Addition + Subtraction

By Rob Carney

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Old Roads, New Stories: A Literary Series


If there’s a Nobel Prize for mountains, it should go to Mt. Rainier. Before I tell you why, though, here’s something I learned about Tempe, Arizona. My friend Brian was explaining about buying a house there.

“What you do,” he said, “is find one you like and then ask the neighbors about scorpions.”

Apparently some blocks are seething with them and some blocks aren’t, and scorpions don’t care about poured foundations. Set concrete on ground a thousand scorpions have been calling home and no amount of flooring, framing, and AC cranking is going to keep them out. Your house will be Scorpion City.

We should remember better than we usually do that the details like this count the most. Forget the number of bathrooms. Forget the discount price on granite counters, and how they match the stove you’ve had your eye on. Go knock on doors along your maybe street and ask, “Scorpions? How many? How many times a day?” Call it the World’s Strange Mathematics.

Of course, sometimes we don’t know what equals what until we’ve settled in. That’s likely true of everything, but I’ll stick with houses since it’s simpler. What matters most, whether bad or good, is probably going to be odd. My favorite room in my old house, for instance, turned out to be the bedroom closet. It had a hole cut through the floor for a laundry drop, and, man, I thought that was cool. Not a chute, just gravity ten feet down. The opposite of high end, definitely, but no dirty clothes upstairs, and no cluttery department-store hampers. Even better, I’d find some kind of surprise each time I washed the clothes: stuffed animals, my toddler’s missing pacifier, a whole box of Rice Chex, which meant he’d figured out the Lazy Susan. Sure, the house had other upsides, but none that made me more glad.

In the house I have now, it’s the same way with hawks. I had no idea they’d be here, but they are, perfect and predatory. I have a poem—a sequence of seven sonnets, really—called “Home Appraisals,” and I start by zeroing in on them:

Two-Story, Stone and Brick, Single-Family Dwelling

If there’s added value in a ceiling fan,
then there must be value in a hawk. They come

for the doves, the ridiculous quail, and quick sparrows
squabbling daily on our neighbor’s lawn,

suddenly plunging from nowhere, suddenly gone—
launched off before my eyes blink open. 

And there must be value every time they miss
so plunge becomes pursuit, becomes a game

played out in fan-tailed figure-eights; it’s wild:
your heartsong humming, the sky brighter blue. . . .

I know this won’t go into the appraisal—
just bedrooms, baths, etc.; two-car garage.

There isn’t any math that factors this.
No box to check if the front yard comes with a hawk.


It can’t just be Brian and me. Everyone must have an odd detail that becomes the story of where they live. For someone here along the Wasatch Front maybe the odd thing, the best thing, is how similar living in her house feels to camping. Say it’s one of those newer ones up on the benches, above things and therefore quasi-away from things. Up higher. A few more inches of snow. The moonlight a few degrees colder. The front door looking out at the rocky ascent, nearly 90 degrees and all elevation, so that the house’s real view, its vantage point and gathering place, is the deck out back overlooking the valley. The grill a lot like a campfire. The kitchen not so different than some matches and a cooler. And the rest of the house a bit like a roomier tent, a really nice one, with a toilet and shower and hot water. I’m just guessing, of course, but I might be right. I mean, the thing I like best about my own yard is the peach tree; the rest feels more like upkeep and weeding. So it’s possible somebody wonders, “Why can’t I just pay the mortgage on this deck instead of a whole damn house I have to vacuum?”

Now, about Mt. Rainier… I know one of the best places to see it: from a leftover scrap of the valley I grew up in. There are two ways to get from Puyallup to Tacoma, Pioneer Way and River Road. One is winding and the other one’s straight, and ironically River Road is the straight one, so usually I’d cut over. Two smaller sort of crossbow roads let you do that, the second one running through these strawberry fields. I want to say the farm is Van Lierop’s, but I know that’s wrong. Van Lierop’s is all tulips and daffodils and further east, past Sumner, out in the Orting Valley….

Picha’s! That’s the family’s name. And hallelujah that their farm is still a farm. How rare is that these days? Too rare.

Anyway, because it’s a farm—open land by the wide, wide acre—there’s still a view. There’s still this ecstatic corridor with Mt. Rainier at the end of it, giant. You could parcel the view into subdivisions and sell it 900 times, become a zillionaire, only you can’t, not without making it worthless. See, you need that muddy, wide-open nothing-in-the-way-ness for the view to be the view: panoramic, converging on the horizon not just in a point but in a snow-capped volcano rising, like God’s house, above the Cascade Mountains.




Developers might see it differently, but they’d be wrong. My friend Jamie put it perfectly in an email once: “Mt. Rainier gets overlooked in a traffic jam. Even though you actually have more time to look at it.” How much more so in a human jam of identical three-bedroom rectangles? More than I want to think about, so I won’t. For now, the strawberries are still winning, and I’d rather wonder what the mountain is thinking.

When it’s looking down over the valley of us, all the way to Puget Sound, I bet it thinks our daffodils are an odd but glad addition. Our neon Bed, Bath, & Beyond signs not so much.



Rob Carney’s fourth book 88 Maps just came out from Lost Horse Press (distribution by University of Washington Press). Previous books and chapbooks include Story Problems and Weather Report, both from Somondoco Press.
Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in Terrain.org: 6th Annual Contest Finalist, 4th Annual Contest Winner, and Issue 30. And listen to a new radio interview with Rob Carney.

Photo of Mount Ranier courtesy Shutterstock.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.