4 portraits

by Peter Donahue & Robin Nelson Wicks

Peter Donahue is the author of four works of fiction, including Three Sides Water: Short Novels (2018). He is co-editor of Reading SeattleReading Portland, and Seven Years on the Pacific Slope. His most recent book is Salmon Eaters to Sagebrushers: Washington's Lost Literary Legacy (2019).

Robin Nelson Wicks is a photographer, painter, and sculptor. She is a graduate of the Cocoran School of Art and Design and the University of Washington. She teaches art at Liberty Bell High School in the Methow Valley and was recently named Artist in Residence at the Confluence Gallery and Art Center in Twisp, WA.

from Miscellaneous Friends

Countess Apollinia and I met in a tea room in Tacoma. “I’m not a real countess,” she told me after we’d introduced ourselves and got to talking. “Not in this life anyway.” Polina, as she said her friends call her, is a Russophile. As we drank our tea—she a smoky black, me a fragrant jasmine green—she explained that in a former life, in the early 1800s, she owned a large house on Ligovky Prospect in Saint Petersburg. “I was Pushkin’s lover,” she let me know. When I said I’d never read him, she promised to give me a copy of Eugene Onegin next time we met. “That’s very kind of you,” I said. “Ça ne fait rien” she replied, speaking French, as all good Russian aristocrats once did. I thought of asking what she thought of the autocrat Vladimir Putin, but decided not to. Why spoil the fun, I thought. “More tea?” I asked instead. “Oui,” she replied. I then stood, bowed ever so slightly, and brought our two tea pots to the front counter. Later, at her apartment, I learned her real name was Kathy.

I didn’t believe in ghosts until I came to know Ida, who in recent months has become my spectral friend. Ida died in 1974. She was only 23—pushed out the window of the ninth-floor apartment she shared with her boyfriend in Pioneer Square. They were addicts and both really sick. The boyfriend wanted Ida to turn tricks so they could score, but Ida didn’t want to. So he killed her. I can’t say how I know all this except that Ida, who never speaks, has communicated this knowledge to me. I live in the apartment just below the one she shared with her boyfriend, or so the building manager told me. The boyfriend got off for the murder somehow and a year later OD'd. Ida now lingers in the corner of my apartment at night, half in shadow, looking out the window, occasionally glancing at me. I tell her it’s okay, she’s safe, but I don’t really know that. It’s just me speaking to a ghost.

Dennis doesn’t have many friends. Me and maybe the guy down the block who walks by once a day while Dennis sits out on the front porch of the big white boardinghouse where he lives. The guy always bums a cigarette from Dennis and then sits down with him and talks while they smoke, and when they guy leaves, Dennis gives him another cigarette, which the guy tucks behind his ear. “Later, pal,” Dennis says, and the guy walks off. My friendship with Big D, as I call Dennis, doesn’t involve much more than this guy’s actually. I might make a run to Gene’s grocery store at the corner for some chicken strips and Jo-Jo’s and dipping sauce, and we’ll sit on the porch and eat and talk—and that’s about it. When I get up to leave, he tells me, “Later, pal,” and I walk off just like the other guy.

I met Breson, my French friend, in San Quentin. He’d been in a long time. He taught us North Block inmates a lot of French phrases, like On y va and Imaginer c'est choisir, which means “To imagine is to choose.” He worked in the canteen, which usually had hour-long lines, and that’s where he used On y va, which means “Let’s go.” He’d mean it, too, and once got into a fight with an inmate holding up the line, which was how he lost his front tooth. He replaced it with a shiny gold incisor once he got out. Then, when they released me, he and I would meet in the Presidio and drink port wine. Breson loved port wine, said it fortified him. We’d watch the fog race in from the ocean through the redwood and eucalyptus trees as we drank. Then we’d amble to the corner store run by Ma and Pa Zhang, buy some beer to wash down the port, and stroll through the Palace of Fine Arts. La vie est belle, Breson also liked to say, which means “Life is beautiful.”

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