Ryan Lutz



Ryan Lutz is a young professional living and working in San Francisco.  He has previously published work in BULL: Men's Fiction. This is his second publication.




         Queen Anne is one of the most lucrative and prosperous neighborhoods in the Seattle Area. Resting on the highest point in the city, it became a place for Seattle’s economic and cultural elite to build their mansions in the late sixties.  I was in Seattle for an internship that summer with a local nonprofit—something I was all too happy to take with a mercurial family situation at home in Sacramento. In the richest part of a vibrant city, I was homeless.

         When I first took the internship, I never solidified where I would live, which made me spread my summer out over five different houses in four neighborhoods—a few nights on the couch here, cat sitting for a week there. Wherever I set my duffle bag down I called home. So when I came to Queen Anne, a friend allowed me to stay in his spare house between renters—it was empty, except for a kitchen table and a fridge.  The first night I bundled up in all my clothes and propped myself against the wall, using a roll of toilet paper for a pillow, I was able to get an hour of sleep.

It was during that day that my mother called me with news about my ailing grandfather.  “He’s getting close honey.” She said.  “He forgot how to chew a few days ago. The strokes have taken a toll.”

         My grandfather was the root of our family, the last remaining remnants of a life we had beyond America—the one thing that held us together.  His slow decay ate at us for months at a time, week after week seeing his gums recede, hair thin, and body shrivel inward.  The updates from family members kept leading to the inevitable.  We all saw what was coming, but none of us could escape its colossal force.  None of us knew the depth of the dissolution that it would have on us, or the void it would leave.

         My grandfather immigrated to America from Peru after he abandoned ship in San Francisco during World War II on a Merchant Marines mission. He grew up in a world that was uninviting, and earlier than most he realized that life didn’t care about you unless you made it.  So he continued his roaming life till he created a space of his own in San Francisco. It was here that he developed the same steadfastness of an Easter Island statue, keeping his flame low, dulling himself to the world.  When he was with us though, the air hummed with love.

         On the second day after her phone call, I was upstairs in the house sitting outside on the ledge of a two-story window intent on spending a full day by myself. Holding onto its white trim, my feet dangled over the moss-covered patio twenty feet below me. The wood cracked, and my body teetered on the ledge.  For a moment, I thought of myself spread-eagled against the grainy concrete.  Nobody around to see my fall; nobody even knew I was living in the house.  And I was rapidly realizing how alone one could be in a city.  I had no neighbors—or at least none that I saw. I was just an apparition on the bus, another wandering soul in Seattle. Maybe that’s why I sat on that window ledge swaying back and forth—to make sure that my senses hadn’t dulled beyond a point of return.



         My grandfather knew how to survive better than most, from that first jump off the boat till the last stroke hit him, he struggled bravely to create groundwork for the rest of us.  He loved his family in America more virtuously than he loved anything else, but he rarely shared anything from his story, and I was utterly indifferent to it.  He used to push his walker over to my spot on the couch when I visited—the smell of beer and buckwheat pushing out from his shirt as he plopped down next to me. Then he began to tell me the story of how he came to America, “Hijo mío, what brought me to my home was sugar y dancing.”

         His mother died when he was five, and after that, my grandfather went to live with his grandmother who filled him with a love for poetry. They often recited and wrote sonnets for family members, they spent hours writing poems to each other, confessing their deepest pains and most outlandish dreams. Huddling close to each other, between a single flickering candle, they wrote—their toes curling into the dirt as they read their stanzas aloud.

         When he was twelve, my grandfather played soccer with the local children in his village everyday for hours on end. One day he heard his grandmother calling him, but at the insistence of his friends he ignored her several times. When he returned home, he found her lying on the floor.  His brain spun like a tire that wouldn’t catch. He tried desperately to get her up, shook her for several minutes, grabbing her face and calling her name. Then he had his first cogent thought: she died.  I imagine him cradling her in his arms; the parchment texture of her hands and her skeletal arms splayed out on the dirt floor.  Him kneeling down next to her, fending off neighbors when they tried to pull him away.  They told him that she died of a heart attack.  He always believed he had broken her heart.

         Through hearing these stories, I was able to see that what I assumed was helplessness, was the fact that I didn’t know who I was, let alone who my grandfather was, and that I never really showed him the right amount of love or patience.  This thought resonated most when I learned that after the passing of his grandmother, he was sent to his aunt, who treated him like a slave.  Once she had gotten her use of him, she falsely accused him of stealing and turned him into a juvenile prison.

         He constantly lived without a home, or anyone who could make him feel understood; until he met my grandmother when she was thirteen years old.  By that time he had already enlisted in the Merchant Marines. So the two of them began to write to each other. They wrote to each other from the Philippines, the Panama Canal, China and Japan. Through these letters they fell in love, and it was through these letters that he asked her to marry him.  She said yes. She then waited for him for nine years—love poems and embroidered cloths keeping their hands clasped across so many time zones.

         All of me wishes I had seen that he was truly a man who was more loveable—merrier, goofier, braver, more paragon of a survivor—than the gaunt octogenarian I made him out to be.  I had simplified him to an old man who gave me twenty dollars every time I came to visit.  Completely blind to his journey across the globe that led to roots in San Francisco.  He wasn’t one to fear transience, uncertainty or change.  In short, he was exactly who I wanted to be now.

         But in an empty house with toilet paper pillows, I admitted to myself that I knew he was dying, that I chose to flee, that I had to accept the guilt that comes with death.

         The last time I saw him his lips hung slack and the muscles in his cheeks were beginning to sag like a Shar-Pei. I sat their hating myself, loving him, fearing him, knowing that he was the one who had giving our family a base.  And I hadn’t understood what his support meant until now.  To this day, his death pulls down on my heart like strings of tiny weights.  



         I walked out of my house into Queen Anne, and found myself in the play yard of an elementary school across the street. Weeds, dry grass, and Capri Sun packages speckled the yard. Several polished stones caught my attention, and I made out their inscriptions. “What I like best about being a kid is going to school and reading.” They began to make a walkway that was surrounded by rose hedges and pacific dogwood.  Another read, “What I like best about being a kid is never having to worry about the big stuff.” Yet another, “What I like best about being a kid is playing with my friends.” They ended at the base of the dogwood where a large stone with a glossy face shone in the evening July sun, revealing a white grittiness below the lacquer.  “This memory mile is dedicated to Blake, Coriander, and Miles Clemetson, and Rachel Pearson,” the inscription said.  “The four John Hays students who perished in the Alaska Airlines plane crash of Flight 261.  We were blowing kisses back the whole time.”

         On January 31, 2000, an Alaska Airlines flight plummeted in the Pacific Ocean off of Anacapa Island, California. Two pilots, three cabin crewmembers, and eighty-three passengers were aboard. All perished. On-board were lawyers, missionaries, same-sex parents, soon to be husbands and wives—four were elementary school students. The eighty-eight people who died in the crash had myriad labels, but for the community of Queen Anne, the most influential and constant label in their ever-changing world was family, and in losing one of their own, they lost their footing.

         Seattle is in many ways a nomadic city, with more people immigrating than any other city in America. In fact, it’s difficult to find anyone over the age of 21 who was born in the city.  It became a city of bright and roving spirits. And then the plane crash happened, which prompted something different in the Queen Anne community.

         The responses varied. Memorials were built, and locals waded through each stage of grief.  The fact that Alaska Airlines, a local company, cost them the lives of eighty-eight Seattleites struck the city like a knife. The news report came out sometime after that:

         “A subsequent investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board determined that inadequate maintenance led to excessive wear and catastrophic failure of a critical flight control system during flight. The NTSB spokesperson stated that ‘this was a maintenance accident. Alaska Airline’s inspection of its systems was poorly conceived and woefully executed. Had any of the mangers, mechanics, inspectors, supervisors or FAA overseers whose job it was to protect this mechanism done their job properly, this accident would not have happened.’”

         As the Queen Anne community would later learn, it was one hundredth of an inch that sent the plane crashing into the ocean. That one bolt became one hundredth of an inch more frayed than it should have been. This did nothing but infect half-scabbed wounds. The local’s faces drooping all over again.  People pushed for memorials to be built for the victims. As if statues, stones or money could lessen the absence and displacement they felt. It’s one of the many ways humans respond to grief. The normalizers are committed to recreating the sense of family and community before the tragedy. The memorialists are bent on preserving the memories of those that died. The activists help others to hide their own grief and pain. But it was a mixture of all three that kept Queen Anne moving forward. However, some injustices and wrongs will forever be left without retribution, no matter how many memorials are built or how much compensation is received.

         Several people saw the plane go down. Possibly more than we will ever know.  Bystanders watched it angle down towards the ocean; the hope bleeding out of their eyes as they realized impact was imminent. When the plane hit the water, fireballs shot out from its tail. And I can’t help but wonder: did they hold hands? Were the Clemetson’s mother and father’s arms clasped tightly around their children? I can see them putting a dangling oxygen mask over Coriander’s face as the plane shook and rattled its way down the atmosphere. All three children pulling their knees into their chest while the mother and father used their own bodies to shield their babies from the inevitable. Ending in an explosion of oil, metal, and flame.




         Memorial services for the victims of 261 are held every year, and each year the crowd grows smaller and smaller—until there was only four white roses placed in the dirt.  As I looked at the flowers at the base of the stone, I thought of how long it would take till I forgot about my grandfather. How long before I cast off his memory and replaced it with the new ones from my own life. How long does it really take for you to forget about someone, to force them out, to keep them dead?

         I know the families affected by flight 261 undoubtedly still lead lives affected by the loss. But I can take away something from how they found a safe place amidst the event. Pamela Sparks story resonates better than most. “It used to make me so angry when people would say something good would come of this,” she said. “But I guess if there is anything it’s how close we have all become. It’s a second family to lean on when all you want to do is die.”  For all the hurt it causes, death can be a unifying force. 

         Death leaves an insatiable void, but if there is anything to be gained from the raw state that follows, it’s people that surround you in the void.  The other surviving families came together and began to scar over the wounds of the crash, and became an anchor against the waves of grief. 

         I still wonder how long will their memories be with us. Our society is notorious for having a memory of about ten minutes, and we stay in one place for even less than that.  But neither fight nor flight can save us. Since the days of the frontier, we have often dealt with problems in one place by moving to another. But those people affected by Flight 261 didn’t.  They stayed, and found a community in the other survivors.  They saw that by being committed to the situation they were in, they could make the best of it; maybe even make it better than it was before. They were privy to the idea of finding liberation in standing still, in enduring.

I often think of Sherman Alexie when he said, “life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of a community.” Humans have survived and found protection in groups. Historically we survived because there was a trust and sense of belonging among us, which is how survivors of Flight 261 made it. It was in their community that they found groundwork for rebuilding and moving on.  For every grandfather you lose, you gain a brother, or a long lost cousin, or even a family.  The track skips a beat but the song continues to play.

         After my mother called with the news of my grandfather’s death a week later, I returned to the memorial site of Flight 261. Underneath the auburn sand by the large stone was an etching. Scraping off the loose gravel, I read the word “Hueneme.” Behind me, a door opened. A weathered woman came out of the doorway pushing a trashcan with a “my heart belongs to a mortician” bumper sticker on it. I went up to her and asked what the word meant. “Resting place,” she said. “It means resting place.”

         I knew it was time to go home, to help my family heal. The only problem was I didn’t know if I wanted to.

© The Acentos Review 2015