky calibration of mechanical fastidiousness and emotional release that constitutes mature performance. Slowly, and at times agonizingly, I became more adept at passages that once tormented me. Sometimes I hardly recognized what my hands were doing as my fingers rushed over the keys, following orders that did not seem to come from me. It was mesmerizing, an almost trance-like state, but also unsettling. I felt like I was being visited by a skill that would leave me the moment it detected a hint of conscious awareness, like when you fly in a dream.
The German poet Heinrich Heine wrote that when words leave off, music begins. I was finding this to be true in ways that perhaps even the poet did not intend. Once one no longer needs as much technical guidance—use the fourth finger here, play the arpeggio this way—instruction becomes more abstract.

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Betty’s directions were like koans.
Every note you play must be a complete statement.
You should be able to end the piece on any note.
Listen with your fingers.
Your fingers should be like the roots of a flower, sinking into the keys, always seeking water.
This last one she said she paraphrased from a Maeterlinck essay, which she photocopied for me. My approach to the Appassionata, she felt, might benefit from some scholarship—a little less heart, a little more head. There are unities in music, she said, both within the score and outside it. She implored me not to become one those “piano-eaters” who spent eight hours a day at the piano, who saw music as life itself, rather than as one art among many others, each contributing to a conversation about life. When I looked at her in confusion—was she telling me not to practice as much?—she sent me away. It occurred to me only later that, while she had things I desperately wanted (talent, skill, knowledge), I might also have something she desired (choice, possibility, more years before me than behind).
At home, at Haystack, I devoured essays on Beethoven, on music more generally. To buttress the naturalist theme, Betty gave me Kant. There was precedent, she said. “‘The moral law within us and the starry heavens above us’—Kant!!!” That scribble in one of Beethoven’s notebooks is his only known reference to the philosopher, but it was enough to justify selections from The Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, in search, she said, of the sublime.
I was casually familiar with the idea—awe, terror, inspiring outdoor scenes, things like that. But Kant gave the sublime more of a spiritual hue than earlier philosophers, who had seen it primarily as a response to natural phenomena. He argued that it could not be found in nature alone, but rather in the relationship between nature and the mind. For him the sublime was not the soaring mountain or raging storm. It was the realization that the mind conceiving of the majesty of

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the mountain or the storm was both outside of and in a way superior to them. We see but cannot comprehend the fullness of what we see, and from this incapacity comes reverence. “The mind feels itself set in motion in representation of the sublime in nature,” he wrote. “This movement, especially in its inception, may be compared with a vibration, i.e., with a rapidly alternating repulsion and attraction produced by one and the same Object. The point of excess for the imagination is like an abyss in which it fears to lose itself.”
It was heady stuff. Having something in mind that could never be physically realized? This went to the core of my musical being. At the piano, I tried to interpret passages as one who has lost sight of the base of a monolith before he perceives its summit. Again, I wasn’t entirely successful. The point, Betty said, was not to play an essay into sonata form. Don’t try to recreate what made the piece astounding 200 years ago—make the piece astounding now. Refract its natural vitality through your own prism, creating newer dialogues. Like so: from Beethoven to Kant, from Kant to the rock, from the rock to the shore, to the sea around us, and back to Beethoven.
I augmented my reading with a broader if still literal-leaning eye. “The emotional force of the classical style,” musicologist Charles Rosen wrote, “is clearly bound up with the contrast between dramatic tension and stability.” Analogs of this tension were everywhere. At Haystack, for instance, one of the things we loved to tell people was that life in the rocky intertidal is constrained by two things: competitive prowess below, and the ability to withstand prolonged exposure to the sun above. The strongest competitors occupy the spaces closest to the water; the smaller species make due above them, subsisting on sea spray. Organisms segregate themselves precisely, the boundaries between them maintained by constant pressure and strain. From my nook I saw these clearly demarcated bands of life as the staves of a score—dotted by the occasional quarter note of a sea star—and felt the full heart-swell of interconnected being.
Beethoven’s music, Rosen had written somewhere else, is full of memories

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and predictions. When I read that, I thought he meant the composer’s own memories and predictions. I dug through his published correspondence trying to find what they might have been, but Haystack showed me alternate endings. The waves, the continuous rises and falls of the first movement of the Appassionata that I thrilled to—these were peaks of desperation. I was to feel the frustration of the music attempting to free itself from the tonic key, only to return to it again and again. In the deconstructed silence of the second movement, I heard a bittersweet memory of unrequited longing. The quick third movement, the one that Carl Czerny, Beethoven’s most famous pupil, said should be “only rarely stormy,” I heard as a cool calculus of betrayal.
Another day, I pulled a slim volume from my pocket and read that Beethoven’s secretary, Anton Schindler, once asked the man himself the meaning of the Appassionata. “Read Shakespeare’s The Tempest,” Beethoven was said to have replied. His answer prompted some apocryphal speculation. Maybe he was joking, or maybe he had never read the play and just liked the way the title sounded. But I thought I understood, for The Tempest, at its heart, is about two people who find themselves marooned on a large rock.
Near the end of the summer, I determined I had gone as far as I could under Betty’s tutelage and would be better served if I had a teacher of greater reputation. To me this seemed a natural progression—an evolution, if you will. I explained all of this to Betty as best I could and discontinued my studies with her. I found a teacher in Portland who had trained many famous pianists. She accepted me as a student, and with assured skill prepared me for the pageantry of conservatory auditions. The following spring I auditioned at several and was admitted to a prestigious music school, one I really had no business getting into. When the dean called to welcome me, I danced around like a fool. I called my new teacher

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and thanked her for all she had done. I called family and friends who had sweated out the wait with me. A month or so later, I ran into Betty at a grocery store and told her my excellent news. She said she was happy for me, although I thought I detected a hint of acidity in her compliment. I thanked her all the same, and then made some excuse and ran out to the parking lot. That was the last time I saw her.
The rest of the year passed as a blur while I prepared for music school. I practiced with a greater serenity now that my promise was externally validated. At the beach, I continued to tell people about the marvels of life in the intertidal, but my mind was usually elsewhere, and I snuck out to my nook when circumstances allowed to commune with those greater forces that were, at last, willing to grant me the audience I deserved.
In August, just before I was to leave for music school, a storm hit the beach during our program. This was not unusual. Oregon beaches are known for being windswept and cold, and even in the height of summer, rain can wash through. We waited until it was clear the storm wasn’t going to let up, and then returned the creatures to their tide pools and took down our tables and signs. The truck packed, my fellow naturalists prepared to leave. But this seemed an auspicious gale, and I held back. “Go ahead,” I told them as we all huddled against the truck. “I’m just parked on the street above.”
I waited until they had driven out of sight, and then I went to my nook. There I stood, breathing in the sea air. The rain was fresh and warm. In a few days I would leave for the landlocked Midwest. Here was my chance to see the parts of Haystack I had always wanted to, but had been denied. The tide was not especially low—it was actually rising—but flush with daring I started past the nook, picking my way along the side of the rock. Each shuffle brought a delicious thrill of fear, but in the lee of the rock I was mostly shielded from the wind and rain, and handholds were easy to find.

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Then I passed onto the backside of the rock and was at last exposed to the sea and the storm. The rain lashed my face and the red anorak was pressed flat against my chest, its loose fabric snapping violently behind me. The wind tore my breath from my nose. My foot slipped on the thick blanket of seaweed and for an instant my toes were immersed in the ocean, not deeply, but enough to give my stomach a hideous lurch. In that moment, I realized just what a terrible idea it had been to try going all the way around the rock. Everything that from the beach side had seemed fragile and small here was brutish and strange—hulking sea stars, enormous mussels, pendulous anemones that hung obscenely from the rocks. Before me the waves tossed and chopped with rebellious force. Cormorants gazed down at me blankly, while above the gulls wheeled and screamed. It was a chaos of sight and smell and sound, a chorus at once mesmerizing and terrifying, this music at the limits.
My head spun. I started to shiver, then convulse. I clung to the rock so tightly that I cut my fingers. Thin tendrils of blood leaked onto the algae. I took a deep breath to gather myself and then retreated. After many anxious moments, I made it back to the nook, and then at last I was safe on the sand. It took me several minutes to catch my breath before I could make my way unsteadily to my car. When I got in and slammed the door, I put my head against the steering wheel and closed my eyes, trying to block out the roar in my ears of waves beating ceaselessly on the rock—the pounding, and the pounding, and the pounding.

Born in Astoria, Oregon, Eric Wagner holds a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Washington for his work on Magellanic penguins in Argentina. A regular contributor to Orion magazine and High Country News, his essays and journalism have also appeared in Audubon, Smithsonian, Slate, and Cosmos, among others. He currently lives in Seattle.

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Splitting the Sun
Gina Williams

In August of 1768, Captain James Cook set off from Europe on a journey commissioned by the Royal Navy to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. “We took our leave of Europe for heaven alone knows how long, perhaps for Ever,” he wrote. Captain Cook caught up with Venus in June of 1769 as her small, dark spot of a shadow split the sun. He recorded the two-day event in Tahiti after an eight-month voyage. Venus wouldn’t be seen slipping across the sun’s face again for more than a hundred years; the planet’s transits are visible from Earth every 120 years, in June or December, in pairs eight years apart. Attempts to record the transit in 1761 had failed.
Almost exactly two hundred years later, on a hot, August night, my father would observe the transit of my mother’s tears as she screamed from labor pains, and I was born, pulled from her womb with a medieval pair of metal forceps by a grimacing, thick-jawed Navy doctor. I was born six weeks early in the Whidbey Island Naval Base hospital, north of Seattle. My mother wasn’t allowed to breastfeed, or even hold me, for weeks—a hospital policy as archaic as those forceps. For many days, I knew only the false warmth of a heated incubator, sugar water feedings, and the cold comfort of round-faced nurses who delivered sponge baths and diaper changes. “That rough moon landing made you tough, made you a fighter,” my dad would later say, as he made shadow wolves howl and shadow rabbits hop on my bedroom wall at night. Did it? Am I?
Twenty-six years after that, on another warm, summer night, the goddess of love would split my heart as I rode on the back of a motorcycle with my boyfriend, the future father of my children. As we rumbled across a freeway bridge over the Columbia River from Oregon back to Washington State, the overhead lights on poles high above the roadway sent our shadows flying ahead of

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us. Our starkly outlined silhouettes whipped by in front of us again and again until we reached the other side, turned the corner, and descended into darkness. You could straddle a cycle right now, wait until sunset, and experience those leaping shadows on that same bridge. It might take your breath away. It might do nothing at all. But, for me, the surreal phenomena of watching ourselves repeatedly zoom away as our shadows were ripped by momentum and optics from our booted heels, flying away together into the night, made me cry with an inexplicable feeling of loss and longing. Maybe I somehow knew, even then, long before trying to make anything “work,” that our fleeing shadows represented the impossible dreams that would leave us. Maybe I understood that shadows never lie, that shadow people never abandon one another, never pound their fists onto the kitchen counter in fits of marital rage, could never hurt a child.
The motorcycle was sold, eventually. It’s been a long time since I choked back tears on the back of a Honda, lifted that plastic facemask a crack to get a gulp of fresh air, just enough to stop myself from reaching out as my outlined existence raced by, from making a futile attempt to grab hold of a ghost. Thankfully, my shadow did return, if reluctantly, and I keep it close by now, most of the time. It occasionally slips toward the moonlit windowsill and hovers there while I lie dreaming, but it doesn’t get away for long. It makes just enough of a rustling noise, like fallen leaves blowing in the street to wake me. On those midnights, I sneak toward it stealthily and grab hold, keep it still while I stitch it, Peter Pan style, with a heavy steel needle and sturdy cotton thread, back onto my small, bare, twitching feet.
The word “photography” is derived from the Greek words for light and writing or drawing. To write with light is an attempt, I suppose, to net the soul of this life and the invisible fibers of our existence with shadows and illumination. Sometimes at night, I go for runs and walks alone in the city, looking for shadows to net with the camera obscura in my mind, indulging in the surreal, loosened world of lengthened light, double vision, and stretched reality. Chinese

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philosopher Mo Di knew of the camera obscura effect back in the fifth century B.C. He understood that light entering a pinhole could project an inverted image into a darkened room. He called it the “collecting place” and his “locked treasure room.” I can escape there, in that collecting place, hiding inside of my own umbra, my total eclipse, even when it’s nothing but the visual trick made by sodium lights dangling from poles in lieu of dark planets and blazing suns. Perhaps it is because my consciousness began in that shadowy realm, that I enjoy retreating deeply inside of it now and then.
The mission of Cook’s dangerous and risky voyage to view that speck of a planet shadow against the sun was to measure the size of the solar system, a cosmic question as important then as black holes and quantum physics are today. As early as 1716, astronomer Edmund Halley understood that Venus held a clue to the size of the solar system because the start and stop times of the transit, when recorded from different points on earth, could be used to measure by way of parallax or scale.
In spite of Cook’s observations of Venus and the measurements made by others positioned across the globe in 1769, the exact size of the solar system still wasn’t known; the fuzziness of Venus’ atmosphere and the “black-drop effect,” which caused the edge of the planet to appear to smear against the sun, made precise measurements difficult. Place your thumb and index finger near one eye and pinch them together. Just before they touch, you’ll see the black-drop effect as a shadow bridge leaps between your fingers. It wasn’t until Venus returned in 1874 and 1882 that photographers were able to accurately measure the transit, and the size of the solar system was finally ascertained.
In 2004 and 2012, I observed the transits of Venus on my television set and computer screen as images gathered by high-powered telescopes were broadcast via satellite. The goddess planet of love and beauty won’t dot the sun again until 2125. I’ll be a particle of dust by then, a whisper, a wink, my ashes strewn across the desert by howling winds. Thinking about the great explorers

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like Cook and our own astronauts, I wonder what I’d do, what I’d risk, to seek and find answers among the shadows, from the shadows. Maybe I’m tough, willing to fight and endure for some things. But I’m not brave, am I? If given the chance to see a new world, would I walk that plank? What voyage am I on right now that may reveal itself with answered questions long after I’m gone, like Halley, Cook, and Mo Di?
Yesterday, on an early morning, late summer stroll, my shadow stretched out in front of me on the sidewalk. I punched at it, jabbed at myself, did a few high kicks. My short legs doubled into long and stately shadow limbs in the rising sun. My edges appeared gilded. My shadow torso stretched into willowy elegance. My shadow hair flipped into an instant perfect style in the breeze. Then, I turned sideways in the soft morning light and disappeared into myself. For a moment, I hovered there and didn’t really want to return.

Gina Williams is a Pacific Northwest native originally from Whidbey Island, Washington. Her writing and visual art have been featured by Okey-Panky, Carve, The Boiler Journal, Kudzu House, The Sun, Fugue, and tNY Press, among others. Over the years, she has worked as a firefighter, reporter, housekeeper, caregiver, veterinarian’s assistant, tree planter, gas station attendant, technical writer, cocktail waitress, and berry picker, and earned a master’s in Communications from the University of Oregon.

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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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