Stories and photographs by Jim Hamerlinck©2009, 2010, 2011

Monday, August 31, 2009

Him, Again

Passenger, Metro 54, 2009

You see him all the time.


He lives and moves and operates in your world. You exist in the same orbit of sidewalks and stores and parks and stoplights. He minds his own business, tends to his own thoughts. He shares nothing of himself with you, is uninterested in you, and seems entirely comfortable with that arrangement.

He won't make eye contact with you. But, why would he? You offer him nothing but your curiosity and, maybe, your contempt.

His age is indeterminate. He could be anywhere from thirty to fifty. He is white and small and scrawny. He sports a goatee. He wears a loose fitting t-shirt, tattered jeans, and a baseball hat worn backwards. And always sunglasses. Today he is listening to something, or nothing, on oversized headphones.

He moves like a ghost, appearing here, then there, out of nowhere, unannounced. And just as quickly, he is gone. Without a trace.

(Maybe he really wants something from you and is following you, gathering information, making observations about you. Perhaps behind those sunglasses his steely eyes are tracking your every move. Might he be trying to break you down? Is he plotting some crime against you?)

You see him outside the pet store, squatting against the cool brick exterior. His hands are folded. His head is downcast, motionless. You take note of his posture, his dress, his willful disdain for convention, as you walk past. But he doesn’t seem to notice you.

Then you see him coming out of the auto parts store, hands in pockets, and he glides by you, brushing against you, without so much as a glance of recognition. He has something on his mind and it’s clearly not you.

You buy a candy bar and when you leave the drug store, he enters.

Minutes later, there he is again, standing outside a dark tavern by himself. Is this mere chance? (Of course it is.) Why does this man intrigue you so? Should you say something to him? Something stupid like, “Fancy running into you again.” No. You walk right by him like he does not exist and behind those black sunglasses he is just as perplexed and amused and slightly bothered by these encounters as you. Or so you like to think, anyway.

You wait for the bus to arrive to take you downtown, away from this neighborhood. And him.

You step onto the bus and pay your fare and you see him, of course, seated there, by himself, leaning against the window, buried under the oversized headphones, lost in thought.

Every instinct tells you to take a seat at the very back of the bus, hidden from his watchful eye, but you choose to sit just a few seats behind him because you need to see where this relationship is headed.

Parking Lot, Northgate Mall, 2009

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Flight 283, Row 16, Seats A B C D E F

Dated, Gas Works Park, 2009

She is returning to Seattle to resume the conversation she had with her father fifteen years ago, the last time they spoke. She cannot sleep. She cannot concentrate on the novel she bought at the airport. So, she looks at the wing of the plane and the tops of heads and the latch holding the tray in place and considers what she will say to her father and how to say it. She has rehearsed the scenario in her head over and over but it is never comfortable, never right. She is nervous and scared and wishes the plane would just stay suspended here in the clouds. She pops a stick of gum into her mouth. She folds its wrapper into the tiniest, most perfect square possible and drops it inside the pouch which holds the in-flight magazine and emergency instructions.

She is tired and feels dirty and wants to be home sitting in her bathtub, but home is five hundred miles behind her now and she won’t see it for another week. Just relax, she tells herself. She knows she should be grateful for her sister’s invitation and is trying to convince herself that they will get along great this time and that it will be different because the boy is older, easier, less prone to tantrums. But she knows her sister will criticize the boy's father and she will come to his defense. But the truth is that she is angry that his father doesn’t take more responsibility, more interest, send more money, make inquiries…it makes her wish she had not met him. The boy is calm right now. She offers him a piece of blue candy. On the wrapper it says that the candy contains real fruit and other natural ingredients.

He likes these trains and the animal characters riding them. They are all the wrong colors and ridiculous. The thick cardboard pages feel good between his fingers. He likes the weight, the sturdiness, the glossy coating. He wants to bite and chew on these pages. He thinks that if he threw the book it would not tear or bend and that it might hit someone, maybe that mean-looking man in front of him, and that it would cause the man to turn around and frown at him. He wants to stand up and see what or who is behind him but knows his mom will tell him to sit down and be quiet but he will try it and see if she might not care for once. He wipes the sticky blue candy residue off of his cheek with the back of his hand.

He has to go, again, but considers waiting a little while longer so as not to look like someone who has to go to the bathroom every five minutes for that is embarrassing. He thought that by reducing his water intake before the flight that this would not be a problem, and this frustrates him. He wonders if anyone has noticed his new glasses. He wonders if anyone admires the way they make him look sophisticated and intellectual. He’s only had them for a week and they are causing irritation along the bridge of his nose, but he knows that this can’t last long and he’ll get used to them and is willing to put up with the temporary discomfort because the glasses are just so flattering and expensive. He made a good choice. He thinks that the flight attendant looks sort of like his mother might have twenty years ago if she were a little heavier and had brown hair.

He pulls the sandwich out of his backpack and bites into it though he’s not really hungry. It is nervous energy, he knows, and there’s nothing he can do about it. (He doesn’t like this kind of bread. What is it? Whole wheat?) He is returning to graduate school and thinks that it is the biggest mistake of his life but he would never tell anyone that, especially his girlfriend, because then she would lose all respect for him and he would lose her, and that would be worse than anything. He takes another bite of the sandwich and some sauce drips onto his pants. He wishes there was someone in his life to tell him what to do, to counsel him. His foot is tapping uncontrollably but he won't stop it because there’s something comforting about the rhythm it keeps. It's a rhythm that scores his eating and his nervousness. It’s his rhythm. He’s making it. It’s his. He feels full but keeps eating the sandwich and can tell that the man next to him finds his chewing and his foot tapping annoying and so he tries to chew softly and demurely and slow down the foot, but he’s not sure that’s possible and why must he always try and please others and not himself?

She hates this traveling back and forth between her sons but what else is she to do? She has no one else. It wears her down. She is always tired. She misses her husband terribly right now and is remembering how they held hands so tightly when planes would land, how they would squeeze each other so hard until the screeching wheels finally, mercifully, stopped, and they knew they would live to see another day. Her son will be in the baggage claim area waiting for her and he will not be smiling, she knows this. He will lift her bag from the carrousel and they will walk in silence to the car and they will listen to the radio on the way to his house and not say a word. But maybe it will be different this time. She sensed something in his voice last night that led her to believe that he might be more sympathetic this time. Her feet are aching again and she wants to slip off her shoes but she won’t because she’s not bold enough, like her late best friend, Louise. She wishes she had the nerve to just wear her slippers all the time, like Louise did. She wants the flight attendant to bring her a Bloody Mary because you deserve it, Ma’am, and here is a blanket and pillow for you, as well.

Barrier, Greyhound Terminal, Downtown, 2009

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Do Not Open 'til Christmas

University Heights Center, University District, 2009

Shane was talking to his new next door neighbor, Beth, who had recently divorced. He was feeling sympathetic toward Beth, who, at fifty five, was alone for the first time in many years, so invited her to take whatever she wanted from his garage to help her get started in her new life. "Most of this stuff is in near mint condition,” he explained. "Help yourself."

Beth had little interest in Shane’s old tools or sports equipment, or floor tiles, or bags of sand, or board games, or a giant computer monitor or his collection of science fiction paperbacks. But she did like the wind chime, thinking that it would bring a bit of cheer to her sterile new apartment. “I’ll hang it out on the deck,” she told Shane. "It'll chime for both of us."

Shane had forgotten about the wind chime. His mother had sent it to him as a Christmas present two years ago but it never left the box. It was buried behind a Hefty bag full of clothes that no longer fit and an old VCR player which he didn’t feel right about throwing away because he still had his Great Moments In TV Comedy tapes somewhere in the house--the attic, maybe--and he might want to play them for his kids some day, should he ever have kids.

“Oh, are you sure you want that old thing?” Shane asked.

“It looks like it hasn’t been opened,” Beth said, and held out the box for Shane to inspect.

“Huh. You're right. It was a gift from my mom.”

“That’s sweet,” said Beth. “Then you should keep it. You should hang it up.”

“No. That’s okay,” replied Shane. “You take it.”

“Thank you for your generosity, Slade,” said Beth. “I really appreciate your kindness and support.”

“It’s Shane. And you’re welcome. Enjoy the wind chime,” he said.

Shane did not like wind chimes but had never gotten up the nerve to tell his mother. He was slightly embarrassed, to be honest, by his reaction to something so seemingly innocuous. But the constant, invasive clinking and tinkling drove him nuts.

When he was outside working or lounging in his yard he wanted to hear …quiet. Or birds. He wanted to hear the wind brushing against the branches of the fir and maple trees, not hollow little metal sticks and discs. He could put up with the odd motorcycle or jet roaring past, or children playing in a yard nearby, or someone mowing their lawn, or the blast from a teenager’s car stereo. Those occurrences were part of the natural soundscape of a city. The noises came and went. Their duration was short.

A wind chime, however, never stopped. The tink-tink-tink was incessant, relentless.

“It’s a violation of my senses. It’s noise pollution,” Shane declared. He just couldn’t allow this to happen.

So Shane baked a cake.

He would take the cake to Beth and explain to her that he is sorry but he must ask her not to hang the wind chime and hopes that she understands and he would poke fun at his neurosis and they would have a good laugh and she would reassure him that, no, she would not hang the chime because she totally understands what it’s like to have your peace and quiet disturbed and don‘t think any more of it and lets have a piece of this good cake.

But, then...

When Beth answered the door, Shane handed her the cake.

“Oh, my God! Thank you, Slade.”

“It’s Shane. Beth. Actually...I would like to keep that wind chime if you don’t mind. I think I’ll hang it from my porch."

"Oh," she said.

"May I have it back, please?”

Beth put the cake on a table then went out to her deck and carefully removed the wind chime from its hook.

“Here you are,” she said.

“Thank you, Beth. Sorry about that. You understand, right?”

“Yes,” said Beth. “I understand.”

"Umm. Do you still have the box?" Shane asked.

"Yes. I'll get it."

Beth returned with the box and handed it to Shane.

“Well...." said Shane. "Enjoy the cake!”

“I will,” said Beth. “Thank you.”

Shane returned the wind chime to the shelf in his garage, behind the Hefty, safely hidden, forever muffled.

Several weeks later, Beth bought her own wind chime at a street fair--a fancy, ornamental, multi-layered unit with sea shells and bamboo made in Thailand--and hung it from her deck.

The neighbors rarely spoke anymore. But with Beth's wind chime producing its subtle variations of dings, tinks, pings and clinks, an exchange, of a sort, existed between the two, ongoing and continuous.

Apartment Steps, University District, 2009

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Sensualist

Popcorn, Day Old, Seattle Center, 2009

The hummus tasted good at the time, but now he had a craving for something, maybe something sweet, that might eliminate the thick, smokey aftertaste it had left in his mouth.

It was late, 10:30, almost time for bed, so the practical thing would have been to simply brush his teeth and call it a night.

But then he got to thinking....

He reasoned that a piece of licorice, which is what he had after dinner, was not dessert. Not in the classic sense. Not that every dessert had to be a true classic, of course, like pie or cake or peach cobbler or a thick slice of fudge. But one small, bite-sized, semi-sweet piece of black licorice does not produce smiles and ahhh’s when eaten. It is almost like taking a pill, really.

In his mind a meal has three components:

1. A salad.
2. An entrée.
3. A dessert.

Tonight he did not have dessert, a real dessert, so the meal felt incomplete. He felt incomplete. This is what he reasoned.

And this is why he got out of his pajamas and back into his clothes and walked four blocks to the Seven Eleven to find some real dessert so that the meal could be completed--in the classic sense--before he retired for the night.

He headed straight to the freezer in the back of the store and eyed their rotating selection of Haagen Dasz and Ben And Jerry’s ice cream. He was in the mood for something slightly--slightly--more decadent than plain vanilla or chocolate or strawberry.

But every offering seemed to include four or five different incongruous flavors in one pint. Peanut butter with marshmello and Oreo chunks and cherries and cookie dough and chocolate covered jelly beans and pretzels and banana pudding and raspberry swirls and cotton candy and M & M’s and Cap’n Crunch and cinnamon sticks and graham cracker crumbs and….

The freezer door was fully fogged now. The clerk behind the counter cleared his throat loudly and said, “You pick now?”

He had to make a choice. Or did he? He could walk away from the store right now empty handed and go home and go to bed and everything would be just fine in the morning and he did not need a classic dessert and who was he fooling?

He selected Chunky Waves of Grain (butterscotch ice cream with candy coated bread crumbs and dried apple shavings). “Now, that’s a dessert!” he joked with the clerk who handed him his change and said nothing.

Back home and in his pajamas he sat in front of the TV and scraped away at Chunky Waves of Grain, determined to eat only a quarter of the pint, at most. “This will be my dessert for the rest of the week,” he promised himself.

The syndicated crime scene investigation program was very compelling, and by the time it was over at midnight he had eaten the entire pint, despite his best intentions.

Now he did not feel well at all. He felt bloated.

He did not feel complete.

His sister once told him that eating licorice helped alleviate nausea. So he ate a piece then went to bed.

Warning Sign, Abandoned Building, Westlake Avenue North, 2009

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Effort

Leaf, University of Washington, 2009

He followed her down the hall once more, only this time with a sense of purpose.

Class had been dismissed on the final day of the semester. It was now or never. He caught up with her, then tapped her elbow.

She stopped and turned, “Yes?”

But his courage betrayed him. He froze.

“Yes,” she repeated. “What is it?”

He locked on to her sympathetic, pale blue eyes but could summon no words. She was granting him an invitation into her world but he was paralyzed by his reserve.

“Well?” she said.

For nine weeks they had shared the same small classroom with just six other students, yet she looked at him as if he were a stranger.

Finally, he spoke. “I think y-y-y-you forgot your….”

“My what?” she asked.

“I forgot my pencil,” he responded, and the descent commenced.

She blinked once, slowly. "Oh," she said.

She noticed the pencil in his fist, then said, “Well, you should go back to the classroom and get it before Telford locks the door.”

I. Forgot. My. Pencil.

This is not how he had rehearsed the scene in his daydreams. This is not what he envisioned. He saw the exchange ending in a soft, tender kiss, not I FORGOT MY PENCIL.

The disappointment and embarrassment cut deep. But worse, he had placed the burden of salvaging the moment, and his dignity, on her.

"Oh, right," was all he could muster.

He stepped away from her and saw that the classroom door had already been locked but knew that where retreat was concerned, his imagination was limitless. He surreptitiously pocketed his pencil and continued toward the room, moving his legs in slow motion. She would be gone by the time he reached the door. He would will her gone. She would be gone, for humiliation cannot run any deeper.


He recognized the voice as hers and quickened his stride.

“Wait,” she pleaded.

He could not resist, and turned to her approach.

“Why don’t you just borrow one of mine,” she said, and handed him a pencil. “I’ve got a bunch.”

“Oh. Okay. Thank you." He avoided looking at her but regarded the pencil as if it was the most amazing thing he had ever seen. And it may have been.

“I expect to get that back,” she said, as she walked away. “Eventually.”

Rose, University of Washington, 2009

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Where You Need To Be

Stay, Fishermen's Terminal, 2009

The Greyhound pulled into the Seattle terminal at midnight and Bradley stepped off because he had run out of money.

When he got on the bus three days ago, his future was as cloudy as the Illinois sky that he was leaving behind. Now, at least, he had arrived somewhere. His destination had been established. There was no option. Seattle would be his home.

He grabbed his duffle bag from the storage compartment and begged some change off a police officer so that he could call his mom and tell her where he was and that he was safe.

Bradley was eighteen and out on his own for the first time. His mother, Varlene, had pleaded with him to stay with her in Normal, but Bradley would not hear it. He needed to erase his sad history in that town: the school suspensions, the brushes with the law, the restlessness and aggravation and lonliness that haunted him. He told his mom that if he didn’t get out of Normal he didn’t know what he would do.

Varlene knew her boy, and knew that this was not idle talk.

Resentment and anger festered in him like a virus and was destroying his soul. It broke her heart, but she did what any other mother would do to protect her child. She set him free. She saved him from himself.

“Go out and find your life, Bradley,” she whispered in his ear, as she held him for the last time. “My boy.”

“I love you, Momma. I’ll always love you, Momma.”

A sympathetic shelter worker found Bradley a cot at that late hour, and the next morning gave him $30 to buy some clothes at Goodwill and $5 more to grab a breakfast at McDonald’s. Bradley was grateful and told the man his kindness would not be forgotten. The man pointed to a sheet of paper taped to the wall. “There’s a list of places that are hiring day workers,” said the man. “Take a look and see if anything appeals to you.”

Bradley did not want to be a day worker. He wanted a real job. He wanted to earn a living, and knew that day work would get him into nothing but trouble.

He bought a blue denim dress shirt, khaki slacks and a pair of decent, used, black work shoes at Goodwill, then, after some breakfast, changed into his new clothes inside the McDonald’s restroom.

He hopped on the first Metro bus that went by, the 17, and determined to take it to wherever he needed to go. “Have faith in yourself,” his mother always told him, “and good things will come your way.”

From Downtown the 17 crosses the north side of Queen Anne and heads into Ballard by way of Westlake Avenue, which runs parallel to the shore of Lake Union, where Seattle’s yacht and pleasure boating related businesses are headquartered.

Bradley had never been on a boat in his life, but he liked what he saw. He was captivated by the size, the stateliness and majesty of these boats, and how they represented wealth and comfort and ease, the good life, the life that Bradley aspired to.

He pulled the cord and got off the 17 because he had found where he needed to be.

At Incredible Yachts Of Seattle, the vinyl sign flapping above the door said, Welcome Aboard! Bradley entered and found Dan Sutterfield, the owner, on the phone with one of his brokers arguing over some deal gone wrong. Sutterfield motioned for Bradley to take a seat and indicated with his finger he would be with him in a minute.

Bradley picked up a copy of Yachting Magazine and paged through its glossy advertisements as he waited.

“See something in there you like?" asked Sutterfield, after he had gotten off the phone.

“I sure do,” said Bradley, pointing to a feature article on a yacht called Odysseus VIII.

“World class boat,” said Sutterfield. “World class.”

“Yup,” agreed Bradley. “World class.”

“What can I do for you today, young man?” asked Sutterfield.

Bradley did not hesitate. “I want to sell yachts,” he said.

Sutterfield said nothing. He looked at Bradley dispassionately, much like one would a broken down car on the side of the road at rush hour. He noticed the second hand shoes that were too big for Bradley’s feet, the unkempt greasy hair and unshaven face, the ill-fitting shirt, the bags under his eyes, the dirty fingernails, the nervous blinking. He saw troubles.

He also saw in this boy the earnestness and sincerity which he, Sutterfield, had lost years ago, and which his current team of brokers apparently had never possessed.

“Just a minute, son,” he told Bradley, and stepped inside of an office where Sutterfield’s wife, Diana, was working.

Bradley helped himself to a drink from the water dispenser. He held the conical paper cup as if it were a fragile cocktail glass, delicately, with his fingertips, and sipped the water carefully, with grace, like a yacht owner might.

“Son,” said Sutterfield, when he had returned from the conference with his wife, “how would you like a job cleaning boats?”

“I would love that, sir,” said Bradley. “I would love that very much.”

Wholesale Floral Supply Warehouse, South Lake Union, 2009

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Break

Corner, International District, 2009

Elle told her secretary that she was going to get a cup of coffee and would be back in fifteen minutes. Her secretary looked surprised.

“But you don’t drink coffee,” she said.

“I used to. A long time ago,” said Elle. “Do you want me to get you something?”

“Uh…no,” laughed her secretary. “But, thanks.”

“I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.”

“I know,” her secretary said. “You already told me.”

Elle pressed the down arrow and waited for the elevator to open. Then she pressed the up arrow. She waited a moment longer, then returned to her office. “I forgot my purse,” she explained to her secretary. Several minutes later she re-emerged and this time opted to take the stairs. Her secretary noticed that she was not carrying her purse.

“You sure I can’t get you anything?” asked Elle, as she passed. But before her secretary could respond, the door to the stairwell had closed.

Elle ran into one her associates, Dan--Dan, The Ineffectual she called him--in the lobby just as she was about to leave the building.

“Elle. Where are you headed?”

“I need to….,” she stopped herself. “That’s none of your business, Dan,” she finished, and walked away.

Elle wished she had remembered her sunglasses, the light was so intense at midday. She could scarcely look up. It was like trying to walk through a giant kaleidoscope, the unforgiving rays careening recklessly off the steel and glass and asphalt and chrome, blinding her, confusing her.

She rode the wave of pedestrians, though, with their relentless crush of deadlines and appointments and time constraints and agendas until she got to Pioneer Square, where she escaped into the cool shade of an alley. Two men were hoisting large rugs onto a truck but took no notice of her. A seagull perched on a dumpster flew off when she caught its eye. She pressed her back against a crumbling one hundred year old brick wall and put her hand over her chest. She was breathing hard, too hard. She needed water.

She walked to Occidental Park and found its rustic old drinking fountain. The tepid trickle was not refreshing, but she was drinking here for sustenance. A mob of pigeons warily approached her, saw that her hands were empty, and directed their attention on an unsuspecting family who wandered by, carrying their lunch in familiar white Ivar's Seafood bags.

A young woman was leading a small group of toddlers by a rope and Elle followed them for a while, then broke off and headed south on First Avenue, past bars and antique businesses and empty art galleries. She finally reached the end of Pioneer Square where the retail shops transitioned into factories and warehouses.

Elle kept walking. Block after block with her head down in the heat of the afternoon. No one was telling her to stop or to come back. No one cared.

Her face was flush and sunburned, her hair damp, her hands and feet swollen. She walked on until she reached the doughnut shop south of the stadiums. The place was empty but for the teenage boy behind the counter who was texting someone. She slipped out of her heels, then approached him for a glass of water.

“Hold on,” he said, and finished his message before putting his phone into the pocket of his red apron. He filled a 24 ounce cup to the brim and asked her if she would like some ice.

“No. Thank you,” she said.

She took a seat against the window overlooking the railroad tracks and waited for the boy to resume his texting, before dipping her fingers into the water. A train heading south to Portland rumbled past.

As she massaged her feet, Elle decided not return to her office that afternoon. She would ask the teenager to call for a cab to take her home.

Tomorrow she would try again. She would try to fit into this life she had made for herself one more time.

Alley, International District, 2009

© Jim Hamerlinck.All Rights Reserved.

  • “There's nothing to be gained from passive observance, the simple documenting of conditions, because, at its core, it sets a bad example. Every time something is observed and not fixed, or when one has a chance to give in some way and does not, there is a lie being told, the same lie we all know by heart but which needn't be reiterated.” Dave Eggers