Buzz aldrin what happene.., p.6
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       Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, p.6

           Johan Harstad
 

  “Oh, right.”

  “Yes, it’s …”

  “No, that’s … yes, no, I mean, that’s fine.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “Yes. Of course. We can do something tomorrow. Or over the weekend. Or?”

  “Maybe,” was all she said.

  The flowers on the table needed water. They’d die in this heat. I swapped the receiver to the other hand.

  “Right … we’ll talk soon then,” I said.

  “Okay.”

  “Okay. Love you.”

  “Me too.”

  “Bye.”

  “Bye.”

  I put the receiver down, left the flowers to die in peace on the table, puttered around for half an hour before locking up and going home.

  I sat on the sofa in the living room. Watching the news. Telephone. News flash about a boat catastrophe outside the Philippines. Somebody was calling, I turned the sound off, got up and lifted the receiver, watched the muted news. Mother at the other end. Usual voice. I had an eye on the TV.

  “Hello,” she said.

  Aerial view of a boat being smashed to pieces in the waves, Asian people clinging desperately to the bow.

  “How are things?”

  “Everything’s fine,” I say.

  Close up of mother and child in a lifeboat, eyes wide open.

  “And work?”

  “Things just keep growing.”

  Pause.

  “That’s good. And Helle?”

  “She’s well, as always.”

  “Yes, she always seems to manage so well.”

  Helicopter nears the water, lowers the rescue cable, people are dragged under in the whirling currents, arms sticking out of the water.

  “Yes.”

  Cut to the reporter who is standing ashore, wet raincoat, wind in his hair.

  “Have you had any supper?”

  “Hmm,” I answered, “nothing much. A bit.”

  “I see,”

  The cameraman zooms in on life jackets floating on the water.

  The sea rises.

  “Do you want to come by the house, maybe?”

  “Now?”

  “Yes. I … I’ve baked some sweet buns.”

  “Buns?”

  “Yes.”

  Survivors wrapped in wool blankets, eyes shining, on the oil tanker’s deck.

  Then the boat sinks.

  “Okay,” I said. “I’ll just take a shower, then I’ll drive over.”

  She waited.

  “Great, we’ll see you then. Bye.”

  “Bye.”

  She waited a couple of seconds more before replacing the receiver, she always did, in case I might say something more. Generally, I didn’t, I knew she didn’t really like talking on the phone, she wanted a face in front of her, a mouth, Father was the telephone operator, he could have sat for hours, talking and talking, discussing anything and everything, so long as he’d found somebody at the other end equally happy to sit talking.

  An hour later I was in the car, made a little detour, drove down toward town, a light evening, there were café tables out on the sidewalks and people were drunk, in just T-shirts and wearing sunglasses, despite it being early in the year, the treacherous month, never trust a girl’s winks and smiles, they are as unreliable as the April weather was Mother’s refrain, but the rain had dried and forest fires would soon rage in the countryside again, this was Stavanger, desperate to get summer ahead of time, good weather on credit and covered by VISA for loss in July.

  I drove up toward the Atlantic Hotel, up toward the Buchardt Hotel that was under construction, past the SAS Hotel and up toward Kampen, past the Mission High School in Misjonsveien and a little bit further to Seehusensgate.

  Finger on the doorbell.

  Hesitated.

  No.

  Didn’t wait, walked straight in.

  I’d drop by once in a while, once a month perhaps, usually, perhaps twice, sometimes just a flying visit, at other times I’d stay all evening, sit and watch TV with them, depending on what Helle was doing, or not doing, if we’d made plans, or if I was left to myself. We lived separately for a long time, Helle and I. I’d had an apartment in Storhaug, she lived in shared accommodations at Eiganes, together with three girls, who were younger than her, at college, future teachers, all of them. I used to imagine them practicing writing each others’ report cards, inventing sicknesses and bad excuses, giving each other grades for their cleaning skills, C+ when one of them had forgotten to put the tea towels through the mangle after washing them or forgot to boil the silverware. We’d been in the apartment we now shared for the past four or five years, we’d gotten it after I’d been forced to move out of another house that was being demolished, an apartment I’d found in an old house in Våland, low rent, moved there in 1989, the summer that Helle went to Bergen to study law and I started working. I’d sort of melted into that flat, over the walls, over the massive floor space, I had the entire third floor, hundreds of fabulous square feet and space for everyone. The rooms had begun to mold themselves around me, I knew every unevenness in the floors, where it creaked, the way the kitchen lights failed to come on until ten to twelve seconds after you’d flicked the switch. I commuted between Stavanger and Bergen during those years, stayed overnight in the little room she had in Bergen, in Nygåardsgaten, near the Grieg Hall. I went with her to some of her lectures, to the parties, sat among the students, their jokes, anecdotes from Hulen, from Kvarteret, secret handshakes and obscure film posters on the walls, I went with her up on Dragefjellet, sat with her in lecture hall, like a rare plant, and when I finally got her back to Stavanger again, she insisted on continuing to live with friends, her old girlfriends, I need more time before I share a toothbrush with someone, she said, and I said yes, okay, and I wanted her with me all the time, in my rooms, but it wasn’t until my house was being demolished and I had to move, that she was ready. She’d already given up her law career by then, had begun in advertising, got herself a good job where she stayed for a while, before finding something better, starting somewhere new. Advertising and law. Two sides of the same coin, to her.

  I was at home a lot when Helle was out. Once in a while I would go to Jørn’s too, but more often I’d go over to my parents’, they didn’t have any other children, I was the only living example, the authentic son, and Father always lit up when I came through the door, he’d emerge from the living room smiling, clutching his newspaper and the glasses he’d taken off, and the way he’d look at me, advertisement-like.

  Lano soap family.

  The homecoming son.

  Every time.

  And this time too.

  I didn’t ring the doorbell, generally didn’t, it was still home after all, even if it was a long time since I’d lived there. Proper home-home. Didn’t ring, walked into the hallway, hi there, and I heard father get up from his chair in the living room and then he came into view in the doorway, newspaper in hand, glasses, hello. “Great to see you,” said Father. I kicked off my shoes and followed him into the living room, just as I’d done so many times, there were practically tracks in the carpet. From the door to the sofa, I’d taken that path so many times, crossed that floor for over twenty years, different feet, different versions of myself, all heights, all ages, and in all moods I’d walked about on these floors, worn the parquet floor in the living room, and now we would sit together again. Father went over to the chair beneath the window, he always sat in that chair, Father’s chair, this was a house of routines, rituals. Mother was in the kitchen, as usual, she always had to come out of the kitchen as though by chance, ah, but how lovely! As though she hadn’t known anybody was coming to visit. Mother would always disappear into the kitchen as the front door opened, and then come out as I settled in the living room, rubbing her hands together as though brushing off flour, or something that could dirty the guest, although she’d only been standing out there waiting, it was the custom.

  This is Mother.

&nb
sp; This is Father.

  This is us.

  Family.

  I asked how things were going, at work, mother worked with kids with behavioral problems, in town, a job she’d begun when I’d finished elementary school, I often wondered whether she’d started it because of me, but I never asked. Did I have behavioral problems? No more than anybody else, I assumed. But still. Mother. And the children. The kid who’s incapable of sitting still in class, who wanders restlessly about the classroom until being sent into the hallway, an unruly youngster, and ten minutes later the teacher goes out to fetch him, it’s almost always a boy, he’s run off, of course, he’s run off to the forest, or back home or into town. Eight years old and impossible to do a thing with, and rather resignedly the teacher (although she’d hoped for this—that he’d go off) re-enters the classroom, and the pupils ask where he is, and she: Quiet now, let’s concentrate shall we, all right? And I thought how he’d be on his way up to the forest behind the school, the big forest that lies just behind the school, the one the other kids never go into, because they’ve been warned so often about all the dreadful things in there, the drug addicts, rapists, ghosts, heaven above knows, but this is where they gather, the kids who’ve been thrown out into the hallway, the problem cases from all the city’s schools, they meet here in this big forest like Robin Hood and his merry men, and they draw plans up on the forest floor, plan their tactics, make raids on the extra studious, and plan their actions in detail, water bombs and rotten tomatoes, school bags to be filled with water, or perhaps nothing of the kind, they plan how to survive a school that isn’t designed for them, for their capacity, for minds that are never at rest.

  “And work? Is it going well?” I asked mother.

  “Busy. Very busy.”

  And sooner or later these kids are found in the forest, smoked out of their holes, junior school’s Vietcong, and by the time they’re handed over to the school, they’ve more or less given up, and they’re placed behind a dividing screen in the classroom, so as not to be seen, so other kids won’t be disturbed by their existence, and sooner or later the screen topples again, in the middle of a class, in the middle of a test, and they’re thrown out all over again, out into the hallway, to roam again before anybody asks them to come back in. And this time they don’t return.

  “So many kids have a difficult time, Mattias. So awfully many.”

  “Yes,” I say.

  “They’ve got almost nothing. And their parents, yes, they, well, they’re practically absent. They, well, most of them care, it’s not that, most of them do care about their children, they just can’t make things work. Things just seem to go wrong for them. Their children slip between their fingers. You’ve been lucky, haven’t you? To have parents that took good care, don’t you think?” Mother wanted reassurance. It was all part and parcel of my visit.

  “Yes,” I said. “I was very lucky.” And I was.

  I never wandered restlessly around the classroom, tugged girls’ hair or suddenly issued guttural noises in the middle of class, I was where I should be, I didn’t hang around on the ropes in the gym on a Tuesday and Friday, and I was never put behind the dividing screen.

  I didn’t need that.

  Nobody noticed me anyway.

  Mother rattled the cups and saucers: “More coffee?”

  “Yes, please. It’s great coffee.”

  Father looked out of the window. It was almost summer.

  “You know,” said mother, trying to get the conversation going again, back onto her job so that we’d have something to talk about. “We should have had people like you on the job.”

  “Oh?”

  “You’ve always been so conscientious, from your first day at school. I remember the first day you came back with homework, I think you’d been given the task of making knots, can that be right? A cardboard bunny, with holes in its shoes, and thread pulled through the holes. You sat right there at the dining table,” she said, pointing, “all afternoon you sat there and knotted and knotted. Until in the end the thread was so worn out it snapped. I had to give you a new one.” Mother laughed, looked at me. “And then you thought you were a super hero, do you remember that?”

  “No,” I said. “Did I?”

  “Yes, and you had piles of those magazines. What were they called?” she asked into the air, toward father, but finding the words herself: “Superman Comics. What happened to them, by the way? All those comics? You had so many.”

  I drank my coffee, let her talk, thought about why I’d liked them so much as a kid, the comics that I’d collected for so long. Batman. Superman. Spider-Man—THEY all did good deeds, incognito. Turned up when they were needed. Held the world together. The city’s caretakers. Who didn’t leave so much as a calling card. They never asked for anything in return, no reward, no public recognition. They just had a job to do.

  “They’re probably up in the loft, with all the others. I could get them out one day if you want to look at them, I don’t know.”

  “You really don’t need to,” I answered.

  “No, it’s probably not important.”

  Pause.

  “Yes, you should have worked at our place, Mattias. The children up there could do with a super hero.”

  “We probably all could,” I said.

  “Yes, I suppose we could.”

  Father turned toward us in his chair.

  “Yes, they were good comics,” he says.

  “Hmm?”

  “The Superman comics.”

  “Yes, they were,” I answered.

  “And then, he—Superman—yes, he was allergic to that stuff, that robbed him of his strength. What was it? Some crystal?”

  “Kryptonite.”

  “Oh yes, of course. Kryptonite. That was it.”

  Crossword. Coffee. Conversation. Home. But I no longer belonged. Like revisiting an old elementary school, you sit at an empty desk in a classroom, knees banging into the low tabletop, and you can’t quite take part in what’s going on around you, the posters you once pinned on the corkboard have long since been taken down, your homework is already complete.

  We talked about the nursery, we talked about Helle, and we talked about what we’d do in the summer, Mother and Father were going to France, Father had a brother out there, in Saint-Lô, he’d lived down there for six or seven years now, and father had finally decided that he should pay him a visit.

  Father didn’t like traveling, he was the only one in our little family who’d rather stay in one place, and Mother frequently went off with friends instead. There were still two months before they’d go, D-Day, but I knew Father was already regretting it. He counted the days, trying to convince himself that things would be fine, they’d be down there for almost three weeks. Father’s tactic would be to calculate the days that were left, 18 days, he’d subtract as the days passed, waiting to be discharged, 16 days left, 10 days, 10 more nights in a strange bed and he’d be home again, and he’d think like that for the first week, no matter how pleasant it was, it didn’t depend on that, it was the longing for everything at home that held him back. He would sit by the Normandy coast and automatically give everything back home a value he didn’t know it had. He would miss his house, his car, the garden fence, the grass, he would miss the fifteen-inch hole in the asphalt of Rogalandsgaten on the way to work. But after a week, or thereabouts, these things would lose their hold on him and he’d forget that he missed his home, phase two, Father slips into French society and practically clings to the concrete of Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris, because he doesn’t want to go home. Father. My father.

  And me?

  Where was I going?

  “I’m going to the Faroe Islands,” I said.

  “The Faroe Islands?” says Father.

  “The Faroe Islands?” says Mother. “Well, we’ve never been there.”

  Father: “What are you going to do there?”

  I told them who, what, where, and that Helle was coming too, of course Hell
e was coming too, if she could get the time off, it was hard to get everything to fit into her work schedule, but she’d probably manage, I said, hard to get the pieces of the puzzle to fit, everybody in the office always wanted to go at the same time.

  “No, that’s right, it’s not easy,” said Father.

  “There’s always got to be somebody home,” I said. “Or it just doesn’t work.”

  “Quite,” he answered, turning in his chair.

  “More coffee?” Mother was already half way up from the sofa.

  “No thanks,” I said.

  She sat down again. Hands in lap.

  “And Helle?” asked Mother.

  “What about her?”

  “Well, where is she today?”

  “She was going out with a friend.”

  “Oh, I see. She’s always had so many friends,” said Mother, she looked at me, then down.

  “Yes.”

  “One can have many friends, but few good friends. Best friends. That’s what I’ve always said.”

  “Very true,” said Father. He didn’t have any friends anymore. Just colleagues. And I reflected on all the people that missed out on him.

  And so we sat there fumbling after each other, none of us knowing quite how to grasp the conversation, Father straightened his glasses and Mother brushed some nonexistent crumbs from a corner of the tablecloth. I rubbed my fingers against my temples.

  “Have a bun,” said mother lifting the plate for me and I took a sweet bun, dug a little hole in it with my teaspoon, filled the hole with strawberry jam and tried to close the opening by pressing the bun together between my index finger and thumb, that’s how buns were best, if you hid the jam and forgot it, imagined that the strawberry jam was just a natural part of the bun. But my mouth was parched.

  “Maybe I could have a drop of coffee after all?” I asked Mother.

  “Yes, of course,” she answered, getting up and padding out to the kitchen to set the process in action.

  Father and me in the living room. Searching for something to say. As always. We had so much to tell each other, we just never knew where to start.

 

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