Thursday, March 24, 2016

What I Know of Norway

In 2013 my good friend and founder of this blog, George Ovitt, published a collection of short stories under the title The Snowman.  Here, for your enjoyment, is one of my favorites:


The moon shone like water on the white comforter.
I couldn’t sleep. We had finished a bottle of wine at dinner—a cheap Shiraz from Chile, not my favorite. There had been an hour set aside for reading. She flipped through the Times while I waded into another in a series of Scandinavian detective novels—brooding books written by men whose names I couldn’t recall when someone at work would ask me if I had read anything good lately. This one was by a Norwegian and had won the prestigious Nils Gunderwald Prize. On the first page the alcoholic detective is called to a small village near the town of Fredrikstad, south of Oslo. There he encounters both a decapitated body and an old school acquaintance. The body hasn’t decomposed in the winter cold. The detective, who, we are informed, smokes Gitanes and drinks too much Dovgan vodka, recognizes the dead woman as an ex-mistress, a physician with whom he had a brief affair between the second and third of his failed marriages. Her name was Kristen. The school chum—the translator has used the word “chum” as well as “corpulent” and “tendentious” to describe the detective’s friend—has also been in love with Kristen and may be the father of her son, now a young man studying archeology at the University of Gothenburg.
My wife asks me if I know the capital of Burkina Faso. I tell her Ouagadougou. I spell it. She says that can’t be right. And I say that I may have misspelled the name, but that I am quite certain Ouagadougou is correct. She looks at me through her reading glasses—she is very beautiful and, as is always the case, looking at her reminds me of my failures.  She pushes her hair back and then does that thing women do which requires them to raise their arms above their heads and simultaneously bare their abdomens and accentuate their breasts while casually tying their hair into a kind of half-knot that invites pulling, a triple-erotic whammy. Without smiling my wife points to my book and asks me if I like it. But she gets up and walks into the kitchen before I can formulate an answer that will seem both thoughtful and approving without at the same time suggesting that she should read the book since I know she has despised Scandinavian writers since learning of Knut Hamsun’s Nazi sympathies.
I pretend to read but strain to hear what my wife is saying. She is speaking softly on her cell phone, standing near the back door, right next to the Super Quiet Maytag dishwasher her parents gave us for our first anniversary. The morose detective has been attacked in his hotel room, or perhaps he has merely fallen down drunk. It is snowing and all of the usual outdoor sounds are muted. The hotel is seedy, which seems out of character given what I know of Norway. Water is rushing up through the sink, gurgling in a ghostly way. My wife is laughing and I think how she never laughs with me.  I call out to her, just her first initial, R, and ask if she would bring me a beer.  She doesn’t respond. The dishwasher is coming to the point in its cycle that I refer to as its death throes—the glassware is clinking too loudly, and I think of how upset my wife will be if anything breaks. The chum, whose name is Eriksson, discovers the unconscious detective and slaps his face to “bring him about.” The translator, I begin to feel, lacks sensitivity for English idioms. I wonder about this. There is a picture of the translator at the back of the book, but no picture of the author. This too seems odd. When my wife comes back into the room, without my beer but with a glass of water for herself, I smile and mention to her the infelicities of the translation. I’m hoping to say something witty enough to make her laugh, just as I heard her laugh a moment ago. She says that “bring him about” is fine, she’s used the phrase herself.  I ask her about the circumstances and she shrugs. I mention that consciousness involves the interconnected firings of billions of neurons as well as the leaching of chemicals, like serotonin, across neural membranes. She says that she is going to bed. I get a beer.
My wife takes her time in the bathroom. Our apartment is downtown and small. I work uptown but enjoy taking the subway. My wife is a stay-at-home wife, that’s what I call her, perhaps with a trace of irony. She feels that she has worked hard all of her life and deserves to take a sabbatical. I have three weeks off each year. During that time we drive to Ohio to visit my wife’s extended family. Every year we rent a couple of cabins on Lake Williams.  While my wife goes shopping with her mother, I teach my nephews how to play chess. They find the game boring and dislike my enthusiasm. When my wife leaves the bathroom she is wrapped in a towel. The floor is wet and her clothes are strewn about like flowers.
R lies across the bed nude. I have brushed my teeth thoroughly and used the last half ounce of Listerine.  I begin to kiss her, but she rolls away and pushes down under the sheets. I do the same. I say that I love her. She looks at me and rubs her hand across my face. It is a mistake to do so but I repeat the words. My wife is a quiet person, undemonstrative. Her manner of keeping still and being inward was once attractive to me. She turns toward the wall and seems to say that she loves me, but the rustle of the bedclothes makes it hard to hear what she is saying. I say ‘good’ and turn my back to her, hoping that I will sleep. I don’t.
In the morning I will take my novel back to the library, unfinished. If she has time, my wife will empty the dishwasher. We need wine so I will stop at the shop on the corner for a bottle. Perhaps white, a Sauvignon Blanc. The Times arrives early, but I will have left for work by the time the blue cylinder is tossed onto our stoop.
What our hearts most desire eludes us. Joy flies from us like the airy light of a full moon in March.  

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To order a copy of the entire collection go to:

Peter Adam Nash