WALH Archives

Each month we will be adding a new We All Lived Here piece, and archiving past work here. These pieces will be considered for a print anthology, which we will potentially publish in the spring of 2018. We hope you enjoy these glimpses into life in Spokane.

 


 

Sarah Hauge is a 2010 graduate who earned her MFA in nonfiction. She contributes to publications such as Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living, Out There Monthly, Field and Compass, and others, and also works as an editor. She lives in Spokane with her husband and two daughters.

Landmarks

He walked with purpose, and he walked a lot. Or so I assumed, because several times a week while out for a run I would see him, striding down the sidewalk on what I imagined was his daily stroll, ruddy-cheeked, white hair bouncing with the footfalls of his sneakers, and always, always wearing the thing that had drawn my attention in the first place: a neon nylon windbreaker, 1990s-style, vibrant with fluorescent greens and pinks and oranges. It was not a common fashion choice for a man in his 60s in an upper middle class neighborhood, and because of this, it made me really, really happy.

Each time I saw him it somehow made me feel like I was in the right place, even though we never spoke. This man became one of my personal Spokane landmarks. That doesn’t technically refer to people, but when I say landmark, I simply mean the things I’ve noticed that make this city feel like it belongs to me, and I to it—the beautiful, the unexpected, the strange. When I moved here 12 years ago, a transplant from western Washington where I had lived my entire life previously, my landmark list was blank. Like any other transplant, after the move I felt lost, uprooted, a little fragile. My then-new husband was the only person I knew well and I missed my friends and family, the vast water of the Puget Sound, even the way each western Washington hub shares close quarters with the next, big cities shouldering against smaller cities shouldering against suburbs. By comparison, my eastern Washington home had what first felt like a paltry trickle of water and seemed land-locked and isolated. I also had a new job, a dull, unfulfilling 8-to-5 in a windowless basement. I found myself with lots of restless energy, which I channeled into running. I’d started jogging a couple of years earlier in a consistent but casual way. Now I became a disciplined, many-times-a-week runner.

Of course, I got lost a lot—my sense of direction has always been terrible. My first couple of weeks here I’d get turned around, pretty sure I was within a half mile of my apartment but, to my great embarrassment, clueless whether I needed to head east or west to get back home. Running on my lunch break at work, I’d get mixed up about which of the footbridges to take across the park to return to my office downtown, finally hurrying back to my desk sweaty and breathless. But, I kept running and slowly I found my way. I discovered routes I liked: early morning jogs through sleepy neighborhoods, past overgrown gardens and empty basketball courts; lunchtime runs along the water, where I’d pass by marmots snuffling along the river banks near the university; weekend loops through lush green parks, down a series of bluff trails, and back home.

As time passed I got to know the weather: four official, distinctive seasons that I appreciated after the consistent mild temps and trademark rain of the Seattle area. Running past, I’d make mental note of the day the duck pond froze over in the winter; on frigid mornings I also experienced the strange new sensation of frozen nose hairs (something I’ve written about before and will never get over). At the dreary tail end of winter I’d notice, with joy that surprised me, the delicate, climbing perennials starting to blossom on the rockery in one of my favorite parks, followed weeks later by the yellow wildflowers that bloomed along the bluff. In the summer, those hot, dry days that smelled like a dusty campground, I discovered that even a 6 a.m. run left me with bright red cheeks, my skin dripping with sweat. The seasons cycled on and on, and other things changed. I switched jobs, made friends, went back to school, had a baby, and then another. I kept running.

My mental list of landmarks is now quite long: the gorgeous parks, the river (which I now love), the way the seasons feel, the shortcuts and neighborhood side streets I’ve taken dozens of times. And then there are the quirks, the things that—though I realize this is not actually true—make it seem like the city somehow gets me. Such as windbreaker man, whose repeat appearances have given me a strange sense of comfort as I’ve pondered his backstory. (Jacket worn ironically, or continuously for the past few decades? Hopefully the latter.) Similarly, the pirate boy: a little kid I often see out with his parents and younger sister by the playground or coffee shop in my neighborhood, garbed in full swashbuckler gear, eye patch on and plastic sword in hand. Or, the decorative stone dogs on the front porch of one of the stately old homes in a historic neighborhood that overlooks the city skyline, whose owners accessorize them for holidays and special occasions—witches’ hats near Halloween, runners’ singlets around the Bloomsday road race, a parade of costumes that always catch me off guard, each a tiny, welcome surprise. Who are the people who dress these dogs, I’ve wondered. Where do they keep the off-season costumes? In boxes stacked neatly in the attic marked “Mardi Gras Beads” and “Leprechaun Beards”?

I’ve never learned the answer, but that’s not the point. It still feels like a private joke for anyone who finds their way down that particular side street and happens to notice. They go on the landmark list with all the rest, windbreakers and wildflowers, worn old bridges and unmarked trails, all these details accumulating, adding up to what feels like intimacy with the place I now call home.


 


Spokanites will surely recognize the setting (and maybe even the robot) in this WALH submission by Brandon Getz, though maybe not for long! Riverfront Park is getting a facelift; learn more about those plans here, and learn more about author Brandon Getz on his website, and on our alumni bios page. This story was originally published in The Delmarva Review.

 

Robot on a Park Bench

1

The robot’s knees had rusted in the autumn rains.  He lifted each leg, exercising the oxidation out of the joints.  According to his barometric sensors, there would be precipitation within the hour.  More complications for his joints.  A silicon frame, like the one the facility gave to newer models, might have been preferable: lightweight and unrustable.  But everything has its flaws.  In any case, he hadn’t been given the choice.

As he walked through the park, his square, heavy feet sunk into the earth.  Dirt clotted in their ridges of tread, which he would have to dig out later, before re-entering the facility.

A man was sleeping on one of the benches.  The robot couldn’t feel cold—a slowness in his metal body, maybe, but not the chill—though he knew the park was cold.  His temperature gauges read 0.6 centigrade.  Factoring the man’s approximate age, weight, the alcohol content level on his sleeping breath, and the relative thickness of his camouflage blanket, and assuming temperatures and all other variables remained constant (the man did not wake up, no one added a thicker blanket), the robot calculated that the man would be dead in five hours.

With his joints squeaking and grinding as they were, the robot was sure the man would wake, but he only stirred and shifted onto his side, giving himself another fifteen to seventeen minutes, approximately, to live.

By the time he reached the carousel, the robot was tired.  He had been tired, in fact, for a very long time.  Perhaps he had been programmed tired.  There were no recorded dates in his memory banks that were not tinged with some degree of weariness, some exhaustion with the world and his role in it, though what that role was he still did not seem to know.

The carousel’s lights and music were off, and a heavy green tarpaulin had been hung from hooks in its ornamented roof to shelter the wooden animals from winter.  Beyond the carousel, the river trickled toward the Water Power dam, the falls, and, after [Processing…Processing…] 825.06 kilometers of lakes and reservoirs and dams, the ocean.

The robot stomped his treaded feet on the sidewalk but the dirt stuck.  His knees were stiff.  The barometer was dropping.  He settled onto a bench, up the bank from the river, where two small birds wrestled over a lollipop stick.  The birds’ movements were so quick, they seemed incomplete, unfluid, as if from a film that was missing essential frames.      The birds hopped from moment to moment on their lithe, brittle legs, the stick like a thread between them.

#

 

2

When the first snowflake fell on the park, it settled on the robot’s heavy, bolted jaw and froze in place.  By then, the park seemed almost empty: the dying homeless man, an old woman dragging a little flat-faced dog, a jogger in gray sweats with white wires in her ears.  Across the river, two park workers were raking leaves into big black bags.  A young man with a beard walked his bearded dog past them and onto the footbridge.  The bearded man and the bearded dog: somewhere in the banks of the robot’s circuitry played an old television laughtrack.  The two bearded animals turned toward the river, the smaller beast sniffing loose duck feathers on the concrete.  They passed the robot without realizing he was there; he was part of the landscape.

“Please,” the robot said.  “Ask your dog not to urinate on my foot.”

The man nearly jumped out of his skin [Processing…“jumped out of his skin,” an idiom appropriate for the sensation of fright/surprise].  The robot had been integrating the idioms he overheard in the facility, and he prized his ability to use them in context.

“I have problems with rust,” said the robot.  “It is not pleasant.”

“Sorry,” the man said.  He jerked the leash, and the dog, already finished, wiggled off toward a garbage can to sniff.  “I’m sorry about that.  I didn’t see you.”

The robot tilted its skinny bucket head and shook the pee off its leg.  “It’s all right,” the robot said.  Its voice played like a vinyl recording from a speaker in its mouth, and when it spoke, it opened its jaw wide to project the sound.  “I have problems with rust.  There are problems with my joints.  The bolts, you see.”

“Is this a joke?” the man said.

“What is a joke?” the robot said.

“Am I on camera?”

“I’m sorry,” the robot said.  [ProcessingProcessing…]  “That does not correspond with my definition of ‘joke.’”

The man laughed.  The robot’s mouth opened again.  This time, the laughtrack played through its speaker.  The man stopped laughing.  The robot continued for a moment too long, then its jaw slammed shut.

“My data suggests that it is appropriate to express amusement when another is expressing amusement.”

The robot noticed a car pass the park without its headlights on.  It shrunk into the white horizon, its back lights flashing briefly red before it turned a corner, away from the river.  Snow was settling on the robot’s arms and legs.  It fell in spirals over the river and the carousel and the other benches lining the sidewalks.  It was collecting now, thin sheets and clumps of white over the whole park, the city.

“Your data is probably right,” the man said.  “This snow might be a problem too.  For your joints.  It’s really coming down.”

“I like the river,” the robot said.  He picked one snowflake out of the millions and followed its arc into the icy surface of the river.  “Do you watch it much?”

“Do I what?”

“Is this grammar not correct?  My data assures me this verb is correct.”

“No, it’s fine.  I don’t usually go around watching rivers.  It’s cold.”

“Minus zero-point-seven centigrade.”

“Right.”

The robot gestured toward the water.  The articulate fingers and wrist whirred with the working of gears.  “Can you see that?”

“See what?”

“A bird is dying.”

“I don’t see anything.”

#

 

3

The man with the dog asked him where he was from, and was he lost?  The robot wasn’t lost.  He had a GPS uplink in his chest.  The engineers and technicians, if they had use for him, would page his uplink and convey the exact coordinates of the next intelligence test or hardware upgrade or military demonstration.  Increasingly, because of the newer models, the more human-looking prototypes with their moving latex faces and silicon frames, they did not have a use for him.  For now, he was just taking a walk.  He’d been taking walks for months, each one a little further from the facility.  From the satellite maps, he had known a river ran nearby.  A runoff from the mountains, with a big rocky falls at the heart of the city.

He was watching the river now.  The river and the people and the snow: the world with all its moving parts.

“The snow is pleasant.”

“I guess so.”

In the storage room at the facility, two striped cats caught the mice that escaped from the laboratory cages, and when the mice were gone, it was the robot’s job to feed them tuna from cans he held in his palm.  The technicians had named them George and Gracie, though they were both females, the robot discovered, and he had secretly taken to calling the other Georgia.  He liked that, having a secret.  He liked learning that he could keep secrets.

He could feel the snow’s weight now.  The mean temperature of his body had lowered, though the networks of circuit boards throughout his head and abdomen were running at safe temperatures.  He calculated that, if he did not move from the bench, and if all other variables remained constant, his functions would begin to slow in less than two hours.  He didn’t think he would mind.  The river was still moving.  The man and the dog were still there.

As long as he wasn’t asked directly.  That was it.  The technicians and the engineers never asked by what name he called the smaller cat.  He was not compelled to tell them.  They did not ask where he went when he wasn’t in the storage room or why he never associated with the new models.  When they did ask about the rust, he said it had developed from the oxidation process that resulted from the chemical fusion of water and iron.  Technically, that had been a factual response.

The robot calculated that, as long as he was never asked directly, he could keep a secret indefinitely.

“My girlfriend is going to wonder where I am,” the young man said.  “The dog is getting cold.”

“Yes,” the robot said.  “The dog will die in three-point-two hours, if variables remain constant.”

“Right.  I don’t want him to do that.”

“That would be unpleasant.”

The robot leaned forward to pet the bearded dog.  The dog made a sound of fright and bit the robot’s flat steel hand.  This, it seemed, caused the dog more confusion than pain.

“He doesn’t like strangers much.  He’s starting to go blind.”

“If only he could be upgraded.”

“Right,” the man said.  “Don’t stay too long.”

“How long is too long?” the robot said.  It wasn’t a question for the man.

“Long enough to freeze, I guess.  To cause frostbite, or whatever.  Frost-rust.”

“Yes,” the robot agreed.  “That would be too long.”

#

 

4

On the telephone poles outside the park, there were no Missing Robot fliers.  Cars rolled through downtown, churning dirt and gravel through the new snow.  The man and the dog trudged through drifts of white toward home.  Snowflakes continued their analog whirl, falling faintly and faintly falling upon all the living and the digital.

#

 

5

The robot’s sensors noted the darkening of the sky over the park.  They measured spectroscopics and lumenoscopics and the gradual shutdown of the robot’s own secondary functions.  Data relayed from chip to chip, in whatever network of copper and silica comprised the robot’s consciousness.  Now, under thick clumps of wet snow, he did not bother to move his limbs, and anyway, the joints had been frozen for an hour.  He watched the river move until it was too dark to see, or until his optics ceased to operate, he did not know which.  He listened to the water until his aural sensors froze over.  The temperature kept dropping.  He sat on the bench in the darkness of himself and waited for the last of his primary functions to cease, for the moment when he would no longer be aware of moments.

Who would feed Georgia and Gracie?  The little cans of tuna on the floor of the store room: who would open them, if not him?   That had been his job.  A job is a kind of purpose, a reason to exist, however small.  He thought of the cats mewing for their food, licking the juice from the cans off his hand.  And he thought of them without him, ceasing to function, the movement of their breathing stopping quietly in some corner of the lab.

Even cats die alone.  What happens then, that is a secret everything keeps.

Long after he could perceive it, the dark river reflected on the flat discs of his eyes.  Primary motor systems ceased.  Even if he’d wanted to, he could not move his limbs.  Remaining power diverted to memory banks, to cognition.  [Processing…]  Gradually, memory began to fade.  Hard drives froze in succession.  The man and his dog were the first to be forgotten.  Then the behavioral programs, the voice modulators.  He forgot to worry about the cats or the rust in his knees; he forgot what a knee was.  As the snow stopped falling, the last of his memory discs spun on its tiny wheels: the secret names of the cats, the walks he’d taken along the river, the way home.  [ProcessingError]

What is: cat.  [Error]

What is: river.  [Error]

What is: home.

 

#END

 


 

Below you will find a lyric essay by 2010 non-fiction graduate Amaris Ketcham. Amaris was inspired by Joe Brainard’s book I Remember. Learn more about Amaris on her website.

 

I Remember Winter

I remember eighty inches of snow falling in one week.

I remember icicles wider than me, even with my coat on, forming columns connecting the gutter of a second-story Victorian home to the ground.

I remember being told that because I was from the South I hadn’t known winter. I remember thinking that person was wrong.

I remember all the people from the North described their states as mitts and pointed out where they were from by how close or far they were from the thumb-peninsula.

I remember my first coat. I had moved with a jean jacket that I’d thought was a coat until I realized I was the only one shivering during smoke breaks. In February of my first winter, my father sent me his 80s Eddie Bauer down parka. Navy blue and several sizes too big, the coat often got me mistaken for a homeless teenager. As I walked across downtown Spokane, people offered me food or a ride to the shelter. I remember thinking how nice everyone was.

I remember building a snow-woman in Coeur d’Alene Park.

I remember a boy who skied down South Hill to work.

I remember the cuffs of my jeans frozen stiff. I remember wondering at what temperature frozen pants might shatter.

I remember walking eight miles each day, to work, to school, home and learning which streets got salt and which didn’t. Walking, slipping, and catching myself became an intense core workout.

I remember falling backward on the ice and landing on my cigarette lighter in my back pocket. I remember the swelling, a bruise the size of a grapefruit, and not wanting to sit for a week.

I remember being told to look for Yaktrax and Nikwax.

I remember buying myself a pair of Gore-Tex shoes for my birthday. Even though I bought them on clearance, I had never spent that much money on a pair shoes. They were $80 and they promised me warm, dry feet, which was worth a lot more.

I remember finding a pair of neon yellow ski pants at a yard sale that I could wear over jeans during my walking commute and shed in the bathroom. I remember the first time I wore them, how I felt impenetrable.

I remember other students losing their cars because they were in the path of snowplows.

I remember snow berms built between lanes on the roads. Car exhaust browned them and they melted in places but not entirely, resembling the rock formations in Arches National Park by March.

I remember the sun rising at 8 am and setting at 4 pm, and how some days I never saw daylight.

I remember “drive-thru espresso huts,” which were small, standalone cafes in parking lots. They often had puns for names: Brews Brothers, Bean Me Up Espresso, Higher Grounds, Hold Your Grounds, Java The Hut, The Supreme Bean, and Wake Up Call.

I remember switching from iced tea to hot tea. Earl Grey became my favorite, because bergamot reminded me of spring.

I remember making a lentil soup that lasted me a week and never wanting to eat lentil soup again.

I remember taking long baths in my clawfoot bathtub while listening to This American Life.

I remember my wet hair freezing if I stepped outside.

I remember carrying a space heater from room to room with me.

I remember wearing fingerless gloves while I typed my homework.

I remember using a hair dryer to seal a thin layer of plastic over the inside of the windows. The wind would beat against the plastic covering, drumming through the night. I eventually nailed saddle blankets over the plastic to better insulate the apartment. I forfeited what sunshine I might have seen for more warmth.

I remember dense fog settled over snowy plains.

I remember someone saying, “This is how I imagined the setting of Ethan Frome,” as he exhaled a cloud of breath.

I remember snowshoeing to the top of Mt. Spokane. Snow weighted the evergreens. Frozen moss dripped with icicles. Sunlight reflected off of unbroken snow, making it glitter. I remember realizing that this was the kind of “winter wonderland” Christmas settings tried to replicate.

I remember warm mist rising from the rushing waters of Spokane Falls.

I remember wondering if there was still more of winter to know.

I remember a sculpture of forty people running the Bloomsday race along Spokane Falls Boulevard, looking like they were tiptoeing across an inch of snow.

I remember spring potholes so deep and wide that you could fall through to China.

I remember reading a quote from Camus and adopting it as a personal motto: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”

I remember it snowing during the first few days of June. Just a flurry fell and the sun still shone and I remember thinking it was one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen.

***

 


 

Please enjoy three poems from 2015 grad Ryan Scariano! Ryan’s chapbook, Smithereens, was published by Imperfect Press. Some of his recent poetry has appeared in Verde Que Te Quiero Verde: Poems After Frederico Garcia Lorca, Lilac City Fairy Tales, Railtown Almanac, Paper Nautilus, Ink Node, and the Willow Springs Books anthology, Heart of the Rat. New work is upcoming in basalt and in the 2nd edition of Verde Que Te Quiero Verde. He has an MFA from Eastern Washington University and works at Eastern Oregon University. (ryanscariano.com)

 

Mohamed Upstairs

The upstairs neighbor,

Mohamed, welcomed me

when I moved into the building.

Maqluba, kabsa, kanafeh.

Mohamed upstairs

in that little apartment

with his pregnant wife

and three young daughters.

Mohamed in the laundry room.

Mohamed fetching his children

home from school.

Mohamed working

the graveyard shift.

Maqluba, kabsa, kanafeh.

Mohamed smoking on the stoop.

Mohamed waiting for spring.

Maqluba, kabsa, kanafeh.

Mohamed upstairs cooking

and I must make a gift

for his new son, a suncatcher

shining with bits of glass,

green, brown, and blue.

Maqluba, kabsa, kanafeh.

My friend, Mohamed,

knocking at the door with food,

teaching me the names of his dishes.

***

Spokane

There’s always more. Always the old, brick

neighborhoods, the bridges and overpasses,

the Northern Pacific, the little park, the market

on the corner of Last Year and Forever, that

stability they had in the Now, their concrete

certitude, their faith strapped to our backs,

a gray memory behind our ears, mist playing

about the spanning strength of our fathers

and grandfathers. May the city keep us always

from losing their tracks, rolling up

our flannel sleeves and shoving off

into forgetfulness, down that narrow river.

***

Latah Creek

Like hundred-year-old

bottle glass, the dark creek

is stilled green with cold

starlight. Riprap, tattered

bits of clothing, plastic,

muddy sand, our voices

echoing in the scent

of urine under the bridge.

We should get out of here

before our most tired kin

the hobo comes home.

***

 


 

Two Spokane poems from Ann Huston:

Since graduating from the MFA program in poetry, Ann has pursued her dream job of being a park ranger. She has worked as seasonal park ranger at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah; Coronado National Memorial in Arizona; Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Alaska; and most recently Chiricahua National Monument in AZ. These parks and other wild, public lands inspire her poetry and she’s managed to get a few publications and lots of rejections! She also has been able to use some of her writing skills to write informative site bulletins on park resources as well as website text for park websites. You can find Ann’s poems in Ascent; Kestrel; Cape Rock; Cimarron Review; Natural Bridge; Poecology; and Flyway.

Here is what Ann had to say about her experience in the program:

“Even though I applied to a handful of MFA programs for creative writing, I never called myself a “poet.” Poetry was something that I did, and I wanted to write better poetry, but I never felt comfortable enough to say “I am a poet.” When I visited EWU, Jonathan Johnson picked me up from the airport and began introducing me to everyone as, “this is Ann, a prospective poet.” His simple introduction changed the way I saw myself, and throughout my time in the MFA program I continued to feel uplifted and supported by the community of professors and students, and I felt validated in who I am. A poet. (among a few other titles I claim).”

 

Spokane Ghazal in Spring, Summer

 

High desert channeled scablands here,

a name too ugly for mast-tall pines and endless moss.

 

Black basalt is algae-d green in snow-melt

and white-capping rocks. No bathing.

 

Few wildflowers here, but more tulips than Holland,

in front of mansions and Spanish villas.

 

The longest concrete bridge when first erected,

now the torch-lit arches span night sky and river both.

 

Wine-glass in hand, I go nowhere but my back garden,

to summer okra, peppers, and basil.

 

*

Spokane Amtrak, 2 am

 

I drive you to the train station

through the glass doors

a woman sits on the stairs

at the ticket counter

in my pajamas and camelhair coat

I ask where your train will be

I offer to wait with you

You say it is already late

Paramedics come

outside a firetruck waits

I kiss your rough cheek

walk past the woman on the stretcher

You are already seated

the doors slide closed behind me

 

Spokane Amtrak, 2 am

 

in my pajamas and camelhair coat

the doors slide closed behind me

Paramedics come

I ask where your train will be

You say it is already late

I drive you to the train station

at the ticket counter

I kiss your rough cheek

I offer to wait with you

a woman sits on the stairs

outside a firetruck waits

You are already seated

I walk past the woman on the stretcher

through the glass doors

 

Spokane Amtrak, 2 am

 

You say is already late

a woman sits on the stairs

Paramedics come

I kiss your rough cheek

the doors slide closed behind me

I drive you to the train station

walk past the woman on the stretcher

I offer to wait with you

in my pajamas and camelhair coat

at the ticket counter

I ask where your train will be

outside a firetruck waits

through the glass doors

You are already seated

 

Spokane Amtrak, 2 am

 

I kiss your rough cheek

You say is already late

Paramedics come

I drive you to the train station

a woman sits on the stairs

at the ticket counter

in my pajamas and camelhair coat

You are already seated

I walk past the woman on the stretcher

I ask where your train will be

the doors slide closed behind me

outside a firetruck waits

through the glass doors

I offer to wait with you

 


 

Yvonne Higgins Leach is the author of Another Autumn (WordTech Editions, 2014). Her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies. A native of Washington state, she earned a Master of Fine Arts from Eastern Washington University. She spent decades balancing a career in communications and public relations, raising a family, and pursuing her love of writing poetry. Now a full-time poet, she splits her time living on Vashon Island and Spokane, Washington. For more information, visit www.yvonnehigginsleach.com.

Here are some of Yvonne’s memories from her time in the program:

“I was in the EWU MFA program from 1983-1989, and was fortunate enough to study poetry under Jim McAuley and Bill O’Daly. I learned a tremendous amount from both of them. I also took a few fiction courses from the esteemed John Keeble. During my time in the program, I was honored to be part of the poetry editorial staff of Willow Springs. I also functioned as a TA of English Composition for two years and taught Creative Writing 101 the second year. I lived on the lower South Hill during those years and commuted to campus in my little Toyota Starlet. I remember a few winters the snow being as high as the windows of my car. I put myself through the graduate program by waiting tables and working the bar at the then Black Angus (now Anthony’s).”

 

SONG OF THE WILLOW TREE, AGE 10

Up the muscular trunk,

into the artery of the main plank,

and out over the marsh of Cannon Hill pond.

Radiant light sleeps on the silvery tips

of the leaves, still as a whisper.

Settling into a curve, I am

too young to name this pleasure.

So profound is the grass light,

there is even wood light, and the clouds

sing along the edge of sky,

everything alight,

and my heart levitating.

img_8400-2

Cannon Hill Park, Spokane

 


 

An essay by 2015 graduate Lareign Ward:

 

Smoked Ham

In spring of 2013, I tried to teach my mom how to say the name of the town I would be moving to for graduate school.

“It’s Spo-can,” I said.
“Smoked ham?” she replied.

I still think of that when I come into the city at night and see the city lights, or when I’m standing on the roof of a friend’s house, looking at downtown and waiting for a fireworks show that someone thinks is happening tonight.

I had never visited Spokane before I agreed to come and get my MFA here. I had visited my other choice, a city on the East Coast that’s more well-known, even though it’s not that much bigger. EWU ended up being the better option, and not just because of the food poisoning that left me weak and barfing in my host’s bathroom. When a friend texted me to ask how the East Coast city looked, I said, “The commodes are stunning.”

Spokane doesn’t have a professional football team or a gigantic ketchup factory, but I still found plenty here. A few weeks before moving, I got on a plane to Spokane International Airport to find an apartment. The plane’s descent allowed me to catch glimpses of the city, including the Spokane River falls at their summertime peak, full of foam and fury. I was almost in tears by the time the plane landed. This is it, I thought. This is home. Holy shit.

I had never lived more than a four-hour drive from my mom’s house, and now I was going to be at least two plane rides away. Spokane is the biggest city I’ve ever lived in, which I know says more about me than anything else. My high school class in Texas had less than 80 people; we barely had enough plastic chairs to spell out our graduation year on the football field.

In the last three-plus years, I’ve fallen in love with men and manuscripts and moments. I didn’t have to fall for the city itself, but it happened all the same. Spokane was two thousand miles away from everything I’d ever known up to that point. Before, all my decisions centered around being close enough to my family to drive in for a weekend visit. Even when I applied for jobs in other parts of the country, I always ended up within a couple hundred miles of my hometown.

Spokane was like the cool West Coast boyfriend who smoked weed instead of chewing tobacco, who drove a Subaru with skis in the trunk instead of a Ford F-150 with a Confederate flag slapped on the back window. Even if you know from the start the two of you won’t be together forever, he’ll always be a fond reminder of the moment you realized you had options.

While the landscape is lovely, the people have kept me here after I graduated. The literary community here is ridiculously supportive. I can perform a piece at a reading and think I did just OK, but people will still come up to me and say nice things, often with specific comments. Even if half of those nice words are fueled by alcohol, there’s still something extraordinary about it. The process of trying to create is an isolating one, and no one knows that better than the local artists who try to make it a little less lonely. While the city is not without its issues, I’m always going to be grateful to this place. I’m always going to reserve a space in my heart for that love, even when it’s winter and my skin is dry and my feet are cold and I can’t understand why the sun is hiding from me.

Speaking of skin: I go back to my hometown every year for Christmas. My first year back, my mom picked me up at the airport. Within a few minutes, she commented on my complexion: “You’re glowing!” she said.

I made some smartass remark and changed the subject. I figured I was just paler from the change in climate, but in retrospect, it was more than that. It was the workshops and readings and parties, the sense that I belonged with this group of charmingly off-kilter weirdos in a charmingly off-kilter town that, to outsiders, sounds like smoked ham.

 


 

Here is what Seth Marlin had to say about his experience at EWU and life in Spokane post-graduation, followed by his essay, “Reminder.”

“The decision to pursue a creative-writing degree is ultimately to a decision to invest: in one’s craft, in oneself as an artist. Part of that means investing wisely, through internships and through submitting work, but it’s also a matter of set and setting. The places and people you surround yourself with are a huge part of helping you shape your own creative identity, and what I found at EWU helped me find that for myself. The workshops carried a strong focus on practical theory, and the voices that the program selected helped ensure a broad range of thoughtful and constructive feedback. Not only that, but the city of Spokane is an incredible place for the arts right now. Whether you’re into music, or visual arts, or slam poetry, there are things going on here that you simply won’t find anywhere else. It’s part of why I chose to make this city my home – we’re on the ground floor of something amazing right now, and I’m incredibly grateful to be part of it.” — Seth Marlin

Reminder

Remember to be gracious – keep this in mind as you enter the establishment this evening. Remember that you have prepared for this. Remember it, as you see her there, for the first time in more than a year, talking to a man you do not know. You must remember that there are no villains in this story; that you both have a right to be here. You have learned to accept that things end sometimes, in many cases very badly. You once heard it said that what hurts most about love is, afterward, what has been changed within us. What we wish could be put back. You have learned that you cannot always control the outcomes, but you have learned that you can try to bear the aftermath with grace.

Try not to stare when you see her. Brush it off, avoid blocking the doorway for others. Remember to give her space this evening. Do not seek her out. Do not look her way. Smile instead and bump fists with old grad-school buddies, embrace and play catch-up, as if nothing at all were wrong. Focus on the tap list as you wait to place your order, but be aware of her there, lurking at the edges of your vision. She has noticed that you are here. Wonder if she will approach you – perhaps it is possible that enough time has passed. You will entertain the fantasy that perhaps she might speak to you tonight, might greet you with a Hey or a How’ve you been?

She will not.

When your pints come up, grab them and thank the bartender, weave through the crowded tables to where your wife and your friends are sitting waiting for you. Your wife will ask if you’re alright – she will know what you are going through, and will want to try to support you. Let her, even if it is hard. Take a sip of your beer, look around, taking stock of the attendance.

Tonight was unavoidable: a reading for professors and former grads, undergrads and local literary figures. Headlining was a poet you know, a star in the local slam scene. Catch his eye now across the room, toss him a quick nod. It will be strange to see him here among the MFAs, after so many nights performing in dingy scene bars. Only after you accepted his invite did you learn that she would also be among the readers; you raised these concerns with your wife and she was unconvinced. It’ll be fine, you remember her saying. It’s been what, a year? You’ll be fine.

These thoughts will be interrupted by a hand slapping your shoulder, the sound of your name being uttered. Look up – it’s the MC of tonight’s event, one of the current crop of second-year grad students. He is a big man in his forties, affable and gruff, a father to two girls. It is he who booked your poet friend, and also he who also booked her. Smile and exchange greetings as he makes his way to up the mic; you will have heard that he has been dating her recently. You will also have heard that they are now, almost as quickly, on the outs. He is a good man. They are both good people. You will wonder, not insincerely, how he has been doing. How they both have been doing. You have lived your life for many years now in the philosophy that the human heart cannot be owned, only offered, only shared. You will wish now that they had fared better.

The chatter will grow quiet as the man’s voice booms out over the mic. New Year’s greetings, a few thanks to the organizers, a few in-jokes accessible mostly to the grad students. A polite collective chuckle from the crowd.  Behind you, a draft of cold air – a few smokers will wander in from outside, maneuver through the crowds to find such spaces as are left. She will be among them, and she will cast a rare sidelong glance in your direction as she passes. Your wife will give a gentle squeeze to your hand. Meanwhile she will slink around behind the host’s platform, commandeer a barstool against the far back wall. This will place her directly in line-of-sight, just over the host’s left shoulder, impossible for you to avoid. She will regard him as he introduces the first reader of the evening, applaud politely along with the crowd. Then she will look out toward the audience, looks up and see you. She will hold your gaze.
This will hurt more than you can imagine, but try not to look away.

*

When you and your wife first moved to Spokane for school, a few years prior, the two of you made a joint decision: not to lie about who you were anymore, or how you lived. With your wife bisexual, and your marriage marked by long separations for the military, you both learned things about yourselves early on that would take most people decades. Of course that doesn’t necessarily make it easy. Polyamory is a difficult word to pronounce – it catches in people’s throats, comes out of their mouths instead as polygamy or swinging. It is none of these things, but you have heard these words before – heard them used to tar friends, watched it cost them families and relationships and jobs. But you’ve also had friends for whom being authentic could mean disownment, excommunication, death. If they could summon the resolve to live openly, the two of you reasoned, so could the two of you privileged, vanilla young citizens. It’s just a few years, you said. Who knows where we’ll end up next? It was just grad school, you reasoned, a few years to take time and work upon your craft. You had not yet come to accept this city as your home.

And in a space where so much mixing is permitted, where so many of the raw ingredients of creation can be found, who can say what chemistries will arise?
Things happen between people. Things end. It’s so often pointless to attempt to speak of it – the moments that mean so much to us so often fail to resonate for others. They require words that we do not possess – signs and signifiers transcending language, arcane symbols implying meanings like the way she looked in the park that day, or the trace of her fingertips down your chest. The shape that your mouths made together. The way she felt sleeping in your arms. Would that our language were as precise as our maths or our sciences – how then we could say that some reactions are simply too volatile to be self-sustaining? That even as they generate light and heat, they are already in the process of burning themselves out?

Do not think about any of that. This is not about any of that. This is not about her, or your marriage, or where things went wrong. It is not about components, understand, nor about processes, but rather about the final product – about what remains. And sometimes, what remains can be so radioactive, that we can no longer even be in the same room with it. Perhaps we can never be near it again.

*

Looking at her now, you will understand why she chose Seattle after graduation. They are both lovely in the same way – cool and poised, with rainy dispositions. She will seem so out-of-place here now, in gritty, red-brick Spokane. It is common for the locals here to carry a complex about their town – to dismiss Spokane, and by extension themselves, as the plain, pragmatic sister. But that measure would be inaccurate in your experience, a memory of a sibling one hasn’t actually spoken to in years. The Spokane you know is the drinker, the hellcat, the roller-derby brawler, the metal-shop sculptor. She is, as a poet you know once put it, a woman clutching lilacs in one fist, and brass knuckles in the other. One cannot compare the two cities, because they are not remotely the same.

But oh, how a pair of green eyes, how the old view of Puget Sound, can still be beautiful.

The minutes will pass. The first reader, a sensitive-looking young man with a sideways haircut, will finish his selection, and the house will applaud as he steps down. Cue the host again, cue the next witty introduction. All this time, she will continue to hold your gaze, and you will fear that this may read as an act of intimidation on your part. Look down and take a sip of your beer, clap as the next reader ascends to the mic. When look you look up again, her gaze will still be upon you. Tell yourself that you may be misreading – that she could be looking anywhere in this crowded space. Cock a wary eyebrow, as if to ask What are you playing at? and she will square her shoulders, raise her chin.

So. We’re back to this, then.

*

Polyamory is a difficult word for most people: it catches in their throats, comes out as cheater, comes out as affair, comes out as married man in a long line of married men. Talk all you want about consent, talk all you want about communication and honesty, at the end of the night someone still usually goes home alone. And when things inevitably fail, you will be left to wonder if you are simply leaving others to deal with the emotional consequences.

Not long after the breakup, you went and updated your online dating profile. One of the prompts invited you to “describe your ideal partner.” You answered this time: “Married.”

When most relationships end, a kind of emotional balkanization frequently occurs. Warring parties quickly move to stake out claims on hangouts, pastimes, mutual friends. In more conventional involvements, these battles can be messy and public. In less… traditional arrangements, even brief ones, they tend to operate more beneath the surface. But that doesn’t make them any less painful.

You will recall an incident, not long after the breakup, where you and your wife chose to attend a poetry slam in the Perry district. By this time the two of you were an established presence at the slams – her as occasional host and logistics support, you as competitor and supporter of your fellow poets. Slam is a boisterious, stage-lit, politically-charged scene, far removed from the bookstore readings and house afterparties of graduate academia. It had, in some sense, come to feel like your scene, and so that night you were surprised when some friends from the MFAs dropped by. Others soon followed, all graduate TAs looking for something to do on a Sunday night, and soon enough, as you had feared would be the case, she showed up to join them. She wandered down from the bar, blocking traffic as her eyes fell upon you sitting there. She spent the rest of the evening drinking alone in the back; when you got up to order another round, she was being consoled by two of her friends. You could feel their eyes upon you as you slid up to the bar, and so you did the only thing you could do: gritted your teeth and ordered your beer as if you couldn’t even see her. You have learned that there is no way to counter the stories they will tell of you. All you can do is bear out the rumors in silence.

Unlike in a normal relationship, when something like this goes down, the opportunities to grieve are generally few. The idea of “out” only ever gets you so far in this life. You still have to put on the smile for family members, for co-workers. You still have to pretend in many settings as though nothing is wrong, and since you can’t discharge the pain in healthier ways, you choose instead to inflict it upon each other. The vaguebook posts, the rumormongering, the pointed ways you look past each other, through each other, in mixed settings. Eventually, it’s like the two of you never even existed at all.

At least, that’s what you will tell yourselves. But the blank space left behind will still have a face. It will still have a name. And the erasure will hurt more than the loss ever did.

*

When you first heard that she had moved to Seattle after graduation, you were thankful. You had grown tired of seeing her ghost everywhere. To know that you would no longer have to pass her on the street, or mistake her from behind in crowded bars, came as a relief. It was as close to closure as one can ever expect from these things.

There is a spot overlooking the Spokane Falls – Salmon Jump, they call it – where a poem by Sherman Alexie has been set in a spiral pattern, into the rocks. It tells of how, in Spokane tribal lore, the trickster-god Coyote created the Falls by shattering the earth – how his rage and loneliness and hunger for love permanently reshaped the world around him. Remember that there is truth in this. Love so often moves through our lives as upheaval, and afterward, when it has gone, we are left unable to explain the altered geographies within us.

Seeing her now, the Spokane River will break open in you all over again.

The reading will wear on, and never once will you break each other’s gazes. It will be the first time you have locked eyes since a night in December, some two years before. Remember that for a long time, you fought covertly over spaces such as this – over the right to exist within them. It was as if, by daring to show up to this reading, or to that party, each were silently saying to the other I refuse to go away.

It will be easy to resent her for returning. You must resist. It will be easy to narrow your eyes, to glare, to square your shoulders in the language of intimidation that a lifetime of toxic masculinity has taught you. You must refuse. She has a right to her pain, has a right to a relationship. Keep your expression open, and your shoulders relaxed. Meet her gaze like the friend you wish you had back; meet her gaze until her own expression softens, until her mouth turns down and her eyes go dim. She will glance down into her lap, and even as the host comes up to announce intermission, she will not look up again.

Polyamory is a difficult word for most people. You have to correct them on it, have to pronounce it for them There has to be trust in order for this to work, pronounce for them it as My primary relationship has to come first, pronounce it finally as I can’t do this anymore.

*

At intermission, step outside with the smokers. Breathe in their secondhand, indulge their habit since you can no longer do so yourself. The host will sidle up and engage you in conversation – join him in banter and tales of recent doings, even as you struggle to read him for clues. There is a grit to his smile these days, a strain in his laugh, a way he has of holding a handshake too long. A too-bright pain like someone forcing on a mask. You will wish for the hundredth time that he might say something, might ask you or even just let slip the name between you, as if knowing the weight the carries. For the hundredth time you will wish you could look him honestly in the face, could finally say to him as one who gets it: I’m sorry.

Or perhaps you’re just deluded.

The second half of the night will pass with no sign of her. The remaining readers will come and go. Your poet friend will take the mic and deliver a set that leaves the crowd sighing on the hit-lines, leaves them roaring when he finally takes his bow. All the while one of the features will have gone missing, and when the night ends, there will be no indication that she was booked as a reader in the first place. Afterward, standing outside, you will hear a rumor: that she left at intermission, that she got in her car without telling anyone, with the intention of driving all night back to Seattle. You will wish you could understand then what changed her mind – did your behavior earlier make her uncomfortable, or did she simply realize that this wasn’t her town anymore? You will never know for certain.

Later on that night, walking home, your wife will say, “You did good tonight.”

Say nothing. Look up – the branches overhead will intertwine like fingers.

“Not everyone is cut out for this,” she will say. “For the kind of relationship we have. And that’s okay.” Wish then that such words could eliminate the doubt. Glance out across the river and listen to the roar of the Falls; think of her, burning back hard through the Snowqualmie Pass, toward the west side. You have learned that cities, like human hearts, can never truly be owned – that we can only reveal ourselves to them, and hope that they will let us in. Hope then that she has found what she was seeking; take a long breath and let it out slowly. Let it fog in the night air. Let it vanish out into the dark.