“A Love Began/A Beer Can” by Joseph Riippi

05Jan09

A stanza about a love beginning. A line about a beer can. Couplets describing degrees of gray and burning Montana sunsets. These images of Richard Hugo poems drifted through Martin’s head as he looked out at Elliott Bay and West Seattle from his 14th floor hotel balcony. In the distance, the Olympic Mountains were backlit by a phosphorus moon that reflected in the nighttime water of Puget Sound like a great white fish. Martin lit a cigarette, leaned against the railing. There had been a gun in his dream. A bright, gleaming gun, beautiful in metal and silver. Only when he’d realized it was pointed at him did he awaken. He’d swung his legs out from under the tight sheets of the Westin bed and walked across the hard carpet in his boxers. The clock’s red digital numbers glowed and blinked: 2:45. He pulled aside the stiff drapes to the sliding door and stepped outside. The wind had chilled off Elliott Bay and given him goose bumps. He stepped back inside and put on the suit jacket hanging from the hotel chair. In the breast pocket he found a thin box of Nat Sherman cigarettes brought from Manhattan and a Seattle Supersonics lighter he bought that morning at the airport. He stepped back onto the balcony, lit one of the black cigarettes, and leaned forward on the railing. He reflected on all that had just happened, as if watching a recording of himself. 2:45 a.m. Black night. Black water. Smoking a black cigarette on a dark balcony. He watched a single car drive through the yellow-orange glow of the street below, heading south past the base of the black Columbia Tower that rose tallest of the metropolitan skyline. Martin stared at the black-on-black silhouette of the Columbia Tower against the sky, and smoked and thought. Across the bay he could see the lights of West Seattle, the faint dark outline of Alki Beach where the first white-skinned settlers of the Denny Party came and made camp in the region a century and a half ago. They called it New York-Alki. “Alki” was the brown-skinned natives’ word for “by and by” or “with time.” What their dreams must have been like, Martin wondered, smoking, letting ash flutter to the street. Pioneers came to a calm blue bay and watched a future metropolis rise in their imaginations like giant glass flowers sprouting from the earth. A new New York, blossoming from their hard work, from their Christian American dreams. Martin thought of the Denny Party and of Richard Hugo’s poem “Alki Beach,” in which the poet wrote of a love beginning and ending on that beach, of bubbles disappearing in the surf, of a beer can floating in the rocks. Sleeping somewhere in that neighborhood was Martin’s high school friend Greg, with his new wife Madeleine. Martin flew home to the Pacific Northwest for the wedding. What family he had left was still in Olympia, a little over an hour to the south. He would drive there in the morning for lunch and a visit, and then return the rental car at Sea-Tac Airport and catch the red eye back to JFK. It would be early morning in New York when he returned. Martin stood away from the railing and faced the hotel room. He held the cigarette in his mouth and rubbed his cold thighs with both hands. He imagined the railing breaking beneath his weight and the terror of a fall, the loss of balance, the rollercoaster feeling in the stomach, the realization of what was happening. He felt a rush of adrenaline and turned around again. They say it’s not the ground that kills you but the cardiac arrest on the way down. He took a deep breath and listened to the silence. Claire hadn’t come to Seattle with him. His grandmother would want to know about that. And he’d have to say it was because of the baby. Again, because of Anna, and his grandmother would tell him to put his trust in God, to trust that what had happened to Anna was the right thing to have happened. Almost a year ago Martin and Claire were engaged (they were still engaged, in truth) and six months ago Anna, the baby, died. It was nobody’s fault. She was born early. She was without oxygen for several minutes in the birth canal, her tiny body tangled in the umbilical cord. What tiny bit of luck and air she needed wasn’t there. Sixteen days in a special part of the hospital, surrounded by the smell of sterility and cold electronics. Sixteen days of Martin and Claire living in the hospital and staring at what was supposed to be their daughter. A stranger, a tiny, unclassifiable creature. Something seeming unreal, like a seahorse, in a box like an aquarium. During that time Martin had hoped the girl would die. He didn’t pray—no, he couldn’t pray—but he had hoped. She would be born with mental problems, the doctors had said, how much impairment, we don’t know, they said, but you should prepare yourself for that. If she survives, there’s a good chance she will experience some level of retardation. Martin wasn’t proud of it, but he had hoped for death. So they could try again and get it right. Thanks for playing, God might have been saying. Better luck next time. The anticipation of Anna had given Claire and Martin expectations that were not met, and maybe, Martin had thought, maybe they would do better on a second try. For sixteen days he kept picturing variations on a stereotype: a daughter that wore diapers forever, that couldn’t read, that couldn’t talk right. Half of each Claire and Martin went into this thing in the box; she was what their love and DNA hath wrought. And so when Anna finally died, broken and strange in the middle of tubes and wires and beeps and hisses, their remaining halves sank to the bottom of an ocean of blame and hurt and shit. Whose half had fucked up? Who was the more broken half? They had not separated yet, but it had been almost a year. They would not last another, Martin was sure. They were both broken inside now because of this, and it was not unreasonable, Martin thought, leaning over the edge of the balcony and watching smoke float into the sky above Fourth Avenue, for the solution to be his own running home, to come back to the Northwest and toss whatever he remembered of Anna and Claire off Alki Beach like an old beer can. He could stare off from the Point at the end of West Seattle like those first settlers, and like Richard Hugo he could imagine a new love beginning, his old love just a dented can of Rainier against the rocks. Claire would continue to blame him for Anna after he’d gone, that would be her right, and his role in her life would be like a cancer, stealing six years of her life with this relationship. That would have to be okay. Martin stubbed the last of the cigarette out beside him on the railing and realized he was terrified to leave her. He stood there for a moment and then stepped fast inside the hotel room for the bottle of champagne he’d been given as part of the wedding party’s rehearsal dinner the night before. He unwrapped its golden tissues and carried it to the balcony. He held it up to the moonlight and read the French label, which meant nothing to him. A toast, he thought, a toast is in order. This is the right thing to do, to start this new life. He lit another cigarette and held it in his mouth as he untwisted the cork and, shaking the bottle, shot the cork with a blast across the avenue. White foam spilled over and onto his suit coat and bare legs. He dropped the cigarette from his mouth and the orange tip burned his foot. He swore, and not knowing what else to do, he threw the bottle toward the bay where it fell like a dying seagull onto the empty street, its near empty guts foamy and white on the pavement after a faint noise. Martin let himself fall against the wall separating his balcony from that of next door and sat in the puddle of champagne foam. He would miss her. But he was too exhausted from missing what might have been, the dreams that were going to be real, that he and Claire had together when she was pregnant, dreams of he and Claire and Anna as a family, as a home. He was glad the baby hadn’t lived, but he wished more that it had never been a possibility, that he and Claire could have gone back to what small home they’d created together before she’d gotten pregnant. Home had seemed then more a verb than a noun, something they would do together, as a family, not something that could be given and taken—as it had been with Anna. Anna is a challenge from God, Martin’s grandmother had told him on the phone during those sixteen days. A challenge you are going to have to accept. No one is in control of one’s own life, as much as you might think you are. God chooses for you. God is in control. You need to be at home in God, Martin. He thought then what he now whispers to himself: a quiet curse to God. He leaned his head back against the wall, retrieved the box of Nat Shermans from his pocket and lit a new one, setting the box back on the railing above his head. There was another story his grandmother told him. He had thought about it then, sitting next to Anna in her box. His grandmother was living in Ellensburg, in Eastern Washington, when Martin’s grandfather was fighting the war in Italy. She was only nineteen or twenty and just married. For two years she lived with second cousins from Finland who’d moved to Ellensburg via Illinois to farm once the Second World War broke out. She told Martin one evening about a dream she kept having in the days before she got word his grandfather had been shot in the leg and would be coming home. She’d said she felt so lonely in Ellensburg. She’d cry at night, and it was worse when she hadn’t heard from him for awhile. Weeks passed between the day he was shot and the notice saying that he would be home soon. She kept having the same dream: Martin’s grandfather driving down their street in Ellensburg as she sat at the window, watching him grow larger in his old cherry red Ford pick-up. But as soon as she would wave and he would wave back, hundreds of Axis soldiers would appear behind him in tanks and camouflaged jeeps with mounted machine guns. They would be gaining fast, shooting and screaming German and Italian curses she couldn’t understand but knew were curses, curses to her and him and the God that wanted them to be together. Explosions and gunshots would rattle in her head. She would be standing in the window screaming at her husband to Hurry! Hurry! And then he’d have a gun in his hand too and would be shooting out the back window of the pickup, back at the soldiers, and he would scream to her that he was Coming! I’m coming!—and suddenly it would all stop. And he was just there, standing in front of the window on the front porch, and the street would be empty and quiet behind them, and she would stand there and look at her husband, home, finally, after so long. She told Martin that every time she had the dream it would end with her looking at him through the window and saying, Oh thank God you’re home! Oh thank God my husband is home! and Martin’s grandfather would just smile and look over her shoulder through the window that separated them, and he would see the house she’d lived in with the Finnish cousins the past two years, he would see that she had started a life in America without him, was part of a family already, this family he didn’t recognize. And he would stop smiling, look deep into her happy and God-thanking tearful eyes, and put the gun to his chest and shoot himself right through the heart before she’d be able to open the door. It was her guilt, she told Martin, it was her guilt that she had started her life without him that convinced her to leave Ellensburg and take her war-torn husband to Seattle. Outside of the dream he returned safe, in a wheelchair, delivered like a parcel and unaccompanied by gunfire or chase, and she left the Finnish cousins she’d loved for two years. I felt like I had stolen two years of happiness from him, she told Martin. He had had years stolen by the war, but then he had to come back and see that in those two years he’d been gone I’d become an American, had learned what to eat and how to act. He was two years behind me. Decades later, and with his grandfather dead, Martin sat in a puddle of champagne, in the middle of the cold night in downtown Seattle thinking about Claire and the six years they’d been together. He rationalized. Yes, it was the same thing. If he left her and she met someone else it would be like he had stolen six years of potential happiness she could have had with that other man. The only thing to do now was to leave, to run home. I had stolen two years from him, his grandmother had said. But on the other side of the mountains we could start our own life together. Martin stubbed out his cigarette in the remaining champagne foam. His throat was raw and he wondered if Claire would meet someone else, if he would ever meet someone else, and he didn’t care either way. Several minutes passed and he thought of nothing but the good times between them—the vacations to European cities, the holidays, the anniversaries—and he thought about the kind of goodness she deserved in her life. He threw the soaked cigarette over the edge of the railing and pulled himself up. Walking across the room, he pulled off his wet boxers and jacket and climbed into bed naked. He lay there for a while but still couldn’t sleep, thoughts like hot bubbles in his head, and he thought how these thoughts were just chemical reactions between enzymes and neurons and other scientific things he didn’t know the names of. Like pistons in an engine firing when gasoline is compressed, or champagne shooting out from a shaken bottle. Serotonin inhibitors, LSD, Ritalin—they can change the way the engine runs and give you different thoughts. How he felt about Claire, wasn’t that also a chemical reaction? A certain combination of synaptic firings that made his body feel a certain thing. Like reflexes. Exactly like reflexes, he thought. And God. Belief in God is just another symptom of the mind. What would his childhood priest have said about that? He would have said, Martin imagines, that if belief in God is just electricity in the brain, just an illusion, then you’d have to ask yourself who controls the switch? If you are telling me, Marty, that God is just a symptom of something we can’t understand because our thoughts are controlled by the very thing we’re trying to think about, well then I tell you that it is Faith that tells me God is the ‘controller,’ God is what Descartes hypothesized as the evil daemon that might make everything we see or think a delusion. Whatever it is that makes you and I think, that enables you and me to know the difference between right and wrong, that is God, Marty. You can rationalize whatever you want about Anna, but faith will always triumph over rationalization. That’s what his priest would say, perhaps, and the Father’s argument would rest on the Catholic faith as a fulcrum, and Martin would want to ask then, can’t God create faith then, by your definition, Father? Martin tried to imagine what he could say to that, but that thought yielded silence, nothing, and he wondered what it was that let him imagine those answers from his priest in the first place. He lay in bed and thought until the sun came up. Then he walked back onto the balcony, pulling on his damp boxers, and watched the dawn ferries crossing the water. He stared west at the sun breaking out from behind the mountains—and he knew then that he did believe in God, and he didn’t care if it was God that was making him believe, if it was or wasn’t faith. It was just what he wanted to do, to believe. To let go and feel no adrenaline or fear. He wanted to believe he wasn’t in control. He wanted to believe he needed to come back here, to start over and call this home. He could forget Anna and Claire and let that just be the past; he could believe those years were stolen from him just as much as they were taken from Claire. He saw the pack of cigarettes on the railing and crumpled them in his fist. In his new life he would be a non-smoker, he decided. In the distance a ferry gave off a low-pitched blast from its horn as it passed in front of Alki Beach. It was true that the first settlers from the East came to Seattle and named it New York-Alki. But then the name was changed to honor the chief of the natives, albeit misspelled. Sealth, the chief had been called. Martin watched the ferries and thought back to the Richard Hugo poem, and to the poet lingering in the melancholy of those forgotten settlers: “Where whites first landed/is forgotten” he wrote. A love began on that beach between those who first arrived. A love began, and then years later a poet in a long dark coat walked along the shore and saw a beer can roll untended in the surf. And the poet thought about things. Martin stood on the balcony, breathed in deep the salt air, and he was happy.

Joseph Riippi was born in Seattle and lives in New York City. A graduate student in creative writing at the City College of New York, Joseph has had work published in Salamander, The Ampersand Review, and The Best Of Farmhouse Magazine Anthology. His essay on Roberto Bolano’s novel 2666 appears in the New Delta Review.

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Notes from Udayan Das, Senior Editorial Assistant
To note, first and foremost, is the form of the story. It forces the reader to read the piece in a certain way, almost as if a prose poem (supported by the rhythm of the prose), and at a certain, faster than usual pace, partially achieved by a deliberate use of short sentences. The rhythms and the sentence structure contribute immensely to the desired effect, like the poem that is being referred to, which is very much about a spiritual involvement in the present, “being in the moment”; the great joy of living because of human consciousness, being able to think, and that is wonderful. Written as an unobtrusive stream-of-consciousness, this is an ode to thought, or thoughtfulness.




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