A Private Investigation
By Douglas Cole
Prose Prize winner
Vortex of the Sinking Ship
Chuck’s office is just down the street from mine, so I took an hour off to go see him. He’s in worse shape than I am. His wife kicked him out, so he sleeps here. We sat down and set up the chess board underneath a beautiful baroque painting he had up on the wall of two men playing chess. We never identified with either of the players, but we always sat beneath the same one. I had no idea which round we were on. We weren’t really keeping track. This is more about having a smoke and listening to the city chugging away out there and looking through the sagging glass of the window into that parking lot on the other side of the street, tilting down its old skid-row way, looking like what locals called it: the sinking ship. Meet you at the sinking ship. We’ll park at the sinking ship. Everyone knows what the sinking ship is, and I love its optical illusion: it’s actually level and functional, but it does look like a ship plunging into the waves of the ground.
“You know,” Chuck said, hunching over the board, his mind churning so that I could almost hear the little gears working, “You play a pretty attacky game.” A tremble in his hand and a bit of effort taking a breath were the only indicators that his illness was progressing.
“Yeah?” I said, smiling, because even though Chuck and I are old friends, we’ve always eyed each other from the other side of the soul. We’ve always been adversaries in a way, but that goes back to the very first time I met him. He was living with my friend Mike at the time down in Berkeley. I was just back from a year stationed in Spain. I met Chuck and Mike at a bar down on Shattuck, or maybe it was Oxford—I can’t remember which—but we got to talking, and he was very drunk, and for some reason we got onto the subject of Lenny Bruce. Drunken conversations are a lot like drunken lives, random and intense. So, I said something about Lenny Bruce, and he just stopped and stared at me for a full beat, eyeballing me fierce and sneering and then said, “You only know that because you watched that movie with Dustin Hoffman in it.” And then he looked away and took a drink.
What could I say? He was right. And I burned from being exposed like that, with such a precise cut, and yet I had to respect that he knew it, he was right, and he knew I was bullshitting. One for you, Chuck. Game on. And that’s when our chess playing really began.
“Know what else?” he said.
“This building has a second life at night. After the dayshift workers leave, all the counsellors and architects and accountants and lawyers, another community of people emerges.
“Oh, that’s nice. You making some new friends?”
“There’s this completely separate world that goes on here at night: cleaners, third-shifters, other people like me, squatters, staying here at night.” He laughed as though he saw the mist of strangeness sliding under the door. “It comes alive with ghost people.”
“Check,” I said.
“What?” He looked down at the board more closely. He had his squinty, concentrated face on. “Man, you play an attacky game!”
Chuck was going through a divorce, and his soon to be ex-wife had taken out a restraining order on him. Not that he was violent, ever, but when you get third parties involved, strategies in place, maneuvering and positioning, the original players at the altar often turn into armed adversaries. “Isn’t there anything you can do?” he asked me. I really had no connections in that realm. I investigate, I don’t arbitrate. It was all mean and unfair, but he and his ex were battling now, and people in battle don’t always fight fair. What is fighting fair, anyway? I wasn’t taking sides. I had no judgment either way. They were both friends and they were both exposing their fangs. Chuck was sleeping in his office, which was not a bad space. Small, of course, and depressing, especially if you feel like your world is falling apart. But he still had a sense of humor, and Chuck’s humor was twisted. This was divorce number three, in fact, that I’d seen him go through, and he maintained his head-shaking, snarling half-laugh approach like Boethius watching the wheels of Fortuna turn.
“Though you know,” he said, “towards the end, there, the worst thing of all was the food.”
“Have you ever had a sandwich made with hate?”
On another wall, he had a big piece of butcher paper on which he was designing a novel. At the center of it was a massive crucifix hanging in the middle of red slashes of color like flames and some kind of flying machine exploding above. The story of it escapes me, but I do remember a character stranded on a desert island.
He was leaning down over the chessboard, working out his move. He was a good chess player. I may have won a little more often, but our matches were always close. I take risks, play bold. He scrutinizes his possible moves more carefully. Now, brow gathered, he concentrated and then looked up, realizing what was happening and said, “God dammit.”
“It’s just luck,” I said.
The Ghost Players
Seems I’m getting quite curmudgeonly—sitting in this coffee shop on California Avenue. I find myself wanting everyone to shut up. Their voices are like sandpaper on the back of my neck—old guys playing bridge and laughing those big-chested laughs that resolve into phlegm-rattling coughs. And I love them, you know, in the world, their freedom sitting out a Wednesday with buddies they’ve probably known forever, war buddies, guys they maybe faced death with and loss and have lived long enough together with to relax on a day like this with nowhere to be. It’s beautiful, it’s something I aspire to. But I’m a loner. I’m like my father that way, and don’t let me get started on that.
But that laughter—it’s like a blast of wind. It’s a take-over-the-room, dirt-under-the-nails laugh, like that shotgun motorcycle sputtering up the street. And funny that I hear in their talk one of them say something about Chelan. That makes my head snap-to. And I hear, “Oh, yeah, it’s been cold out there...” And of course, I’ve been thinking of getting out there to see my father, navigating the emotional geometry involved in deciding when a good time would be and how I need to bring my sons along. I know Stephen wants that. I feel his spirit longing for more family, something I’ve failed to give him as my life continues to atomize. In fact, I just asked him, “Hey, do you ever feel like these days—you know, youth and carefree time hanging with your friends and your brother and none of the adult responsibilities—do you ever feel like it’s passing quickly and you want to kind of hang on to it?” He looked up narrowing his eyes and said, “I never really thought about it, but I know what you mean.” Being with him is like being with my father. We can drive and drive and not say a word. Silent hours, my father and I worked on job sites not talking, just tearing out lathe and plaster walls, nailing up framing, digging out a new foundation. So, it struck me as an even more mysterious role reversal when I said to Stephen, “Hey, you want to help me do some work on the house this summer, fix up the decks?”
“I don’t really know how to do that stuff.”
“I’ll show you,” I said, feeling like I was passing on some sacred masonic knowledge. But he doesn’t seem hungry for what I can give him, which is probably a good thing. I mean, I get a glimmer of having done something right as a father this way. Would I be able to tell? I used to chase my father down. He was on the move, going where the work was. Remodel, refurbish, renovation. He might have several sites going at once. That’s where I came in. The houses blur. 7:30 in the morning, I arrive at abandoned Oregon Street. There’s a heap of broken beer bottles as high as my shoulder in the back yard. A pot of noodles still on the stove. I’m scraping old paint from under the eaves for hours, sitting in that stinky house, eating a sandwich in an empty room, listening to talk radio rehash, Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story…with that enigmatic ending: “Now you know…the rest of the story.” I can’t see Stephen doing that. Nor Anthony. Although Anthony will say he misses me. He’s big, too, and throws that bear hug on me. He’s got a different style of being—I see him someday sitting with his buddies in a coffee shop on a Wednesday morning playing cards and laughing his big laugh—he’s got that. Robust of spirit. I’m more a grit-squint white-knuckle and hang-on kind of person. I’ve sat in many of these coffee shops and bars, blasted by the acids of conflict and fantasizing about climbing into that truck and driving forever—Mexico, there, somewhere south on the coast or the gulf where the waters are always warm. Living in some thatch hut drinking mescal and Dos Equis and letting time grind down to a slow sunset.
Yeah, but instead I feel the vague nausea of invisible forces at work, ghost players you might catch a glimpse of with their hands on the pieces, something materializing behind the actual, like those angels in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, or something a scientist might call genetics or a sociologist “conditioning,” but I don’t think that really covers it. I’m struck by the coincidence that when I left, Stephen was nine and Anthony was twelve, the same ages that my sister and I were when my father split. What kind of a structure does that reveal? Especially when you think you had every intention of doing the opposite? I’m not claiming a grand destiny, here; I see it more as the low-grade fever of fate. I guess most people would just shrug and say, “Never really thought about it, but I know what you mean.” Who’s in charge, really? And I get this feeling that even if I did jump into that truck and head down to Mexico, I’d end up in a similar space—because it’s me, you know? Something in me that seems already written or brokered a long time ago, and there’s no getting out of that bargain. I just can’t remember making the deal. That sounds too cosmic. I think the truths are more boring, like genetics and conditioning. But I’m just a curmudgeon sitting in a coffee shop with my ears ringing from the noise, holding back from jumping up and shouting, “Can you just keep it down?!” And there, the shape of the ghost players flickering just beyond my sight.
I would have asked Chuck to stay with me, but I was already a guest in my own house. No room at the inn. Our universes were too similar as it was. You don’t want to put two black holes together in the same solar system. What makes love die a slow death in fractions, ever reducing mathematically but never reaching zero? Chuck walks like a paralytic, or a cynical priest. This has always been. It’s not a product of the current state. He has a permanent scowl and vertical lines on his brow between his eyes. “I can’t even see my son,” he said.
“But in time? Before I can’t even walk?”
Behind the sinking ship parking lot and on the corner of Yesler and Second Street there’s a mural that comes around the corner of a building there from one side to the next, and it looks like a giant severed worm, like something out of Dune, twisting and extending and obscene, purple on the outside and pink at the open end with little anemone nodules, and it’s hard to look at and hard not to look at. “Digestive graffiti,” Chuck said. He has a talent for labeling the world.
Under the electric trolley power lines that hang like anacondas over Fourth Avenue and the traffic, across from the maw of the stadium, where the big bridge arterials throb as they extend over I-5 and head east into 90, between the red dragons coiled around the posts at the opening of King Street, we went into the narrow avenues of the International District. The smells. The fighting fish urns and big-bellied golden Buddhas. Red awnings and fluttering yellow banners. Another world within a world and about that moment Chuck was telling me about his childhood years when he was allergic to everything and found himself in a grass field heading home from school, there in Montana in the spring, and falling to his knees, his eyes swelling shut, his throat swelling shut, the world telescoping out to the end of a long tube as he hovered there in blackness. It’s amazing we’re alive at all.
“You’ve never been here?” he asked.
Inside the soup shop the young lady showed us to our seat next to the whitely steamed up window. On the table was a jar of chopsticks and soup spoons and napkins and Sriracha sauce and hoisin sauce and soy sauce. We both ordered the rare beef soup.
“So how’s work going?” he asked.
“Don’t you get tired of saying that?”
“Cause I get tired of hearing it…”
“I do have a new case that’s kind of interesting, a guy in West Seattle, a poet.”
“Sounds like you’re investigating yourself.”
“Maybe I am.”
“Someone on the fringes that I caught a glimpse of at the scene, lingering like he was admiring his work.”
All bizarre realities were possible with Chuck.
“But you like that strange stuff.”
“Did I say it was strange?”
“Is it strange?”
“Why is it strange?”
“No real suspect yet, no motives. The poet had a girlfriend, but she doesn’t seem very sad about his death And I think she’s flirting with me.”
“She is flirting with you.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you’ve got an open valence.”
“I’ve got a what?”
“An open valence, a space in your shell for an electron to dock, but in your case it’s the crazy ones who find shelter there. And I’ll bet she thinks you’re cute and kind and safe, and she has no idea what a depraved character you really are.”
“You think I’m a depraved character?”
“You should be given a warning label.”
I laughed. “An open valence, huh?”
“You’re designed for the weird.”
“Does that include you?”
“All the crazy, insane, broken, schizo spirits come to you. You’re like a country without extradition.”
The soup arrived, dark brew, steam coils rising up. Chuck put his face down into the opening of his bowl and inhaled deeply. Might as well—I did the same.
“It’s magic soup,” Chuck said.
“Yeah—it enters you at the molecular level…”
I inhaled again.
“So how are you holding up,” I asked.
“Medium shitty.” He tore a few mint leaves and squeezed the lime into the broth. “How would you feel if you were almost homeless with death looking at you in the mirror everyday?”
“We’re all on temporary assignment.”
“Yeah, yeah. It’s not the same.”
“And you still seem to come and go from your old place without restriction.”
“True. We do seem to operate with civility.”
“She still seeing that other guy.”
“I don’t ask.”
“Why don’t you see someone?”
“I’m a great package: half living in a basement in a defunct marriage, half in a studio shack. Would you like to come home with me?”
“You could work that into a serious sympathy fuck, if nothing else.”
“I’m not really interested in that kind of work.”
“Oh…you probably want love…” and he said it with that perfect sneering tone that communicated that he had read the code of my soul and found it simple and pedestrian and foolish. This is what I loved about Chuck; he was a beautiful misanthrope.
“I suppose love wouldn’t be so bad.”
“It’s a slippery slope, my friend.”
“Ruin. Abuse. Warfare. Suicide.”
Ah, and what can I say? That hot soup tasted like salvation. We ate in silence for a while. A glow came on, and I admit that I thought he might be right about its powers. Every bite, every inhale of its rich vapor, I felt myself transformed at the molecular level.
The big waves were coming up, rolling up over the beach. The driftwood banged around and slammed into the concrete steps and up onto the sidewalks in the sluggish, churling tide water, and people came out and went right up to the edge of it, there near the top of the steps. They peered into the violence of it. And as the waves came in, the people jumped back, and as the waves slid back, the people edged forward again. A game of chicken, reaching for something. The rain swept down and around sideways, and the big wind blew, and the sea rolled its deep water shoulders before sending another wave-punch at the shore.
I wanted to see this the way he saw it, to put my mind in the mind of the killer, as if I could time travel, as if I could view remotely every step of the way as I wandered where he wandered along the beachside bars and cafes: Cactus and Phoenicia, Celtic Wave and Spuds, Duke’s with its festive blue awnings, The Pioneer shack with windows battened down like a ship’s hatches, Slices Pizza joint with chairs blown over and lonely empty tables in their grassy plots of sand, Pepperdocks in its sandy corner spot nosing into the beach, Thai Landing and Chupacabra with skulls and chili lanterns and faces looking out, looking into the big storm, any one of them a potential suspect, the one I was looking for.
Can you see who it is? I asked the naked air where his spirit might still be lingering. Look out through my eyes as I look back in. I walked along that way, opening a valence, allowing space on the bridge—look out, look out and see. With no other leads, this is the way to go—open, looking, waiting for a sign, the big storm blowing rain down the street, big pools of water rippling along the concrete, and the strange people out wandering around like me.
The Weight of the Soul
Pioneer Square in the afternoon, the old guys were playing big chess on the ground near the sculpture of the firemen killed in the Ping warehouse arson fire, an insurance fraud case. Everywhere you look a crime was committed there. Chuck was up ahead strolling down the center groove of Occidental Avenue, a brick courtyard that is the other half of Pioneer Square, with the clock tower over the King Street train station cut off from below by a wandering cloud floating above the fleur-de-lis streetlamps and the bare limb trees and the trolley coming out of nowhere. Everything old. A nineteen thirties vision of the future. Nearly empty of people this blustery afternoon.
I wandered into some hallway. I wasn’t sure where the actual gallery was. This journey had no real destination. I was just following Chuck since art was his thing. So I kept on going, down one set of stairs, up another, back around to another hallway, with silver soldier lamps bearing pikes with light bulbs instead of blades, walking on the ceilings and up and down the columns, real outside light coming down shafts cut into the brick wall where you could, and I did, stick your head in and look up and see the sky. And along the way I encountered one after another of these closed off spaces behind The Big Sleep doors of frosted glass with ambiguous titles like Omega Designs and Spider Blue Printing.
I became a little disoriented. And then I found myself in an open courtyard or foyer, standing in front of a tall iron scale with a black arrow pointer and deco numbers with hash marks on the dial face. I stepped onto its metal, corrugated platform, and the arrow went crazy. It was bouncing back and forth wildly. And it wouldn’t settle on my weight. It seemed that even breathing made it move. This will take forever, I thought, and then a ghost face appeared in the glass of the dial before me and I heard, “I did the same thing.”
Chuck was standing there behind me, laughing. I started to laugh, too.
“It’s measuring the weight of your soul,” he said.
I waited, but the arrow wouldn’t settle. It just kept moving back and forth and never stopped, no matter how close it seemed to actually determining my weight. Down to the last hash mark, the trembling arrow hovered in its unending calculation.
The building has a life of its own. People you’ll never see by day come out, squeezing themselves through barely open doorways. They know each other, but they ignore me. I go station to station and report none of it. What good would it do me for some supervisor to show up and check room by room and find nothing because they’ve scattered like roaches? No good, I say. Now I’m off the clock, unofficial and some might say invisible, while the world sleeps, and I pass through solid walls like the rest of the ghosts.