Excerpt of The Guild of Saint Cooper, by Shya ScanlonBy TNB Fiction
May 11, 2015
Russell drove us up 65th to Phinney Ridge, his white stomach stuffed behind the wheel of the quick blue convertible Porsche. He accelerated over the cross streets, and Alice, who’d flagged us down outside her parents’ house, made girlish sounds as she floated, momentarily, above the tiny back seat while Russell leered at her in the rearview mirror. He’d shown up unannounced that morning, had simply pulled up and honked out front until I came to the door. Two minutes later I’d been convinced to “see something.” We crested Phinney, dodged left, and leapt into the air on our way down the other side.
“Are we in a hurry?” I asked.
“Try to be alive,” he shouted over the buzz of the car’s high revving engine. “You will be dead soon enough!”
This sounded familiar. I tried to remember who’d said it, and watched Green Lake disappear behind the trees as we fell back to its level.
“I’m fine here,” said Alice, and the car stopped more quickly than I would have thought possible.
She climbed out and tipped an invisible hat, giving Russell a long smile.
“See you,” she said to me, and I nodded.
“That’s a fine-looking girl,” Russell said as we drove off. “How long have you known her?”
“Since she was a baby.”
“Not long, then.”
We accelerated onto Aurora and sped south through what used to be Woodland Park, one half of which was a zoo. I looked for any sign of the wild animals that used to be visible from the road, but the trees were too overgrown to see much, and of course they’d all been moved long ago.
“Saroyan!” I said.
Russell winked. “What does Seattle mean to you?”
We dodged a sapling that had pushed up through the asphalt.
“How does Seattle fit into the semiotics of the West?”
I stalled. It was becoming apparent that Russell’s whole M.O. was to slam you down in the middle of internal monologues.
“Come on, you’ve written a novel that takes place here!”
“I wrote about it because this is the place I know best.”
“Yes! So tell me what you know about it.”
“Are you talking about the passive-aggressiveness? The ‘Seattle smile’ and all that?”
“There we go. That’s a start. There are things we’ve come to accept. Look, Seattle is an extension of L.A. Seattle is what happens when ambition has kids. But that can go either way.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
Russell slowed the car and turned in his seat to face me.
“What this city could be is a wizened calming-down, a coming-to-one’s-senses after a period of self-indulgent madness, a reemergence of skepticism following a kind of ontological suspension of disbelief. But the skepticism—and here’s the best part—the skepticism wouldn’t be total, it wouldn’t be commanding or overwhelming. It wouldn’t be cynical. At our best, there’s an acknowledgment of responsibility underlying our self-image, wouldn’t you say?”
He accelerated again, and we sped past a series of decamped crack hotels—the Waldingford Inn, the Dark Plaza Hotel, the Fremont Inn, all blurring together into a foggy memory of bad bachelor parties. Wouldn’t I say? I wondered. This vision wasn’t at all what I’d expected. The Seattle I knew seemed cynical, just not overtly. People had given up hope, they just didn’t want to admit it to their neighbors, let alone themselves. So they voted left and honked politely in their hybrid cars. They Seattle smiled. Spikes of gray smoke ahead of us caught my eye, and for the first time I put two and two together.
“We’re not crossing the bridge, are we?”
Russell shook his head, his jowls sloshing back and forth. “Certainly not,” he said. “No, we’re not going to cross. But we’re going to look.”
“I want to show you what we’re up against.”
We approached slowly and stopped beside the final onramp to the bridge. Treetops to either side of the raised road reminded me that although we’d been shunted from the ground, we were still relatively safe.
“Remember that bus accident that happened here?” he asked. “Ten years ago, some rider shoots the bus driver in the head and the whole bus careens over the edge and dives into the roof of a condominium?”
“I heard about it,” I said. “Honestly, I was never sure if it had actually happened. I thought it was an urban myth.”
“No myth. Zane was on that bus. You should ask him about it sometime. He was on his way to school.”
“Holy shit,” I said. The air was filled with the sharp, noxious smell of burning rubber. “I can’t imagine him ever going to school.”
“Well, the Zane you know clearly wouldn’t. But it happened, and that crash is written all over his face.”
The smoke rising from the bridge shot up in dark jets from three bonfires, midway across, clearly stacked with tires. The houses I’d heard about were no myth, either, but in reality they were no more than shacks, tool sheds, a shantytown in the sky, and I wondered if the same could be said for Zane’s bus. I could see perhaps three dozen people, many gathered around tables, two or three perched on the railing, one pissing off the side. They were clearly what my mother would have called “rough around the edges,” but they didn’t seem all that different from the group of people huffing paint at the birth house: the distressed, filthy clothes and the long, unkempt hair. The preference for toxic fumes. In the distance, Mt. Rainier rose like a blister over the scene.
“Maybe they came here for the view,” I said. “So what are we looking at?”
“People who refuse to whitewash the fence.”
Russell frowned. “I see you remain far from convinced. I have to say I figured you for the experimental type.”
“Well,” I said, “I wanted to propose something. I was thinking that instead of—”
Russell held a finger to his lips. “One word,” he said. “One more word.”
“It’s just that, I mean, Dale Cooper is—”
“Look, forget about Dale Cooper for a moment. We’ll get back to Dale Cooper. What I’d like to focus on here is Seattle. The future of Seattle, the reemergence of Seattle! What kind of form will it take? Provided over by what spirit? A self-satisfied, arrogant, cynical spirit that’s passed through Hollywood like a box office flop and been stripped of ambition—a city that’s been beaten and whose primary emotional state is resignation? Do we want a Seattle of spiritual asylum-seekers determined to slouch back out of existence no better than when they slouched in? A pathetic parade of leave-no-tracers marching through history just to clean the streets? Because this doesn’t seem to have worked out too well.”
“Well,” I said, suddenly on the defensive, “I think it’s a little unfair to blame Seattleites for the current situation. The scope here is global, right?”
“See, that’s the sloucher in you talking, Blake. You’re better than that!”
It occurred to me that this was not an argument. Ideas were not being exchanged. They were coming out of Russell’s head and they were hanging in the air, ripe fruit trying to tempt, but instead of plucking them I was letting them rot on the vine. I wondered how aware he was of this. I might be dealing with a legitimately crazy person not able to handle a dissenting point of view. Could he be dangerous? Could he have brought me up here to trap me? To throw me to the wolves?
“I think you have some compelling ideas,” I said flatly, “and a real vision for this city.”
He rolled his eyes.
“Okay,” I said, “that didn’t sound very convincing.”
“It sure as hell did not.”
“Here’s where I’m at. What I want to do is write about what’s going on here. I want to document. I want to describe. I want to push beyond the fantasy. No disrespect, but I’m sick of fantasy. Fantasy is what got us here! Seattle as it is right now is worth recording, worth remembering, and you’re part of that. What you’re doing is part of that.”
I was almost certain I’d offended him with the fantasy comment, but I had to indicate how much he was asking of me, show him the distance I’d have to cross for compromise.
The big man sighed, crossed his arms, looked east. Drops of sweat were beginning to stream down the side of his neck and disappear beneath the gauzy material of his shirt, and I realized that I was too hot too. The car was still on and the AC was blasting away, but with the top down most of the cold air escaped, defeated. He turned back. “So, what are you suggesting?”
“I’m suggesting embedded journalism. I’m suggesting you give me access to your operation, to the birth house and to the drugs and to the library and to whatever else is going on, and that I write a book about you. About the Guild of St. Cooper.”
Russell’s eyes grew thin and his smile seemed to hide a kind of biting. I began to lose hope. He climbed out of the car and walked across the road, where he leaned against the railing and looked off toward the mountain. His clothes hung from his heaping body like sheets of water. His thin hair danced in the breeze. A man imposing, nearly regal, when facing me seemed from behind inexplicably banal, and I tried to summon a level of reverence for him that would warrant the kind of attention I was suggesting. Or at least confidence.
When he turned back his face had lost its rigidity, and I climbed out of the car to meet him, to stand together.
“Even the most superior mind and the most powerful imagination,” said Russell, “must found itself on facts, which must be recognized for what they are.”
“Do you know who said that?”
“So!” he said with a fat man’s chuckle. “I’ve stumped you.”
“What do you say?”
He held out his hand and I grabbed it quickly, not hiding my enthusiasm, and looked over his shoulder at a fight breaking out between two men. No one moved to break it up.
Russell regained my gaze, and tightened his grip. “You write your book,” he said, “but you work for me in exchange. You make Cooper come alive.”
Not thinking, I nodded. I said okay.
Russell squeezed my hand for another moment before letting it drop, and immediately he was smiling again. He turned around to watch the fight, put his arm around my shoulder.
“We’re going to have fun,” he said. “You’ll see.”
One of the men was being pushed perilously close to the edge of the bridge, and though I’d begun to think about how politely to retract my agreement, what I felt was not anxiety or tension or fear of what had come out of my mouth. What I felt, but could not quite reconcile, was relief. I was relieved; I was at ease. The man was now being held halfway over the railing and punched repeatedly in the face. What made the scene extraordinary was that the people around seemed not only unperturbed, they seemed indifferent. At the table nearest the fight, a bald man pulled in poker winnings with long white arms and let out a rippling, high-pitched laugh.
“Should we do something?”
“And you know,” said Russell, “I’ve got considerable time and manpower invested in the Dale Cooper idea already, but hell, if you can think of someone better, I’m more than willing to hear you out.”
Having stopped resisting, the beaten man hung limp over the edge, his aggressor gripping his shirt and speaking close to his face.
“Hell, if you want to make someone up entirely, we can talk about that too.”
The man was heaved over the edge. His legs flipped up and momentarily hung in the air, then disappeared, and that was that. The remaining man turned and rejoined the group. Russell turned and got back in the car.
“Seriously, Blake, can you come up with someone more interesting than Dale Cooper? I’m open. I’m willing. I’m ready to listen.”
That afternoon, I sat at my desk and tried to write down everything I could remember about Dale Cooper. I hadn’t seen Twin Peaks in probably ten years, though it had made an impression on me. It had been something I’d returned to occasionally, something that scratched an itch. I stared out across Ballard. The television series, like much of Lynch’s earlier work, had been paradoxically able to destabilize and to comfort. Twin Peaks had made me look at certain houses in my neighborhood differently, had made me skeptical of their quotidian façade, but it had also made me feel like there were at least some other people—people, I had to admit, like Special Agent Dale Cooper—who were there with me, standing outside the mystery and looking in.
Lynch’s later work, by contrast, afforded no such companionship.
I looked at my list:
- Big jaw
- Clean cut, “dapper”
- Black suit, formal
- Coffee, pie, big appetite, etc.
- Belief in the supernatural
- Respect for spiritual ways
- Fascination/fixation with young women
Number ten stood out, but the general impression was a good one, and I could see how it might have struck Russell—at least, given a rabid flailing about for solutions, which must have been the case. Which was, after all, the case for most of us. Cooper’s suitability was nearly irrelevant, anyway—and not only because we’d create a history for him independent of what Lynch had envisioned. More important, there was no way I was going to fuck with the general contours of his profile. A line in the sand, sure, but it felt important to draw one. To push back, if only internally. To struggle against nonchalance in the outrageous face of our whole dark enterprise.
“I saw someone get killed today,” I said, out loud, to hear the words.
I felt a little crazy saying this, like I was implicating myself somehow, like I should be keeping it a secret. But the rising emotion quickly subsided and I was left with little more than a feeling akin to nostalgia. It had not been intolerable cruelty, after all. Hadn’t it been self-selected? Couldn’t the man who’d been pushed just as easily have been the pusher? Couldn’t the man returning to his seat have been the one who’d fallen? I went downstairs to find my mother sitting on the couch, reading. She was pale, frail, and nearly swallowed up by her overstuffed armchair. She looked like a newly hatched bird in its nest. A moment after I entered the room she turned the last page of her book and took a deep breath. Then she threw the book into the air.
“Fly away,” she said, “and be free!”
SHYA SCANLON is the author of the In This Alone Impulse, Forecast, Border Run, and The Guild of Saint Cooper. He lives in New York City and Woodstock. Visit him online at www.shyascanlon.com, and at www.twinpeaksproject.com, where he’s always on the lookout for new essays and reflections about Lynch’s seminal TV show.
Adapted from The Guild of Saint Cooper, by Shya Scanlon, Copyright © 2015 by Shya Scanlon. With the permission of the publisher, Dzanc Books.
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