Rip it out with your hands

They talked Carol into dropping by. His coworkers met at the tavern once a week after their shift. The Graveyard Ghouls, they called themselves, and one of them even had patches made up, about three inches round, with a melting ghost face amidst a field of flame, clutching a wrench in its teeth. Carol wanted nothing to do with them normally, but agreed to stop in on account of it being Christmas Eve.

A crow, claws clicking with agitation on the flashing of the squat single-story tavern, drew his attention. He stopped and watched it pulling at a string of colored lights, useless and dim in the overcast morning. It cocked his head and looked at him, then hopped backward and disappeared, behind the roof lip.

He did not particularly want to be here. But since complete anonymity was impossible, and people talk if you're too standoffish, it made sense to make an effort to show up. Rude people stand out, he knew. But boring people? — and Carol was very good at being boring — boring people were ignored.

He pushed open the heavy weathered door, a porthole at his eye-level caught a neon sign as a flash of red in his peripheral vision. Inside, a dozen of his coworkers huddled at a grouped set of tables. Aside from the owner, who was leaning on the bar and looking at his phone, the only other soul in the place was a young man with greasy hair, wearing an armless jeans jacket over his leather, club insignia on the back — a fist holding a red heart, and above and below it, the words "Rip it out with your hands." He was playing video poker, and the screen made a flickering glow on his unshaven face. There was something about him Carol found curious, but someone called his name, and he walked over to his coworkers and took an open chair.

They knew better to ask Carol if he wanted a drink, and Betty even politely moved a pitcher from in front of him when he sat. Jack passed him a pint glass of water, but it smelled of bleach and he didn't drink.

"You got plans?" Betty asked him. He could smell the beer on her breath, her voice rough from years of smoke.

"No," said Carol. "Wish they'd run the line Christmas Day. Get some overtime."

"I hear that," Betty said. "I'd work this year. I'm alone, my daughter's in Mexico. Can you believe it? Mexico. She's texting me pictures from a beach. Trying to drive me mad. She knows I can't travel. I had this operation on my eye. Got a bubble in there, if I fly? Pow. Bursts open. I go blind. It's the pressure change in the cabins. No beach in the world worth that, but that little jerk still taunts me all the day long."

"Hmmm," Carol said.

"Well, I hope you have a Merry Christmas," she said.

"Likewise."

She tipped her beer to him, and he reciprocated with his water, then sat it back down without bringing it to his lips.

He stayed for thirty minutes, picking his moment when Betty and that raven-haired drunk whose name he could never keep went out back for a cigarette.

He visited the bathroom, and while washing his hands, he heard the women's voices through a cracked window.

"...never seen him with a woman?" That wasn't Betty, so must be black hair.

"I've worked with the man for ten years, never seen a ring or heard him talk about a soul. Never caught him stealing a glance, neither."

"So he's got some tinsel on his tree. Big whoop."

"I guess you never know, but that don't read right either," said Betty."

"Well, he's off somehow. Something about him isn't square."

"Oh, don't say that."

"You feel sorry for him."

"Well, he ain't bad looking, I'm sure he could have a friend if he wanted."

"Honey, I think the last thing that man wants is any kind of friend."

"I guess that's what got me curious, right? Who the hell doesn't want friends?"

The rain was starting as he crunched across the gravel of the parking lot. The video poker guy was straddling his bike, a skullcap helmet fit tight. He kicked the starter, arms high, gripping ridiculous ape hangers. The engine turned, and Carol could feel the thrum up from his feet. It hit his gut and made him nauseous. He watched the man ride away, the machine throwing a wake of cascading sound waves for nearly a minute as it cruised down the highway.

It pulled up something for Carol, something that made his heart beat mad, a memory of a rider. That obscene sound. "Loud pipes save lives" a voice repeated in his head, and he saw those steel toed black leather boots, and remembered a broken rib and difficulty breathing. Gravel of a parking lot tearing at his cheek. Chains rattling. Too drunk to know what was going on. Too drunk to remember a decade or so, frankly. But he wasn't too drunk to remember one thought: "I deserved it."

Traffic was confused, jumpy, and frustrated with people needing to get their last bit of shopping done. Carol stopped at the market, standing in line behind some Martha Stewart with cart brimming: fixings for pie, a large ham, whipped cream, and nearly twenty bottles of wine. Just as her turn came up, she turned to him and squeaked "so sorry!" And then ran off to retrieve something or another she forgot.

In his basket, a steak, some potatoes, some spinach to wilt, a six pack of Coke. A hunting magazine. He waited without complaint until she came back, but turned his face away from her when she tried to apologize.

He was home before noon. He decided to stay up and just sleep the night like he was a normal person. He rarely inverted his schedule, but there was something about Christmas that pulled a little bit of childhood hope from his bones. Something about the stillness and quietness of the day appealed to him, how there was never much traffic, and nobody came calling, and the world was just as quiet as it ever got. He liked being awake for that.

It was during dinner when the power went out. He was watching a poker championship match, and just as a player was about to win a huge pot, hung on a ballsy bluff, darkness came down as if he had suddenly lost his vision.

He aimed his large Maglite at the ceiling in the kitchen and washed the dishes while there was hot water in the tank. He brushed, and then put himself to bed early.

The rain started. It fell on his under-insulated roof and made an even patter he found soothing. He lay there, cars on the windy road beside his building splashing a glow in his room, the rain a loping drum.

For the first time in a long time he thought about his mother, who perhaps Betty recalled just a bit, in her voice or manner of talk. Just enough to tease at the edge of recognition, and Carol understood why, besides the alcohol or her just being a woman, he didn't trust her.

He picked up his flip phone and pulled up the little weather app. It reported strong rain non-stop for the next twenty-four hours at least. He turned on an AM talk radio station, paranoid chatter about conspiracies.

Then, there, what was that? He turned off the radio to hear that motorcycle sound, a Harley driving down the road. His pulse quickened, and he listened for it to turn into his parking lot, for the sound to change as it drove under the carport and the engine to reverberate in a different way.

But it was just another bike passing in the night, and soon the sound was faded on the wind, and he could hear the water falling on the roof again. He lay for a while, no guessing how long, until sleep came for him.

There was something amiss when he woke in the dark, and it took Carol a moment to hear it as silence. There was no rain above him, despite the promises of his app. No rain, and the eerie unrest of a late-night waking. The shadow of a tree branch stretched like a demon claw across his ceiling.

Once Carol's mother told him a story, that when you wake from a dream and you feel scared, that's all the ghouls leaving your room, and it isn't until your fear is gone that they are gone too. Ghouls are drawn to fear. Fear makes them stay. "Better not be scared, buddy. Better not be scared of anything, or the ghouls gonna come eat'cha."

So Carol always waited for the fear to calm, and imagined it as all the ghosts he could ever know dissipating, moving away, leaving him. He lay in that quiet for a moment, his heart rate coming back down to normal. He had just closed his eyes, ready to return to sleep, when he felt the weight of something sitting on the bed at his feet.

Some moments in life trigger an animal panic so acute that no mind could calm you. Carol recoiled, like a muscle cut from the tendons that kept it taught. He pulled back, scrambling across the mattress away from the weight, falling off the bed. To the floor with a clunk, hitting his elbow sharply on his bedside table on the way down.

He lay on the floor for a moment, cheek to the carpet, breathing the dust, afraid to raise up and see what it was. But he had to, it was worse not knowing — what if whatever it was crawled across the bed and was about to look down on him where he lay?

Carol rose to all fours, and putting one hand on the table to steady himself, pulled his head up over the top of the mattress so that he could see. There, on the bed, sat the dark shape of a man.

"Get...get the fuck out of my house," spat Carol. "I'm getting my gun."

"You don't have a gun," said a calm voice, smooth and steady, low and masculine. "You don't like them."

To turn on the light, Carol would have to walk past this man. His heart was a hummingbird in his chest. He backed to the wall, and slid to his haunches.

He could make out the head, with shoulder-length hair. The man was wide, and though it was too dark to know what he was wearing, when the man moved his arm Carol could hear the distinctive creak of leather.

Carol tried to think of something to say, but nothing came to mind, or if it did, he rejected it out of hand. So they sat there, in silence, which was almost worse for Carol.

"You've had one motherfucking life all right," said the man. He clicked his tongue in a way that signaled disappointment.

There was something useful there in his voice, something memorable. It sounded like his brother, but his brother was dead a long time. It sounded like his dad, but his dad was dead, too. All the men in his family had the same voice. They were forever being mistaken for each other on the phone.

"I remember the closest you got to getting caught," said the man. "You were twenty-seven, and decided to try your luck in Spokane. You found a bar, and in the bar a woman, and you played her sharp. She missed you, didn't see at all, thought you were just a man like all the rest. And you decided to tomcat and toy with her, but she said things to you nobody else ever had, and somehow they actually broke through and reached something inside of you.

"She left you in your hotel by the light of dawn. There she was again, on her stool, the next night, and you kept bringing it sweet. You were feeling it, too. The excitement at seeing her. She missed the next night, but on the fourth you both came to each other like old lovers.

"You told her things. You opened your heart to her, and she held you close while you unburdened yourself. You confessed, you goddamn idiot. You confessed everything that you'd done. You thought she loved you, didn't you? You thought she'd be able to handle it. Fool."

"Then — do you remember this, Carol? — then, it's morning and she's gone to get some cigarettes and breakfast. You look out the window and you see her in the parking lot with a cop. She's pointing to your room. She's pointing and gesturing. The cop reaches to check his gun and starts towards you.

"You make it out the window with your duffel, leaving a few things behind. You make it out and run, setting out for Olympia. You got played, man. Played deep, and you still manage to get away."

While the man talked Carol saw it all happen, in vivid color and detail. He could smell her rosewater, her cigarettes, her gin. Thinking about her was like thinking about a knife wound.

"Never told anybody that story, did you?"

"No," Carol creaked.

"Then I have your attention. I was hoping I wouldn't have to list some of your more, uh, unsavory acts."

The man stood. He stretched his neck, it cracked. "If it were up to me, people would suffer in equal measure to what they handed out. You, Carol, are a motherfucker ripe for some suffering. Don't think just because you kept yourself clean for some time that the weights on your scale get rebalanced." The man walked to the doorway of Carol's room, and Carol could see his outline well enough to know he turned.

"But it is my job to tell you that you will be visited by three spirits before Christmas is over. Pay heed, fool. Pay heed and change your ways, lest you will suffer in ways you can barely comprehend."

The man lifted his arms above his head, and the room filled with light and chaos, deafening sounds, and Carol cried out and covered his face with his arm, feeling that surely the this was the end of it all. It assaulted his ears, a discordant keening that felt wrong, but then, why so familiar? The sounds resolved into something knowable: laughter, talking, music...television?

He uncovered his face and squinted into the brightness of his house lighting. The electricity was back.

Carol stumbled to the living room, shut down his television, all the lights. Fell before his toilet and retched, out of pent-up fear, but all that came out was a thick sob.

He took himself to bed again, wanting to best any left over feelings, but despite the sound of the rain — now returned — he found no peace. When dawn cracked the day, he was still staring at the demon claw, shivering in the wind, clutching at his ceiling.

The rain stopped by eight or so. Carol showered, shaved, and dressed. He made himself some coffee, eggs, and bacon. He found the poker tournament on re-run, but he could barely concentrate on the screen, the feeling of dread from his — what was it, a dream? — last night had him nervous and jittery.

"Pay heed, fool. Pay heed and change your ways." For fuck's sake. He'd been sober over twenty years. He stopped doing everything he did before. He was a changed man.

Feeling restless, he set out to walk his favorite trail. He passed a man jogging with a dog, but otherwise he was alone on the old railway bed. It cut straight through dense forest, long with only a few turns over the miles he liked to walk. As he walked, a mist descended. It was like floating through a cloud. He pulled his coat close and kept on.

He thought of his mother again, who loved Christmas best of all. It was the day she pretended to be a homemaker, and would invite the neighbors to stop by for boozy egg nog, starting early in the day.

A tree had fallen across the trail, a broad trunk he had to scramble over. He slipped on the moss, his coat snagged a branch, and he lost his balance and fell to the ground, his coat ripping open, a different sharp branch lacerating his skin in a painful tear that seemed to strike him to the bone.

He lay on the gravel of the road, eyes closed until the shock of the event passed enough for awareness of his situation to resolve, then he sat up suddenly and looked at his arm, but there was no damage there. Not to the coat, and not to himself. He stood, breath visible in the air, panting and confused, patting and feeling his arms in disbelief.

A whimper caught his ear, and he turned to see a dog emerge from the fog up the trail, tail between its legs. It was a medium-sized terrier of some kind, maybe a mutt, some black and brown fur, a flash of gray on its muzzle.

Carol reached out to it, offering his hand. "You lost, boy?"

It pleaded with him, brows arched in and concerned, then it feigned going off the trail, stopping to turn back and make sure he was paying attention. Carol followed, stumbling a bit on his uneven feet, a ridge of cold sweat across his brow.

They went off the path into a thicket of tall straight trees, across a dry stream bed, up a hill. The dog kept a good ten yards ahead of Carol at all times, looking back to make sure he was following.

Carol tried to get him to stop, tried even picking up a stick and throwing it, but the dog kept on, determined in his task, so Carol did too. The ground was wet and crusty with ice where the sun hadn't warmed the earth. Carol stepped into more than one disguised puddle, but he wore heavy boots and wool socks so the freezing water didn't bother him.

The dog lead him to a gully, and Carol watched him wind his way into the depression in the earth, skittering over piled, decaying leaves and dried branches. Carol looked up, trees above blocking the wan Christmas light, a crow sitting on a branch watching him, head cocked. A chill ran Carol and made him shiver deep. He kept on.

The smell came first, and Carol stopped. Coughed. The shivering dog pleaded with him, twitchy and concerned. Carol pulled his sweatshirt over his mouth, and continued down, balancing himself on a rock.

He lost sight of the dog around a bend. He had to slow down to negotiate a few tricky steps, sliding once on slick wet leaves. A bark rang out through the air. Another. He rounded the last boulder to see what the dog had wanted to show him.

Bodies, everywhere. In different stages of decay. A woman in a red summer dress. A woman, face down, naked. My god, they were all women. Here, out in the open, the corpses of too many to count. Some whole, some not. Stained bone and open, old skin. An open grave.

Carol's blood ran from flesh, he went cold and his skin prickled. Sounds became acute around him as his senses narrowed and went in full alert. He heard the dog panting, it looked up at him with the saddest eyes Carol had ever witnessed in an animal.

And then the dog looked right past him, and growled, lowering itself on its haunches. Carol spun around expecting to see some monster, but he saw nothing above him but the crow launching itself from its branch.

He looked up the gully ridge and wondered how he had climbed down — what felt like a gentle slope on the way in now rose impossibly high above him. He was stuck and would never be able to get out of here.

A hand on his ankle. He turned back and saw her, the woman in the red dress, come alive. She was sickly gray and horrible, looking up at him. Her eyes pleaded, teared. Blood across her cheek.

"You can't be alive," said Carol. She was too decayed. Too obviously something other than fresh.

And then the dog was on her, tearing. Carol kicked at her, and the dog pulled, and together they freed Carol from her grip. She lolled onto her back, and the dog was on her, paws pinning her shoulders, tearing into her stomach, blood on its muzzle.

He ripped something from her chest, something red and dripping, something beating and alive. Carol stumbled back, falling against the muddy slope. He looked up again, and now he was even further down, impossibly. The walls of the hole rising above him nearly as far as he could see, the small ring of daylight a skyscraper's height above him.

The dog came to him, pleading, carrying its offering. Carol slipped further in the clay slick ground, his head smashed against a rock, and his vision narrowed. The dog was on him, cold and wet, pressing its body-warm offering into Carol's sputtering mouth.

He woke to heavy breathing, and wetness on his cheek. Hot breath.

"No, Max. Off," said a man's voice.

Carol opened his eyes. He was on the trail, his cheek against the gravel. His arm numb and sliced where he cut it open.

The dog he had seen earlier with the runner was there, whimpering and licking him.

Then the man was pulling the dog off. "Hey, buddy. Looks like you had a spill."

"I'm okay," said Carol. He started to rise, but felt dizzy.

"Take it easy," said the man. "You're bleeding quite a bit. Look, my car isn't far from here. I think you need to see someone about that."

"You are a lucky man, Carol," said the doctor, as she pulled the last of ten stitches through his arm. Carol thought she could use a hair-washing, he could smell her natural odor. It was bothering him. "A little deeper and you would have tore the muscle. As it is, providing you keep this clean and it doesn't get infected, you should be back to work very soon."

Carol, who was cold to the bone and felt like he'd never be warm, was trying to stop from shivering. They had already covered him with a blanket.

"I have to lose work?"

"I guess that depends on your comfort, but I wouldn't do too many physical activities until you get the stitches out, you don't want them to rip."

The nurse, a stocky man with a thick beard, wearing a t-shirt that portrayed C3P0 in a Santa hat, came into the room through the curtain, and said something privately to the doctor. She nodded, and tied off the last stitch, cutting the loose ends.

"I'll write up your discharge papers. Sit tight for a bit, yes?"

The nurse sat, looked at the doctor's work. "How's the pain?"

Carol shrugged. His teeth started clattering. The nurse noticed, pulled the blanket up more.

"Okay." The nurse covered the stitches, greasy in antiseptic gel, with a bandage.

"The shaking is because of shock, not because you're really freezing. But we'll keep you warm and that will help it pass."

He finished covering the stitches, and pulled the blanket so it covered both of Carol's arms.

From another room, a woman screamed. It was the second time Carol heard her, and he must have looked at the nurse with a question in his eye.

"Psych patient. Seventy-two hour hold. She's next door and agitated right now. We usually keep psych patients grouped together, but the holidays are busy for us."

"Don't they have anywhere else for people like that?"

"Welcome to modern medicine, friend. Be back in a few with the paperwork and we'll get you out of here, okay?"

They brought him a donated sweatshirt, since his shirt and jacket were ruined and soaked with blood. He got himself dressed. He found out just how his arm reacted when he stretched it this way or that. He'd be off the line, all right, at least for a few days. He could already tell this was gonna hurt bad in the morning.

Carol stretched across the bed to get his coat, go through the pockets, his hands still shaking as he pulled his keys out. He heard the rustle of the curtain behind him.

A woman stood, stringy blonde hair around her face, her eye sockets dark and receded. Her shoulders hunched forward. She was in a gown, bare feet.

"I knew it was you," she said. "I could smell your stink all the way next door."

Carol turned to her. Dirt was caked under her fingernails. She looked upset, angry.

"I don't know you," Carol said.

"It's your fault I'm like this," she said. "I used to be like anybody else. I used to be normal. Once I was happy and thought the world could give me good things. Then I met you. One, two, three, four nights maybe in a lifetime, and now here I am."

"Lady, I've never set eyes on you," Carol said. It's true, right? She's no more than thirty-four or so. Carol had been sober twenty-some years. No way he did anything to her. He never messed with kids.

"I was going to go to college when I met you. I had a scholarship to Yale. No, Harvard. No, Yale. That's right. Yale. I was going to be somebody."

She walked closer to him, and Carol scooted back on his cot. She moved her hands behind her, which confused Carol, until her robe draped forward and he realized she had untied it. It fell open, but stayed on her shoulders.

"What's the matter don't you want me anymore?"

She reached out and touched him, and it was as if her touch held voltage. He felt it up his leg, like a vein of ice. It made the wound on his arm scream. She crawled up him, like a spider might, and Carol thought about crying out, but found he couldn't.

Then she was on him, he was pinned down. She was kissing his lips, and licking at him, her gross tongue sour in his mouth, he was turning, trying to get away from her. Her hips pressing against him.

"Don't you want me any more, Carol?" She hissed in his ear. How did she know his name? "Don't you know me? Don't you remember the promises?"

The mattress of the bed gave, and Carol fell into it, down into the stretching plush foam. He fell until he was in a valley the shape of his own body, looking up at this woman, naked, undulating above him at the top of the tunnel, cackling and laughing.

And then, climbing down towards him, licking her lips, fingers clawing the mattress side as she came to him, crawling like an insect. He felt her lay on top of him, press him further into the bed until the bed resisted more, like they had reached the bottom of its receding. It felt like sitting in a hammock that was about to give, and Carol could feel the something starting to tear under him. She wrapped her arms around him.

"All you have to do is love me, Carol, and I'll become something you want to see. All you have to do is love someone to see what they are truly like."

The bed ripped and gave, and they fell into nothingness, Carol and his clinging mistress, her eyes wide, and she laughed, and then started screaming.

The screaming. And the male nurse, there by his side, and Carol came to see it was him that was screaming. And he was still in his bed in the room, alone. He stopped. He panted as he looked around.

"Where is she?"

The nurse looked him in the eyes, held his face and examined him. "What's going on? What are you experiencing?" He asked, not unkindly.

"I...I just fell asleep," Carol said. "Bad dream."

"You can go if you want. But that was kind of scary, what you were doing there."

"I'm fine. I want to leave. I was dreaming, and I don't want to talk about it any more."

It was evening by the time he was home. The cab passed a Harley rider on the freeway who looked like the fellow from the bar, but when Carol went to look at the back of his jacket, it was a different emblem.

Carol wondered about that guy from the morning, the "rip it out with your hands" image and lettering.

He got home, and, more than anything, he wanted to sleep. But his head was pounding from not eating all day, and his arm was starting to break through the drugs and ache pretty bad. He went to his kitchen to see what it had to offer. He'd settled on a Christmas grilled cheese and tomato soup, and was heating them up when the doorbell rang.

It was Betty, from work, standing there holding bags.

"Hi Carol," she said. "Merry Christmas."

"What's going on?" he said.

She laughed. "What's going on? I'm being neighborly. Look, like I said, my daughter's in Mexico. I cooked a big meal last night with some friends, and tonight I was on my own. Figured you might be too. Thought I'd drop some food by."

"I don't need charity."

"Jesus h, man, you are one standoffish fellow. It ain't charity. You work hard as I do on the line. It's just being nice to someone for fuck's sake. Can't a someone do that?"

If it were any other day, if Carol was on his normal game, if he had slept last night or hadn't hurt himself today or seen what he's seen — maybe yes, then, he'd close the door in Betty's face.

But today he was so gone, so drained, so alone, that he stood back and let her in.

"And boy weren't you a military man," she said, looking at how he kept his apartment. "What branch?"

"Navy."

She walked into his kitchen. Took the grilled cheese and the soup off the stove. "Not that this don't look good, but it is Christmas, you know."

A short while later they were sitting at his small table with a reasonable assortment of leftovers. Ham, and some turkey. Potatoes and green beans. Betty had brought some soda water, and that's what they drank.

Carol told her about slipping on the log, and getting stitches. To his surprise, she laughed.

"You got a hell of a way of celebrating Christmas," she said. "My day wasn't so great. Talked to my daughter on the phone. Talked to my ex. My mom and dad are both gone, you know. Talked to my sister a bit, just long enough for her to get snooty about their new car, one of those hundred-thousand dollar electric jobs. Tesla, that sort of thing. Fancy as all get out. She made me watch on video while she opened those stupid rear doors.

"Anyway. That's why this ain't charity. Hell, maybe it's charity for me. Keeps me from drinking the night away all alone."

"You could go to a meeting," said Carol. "I did. Quit cold."

"Some might need that, but I'm okay. Ain't got nobody left to hurt, anyway."

"Yourself," said Carol.

Betty cocked her head, and pursed her lips. "Well, if that ain't the sweetest thing."

She stood up, reached to take his dish. "I can do it," he said.

"You can do all the clean up," said Betty. "I'm just bringing out dessert. While I'm gone, you can think of something to tell me, since I've been the one blabbering all over the place."

Carol was fixing the thought in his head. He'd say: "I don't want any company tonight, I just want to go to bed." But then he recalled the visitor from last night. Didn't he say he'd be visited by three spirits before Christmas was over?

So Carol thought maybe he could talk to Betty. Maybe he could open up and tell her why he's so alone and lonely. Tell her that he was a violent drunk, and most of the things he did he doesn't remember, but the ones he does will haunt him forever. He could see her, then, reaching out with a concerned gentleness, and placing her hand on his heart. Just placing it there and smiling at him. She would do that.

Betty returned with two slices of apple pie. "I was gonna bring pecan but it had bourbon in it." She said.

"Thanks," said Carol. He pursed his lips. He didn't know how to talk. "Betty, I was a bad drunk," he said. "Real bad."

"That so?" She put the pie down, and leaned back in her chair. Crossed her arms and listened.

"Do you suppose regret means anything? If you do something bad to someone, and feel bad about it?"

"Does that regret come with justice? I don't care if you feel bad after you hit my car so long as you pay up so I can get it fixed."

"Justice." He saw that biker's jacket: rip it out with your hands. "I never saw justice for anything. Nothing I did, nothing anybody did to me."

"What the hell do you think justice looks like?" Asked Betty. "Are you atoning for your wrongs, Carol? Did you do anything to change anything about what you did? Or did you just quit drinking and stop doing the stuff, and just let the weights on the bad side of your scales grow all dusty? Did you ever try to add to the good side by any action other than not doing bad?"

"I feel bad," he said. He did, in his arm, and his head. And maybe, too, in his heart. But did he really feel bad, or did he feel unsettled? Like he should have felt worse?

"Feelings aren't worth the paper they're printed on. My daughter feels bad about being in Mexico. She's still in fucking Mexico."

He took a bite of pie. It was amazing. Crispy and sweet, brown-sugary and lucious.

"Here's the truth, Carol. You're going to go to sleep tonight and wake up in the morning with two ways to live your day. One in which you can just go about your life as you do without worrying much about anybody else. The other is to help people. To try to help people in some way where you make a difference in the world."

"It's not that easy," he said.

"The fuck it's not. It's Christmas. Make a choice to be charitable."

"Don't lecture me," he said, taking another bite. "I hate being lectured by drunks.

She didn't respond right away. Carol thought maybe he pushed her to far. He wanted to apologize, but was scared of what apologizing would feel like, he did it so rarely.

When she did speak it was so quiet that he had to lean in to hear her.

"I'm a person who cares so much that it cripples me sometimes. And I struggle with my own demons. Look me in the eye and tell me, sober man. Tell me that you're free."

He finished the slice of pie. She hadn't touched hers. His eyes closed. It was so hard to keep them open. He tried. He forced them, and looked up at Betty, her arms crossed, her eyes judging him, as he slid from the chair and blacked out.

Carol was on an altar. Even with his eyes closed, he knew it. He could see it from above: the alter, the circle surrounding it, the inverted pentagram, the candles.

Thirteen women in robes around him, chanting. Their voices a mush, seemingly in a different tongue. Betty was there, as was the black-haired woman from his job. The corpse in a red dress, and the woman from the hospital. Even his doctor, there, chanting.

Something rose beneath him, cracking into his back. An energy. A demon. All thirteen witches laid their hands on different parts of his body, and from below the demon was howling and pounding at his spine like it was a doorway.

Betty scrambled up on the dais, she pulled back her hood to show flowers woven into her hair. The light hit her just right, and Carol could see she actually was a very striking woman.

She spoke a tongue he did not understand. From her belt, she freed a knife with a sinewy curved blade, about twenty inches long. It glinted in the candlelight.

She stood over Carol, and showed the knife for all to see. The women chanted with her, and she fell to her knees, straddling him, and she drove the knife deep into his heart.

The demon below him screamed, angry and cursing. He felt it drop, falling into a deeper well than he had ever encountered. He felt it drop, and looked into Betty's eyes as she drove the knife deep into him, and she was radiating light from her face. She was so clean and pure and good.

And Carol, with the knife in his heart, woke in his room, alone. Still in his clothes. The demon claw on the ceiling, scratching. A motorcycle in the distance, driving away. Darkness all around.

He closed his eyes, and something broke. He shut them tight, but it came anyway, the wetness on his pillow. The deep howl of regret. An admission of the fear he had felt so long and tamped down. A sobbing that sounded like a boy's blubbering to him, but maybe only because he'd never had the chance in his life to hear a man weep.

And in his cleaned kitchen, a note from Betty. He'd find it tomorrow. He'd hold it for a very long time after reading it. And there he'd be, in the day, with two ways to live his life, just like Betty said. The whole future laid before him. And the only thing he had to do was choose.

The Sunday Post for December 24, 2017

Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles we enjoyed this week, good for consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that’s your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.

Comings and Goings

I read Donna Miscolta’s essay about her Uncle Dondey's funeral, and immediately I want to read it again, each time. Miscolta (a regular reviewer for the Seattle Review of Books) is a direct writer, but never dull, an emotional writer but never sentimental. This piece summons love and grief without ever saying their names; Miscolta simply shows them to us, and we know what they are, because she does.

When the last la la's of the song fade, people start to leave. Rosalva, my eighty-six-year-old aunt wobbles across the grass on heels, a niece or nephew always within range should she topple in any direction. Later in the car, she complains about the uneven ground at cemeteries, the perils it poses to innocent mourners. "I was walking just like . . . " she pauses, searching for a proper analogy. "I was walking just like a little old lady," she says.

I pat her knee. I watch her change out of her heels into soft black moccasins. The flesh on her tiny bird legs is crinkly as tissue paper and I wonder if there will be a sound if I touch her skin.

An Intimate History of America

Clint Smith visited the National Museum of African History and Culture with his grandfather, who, Smith says in a series of tweets about how the resulting essay was developed, "never thought he’d see a museum like it in his lifetime." The experience provides a line of continuity from the past that reveals the present in a clear and harsh, but truthful, light.

We made our way through the exhibitions that document the state-sanctioned violence black people experienced over the course of generations, pausing to study the images and take in their explanations: How, even after the Civil War, the Black Codes in South Carolina made it so that grown men had to get written permission from white employers simply to be able to walk down the street in peace. How in Louisiana a black woman’s body, by law, was not her own. How in Mississippi an interracial marriage would put a noose around your neck the moment the vows left your lips. The history of racial violence in our country is both omnipresent and unspoken. It is a smog that surrounds us that few will admit is there. But to walk through these early exhibitions was to be told that the smog is not your imagination — my imagination — that it is real, regardless of how vehemently some will deny it.
After Sebald

Celebrity book designer Peter Mendelsund on W. G. Sebald, the curious history of book jackets, and the mysterious interaction between authors, books, and readers. Splendidly wandering and thoughtful — a classic essay in style — and a chance to use the term "celebrity book designer," a Sunday Post first.

It then occurred to me that my own book covers, seen in aggregate, might be said to form a sort of diary as well — my diary — as these covers are, to some extent, artifacts of my own unique visual obsessions. The more I considered my work in light of this idea of a "diary," the more I began to see that there are two facets of my job — first, my own self-expression, and then second, in direct contradiction to this first idea: the mandate to understand, inhabit, and visually translate an author’s unique vision. But then I thought, aren’t these mutually contradictory vectors also in play when we read? Don’t we imagine an author’s world using the most personal of materials, our own imaginations and memories, and yet don’t we also attempt to maintain some fidelity to an author’s prompts? I had written a book on reading last year, and only now, on the threadbare floor of this bookshop did I realize that perhaps I had given short shrift to this idea of a mutual space, shared between author and reader.
Silicon Valley Is Turning Into Its Own Worst Fear

Ted Chiang writes something pretty rare — truly surprising, not just good or inventive, but surprising, science fiction. It’s outright terrifying to read his brilliantly sideways take on artificial intelligence in our not-science-fictional current reality.

I used to find it odd that these hypothetical AIs were supposed to be smart enough to solve problems that no human could, yet they were incapable of doing something most every adult has done: taking a step back and asking whether their current course of action is really a good idea. Then I realized that we are already surrounded by machines that demonstrate a complete lack of insight, we just call them corporations.
A critical analysis of Bob Dylan's Christmas lights

I wasn't expecting a whimsical piece about Bob Dylan's sparse and eccentric holiday decor to pose an ethical dilemma, but in 2017, nothing is safe or sacred. When a media company (yet another) is under the microscope because of accusations of harassment or assault, do you refuse to provide a signal boost for its writers, and by extension for the company itself? Does the decision depend on the company's response, and how quick and how likely and how thorough change may be?

At Vice, Merrill Markoe has nailed exactly what I'd expect Bob Dylan's light display to read like. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports on sexual harassment at Vice Media. Markoe's piece is charming; Vice is a hot mess. Happy holidays, and may this year pass quickly so we can get to work on whatever 2018 will bring.

A meticulous examination of this year's lighting configuration reveals the Gordian network of torments and rage roiling within this legendary artist who remains arguably our nation’s best interpreter of the zeitgeist. As usual, he has seized on this opportunity to comment upon the uniquely dangerous political crisis in which we now find ourselves.

Seattle Writing Prompts: the #3 bus

Seattle Writing Prompts are intended to spark ideas for your writing, based on locations and stories of Seattle. Write something inspired by a prompt? Send it to us! We're looking to publish writing sparked by prompts.

Also, how are we doing? Are writing prompts useful to you? Could we be doing better? Reach out if you have ideas or feedback. We'd love to hear.

Every time a billionaire complains about public transit, it's like they walked through mud and are showing you the underside of their foot. Their attitude portrays a dream of solitude, this idea that people have a right to live in the world without encountering other people, especially people different than them. It assumes that any system they could build could be enjoyed by anybody who matters.

But for the rest of us, there's public transit. For those who don't want to pay an arm and a leg to park downtown, there's public transit. For people who understand other people there's public transit.

Seattle's mass transit started as streetcars, beginning in West Seattle in 1902. Streetcars ran all over the city — the only remnant of such being the old Seattle waterfront streetcar that was removed when the Seattle Art Museum's Sculpture Park demolished the transit maintenance barn in 2005. That streetcar is expected to return as part of the construction of the 1st avenue Center City Connector, beginning construction next year.

In 1940 or so, the streetcar system was converted to buses, and in 1972 Metro appeared as a consolidation of a number of different systems. Remember the ride free zone? It used to be, on Metro buses, that you could ride through the downtown core for free. That meant there was a novel fare system: if you were headed into downtown in a fare zone, you had to pay while boarding the bus. If you were heading out of downtown, you had to pay leaving the bus. So, if you boarded, say, a #3 on Queen Anne, you paid getting on (then got your transfer so you didn't have to pay again), but you had to show it on your way off the bus on Cherry Hill. It was a weird system.

It's simpler now: pay when you get on, or swipe in with an ORCA card and board on the back doors of one of the main bus lines.

As for the billionaires — well, sure, you do run into people on the bus you want to avoid, but you also get to see a wide swath of humanity you would not be exposed to otherwise. It provides empathy, and also understanding. And, if you're interested in fashion, there's no better way to see the trends of what people are wearing than a daily bus ride.

On one bus alone, there are so many stories. Let's ride that #3 and see who we can find.

Today's prompts
  1. Queen Anne — The McClure middle-school students sat together, five of them clumped in the back of the bus. Maybe they were ditching, it was a time when normally they would be heading towards school, not away from it. Nobody would believe this is what they said, but they actually said this: "Oh my god, you guys, that is hella the bomb," said one, about something, before she leaned in conspiratorially and said "You guys. What's between us, is between us forever."

  2. MoPOP — The bus was crowded, but he had his guitar with him, and it was awkward no matter how you held it. He was coming from an early morning showcase, one chance to play a few songs for a rep before a conference at MoPOP before the museum. "Hey, could you, like, watch that?" said a woman, and he realized he bumped her with his case, right in the behind. "Oh god, I'm sorry," he said. The rep at MoPOP cut him off in the middle of his second song. "We have someone who sounds like you," she said. "Thanks." The bus jerked and he stumbled, his guitar falling over, and slapping the ground with a sickening crunch. Today was just not going well at all.

  3. Belltown — It was the two tech bros in the exit. The bus wasn't even that crowded, they could have moved or sat or done something else besides block the fucking door. "Excuse me," she said when the bus pulled in, and both of them made a lame attempt at pressing, but it was still impossible to squeeze through their backpacks. "I said, excuse me," she said again, stopping. Someone behind her said "Just squeeze through them." She turned, "No. I'm not going to squeeze my body past these inconsiderate assholes. Step off the goddamn bus and make room for people to get on and off, you selfish fucking pricks."

  4. Downtown — Everybody waited at that stop on Cherry Street because that was one steep hill. That's where James was waiting, in the chair. Some people look at him like he doesn't need it, because he pushes with his legs, but that just shows what they know. He doesn't have one of those electric ones, so the old fashioned one is all he gets. This time, the #3 pulls up, and everybody else who doesn't want to walk up that hill to Harborview comes running on in front of him, and the driver has to tell him to wait for the next bus. They already have two chairs on the bus. So he's gonna be late for his appointment, and there's no way around it. He tries not to, but some tears well up and then he feels stupid and punches at the garbage can a few times, just to show he's not some weak fucker who can't take a little disappointment.

  5. Cherry Hill — It was the hardest day she ever had. She'd only worked at the hospital for a few months, but it was no trouble cleaning up and keeping things tidy. Sometimes it got gross, but that was nothing she couldn't handle. That was the job. But the woman today, crying out in pain all day, moaning and screaming and not stopping. They were helping her, she knew they were, but it was so bad. She was trembling and wanted a drink, but had to get home to relieve the sitter. There was no way to process it. Just hope that woman got the help she needed. Hoped she was feeling better.

The Help Desk: The authors of our disappointment

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com. The following column was originally presented on January 22nd, 2016.

Dear Cienna,

Once, I met an author I loved and it was a total letdown. She was narcissistic and bored by all the people who came out to hear her read, and I disliked her so much it made my skin crawl. Now I can't enjoy her books because it reminds me of how unpleasant she was. Should I bother going to readings anymore? I don't want to lose any more favorite authors, and the risk of them being jerks is scaring me away.

Mary, Bainbridge Island

Dear Mary,

Once, I was invited to a fancy literary party full of very impressive people – best-selling authors, sitcom writers, actors, comedians. I couldn't throw a fork without hitting someone whose work I admired. As parties go, it was normal: People sipped champagne, talked child rearing, traded jokes and were surprisingly tolerant of me sweating on them. I should say, it was normal except for me. Intimidation, my natural dearth of social graces and a near-painful desire to make a good impression rendered me mute – that is, until the hosts' daughter, a sweet-looking girl of about 12, emerged from the kitchen with a plate of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and began offering them to guests.

“Mmmm, is there anything better than a cute little girl handing out warm cookies?” One actor asked rhetorically.

That is the moment I found my voice. “Only if she's stripping,” I said.

The actor stared. The child proferred her plate to me with pity in her sweet brown eyes. There was a moment of silence as everyone in the room wished my place were filled by someone who could pass the very low bar of not sexualizing children in casual conversation. That was the day Paul Constant learned that bringing me as his date to parties is like reading Proust to a pig.

I bring up this story, Mary, to illustrate how awful some writers are at interacting with other people. Others are just awful in general (Norman Mailer was a notorious misogynist who once told a crowd of fans that “a little bit of rape is good for the man's soul.”). Either way, you have to separate the person from his or her work and be generous enough to pity them when they act like dicks in public, as all those people pitied me years ago.

Because by their nature, books are a private obsession, both for writers and readers. So attending an author's reading is, to me, an unparalleled act of public intimacy that can go horribly wrong or beautifully right. Personally, I think it's worth wading through a few assholes to experience the beauty.

xoxo,

Cienna

Portrait Gallery: Happy Holidays

Wishing you and yours
a quiet spot with good light
and plenty of books to read.

Criminal Fiction: Year ending

Every month, Daneet Steffens uncovers the latest goings on in mystery, suspense, and crime fiction. See previous columns on the Criminal Fiction archive page

December heralds best-of-year lists; when it comes to crime fiction, here are a few of my favorites from Irish critic Declan Burke, The New York Times’s Marilyn Stasio, and The Guardian’s Mark Lawson.

Reading around: new titles on the crime fiction scene

I love the concept of the Lawrence Block-edited anthologies In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper and Alive in Shape and Color: 16 Paintings by Great Artists and the Stories They Inspired, and I like the implementation even better. For the latter, Lawrence Block organized the participation of a stellar lineup of writers — including Sarah Weinman, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Nicholas Christopher, Jeffery Deaver and Joyce Carol Oates — and the outcome is a bevy of cool and canny tales that embrace – to name just a few of the topics – art heists, familial relationships, historical intrigue and the seemingly straightforward interactions on a good old-fashioned crime scene. Dip in, dip out, and then dip in yet again. Multiple treasures here.

It’s a turn for the history books when a skeleton is discovered wearing 16th Century garb in Peter Lovesey’s Beau Death (Soho): Bath-based Chief Inspector Peter Diamond considers that he may have an age-old mystery on his hands, one involving the city’s most controversial iconic figure, Beau Nash. Diamond’s wry sense of humor stands him in good stead — especially when dealing with the eccentric, arrogant members of a historical society — and the intra-police interactions during the investigation are as enjoyable as the slightly madcap mystery at hand.

In Signal Loss (Soho), a gloriously gritty Australian-based police procedural, Garry Disher juggles multiple ongoing crime-story strands, leading his detectives on several not-so-merry chases across a dusty, rural backwater. There’s a deeply disturbing meth problem, cold-blooded murder and black-hearted deception — not to mention a slimy serial rapist on the loose. Sergeant Ellen Destry and Inspector Hal Challis and their teams have their hands full, and a striking opening scenario offers up a ghoulish Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd — that entertainingly deadly duo of Diamonds Are Forever fame — partnership for the 21st century.

By far the best thing about Jack Reacher novels is that way in which they begin with utter simplicity – Reacher coming across a West Point class ring in a pawnshop, for example – which then evolves into tales of wonderful complexities. The Midnight Line (Delacorte Press) is the perfect example, as Reacher, that class ring in pocket, wends his way across South Dakota and Wyoming, taking in the majestic landscape, collecting friends and enemies along the way, while demonstrating a most impressive use of a tumble dryer. ’Nuff said.

The Quintessential Interview: Joanna Schaffhausen

Joanna Schaffhausen’s creepy debut features Ellery Hathaway, a small-town cop who, in years ago, was the sole survivor of a serial killer. Even with her tormentor behind bars, Ellery’s living nightmare returns: for three years running now, someone has vanished from her new hometown, right around Ellery’s birthday. A cunning police procedural as well as a grisly murder mystery by the 2015 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel winner, The Vanishing Season is one seriously chilling chiller.

What or who are your top five writing inspirations?

  1. True crime stories
  2. Reading great writers across all genres
  3. Travel
  4. Family — the ties that bind in good and bad ways
  5. Neuroscience/psychology — all studies of the weird human brain

Top five places to write?

  1. With my laptop on the bed
  2. On the train (my commute is 3 hours a day)
  3. In my head
  4. At the library where it’s quiet
  5. In front of a roaring fire

Top five favorite authors?

  1. Shakespeare
  2. Fredrik Backman
  3. Jhumpa Lahiri
  4. Liane Moriarty
  5. Ed McBain

Top five tunes to write to?

This would be silence, silence, silence, silence, and silence. I love music but I’m an active listener. If I’m busy paying attention to the songs, I can’t hear the voices in my head. That said, here are five songs I find inspiring as a writer:

  1. The Hamilton soundtrack
  2. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony
  3. “The Times They Are A-Changin’” by Bob Dylan
  4. “All These Things That I’ve Done” by The Killers
  5. “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper

Top five hometown spots?

  1. Boston’s Museum of Science
  2. The Harbor Islands
  3. Fenway Park
  4. Top of the Hub
  5. Sanders Theatre in Harvard Square

Thursday Comics Hangover: From a roller rink to the stars

Natalie Dupille works along a wide spectrum of cartooning. Her diary comics — as seen in her most recent collection, October Diary — are sketchy and minimalist. It's remarkable the information that Dupille's cartooning can convey in with so little. Look at this image from the cover of October Diary:

Now consider how amazing it is that your eye can assess that image and immediately determine that it's set at a rollerskating rink when all you can see is exactly six motion lines, an eighth of a disco ball, a single rollerskate wheel, and a background figure. Dupille's entire head on the cover of the book is made up of exactly eight lines: one arrow of a nose, a swooping chin, a concentrating dot of a mouth, two eyes tight in concentration, and then three wavy lines marking her hair flowing in the breeze.

Some might think this rough sketch style of art is simple, but it is in fact inordinately difficult. When you draw with fewer lines, as Dupille does in her diary comics, that creates a tremendous pressure on the artist to make sure that every line is exactly the right line.

The writing in these diary comics is perfectly complementary to the art. Dupille catches a single moment in her day and rounds it out using exactly the right images. She notices how abusive guests at a dinner party behave toward the female voice coming out of an Amazon Echo speaker, for instance, or a blandly inoffensive statement at a corporate meeting can trigger memories of Donnie Darko.

These are tiny moments, but they are titanically tiny moments. They feel neat and self-contained and somehow expansive enough to swallow a reader's brain whole. One page of silent sketches of Dupille's cats and a caption reading "Sad & listening to Graceland on repeat" has somehow taken up residence in my head the way a good pop song does; I'm currently thinking of this strip six to eight times a day.

But there's a flip side to Dupille's work, on the other end of the spectrum from her sketchier comics. Her more rendered work features what appears to be watercolor, adding a delicate and vibrant life to her lines. These painted strips tend to focus on nature and science, and they demonstrate Dupille's boundless curiosity and enthusiasm for learning.

In Huckleberry Pie no.3: Selected Comics 2015-2016, Dupille lays out a two-page spread about the sex lives of banana slugs and earths, and it's a joyous, fun pair of strips. (Banana slugs, she tells us "frequently eat each other's penises after sex. No one really knows why, but we're accepting of most fetishes here in Seattle.") Another, more personal strip details the construction of a cob oven as part of Dupille's attempt to get closer to the land. Readers will find Dupille's attempts to understand the world around her to be infectious; her unabashed geekery is wildly appealing.

Total Lunarchy, a self-described "Zine About Space Dust and Other Important Extraterrestrial Matters," expands Dupille's curiosity into the chilly depths of space. Specifically, she focuses her curiosity on the clingy dust that has plagued the few astronauts we sent to walk on the moon. Lunarchy is about all the things we don't know about the moon. Specifically, she examines why static cling and magnetic fields combine to make the moon inhospitable to our attempts to set up base there.

Dupille is at the top of a very short list of cartoonists who are gifted at explaining science in a fun, approachable way. Lunarchy came out of a collaboration between Dupille and UW research associate professor Dr. Erika Harnett, and hopefully it's not the last foray Dupille will make into the sciences. The universe is complex and confusing; we could use more guides like her to illuminate the darkness with funny and informative cartoons.

Are you following the Moby Dick bot on Twitter? It frequently posts random tweet-sized quotes from the text of Moby Dick, and sometimes it feels eerily appropriate for the day and time. Or maybe it's just that every tweet seems appropriate for the Trump administration.

There's something to be said for the synchronicity of a freshly appropriate Melville quote smacking you across the face in your timeline. It's kind of like watching a fin break the surface of the water and knowing that there's something more, something bigger, going on beneath the surface.

Add a personal touch to your holiday shopping at Phinney Books

If you've already picked up our author holiday gift recommendations (thanks again to Anca Szilágyi, Richard Chiem, Bharti Kirchner, and Jessixa Bagley, Richard Chiem, Bharti Kirchner, and Jessixa Bagley for their stellar suggestions) and you're looking for more books to give as gifts, I highly recommend you check out Phinney Books owner Tom Nissley's recommendations:

(And while you're picking up those titles at Phinney Books, please be aware that Seattle author Nicola Griffith has partnered with Phinney Books to provide signed copies of her magnificent Hild and her underappreciated Aud trilogy at bargain prices.)

Looking for a holiday gift book? Jessixa Bagley recommends Louis Undercover

Every Wednesday between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we're asking some of our favorite Seattle authors to recommend the books they're most excited to give as gifts this holiday. Our fourth author is childrens' book author and cartoonist Jessixa Bagley.

I'm happy to recommend my new favorite book, Louis Undercover by Fanny Britt, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. I felt like this graphic novel punched me in the heart. This followup to Jane, the Fox, and Me is a story about a young boy navigating the intense darkness of his parents' recent separation while at he same time experiencing his first love. Both the heartbreaking writing and breathtaking artwork will emotionally level you. Remember to breathe.

Heyyyyy! Looks like 2018 is already guaranteed to be better than 2017: HarperCollins is publishing a long-lost anthropological text written by Their Eyes Were Watching God novelist Zora Neale Hurston in May. Kristian Wilson at Bustle says:

Barracoon is the story of Cudjo Lewis, the last person known to have survived the transatlantic slave trade. The book evolved out of Hurston's interviews with "the Black community of Plateau, Alabama, which was founded by Cudjo Lewis and other ex-slaves from the ship that brought them to America." Based on the author's conversations with the nonagenarian Lewis in the 1920s and '30s, the book covers his life, from his childhood in Africa through the last days of the Civil War. The title refers to the barracks used to hold prisoners in anticipation of the Middle Passage. Hurston completed Barracoon before her death in 1960.

What a fascinating historical document. And what a great time to publish this book!

What Sean Spicer, A Christmas Carol, and Star Wars can teach us about criticism

Last week, Sean Spicer posted this unbelievably stupid commentary on Instagram:

Yes, apparently the idiot former White House spokesperson believes that A Christmas Carol is a book of Christmas carols. (The fact that Spicer, after being roundly mocked by the internet for many hours, changed the caption of his Instagram post to read “FDRs [sic] book [sic] of Dicken’s [sic] Christmas Carol [sic]” didn’t much help matters.)

Spicer’s lack of awareness regarding A Christmas Carol reminded me of this blog post from a decade ago arguing that A Christmas Carol is intrinsically a conservative story. One of the main pieces of evidence in favor of A Christmas Carol as a conservative story is that at the end of the story, "The new Scrooge doesn’t run down the street demanding higher tax rates and that the goverment [sic] do more."

I already made fun of this post back in 2008 when it was first published, so I'm not interested in doing that again. In fact, I think about this post a lot. The truth is, A Christmas Carol is not explicitly a progressive text. To mirror the argument made on that conservative film blog, Scrooge doesn’t run down the street demanding stricter regulations of business or a tighter social safety net, either. He runs down the street trying to be a better person. I personally think that the historical record proves that Dickens was more of a progressive author than a conservative one, but A Christmas Carol doesn’t literally contain any political messages that I recall. “Be more charitable with your time, your spirit, and your wealth” is a universal message, not a partisan one.

But that misreading of A Christmas Carol as a conservative text reminds me of the thieves at my bookstore job who used to try to shoplift Batman comics. When I would chase them down and ask them why they were stealing from a small business — something everyone would agree that Batman would frown upon — they convinced themselves that they were freedom fighters, "liberating" the books from the Evil Empire that is an independent bookstore.

You can convince yourself of anything, is what I'm saying. Very few people see themselves as the villains of their own stories. And very few people love stories that they perceive as being outside their belief systems. So we try really hard to squeeze and contort the narratives that we love in order to fit them into our own worldview.

In a lot of ways, the post about the conservative leanings of A Christmas Carol from 2008 that blew my mind was a precursor to fake news, and evangelicals who voted for Roy Moore supposedly for moral reasons. This is not a new thing. But the support network for these political interpretations is much larger, and much more convincing in the age of Facebook. It’s possible to surround yourself with only people who agree with you, and it’s possible to only see the evidence that supports your thesis. And that’s dangerous.

I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t seen The Last Jedi, but the internet is right now full of pissed-off fans — mostly white, mostly male, mostly middle-aged — who argue that the latest Star Wars movie refutes the film franchise’s straight white male roots. Because they’re so used to seeing straight white males as the protagonist of every film they’ve ever seen, these fans don’t have the imagination to see themselves reflected in the latest Star Wars movie, and so they imagine that the movie is attacking their identity.

So while we’re in this cultural moment, I think it’s important to draw the line between criticism and political demagoguery. I’m not saying that criticism isn’t political. In fact, I think all criticism is in one way or another political. But criticism is about what’s on the page — or, in film criticism’s case, what’s on the screen. The angry white male response to Star Wars, like the misreading of A Christmas Carol I linked to above, isn’t based in the text. It’s about manipulating a text to fit into a worldview and to promote an agenda.

I think it’s useful, every so often, to recommit yourself to the text, to reconfirm that the facts we hold dear are in fact true, and to reaffirm that the ground on which you stand is, in fact, solid. If you read fiction to find heroes, and if the heroes in your fiction don’t challenge your worldview in any way, you’re probably reading wrong. If you open every book hoping to find a perfect mirror inside, you’re doing no more work than poor old Sean Spicer, misreading a book’s cover in a futile effort to seem worldly and wise.

Therapy

I tell my therapist that I do not want to cry
because it’s two in the afternoon

and there’s a turtle
sunbathing on a felled tree

in the marsh outside of her office window.
A Great Blue Heron hobbles close,

and it’s probable that the two are holding
a silent confessional barred in by a community

of water lilies that are tethered to mire.
She asks, how I feel when I talk

about home — I hold my rib cage close
to her ear so she can hear the wind howl.

Applications for 2018 Mineral School residencies are open!

It's time! The application period for 2018 residencies at the Mineral School is open. You've only got until February 15, 2018, to put your name in the hat — and we recommend that you do. Mineral School is impossibly cool, a reformed elementary school in a quirky small town near Mt. Rainier. It attracts great writers and artists, some of whom we're proud to have published on the Seattle Review of Books (like Clare Johnson and Kelly Froh). And it's two weeks of focused time to work, let your brain re-shape to the mountain and the lake, and be fed by someone who knows their way around a kitchen.

We're delighted to have Mineral School back as a sponsor, though jealous, as always, of the people who'll actually take those residency slots. Check out our sponsorship page for details on the 2018 program, and get a sneak peek at what what Mineral School alumni are publishing next year.

Sponsors like the Mineral School make the Seattle Review of Books possible. Did you know you could sponsor us, as well? If you have a book, event, or opportunity you’d like to get in front of our readers, reserve your dates now.

Shown in photo: Nicole Hardy, Urban Waite, Gretchen Schrafft, Emily May, Gabrielle Bates.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from December 18 - December 24

Monday, December 18: Chlorophyll Print Exhibition

See our event of the week for more details. Redmond Senior Center, 8703 160th Ave NE., 425-556-2314, http://www.redmond.gov/cms/One.aspx?portalId=169&pageId=742, 8:30 am – 9 pm, free.

Tuesday, December 19: Computer Science Book Club

Ada’s Technical Books hosts a monthly Computer Science Book Club intended for people with and without computer science experience. This month’s selection is How to Do Things with Videogames, a book about “the limitless possibilities offered by [videogames’] ability to create complex simulated realities.” Sounds like this could be a good discussion about the theory and possibilities of videogames. Ada’s Technical Books, 425 15th Ave, 322-1058, http://seattletechnicalbooks.com, 7 pm, free.

Wednesday, December 20: Storytime with Santa

Bring your kid and your best camera for this combination storytime/photo opportunity at the Mill Creek branch of University Book Store. Santa Claus will be in attendance. Yes, the real one. University Book Store Mill Creek, 15311 Main St., 425-385-3530. http://ubookstore.com, 3 pm, free.

Thursday, December 21: Literary Translator Feedback Forum

The Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society continues its partnership with the downtown private library Folio with a Feedback forum. According to press materials, “Translators working on poetry or prose from three different languages will share their works in progress and accept helpful feedback and questions from attendees.” If you, like me, are fascinated by the fact that it’s virtually impossible to create anything resembling a truly 100% accurate translation, you’ll likely find a lot to think about at this event. Folio: The Seattle Athenaem, 324 Marion St., 402-4612, http://folioseattle.org, 5:30 pm, $5.

Friday, December 22: Inside/Out Reading

This is a launch party for podcaster Joe Osmundson’s latest poetic memoir, Inside/Out. Garth Greenwell says the book “explores how vulnerability, need, and shame echo across a life, and meditates on the complexities, both emotional and ethical, of writing that life.” University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400, http://www2.bookstore.washington.edu/, 7 pm, free.

Saturday, December 23: Storytime for Kids

If you’re looking for ways to entertain your kids now that they’re out of school on winter break, now’s one of your last chances to attend a storytime before Christmas happens. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 11 am, free.

Sunday, December 24:

It’s Christmas Eve. Do something nice for yourself.

Literary Event of the Week: Chlorophyll Print Exhibition

As the first Poet Laureate of the city of Redmond, Shin Yu Pai worked hard to bring poetry out into the civic space. She created a beautiful and elaborate combination of poetry and fabric art in response to a hate crime. She had another poem animated and projected onto the side of a building. She’s demonstrated new ways that poets can interact with the public.

Now Pai’s term as Redmond’s Laureate has come to an end, and one of her final public exhibitions is available for viewing through this week. Until December 21st, you can visit the Redmond Senior Center for an exhibition of a dozen chlorophyll prints that Pai created in collaboration with the artist Megan Bent.

As part of this project, Pai dug deep into the city of Redmond’s archives — “I must have sorted through thousands of images,” she says — to find photographs of city history. She selected images of Redmond woodcarver Dudley Carter, and of a bicycle festival that happened in Redmond annually for years, and of the city’s logging past. Then — using a more sophisticated version of the same technique she employed to grow words on apples in Carkeek Park — Pai then transferred those images onto leaves. The end result looked like this:

This is the second exhibition for the chlorophyll prints. Over the summer, Pai showed the leaves in specially designed light-safe boxes. They installed the boxes over the weekend, she tells me in a phone interview, and “we came back that following Friday for the opening, and it was real interesting — even in that short amount of time we noticed that some of the leaves had begun to shrink.” In fact, the leaves were changing in a multitude of ways: “there was browning, and there was subtle changes in color that were occurring,” Pai tells me.

Pai has worked with organic materials before, so she knows that some change is a part of the process. But she still tried to keep the leaves as lively as she could: “we tried to protect them from the light as much as possible. The degradation didn't happen as quickly as if they were in the sun that entire three-week period that the exhibition was up, but definitely they began to alter and change.” Because the physical leaves have degraded even further, the exhibit at the Senior Center, then, is made up of photographs of the leaves that had photographs burned into them. Pai admits with a laugh that this work represents “lots of layers” now.

It’s a dense project: a poet, recording a history of logging on the leaf of a tree that managed to not be cut down. It’s an attempt to preserve history on one of the most ephemeral objects in all of nature. (One of the easiest ways to mark the change of a season is to look at leaves.) And since the vast majority of all poetry in history has been written and published on wood pulp, you could also view the project as Pai’s attempt to forge a new truce between poets and trees. These poems don’t require the wholesale destruction of trees in order to live. They’re a new kind of collaboration between human and nature.

Redmond Senior Center, 8703 160th Ave NE., 425-556-2314, http://www.redmond.gov/cms/One.aspx?portalId=169&pageId=742, 8:30 am – 9 pm, free.

The Sunday Post for December 17, 2017

Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles we enjoyed this week, good for consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.

The Case Against Reading Everything

It’s easy to win an argument if you’re the only one in it — a privilege I’m claiming, I guess, just as much as Jason Guriel does in this essay urging that we read with passion, and only what we’re passionate about.

I’m all in favor of diving for the bottom with a favorite author. But for god’s sake yes read widely too. Read with intention, and then with abandon. Read what delights you, then read what unsettles, what angers. Read what bores you — what the hell, for the discipline if nothing else. Don’t leave it to someone else to map the vast and beautiful wilderness of ideas on your behalf. That way lies, if not madness, at the very least Brietbart News.

The call to “read widely” is a failure to make judgments. It disperses our attention across an ever-increasing black hole of mostly undeserving books. Whatever else you do, you should not be reading the many, many new releases of middling poetry and fiction that will be vying for your attention over the next year or so out of some obligation to submit your ear to a variety of voices. Leave that to the editors of Canada’s few newspaper book sections, which often resemble arm’s-length marketing departments for publishers. Leave that to the dubious figure of the “arts journalist.”
On Not Going Home

This is the time of year when many of us do, or try to. For fellow wanderers who will soon walk off of a plane and into a once-familiar landscape, an uncanny valley of memory and emotion, here’s a gorgeous piece by James Wood about exile, homesickness, and the lasting contrail of early choices.

When I left this country 18 years ago, I didn’t know how strangely departure would obliterate return: how could I have done? It’s one of time’s lessons, and can only be learned temporally. What is peculiar, even a little bitter, about living for so many years away from the country of my birth, is the slow revelation that I made a large choice a long time ago that did not resemble a large choice at the time; that it has taken years for me to see this; and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life — is indeed how life is lived. Freud has a wonderful word, ‘afterwardness’, which I need to borrow, even at the cost of kidnapping it from its very different context. To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of ‘afterwardness’: it is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done. And that may be all right.
What I Learned While Staring at Neil Young’s Flannel Shirts

Amanda Petrusich writes briefly and charmingly about exploring a collection of Neil Young’s possessions intended for auction.

The narratives offered by objects are usually faulty — no one has ever said that used microphone preamplifiers are a window to the soul — but these pieces can nonetheless feel intimate and revelatory as we behold them, as if there were ghosts to be coaxed from these machines. Besides, actually knowing (and being known to) another consciousness can be exhausting. Who among us has not wanted to give up and say, “Christ, just look at my paperbacks”? Neil Young never unwrapped his VHS copy of “Mastering the Theremin.” Sometimes, we all bite off more than we can chew.
Spies, Dossiers, and the Insane Lengths Restaurants Go to Track and Influence Food Critics

This is so awful and yet so delightful. Jessica Sidman gives us an inside look at how top-flight restaurants engineer a perfect dining experience for restaurant reviewers, gaming the system to achieve the highest possible grade. While the press at large struggles to maintain any sort of influence in this insane political environment, some of its members have matters well in hand when it comes to a good night out.

At one point, Sietsema noticed a table to his right filled by a smartly dressed couple having the best time of their lives. Hundreds of meals later, Sietsema still remembers how the blond woman kept looking over and smiling. Le Diplomate had purposely seated regulars who it knew would be having a good time within the critic’s vicinity.

Managers were equally intentional about who took Sietsema’s order, ran his food to the table, and bussed the dishes. The best server — a charming Moroccan guy who trained other staff and was known for being extremely knowledgeable and polished — saw to Sietsema’s group and maybe one other table. Actual servers with food-running experience took over for the regular runners and bussers. Sietsema noted a lot of suits stopping by.

The bar staff was also sweating the details. When the group started with a round of cocktails, the bar manager made duplicates of each and sent out the prettier versions. The wine director personally poured a bottle of Domaine Cros Minervois Vieilles Vignes 2000.

Back in the kitchen, chefs prepared two foie gras parfaits, two steak frites — two of everything Sietsema’s table ordered. The nicer-looking plate was sent out, while at least four senior staff sampled the duplicate to reassure themselves that nothing tasted amiss.

To Unlock the Brain’s Mysteries, Purée It

Ferris Jabr’s profile of neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel is packed end to end with surprise and delight, reflecting what seem to be the hallmarks of Herculano-Houzel’s career: curiosity, irreverence for conventional wisdom, and a willingness to explore deeply messy ideas en route to knowledge.

She began experimenting with rat brains, freezing them in liquid nitrogen, then puréeing them with an immersion blender; her initial attempts sent chunks of crystallized neural tissue flying all around the lab. Next she tried pickling rodent brains in formaldehyde, which forms chemical bridges between proteins, strengthening the membranes of the nuclei. After cutting the toughened brains into little pieces, she mashed them up with an industrial-strength soap in a glass mortar and pestle. The process dissolved all biological matter except the nuclei, reducing a brain to several vials of free-floating nuclei suspended in liquid the color of unfiltered apple juice.

Seattle Writing Prompts: (De)construction

Seattle Writing Prompts are intended to spark ideas for your writing, based on locations and stories of Seattle. Write something inspired by a prompt? Send it to us! We're looking to publish writing sparked by prompts.

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Oh, look at that. Another massive site in Seattle where something is being torn down, to be replaced with a giant drag queen platform boot. The old Rainier Square, a weird mall, is now torn asunder by pickers and pokers, and after a few days more, it will be a dusty hole in the ground.

The new tower, which will be the second tallest in the city (for a bit, in any case) and will hold the highest residences in all of Seattle, closed one of the largest commercial lease deals in the history of Seattle, and Amazon is going to move in to all 722,000 square feet of office space. I'm sure that made the developer very, very happy.

Who is, by the way, working for one of the largest single downtown land owners in Seattle: the University of Washington. When the University moved to its current campus — the spot of the Alaska–Yukon–Pacific Exhibition — around the turn of the 20th Century, the regents found that if they sold the land, it would be far below its appraised value. So, they made the choice to lease.

How much land does the University of Washington own? The so-called Metropolitan Tract runs from 3rd to 6th, Seneca to Union.

So, now the University of Washington owned, developer managed, Amazon leased building, which will open in 2020 or so, is to once again move the character of Seattle forward. Whether this is good or bad depends on your perspective. I hold both views, sometimes. I've been in Seattle long enough to remember ye olden days, when rent for a seven room house with a soundproofed practice room for your band was $1200 a month (Really, that was the first house I lived in here), but I also don't miss some of old Seattle's colloquialness.

And I certainly won't miss the Rainier Square, with the exception of the plaza at the base of Rainier Tower, which was always a nice outdoor public space.

Ah well. One thing about constant change: it comes with great stories.

Today's prompts
  • It took a lot of magic to contain that nasty spirit under the mall of the Rainier Square, but the laced into the concrete pour was a charged latticework which created a powerful spell of containment. Of course, the magician who created that incantation during construction in the late 1970s was now long dead. And so, nobody was there when that spirit rose, once again, to the streets of Seattle, eager to cast the same economic woes on the city that plagued it before it was contained.
  • "So then the guy finds this box under the old cornerstone, and inside is this frog, and the frog can sing..." — "The frog can sing" — "Yeah, and the guy's gonna make a mint with this singing frog — "How you make a mint with a frog? What, you put it on YouTube or something?" — "No, he was gonna do show business, you know. Show it off." — "I'm skeptical you could make money in such a way" — "You want to hear about the cartoon or not?" — "I just want to know how a singing frog could lift me out of my career in construction and deliver me into the lap of luxury, as this cartoon seems to imply" — "You're a real fucking killjoy, you know that?" — "I have been told as much before."
  • She met him the day her parents were moving them into the new condo, way up top of that new building downtown. She was wondering through the garage after parking her car, her new keycard not quite working right to open the elevator. She saw him there, by the dumpsters, smoking. "You're not supposed to do that in here." Caught, he tossed the butt on the ground and stomped it out. "Sorry," he said. "I don't care," she said. "Can I have one?" He had a white apron on, it was wet. "You work in one of those restaurants?" she said. He nodded, and gave her a cigarette from his pack. "Cool. Want to see what the penthouse is like when you get off work?"
  • There is a story here I don't know how to tell. There is a team of retail leasing specialists. One of them closed what is maybe the biggest real estate deal in Seattle. Can you imagine how long that must have taken? What the lead time was like? The negotiation? What about when it closed, and the entire massive chunk of office space was leased to a single tenant?
  • Baby boy mouse loved to watch them tear down buildings. He would climb up on the wall on the building opposite, standing just above the heads of the humans who stood to watch, too. The dust raising from the collapsing concrete, the pickers reaching up and grabbing chunks to tear down, the water hoses tamping everything down. He stayed there and watched as long as he could, until he heard his brothers calling his name, trying to find him to do his duty and go steal crumbs from the little soup restaurant. He stayed as long as he could. He could hear the walls falling as he turned his back and went to work.