Archive | January, 2003

Snohomish County Courthouse The Snohomish

Snohomish County Courthouse

The Snohomish County courthouse was built in the late 1950s. I’m guessing. It looks like it came from the same manufacture as the Pacific Science Center, built for the World’s Fair in Seattle in 1962. To say architect is along the same lines as complimenting the chef at Denney’s. Although the waiters at Denney’s invariably ask, “How was your food?” I mumble back because, well, it’s food at Denney’s; my wife, however, will cheerfully exclaim, “Give my compliments to the chef!” because this sends them scurrying away to refill her ice tea. The courthouse had a plastic mould quality. White pebble conglomerate pieces had been assembled like a hastily and somewhat glue intoxicated toy store kit construction. Everything seemed period, that is, it seemed like it had just come out of its cellophane wrapped box and had been left to sit — used by the various civil servants and citizens involved in legal proceedings — but not modified in any substantial way except for the wear of forty years of lawyers, policemen, jurors, clerks, entering the place. The landscaped trees had grown out of their planters and cracked the cement. The daffodils had died and rotted and turned to mold. The mold had dried out, and blown away leaving behind the oxide casing of the flower cups around the central sculpture that looked the same as everything else, as if it too had come out of a cardboard box with plastic wrapping and been airplane-glued to the base. There was a plaque honoring the valiant men who died overseas. The statues were melted bronze monstrosities that repudiate everything else about the courthouse. One appeared as if his torso had been stolen, and the rest recovered from a cow field ditch. He’d been re-welded to his legs. He had long, slender legs, leaving a gapping cleft between his legs, and then a chest starting at his breasts and his arms drooped like melting cheese. One of these slender arms draped out and connected him to the other figure. A woman, overweight and wearing jogging pants and a sweatshirt sat with her daughter or granddaughter on one of the benches, and she watched me as I circled the statues. The benches were two pieces, an angular jutting of preformed conglomerate material and a long, hexagonal bench. A seagull squawked from the roof. His beak flashed over the tall face of diamond shaped windows, each window edged with jet age chrome and bisected with an almost churchlike (or maybe jet plane icon) of chrome. The grandmother, or maybe mother, I couldn’t really tell her age, really, glanced up at the gull and then turned to look to where it was calling, down the hill, to the ripped up street where backhoes installed cabling for the new Everett hockey stadium, to the vast, air between the city and the blue foothills, swamp, river, and nothing.

Abandoned Vacation Cabin

Under the stand of Douglas fir, the cabin rotted. The owners hadn’t driven out to the place in ten years, or if they had, they weren’t able to do anything about the state of the house. They didn’t sell it for one thing. They didn’t even take the dishes out of the cupboard. They kept the place even though the roof had collapsed on the southwest side. The rest of the building still, technically, stood. The majority of the interior was damp, but not wet enough that the tacked up Life magazine covers hadn’t foxed. It was only a matter now of a couple of years, another season even, before the bracken ferns now growing in the raw, red earth spread across the floor, and moss began to creep down the walls. The two bedroom packed with box springs, blue quilt sleeping bags with checkered linings, matching art deco dressers, and a lamp with cowboys and raw hide trimmings didn’t look damp at all, and the only sign they hadn’t been used was the layer of brown, furry dust the covered everything and the cloud of cobwebs floating against the ceiling. The light switch didn’t switch. It wasn’t a switch, but a thick plastic button that clicked off with a direct hit against the surface. The button marked on popped out. The light came through the windows coated with webs and stray cedar tree needles. The light filtered down through the Douglas fir boughs and the maple tree branches and then finally through the hole in the roof, this light didn’t change at all when I hit the on button. The blue glass phone terminal sat on a pole visible from the kitchen. Cedar boughs curved in through the hole, leaving behind long, fuzzy strings of cones. A streamlined white enamel stove sunk in one kitchen corner, with oven door still open, revealing a rack with long burned, long molded, long dried up and fossilized baked things. Everything still lay stacked in the cupboards, plates with pale blue streaks on them and coffee mugs with matching saucers. The drinking glasses, short, and modestly sized, diner glasses, really. From the center of the room, I could hear the river slosh and drag gravel along the bank. Birds relayed twirls and chirps up and down the forest. The ferns around the house draped against my legs, leaving the thighs of my jeans wet. I came out into the soggy, grassy yard, now a tangle of short salmonberry bushes and looked across the river at the neatly manicured lawn of the neighbor there. A man sat on his desk drinking a cup of steaming coffee and reading his newspaper. His cell phone rang and he leaned down to pick it up. I couldn’t hear his voice, just the sudden cut off of the beep beep beep. It was just the sound of the birds again and the river and the wind knocking water loose from the branches and the drops fell down each drip making a slight tic as it met leafs, and fronds, and stones.

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Death by Gluttony My grandfather

Death by Gluttony

My grandfather ate himself death. He didn’t drink or smoke cigarettes in his old age, although he may have done these things years before I was born. He was a crew cut, Pacific Northwestern man who spent his vacations living out of the back of a camper strapped to the back of his Ford truck parked in the Okanogan highlands. He managed to think he was living a pure, manly existence as a big game hunter, and follower of the lifestyle portrayed in sixties era men’s magazines. A cool, athletic intellectual, he was a man alone with the wilderness, his literature, his green cardigan, and his tortoise shell pipe.

In the autumn, he often stopped at our house in Snoqualmie and dropped off hunks of white packaged venison.

During the year, my grandfather lived in a tiny studio apartment just below the S curves on 405 in Renton, at the edge of the hill where the Cedar River spills out of the Maple Valley, where dead salmon accumulate in the fall. The odor of rotting fish mingles with the burnt rubber drifting down from 405.

The tiny studio apartment sat below gigantic highway department pylons. From my grandfather’s front porch, we sometimes watched the tops of the trucks and busses pass around the sharp turn. He had packed his studio with the accumulated hoard of his lifestyle. He labeled and organized his cartons of treasure. He stacked the boxes six high except for the narrow gap where he passed back to his bed under a decades old gas station calendar. The boxes contained fountain pens, National Geographic, Playboys, bowie knives, and munitions.

He killed himself with Keebler pecan sandies and Pizza Hut sausage pizza.

Aside from the incongruous image of my grandfather as the great white hunter saddled with stacks of extra bellies, the other image I have of him is sitting under the draped window of a Pizza Hut at his favorite franchise in the Renton Highlands. He preferred this one over the somewhat dingier one at the foot of Rainer Avenue at the base of Skyway, a rough neighborhood lost between South Center Mall and Seattle. High school girls staffed his Pizza Hut. We sat at the table with a candle burning in the knobby red globe glass, waiting for the sausage pizzas to arrive.

Do I have to describe a sausage pizza from Pizza Hut in the early 1980s? It is different from the pizza that they serve today — different sounding as if it better. The differences are differences in the industry. My grandfather’s Pizza Hut pizza remained essentially pizza. It was clearly something a cook had prepared in the kitchen. It had a dough crust, a layer of tomatoes sauce, topped with waxy cheeses and masticated meat product. The smell of the cooks preparing pizza filled the franchise. Today’s Pizza Hut Pizza is assembled in the kitchen, heated, and put into the clearly labeled and branded box. It arrives not so much as mere pizza, but as an expression of the Pizza Hut brand. My grandfather would still have consumed this pizza to his death because he wasn’t just eating a pizza — although the quick flush of sugary red sauce and pizza dough under melted fat and peppered with savory hunks of unidentifiable meat — this is what he ate but he ate something else, too, and I’m unsure what this was, why he returned to this building and listened to this jukebox and over tipped those girls.
My grandfather’s decline entailed repeated stints to the hospital where they would proscribe mandatory diets; and then his sneaking off to his Pizza Hut. His kidney’s gradually failed. He ordered my mother to provide her children’s kidneys (that is, MY kidney) and then finally this hunger, this urgent requirement for Pizza Hut finally ate his internal organs, and this resulted in his death.

The same thing was happening to the city of Renton at the time. My grandfather would not recognize the place where he had lived for the majority of his adult life. When he lived there, the downtown core along the Cedar River operated lunch counters with the town’s businessmen seated eating Reuben’s and egg salad, their jackets hanging from the coat rack, a JC Penney’s where they bought their kids’ school clothes, and an active movie house showing first run movies where they brought their families on Saturdays. None of these things remain. As the city died, it reshuffled itself, first around a long-lived shopping center (that predated South Center Mall) and most recently around a light rail station. The final marker, I think, that the city has passed along is that it sold off the name of local parade, Renton River Days (the shrill civic mindedness of this itself an indication of a terminal illness) to Ikea and this is now the Ikea River Days Parade.

The growth and change of American towns is a common enough theme. Rip Van Winkle comes down from twenty years asleep in the forest to a town that had grown beyond recognition. But Rip Van Winkle gradually recognizes the old town through the layer of growth. But what has happened to Renton isn’t growth; it is replacement. If my grandfather came back twenty years after his death, he wouldn’t find that Renton had grown beyond recognition, but there was a complete absence of the city that stood during his lifetime. This is death, then, the complete absence of what there was before. The body that operated in life is buried, decays, and is scattered.

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The Christmas Tree is Broken

The Christmas Tree is Broken

I went walking with Riley last weekend. We walked around the block. She stops when we leave the house to inspect the plants. She has on white shoes, the model of shoes that she wore during her first year of life, but she hasn’t worn these shoes through the summer and in the fall she got a new pair of dark blue shoes, and she generally wears these but we left them at our friends house after New Year’s. She wears her white shoes outside. We live in a duplex, on the bottom floor, next to a street named Ruffner and an alley. The alley travels behind peoples’ houses. In the last couple of years the large backyards, once filled with old orchards of twisted fruit trees with gray branches and yellow leaves for most of the year, except for the profusion, suddenly in the autumn, of pears and apples. The apples sat on the tree this year until a November rainstorm knocked them down. They were bright yellow with thick brown bruises against the faintly blue sky and the gray tangle of brittle stick branches. A row of new duplexes has gradually moved over the orchards and stands of cedar trees. We live in one of these. Construction trucks drive up and down the alley. They have left deep ruts that fill with rainwater. A stream trickles. And Riley unaware that anything in the world has changed because her presence in the world is as much a part of this change as the ruts and the overgrown density of buildings, stops to admire the brilliant red tomatoes on the long dead tomatoes plant. She stops to pick up a stick. And then she picks up another stick, and says, “Here, carry this for me,” and hands it to me. She stoops over the stream and riles the water with her stick. We pass Christmas trees that have been set out. “Look,” she says. She stops in front of a Christmas tree. “The Christmas tree is broken.” She looks up at me as she makes a preliminary stomp into the shallow edge of a deep pool. “Do you want to go back to the house and get your lady bug rain boots? You can splash in the mud puddles if you have them.” “No,” she says, and then stomps into the pool anyway, and I pull her up. “I want to splash,’ she says. I explain about the boots again, and she says, finally, “Okay.” A woman passes us, and she says she passed some children making mud pies. We come to the blocked storm drain, clogged with leaves. I show Riley what happens when the leaves are cleared, making a pile of mud and leaves on one side of the drain with my bare hands. Riley and I dig our fingers into the muck to make a channel. “It’s cold,’ she says. And we pull our hands up, covered in old leaves and grains of gravel. “Dirty,” she says. I think at that moment that I should make sure she doesn’t put her hands in her mouth — although she doesn’t do this much anymore. The water slips down the channel we’ve made. We watch the pools sink to puddles, and then a little rivulet trickles down the middle of the alley. My daugther is calibrating the Christmas trees, the movement of water, the feel of one stick and another in her hands; these are things and objects in the world as she is an object in the world. She knows more than she knows because of the odd connection of one word to the next, but her fluency in the world is gained through her fluency in the word, this tying down of word to thing and thing to word.

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