Vassar Student Review

Vassar Student Review

Wintertime, Seattle

By Alyssa Willeford

The rain fell heavily on the hills and especially on the Lake. There is something especially desolate about watching rain fall on the Lake; if there is already so much water, then what, we must ask, is the need for even more? And even the rain that does not fall into the Lake will flow there over the following hours and days. Truly, there is no end to such things.

It was December, just above freezing, and the rain was icy, a sort of half-sleet. That is the closest it gets to snowing in December, you see. In Seattle, in the wintertime, these things happen.

Also in Seattle, in this particular wintertime, lived a young, tired woman named Leah L. Knight. She was a writer by trade, or so she claimed, but her bills were paid by a part-time position she’d found at a startup; it was a non-technical position, and so it paid a very non-technical salary. Nevertheless, it had secured for her a damp basement apartment in the neighborhood of Fremont, and Fremont was where she spent most of her days as well.

On this particular rainy morning, we find Leah walking on the canal. Most people do not go for walks in the rain, and it was nearly deserted. A few forlorn cyclists dashed up and down the path, splashing great waves of water whenever they rode through a puddle, but they were few and far between.

It struck her as somehow impetuous on the part of the rain to arrive now, and in a sort of half-sleet. There was a Person she wanted to see, but coming in disheveled from the rain, well…that did no one any favors, did it? Still, there was nothing for it; she had made a Resolution, and today she would finally complete that Resolution.

Leah was always making Resolutions. She had resolved, for example, to finish writing her book, to lose five pounds, and to find a better apartment – all noble things, of course, and very reasonable, and eminently doable, if Leah had not been a young, tired woman with no time to even get started on any of them. The only one she quite managed was her Resolution to call her mother twice a week, but that was rather easy; if she forgot, then her mother would simply call her instead.

It seemed sometimes that all she had was Resolutions.

The purpose of Leah’s excursion was twofold. Firstly, it was to fulfill her Resolution to exercise. A gentle walk was not really exercise, but then she did not really want to fulfill her Resolution either; she hated sweating. Her doctor, however, never ceased to remind her about the benefits of exercise, especially for a young person such as herself, and so she had to be able to convince herself that she was making progress.

The second purpose of the excursion was to find inspiration for what she was about to do. Leah was not the kind of person who could simply wake up and take on the world; she needed to get herself in the right mood first, a mood that suited whatever she felt she had to do. Today she would need to cultivate determination, for which purpose a walk served excellently. Seeing the world and its sights was good for building up one’s feeling of cosmic significance, and if there was rain, well, then she had conquered that rain, had not simply let it chase her into her apartment and back to bed like it had so many others. Actually, she liked rain, despite its tendency to leave her looking like a drowned rat. Precipitation was an old friend of hers.

As she passed the chocolate factory, it occurred to her that the Person might like a gift. It wouldn’t be good to give it to him too soon, of course; she would keep it for when they met a second time, for when the thread of fate had already bound them together. He would be sure to appreciate a bar of chocolate. In general, most everyone enjoys a bar of chocolate every now and then. She stepped into the factory shop, tried a few samples (free samples were one of the few joys of Leah’s life), and then selected and purchased a plain dark bar of South American origin. It was a safe choice – there were no fruits he might not like, nor any nuts he might be allergic to – but a somewhat cowardly one. In fact, it was common for Leah to make the cowardly choice.

But today she would do no such thing. Steeling herself, she stepped back out into the rain.


The Old Man and the Chevrolet


At the other end of the weary, heavily-trafficked street known as Leary Way, an old, dusty man was getting into his car. The dust that covered him was quite imperceptible to him, and though the rain drummed down onto his shoulders, it did nothing to disturb the thick layer of gray powder that coated the man most thickly on the top of his bald head and on his shoulders.

Here I must turn aside: surely, dear reader, you did not expect that we would remain with Leah forever? She was not the only citizen of Seattle to be doing something of interest on that wet morning. I promise you that we will return to her shortly (very shortly, as this is a very short story), but please know that her narrative and the narratives of the other three figures we will follow are quite connected.

The car, which, you will remember, was the other figure in the vignette just a paragraph ago, was a 1981 Chevrolet Citation. If you have not heard of this car, you are not to blame, but our old man would have blamed you anyway. The old man (Sven Andersson) was of the opinion that the Citation was a fine machine indeed, but that the Mexicans, or possibly the Chinese, had conspired to spoil its sales and to win themselves more market share. The Mexicans, and possibly the Chinese, featured heavily in Sven’s political imagination.

In fact, like many American men of a certain age, Sven’s personality consisted mainly of hating things. He hated the Mexicans, and possibly the Chinese; he hated the Ford Motor Company, even though it was neither Mexican nor even possibly Chinese; he hated hippies, even though there were no hippies anymore; and, most of all, he hated the young people at the coffee shop he frequented. The pancake house where he had gone before for his coffee had closed, no doubt a victim of Mexicans or hippies or unnamed young people, and so now he had to settle for going to the kind of coffee shop he hated, the kind with an espresso machine.

More than any of these things, though, Sven hated his wife. He hated her because she was dead. She had been dead now for thirty years. At the beginning, when she had been freshly buried, he hadn’t hated her at all; he had still loved her, still felt her beside him, still prayed for her to ascend to heaven and from there to gaze lovingly down at him. But then the years had gone by, and Sven had realized just how very alone he was, and just how inconvenient it had been that his wife should have died when by rights they should have had many more years together. And whenever something was inconvenient, Sven got angry.

Thirty or forty years before, things had been different. Then, Sven had called his mother every three days; she had been alive and well. Then, he had had his union job at the Salmon Bay shipyard, and he had come home every night to a fresh casserole and a cold beer. His wife was excellent at making casserole. Whether green bean, tuna noodle, or tater tot, it had always been delicious, had always warmed his soul. He had been in love, deeply in love, and now there was nothing warming his soul.

Nothing, that was, except for the Citation’s sputtering engine. The car had been Sven’s gift to himself on the occasion of his promotion to foreman at the shipyard, and it had served him well in all the years since. It had no CD player, no cup holders, and no air conditioning, but Sven listened to jazz music on cassettes, never drank coffee in the car (that was for those goddamn hipsters), and did not believe in climate change. Love was for young fools; the car was his forever.

The dust on his shoulders was the dust of Time.


The Organizer


Somewhere in between the two people we visited before (but considerably closer to Leah, especially considering that she was now heading up Phinney Avenue) is a small coffee shop, of the kind despised (but patronized anyway) by Sven. You know the type, dear reader; these coffee shops are beloved by the kind of Seattleite who looks like an artist but works a highly technical job at Amazon, with a highly technical salary to match. It was not Starbucks, and for most of the clientele that was a point of pride. The person working at this particular coffee shop – oh, but we’ll get to him later. For now, let us turn our attention to the personage occupying one of the small tables by the wall.

This personage, as is the custom, had a name: Naomi Walker. Naomi Walker spent most of her days in the coffee shop, having a cup of tea once every four hours and tapping away at her computer as she thought about the Revolution. The Revolution was a powerful presence in Naomi Walker’s mind, as well as in the buttons fastened to her jean jacket. If you had asked her, asked her straight out, what she thought the Revolution was going to be like, she could not have answered you in detail, but she could have told you that it was going to be led by Naomi Walker.

Naomi Walker was looking out at the rain now – actually, it was beginning to clear up – and thinking about the Revolution, and how, in the Revolutionary society, rain wouldn’t be so depressing. It was certainly depressing now, but that was only because the city, not built according to the proper principles of Eco-Socialist Utopianism, recoiled from the rain and failed to accept it as an inevitability. Naomi Walker didn’t mind getting cold and wet; rain only made her sad because it betrayed yet another of society’s shortcomings.

Naomi Walker also had ideas about people. In general, her idea of a given person, anyone that happened to be standing in front of her at the time, was that that person was not Revolutionary enough. Naomi Walker herself had started out as a simple Socialist, but then had moved on to Syndicalism, then to Anarcho-Communism, and now to the Eco-Socialist Utopianism she so loved. But she would have abandoned that, too, in a heartbeat if confronted by someone yet further to the left. Naomi Walker called her mother once a month, but the conversations were always tiresome for her; they usually were, with people who were not Revolutionary enough.

Even those who were not Revolutionary enough, however, could yet be redeemed by what Naomi Walker termed the most Revolutionary of feelings: Love. Unlike many previous Revolutionaries – Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin, Frantz Fanon – Naomi Walker believed that love was not simply bourgeois sentimentality, but rather the central feeling of the Revolutionary state, and the one that capital most wished to destroy. It was a bold stance, she knew, but those previous Revolutionaries were easy to contradict; after all, none of them had been Revolutionary enough.

And Naomi Walker had noticed, in her many, many hours at the coffee shop (more indeed than she spent in her damp ground-floor apartment), that a Love of the most Revolutionary nature was brewing, had possibly already brewed, between two of the characters in her life’s daily drama. She followed the action every day with great excitement and today, at last, was hoping to witness the denouement. One of the characters was a tired young woman who came in irregularly during the mornings. The other was…


The Person


…a young man of extremely middling appearance. Absolutely nothing whatever about his physical form was in any way remarkable or notable, with the exception of the pair of round glasses, the kind with thin wire frames, that he wore each and every day. To the casual observer, he appeared, in fact, to be nothing more than a floating pair of glasses. Sometimes he was a floating pair of glasses running down the street (he made a point of doing so every morning), and sometimes he was a floating pair of glasses at the grocery store, and today he was a floating pair of glasses hovering in space somewhere above the espresso machine at the coffee shop. For this was where he worked.

Today, the floating pair of glasses was speckled with drops of rain. The Person hated the rain because it got on his glasses. Everything he hated, he hated for very simple reasons; he hated sweets because they were a waste of good calories, dogs because they were entirely too noisy, and his job because it was just so

I must confess, dear reader, that I do not see fit to spare the space to express the Person’s full, detailed feelings about his job. This is because to do so would entail making the story longer by half again, and I am afraid that that new section would make for tiresome reading indeed. Complaints are tiresome, as a rule. Suffice it to say that the Person hated his job because of how good he was at it. He had a smile for every customer, was always ready with a joke or a charming compliment; in short, he masked himself, masked himself behind a floating pair of glasses. It was all utterly depressing.

And today was especially so. The Person had been late to work, and now the world sought to torment him further with a flurry of customers who seemed to believe for some reason that the coffee shop, which was not Starbucks, was in fact Starbucks. He had received three orders for Frappuccino in a single morning. These were the kinds of things he complained to his mother about, when he called her on the phone, for which he had no schedule whatsoever. He simply dialed her number whenever he was otherwise unoccupied and feeling agitated; no doubt he would go on to do so that very night.

By around ten, the Starbucks-ers had dissipated, replaced by a new set of people mainly interested in the white chocolate raspberry mocha. The Person also hated making white chocolate raspberry mochas. I am afraid that we are seeing a rather unbalanced view of the Person at the moment; he was not always in such a bad mood. But this is simply how we found him, is it not?

Sven also arrived during this period; he ordered a large black coffee and took a seat by the window. But the unremarkable barely bears noticing when you are angry, and the Person, angry indeed, did not take any particular notice of him.

That same Person also did not take any particular notice of the tired young woman pacing outside the coffee shop window.


V. Scherzo


Leah was about to enter the coffee shop. She had to; if she did not, she would fail to keep her Resolution, and failing to keep one’s Resolution is a terrible thing indeed, especially in a situation like this one. But the rain had abated now, and its presence, which had emboldened her even as it had put her in a somber mood, would be sorely missed.

At last, rain or no rain, she decided that she had to go in. This was facilitated by the realization that she had been pacing in front of the shop’s windows, in full view of all within, including the Person. To flee would be pure cowardice, and though it was common for Leah to make the cowardly choice, she would not do so today. Pulling open the door, she stepped into the coffee shop.

The atmosphere within was somehow forbidding. Yes, it was the same coffee shop she knew and loved, and loved all the more because it was not Starbucks, but the conversation at the various tables – those occupied by persons other than Sven and Naomi Walker, both of whom were sitting alone – swirled around her, took no notice of her, drowned her out:

“Well – hm –”

“I said just the other day –”

“And…they were out of kombucha –”

Just then the milk steamer shrieked, drowning the whole world in its piercing cry. The sound put Leah on edge, and yet no one else seemed to mind at all.

“The Sounders –”

“– he told me that he had already paid –”

“Hm, well…I said…”

“Sorry, what was that, it’s just…the coffee machine was loud just then…”

“I won’t work for free –”

“An entrepreneur, yes, I have a startup –”

“Oh, it was just…they were out of kombucha…”

It took her a moment to screw up the courage to carry on, but carry on she did. Hesitantly, she strode up to the counter, where a floating pair of glasses, attached somehow to the Person’s body, was awaiting her somewhat impatiently. “What can I do for you?” The words themselves were friendly enough, but the tone was harsh, impersonal. The smiles that he usually had had run out earlier in the day.

Leah felt shy anyway. She always felt shy around the Person. And she was shyer just then than she had ever been. It had all come down to this moment, hadn’t it? “Um, yes, I…just a latte, please…”

“With the normal milk?” The Person had learned that it was better to ask than to be sorry later on – people are very particular about the milk in their coffee, you see.

“Um, I’m sorry, no, with the hemp milk…”

“Well, we’re out of hemp milk today…”

“Oh…” Leah paused. “Almond milk, then…” She thrust her credit card across the counter.

Naomi Walker looked up from her laptop and realized that the Revolution was happening right in front of her. She watched intently as the tired young woman paid, took her card back, and then went to wait at the end of the counter; within the next few minutes, she would see it all unfold. She could hardly wait.

The preparation of the latte took place automatically. The Person did not even need to look down anymore, so practiced was he at his trade, so instead he scanned the room. On a day like that one, he felt more animosity than usual towards the mass of customers. As I said before, he was not usually so irritable, but this was one of his bad days, and for that the tired young woman standing across from him would very soon pay the price. The price she had already paid, $4.65, was high enough for a latte, especially on her non-technical salary. Soon, it would seem a pittance in comparison.

When the drink was finished, the Person placed it on the counter in front of the tired young woman. “Have a nice day.”

“Um, wait…” Leah cast around for the words to express what she felt, but soon found herself failing utterly. “It’s just…would you…ah…I…”

“I don’t…” the glasses hung in the air, pointing towards the tired young woman; the light from the window reflected forbiddingly off of them. Naomi Walker held her breath. Would they?

Leah had prepared for being tongue-tied. She drew a scrap of paper out of her pocket, a scrap of paper bearing the ten digits of her phone number, and handed it to the Person, who took it with trepidation. “It’s just…” she said, “I thought…”

Just then, Sven let out a derisive snort. Young people were all the same, head over heels in love, unable to say what they meant. He made a point of always saying what he meant, even when it was completely inappropriate to do so. For example, just the day before, when he had called to order a pizza and learned that the pizza restaurant was out of anchovies, he had drawn attention to the great likelihood that the individual taking his order had to be Mexican, or possibly Chinese. He had not gotten any pizza at all, after that, but he had made his point, and if that silly, tired young woman would do the same…he shook his shoulders, attempting to dislodge the dust of Time, but it didn’t budge. It never did.

But the old man’s snort had sent everything spinning out of balance. The Person, hearing it, felt himself rudely jarred out of his working rhythm, from which the tired young woman in front of him had already tried to pry him. Well, they wouldn’t get to him that easily. If he had been in the mood to respond positively before (hardly a given), he certainly wasn’t after the geezer’s interruption. Grunting in a thoroughly noncommittal fashion, he pocketed the scrap of paper and turned to the next customer.

At that, Naomi Walker gasped. The red star of the Revolution danced before her eyes, but it was just out of reach; the young couple had not achieved the understanding she had so eagerly anticipated. The world was betrayed, and Love was defeated. They had not been Revolutionary enough. Sighing, she turned back to her work.

The gasp was too much for Leah. It is rare that we get signals from the world, which is normally too indifferent and aloof to care much about our hopes and dreams, our successes and failures; the fact that she had received one destroyed the last traces of her resolve. Seizing her drink, she worked a lid onto it and hurried out of the coffee shop.

Once out on the street – the rain had quite ended by now – she wondered what to do next. Her Resolution was in tatters, and the day she had planned for herself was utterly ruined. exercise, the rain on the lake, the Person – all of these had betrayed her. There was only one thing that remained to be done: To seek solace, solace by whatever means necessary. Pulling out the bar of chocolate, she tore off the wrapper and took a large bite, followed by a gulp of boiling latte. Then, nursing her burned mouth, she turned and hurried off down the cold, damp street.

In Seattle, in the wintertime, these things happen.

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