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Autumn Wasps

by Thomas E. Kennedy

(An excerpt from the novel Beneath the Neon Egg)

The background is a CD his daughter forgot when she visited him the week before. Techno rap. A group called Faithless, album titled Reverence.

“Kiss my neck,” Bluett sings, “Watch me ride,” and breaks a raw egg yolk over his gorgonzola, half listening to Liselotte’s chatter, marvelling at their chance meeting. Ten years after. He feels mellow and fresh, randy for a long night. He’s been hungry too long. From some distance curiously he observes the fact that he and she had been blithely unfaithful together a decade before. Perhaps blithely is not the word. It was not without regret. Broken vows.

She says, “You should have some plants here. Some flowers.”
He glances at the five window ledges, white lacquered wood, bare but for a hand-painted vase, a little brass Geneash. He looks beyond the glass to the ice of the frozen Copenhagen street lake across the way. “Plants die,” he says. “Flowers wither.”

A slow song comes on, and he takes Liselotte’s fine little sculpted hand and leads her out onto the carpet. She watches him with happy submissive eyes, something he loves in her. He kisses her neck, whispers, “What do you want?”
“More of the same,” she says, and as they dance slowly by candlelight, he hears the faint slur of his words as he glides into a moment so huge he forgets it will ever end.

~

The weeks are charmed. More of the same, again and again. One week, two weeks, into a third, and a fourth, nearly every evening, every night, alternating between his place and hers.

They listen to jazz at Long John’s, Irish music at Dubliners and The Shamrock and McGrath’s and Foley’s, to all the minstrels along Nyhavn. They go to museums, to the Glyptoteket and look at the sculpture of the Water Mother, white and naked and graceful in the center of the fountain pond, a dozen marble babies crawling up from the water for her breasts, one seated in the crook of her upturned arm, all surrounded by palm trees beneath the domed glass. They stroll through the gallery of Roman busts, and Bluett looks at face after two-thousand-year old face, personalities frozen in stone.

They take long walks and look at the street sculpture, the underwater statues of the merman and his sons beneath the canal reaching up to the surface, imploring the human woman who has left them to return to the air, naked Diana on a rearing horse at Trondhjemsplads, Tiberus and Neptune reclining on opposite corners between his lake and the next, green bronze spattered with seagull shit, the white marble reclining nude on the grass at Gronningen, so sensual she excites them both.

For further inspiration, they visit the Museum of Erotica on Købmagergade where, as they stand looking at a photograph of the longest recorded penis in history, fourteen inches slack, she whispers in his ear, “I want my mouth full of your prick.”

They take a walk down Istedgade and browse through the sex toys and magazines, buy a toy which, later, he uses on her, and then she uses on him, and as they lie there afterwards, she plays with the hair on his chest and asks if he has ever tried a menage à trois.

He sips the Alsatian champagne they bought at Irma’s. They smile at each other, discussing it delicately, playing with the thought. They search through the names of women they both know to see if there is one they both would like, playing with the idea, discussing them, their bodies, their faces, their manner, considering different games they could play with them and he opens another bottle of champagne which they take turns pouring into one another’s navel, wind up giggling hopelessly and just lie there then and talk about their childhoods.

~

It makes him begin to think again about what love is. Can it be something as simple as this? To share life like this? Just unwrap, unwire, uncork the champagne and enjoy one another, and nothing else required? Let there be spaces in your togetherness. He remembers something he read about the true religion of our time, that it is not a religion of death and sacrifice, but one of pleasure and joy and human communion and co-mingling. Yet he is skeptical, reminds himself of the importance of maintaining a healthy skepticism of human motives, one’s own and others.

~

He phones his sister Noreen in New Haven who has lived apart from her husband for the past several years. I could never trust him again, she says. He lied to me too many times.

Is it so bad? Bluett asks. That a man has those desires, those needs?

I have no problem with that, Noreen says. But I cannot abide lying.
Would you have tolerated it if he had been honest and told you about it?

Then we would have dealt with it.

In the afternoons when his five required pages of translation are done, he walks through the city, thinking. Noreen is probably the person in the world that he is closest to now after his children. Her husband, she learned one day, had had a mistress for nearly ten years. He wept and ended it when Noreen found out, vowing to be faithful, and five years later she found out there had been a new one almost immediately after the split with the first one. He could not explain himself. She could not tolerate the lies. So they live apart.

Bluett cannot come to terms with it. The problem feels foreign to him.

He circles the lake, wind whistling across, sliding icily over his face. Sometimes it moans in the courtyard behind the house, and he lies in bed listening to it, staring up at the white ceiling, wondering where he is. It is late afternoon. A lone couple walks across the blue ice, same blue color as the dusky sky, and just three kids left on skates, silhouettes gliding from sight.

There is a voice behind him, oddly pitched. A girl walks past, alone, reading aloud from a sheet of paper: “My parents don’t understand the situation and I am losing my mind. . . .” Bluett slows his pace to fall behind, and her voice trails off.

He crosses over from the lakes to the other side of Nørreport, strolls down Købmagergade, passes the jewelry store where he bought the rings for his wedding twenty years before.

My heart is broken, he thinks, that my marriage has failed. Where is my wife, my only wife whom I can no longer bear to be in the same room with, nor she with me?

He considers again about the religion of pleasure, thinks, I’m not sure we’re made for pleasure. We turn into orgasm dogs, pawing the orgasm button till we perish from neglect of our other needs. We are not meant to be happy. Guilt and sorrow is our natural lot.

A young man passes him on the street, a dark pallid pimply youth with hollow purple-ringed eyes, a head too big for his body, and a haunted look on his features. Why should that boy be so lost and miserable? My sorrow is as nothing beside his.

Now he sees a group of children wearing animal masks and carrying clubs, another kid dressed like a gypsy, and he realizes it is Fastelavn, the old pagan feast that Lent replaced. In olden days, they put a cat in a barrel and beat the barrel with clubs until it broke open and the cat, driven mad, escaped. Nowadays they use an empty barrel, paste a picture of a cat on it and fill it with goodies. It makes him wonder about the Danes, but of course he knows you could find something as strange or stranger anywhere, and as he passes a kiosk, he glances at the newspaper headline display that says Genome Warfare Weapons Aimed to Select Racial Traits, and he decides to stop for a cup of coffee at the café on Gammel Torv.

When he gets home, his son, Timothy, is waiting for him at the door. They embrace, patting one another’s backs.

The boy stands half a head taller than Bluett, and his hair is cut very short, a translucent dark fuzz against his skull. Opposite of Bluett’s own hair-revolution when he was a kid in the sixties. But how could he complain about this? Hey, Tim, don’t you think it’s about time to stop getting so many hair cuts?

Inside, he ushers the boy into the living room, asks what he would like to drink.

“Just a Coke, Dad. I can’t stay so long. Got some reading.”

Bluett realizes he has to watch himself, not to scare the boy off, not to say anything that might cause him to disappear inside himself, out of reach. He knows the boy is still angry with him over the divorce, recognizes that the anger is combined with the natural resentment a twenty-one-year-old feels for his father, recognizes that Timothy’s way of expressing this is a kind of vague cool disdain and that his own desire to force through that shield will help nothing. He has to relax with it. He just never expected this. He had always been so close to the boy, had spent so much time with him. He knows he has made mistakes, spoken awkward, regrettable things, but still they had shared such a good life together that he never expected such a wedge could appear between them. He wonders if they will ever be close again, wonders if children and parents simply part ways at some point and perhaps this is that point for Timothy.

Bluett sips a beer while his son drinks the Coke and the afternoon sun disappears into the ice on the lake. He asks about Tim’s girlfriend and receives a dismissive response. He has not been allowed to meet her yet, although she and Tim have been together for almost a year. Bluett’s daughter has met her, told him a little. She is the daughter of a surgeon, very mild and intelligent.

“How’s school?”

The boy smirks slightly, shrugs. “Boring.”

Bluett chuckles. “I remember I said that once to someone, a colleague, and he said, ‘Boring is not a problem. Boring one can always cope with.’”

Tim’s eyes flash. “It’s still boring, Dad.”

“Well you’ll be finished soon, then you can take a break, travel some.”

“Yeah. If I finish.”

Weapon. Bad tact. Avoid this. Yet he finds himself playing right into it. “You’ll destroy your best chances if you quit now.”

“I’m not talking about quitting. I’m just thinking about taking a year off.”

“You take a year off, you may never get back to it. Then you’ll be stuck. I know what I’m talking about. I took a leave of absence at the beginning of my university studies, and it took me three years to get back to it, and it ruined my chances for an academic career.”

“Who wants an academic career?”

“You might. You can’t know yet for sure. Don’t cut yourself off. Don’t shut the door on yourself.” Bluett hears what he is saying, hears cliché after cliché, knows that he is saying what he wishes his own father had said to him all those years before instead of giving him permission to do as he pleased, make his own mistakes. Yet at the same time he senses that nothing can be accomplished with this conversation. Perhaps it is enough just to register his resistance. Change the subject.

“You going away for winter recess, Tim? Do some skiing maybe?”

“Who has money for that?”

The silence extends as Bluett thinks about this, recognizes where the conversation is headed, recognizes that he has set himself up for it, that the whole purpose of the visit was a touch, and why should it be otherwise? It was usually this, and he doesn’t mind, he doesn’t mind giving the boy money, he just hates the thought that it was the whole purpose of the visit, hates the way it was engineered by smirks and bitter comments and wonders if it is his own fault that it happens this way. Does he keep too tight a hand on his wallet, does he use money as bait to draw the kids to him?

For a moment he considers making the boy bite the sour apple and ask directly, but fears he will not ask then, that he will leave without the money, go out broke and feeling lost and miserable. Bluett remembers how it was to be young. Not as much fun as generally believed and assumed and pretended.

“If you need money, Tim, you only have to ask. If I can help you, I’ll be glad to.” Will you reach that far to me? But the boy is staring out the window, lips pursed.
Bluett swallows some beer, waits. “Been reading anything good lately?”

“Text books.”

“Boy, you seem pretty down, Tim. You used to have so much fun with your buddies. I remember how happy you were when you got that apartment. . . .”

“Dad,” he says to stop the lecture. “I’m okay. It’s just school, all that goddamn reading, all those lecture hours, it gets me down, and I go around broke, everything I earn goes for rent and books and food.”

Bluett manages to swallow his annoyance, manages to resist the urge to point out that in his day there was no monthly government stipend for students, that you even had to pay your tuition, that he himself could remember days when he had nothing to eat. What would be the point? Kids today had other problems. Everyone expected more now. Himself included.

“How much do you need, son? I could let you have a couple hundred crowns. And why don’t you take a couple bottles of that beer with you, too.”

The visit is soon concluded. They embrace at the door, and Bluett watches his son’s shaven head disappear along the street in the darkening afternoon, wishing they could get beyond this, wondering if they will ever be close again in anything like the way it was before. He knows other men with children older than his who assure him it changes for the better again later and he hopes for that. His own father died when he was nineteen, at a time when they were at least partly at odds so no new level of being together had ever been achieved.

He still remembers the day Tim was born, all the hope and promise of the day. He and his wife were in bed, about to sleep, talking a bit, and Bluett told her some joke, got her laughing. It felt good so he told another, and her laughter turned to something else. The bed started vibrating, and she said, “You better get me to the hospital right now.”

Timothy was born two hours later, and the nurses rolled the bed out into the hall afterward so he and his wife could sit up together with the baby for an hour or so. Little Tim there, with his light eyes open, seeing what?

When he and his wife were separating, Bluett tried to explain it to the boy. Bluett and his wife by then could not speak to one another without bickering, and in the course of trying to explain how impossible the situation had become, he said to the boy, “It’s this life, son. It’s no life for me,” by which he meant the life of bickering with a wife with whom he no longer shared any joy, but the phrase stuck out in his own mind, his own memory as out of place, as ill-chosen. What might the boy have made of that phrase? He suspected the boy might have thought Bluett meant the life of the whole family, life with him and his sister. He tried to talk to him again about it, but the boy cut him off, would not allow him to explain anything more, and still, two years later, they had not come beyond that point.

He stands now at the window and watches the corner around which his son disappeared and looks back in one sweep over his life, and he knows that he cannot regret the things he has done, cannot regret his marriage, it had been necessary, it was his life, a big hunk of it, the main part, that which brought his children to life. How can you regret your life? He and his wife had made vows and broken them, but not without regret, and their love had soured, had worn away, but they had also grown together, and who was to question the fate that joined them, that produced two good kids looking for their own way in the world. Who could question or regret that? Chance turnings which decide a fate you thought you had all of time to pick out for yourself, but then it’s there and then it’s gone and what is left of it?

Alone again in the darkened apartment, he carries the soiled glasses out to the kitchen and thinks about calling someone, but who can he talk to about what he feels now? His sister perhaps, but he remembers Noreen saying to him last time they spoke, “This is going to cost you a fortune.” He wanted to protest, but it was true, he couldn’t afford it, his phone bill last month had been a killer. “I’ll translate an extra page tomorrow,” he said.

“Do you have an infinite supply of pages to translate?”

He laughed, but as he stands looking at the phone on its little table by the window he realizes that there is no one to call because the pain he feels just now is and must be something he is alone with, realizes it is something to embrace, one of the edges of loneliness, a truth.

We don’t know, he thinks, what knives we put in one another’s hearts, parents, children, lovers, but he feels some edge to the thought which is of no use and with that realization feels it slipping from him. For many moments he stands there over the telephone table gazing out the window at the frozen dark blue lake. He knows that what he feels now is a gift of some sort, the edge of sadness, the sorrow at the core of loneliness, a place he will return to in the future to learn more from.

As the depth of the feeling levels up to the surface, and he finds himself away from it again, just standing blankly, the moment having reached the end of its circuit, the telephone rings.

Liselotte. “Hi?” she says in a tone of query. “Are you okay?”

The hair on his neck rises. “Why do you ask that?”

“I just got a feeling that you might not be . . . okay.”

“What are you, psychic?”

“Was I right?”

“Listen, you doing anything? Why don’t you come over for a nice post blue hour highball?”

“We don’t have to drink. I don’t want to interrupt your day, but I have something for you.”

He nurses a deep Stoli-rocks while he waits for her, then another, and halfway through the second he feels it doing its work in his brain, feels that crisp certainty of anticipated pleasure, feels that perhaps he loves her, cautions himself not to speak that word, realizes that if he were always drunk he would always love her for when he is drunk all that exists for him and all he exists for is the moment, the beat of blood in the wrist, the response of his body for hers. Like the Housman poem his father used to recite:

Could man be drunk forever
On liquor, love or fights
Leif would I rise of mornings
And leif lie down of nights.
But men at times are sober
They think by fits and starts
And if they think they fasten
Their hands upon their hearts.

He finishes the second Stoli surfing the TV, watches a bit of the scrunched-up face of David Letterman, the bulbous jaw of Jay Leno, Oprah Winfrey interviewing some author about his novel.

She says, “Know what my favorite line in the book is? Where you say, ‘You have to accept the love that people offer. You have to drink their milkshakes.’”

He grins, a balding man with a silver stubble of beard and wide, bright teeth. “Know what?” he says. “That was my favorite line, too.”

On his way to the kitchen to freshen his Stoli, he is stopped by a knock at the door, opens it as he passes and kisses her mouth, her blue eyes bright as lamps with surprise and pleasure. He caresses her round full breast, murmurs, “I want to drink your milkshakes.”

Instead of a drink she asks for juice, so he takes a club soda to slow his progress. He sits on the sofa beside her. He wants her, but she takes something from her bag and holds it out to him. A large white jagged crystal, the size of a coffee mug.

“This is for you,” she says. “You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want, but it told me you were feeling blue. That’s why I called and asked how you were.”
He takes it in his hands, cooling his palms with it.

“Close your eyes,” she says. “Feel its energy. Let it in.”

Despite himself, he feels something coursing faintly into his hands, his arms, his veins. Then he thinks that what he feels is nothing more than his blood.

“I didn’t realize you were into crystals,” he says, vaguely disappointed.

“Something happened to me when I was twelve. . . . ”

Bluett chuckles. “Something happened to everybody when they were twelve.”

He sees annoyance flash in her eyes, but she governs it. “You don’t have to believe me,” she says, and he is sorry for his flippancy, tries to turn it to humor, warmth. He holds the crystal to his ear. “So this here told you I was blue, did it?”

“It has been scientifically proven that crystals have innate energy,” she says. “Why do you think they used crystals in radios? They channel through you, and then you are like the radio receiver. You tune into the energy which enters your body and comes out your hands. Crystals have intelligence. They attract certain energies which can channel to the higher self according to the person’s aura, and for example, cure a disease or close the separation from the soul essence.”

“The soul essence,” he says.

“When I was twelve I made a decision that I was a have not,” she says. “I did not realize, or I forgot, that I was connected to God, but I found the way back with crystals.”

“With crystals.” As he sits there listening to her amiable nonsense, he feels a mild gentle warmth running through his body, filling his heart, his brain, his eyes, and he watches her, smiling, and realizes that this is not about love, this is about friendship and pleasure and a certain healthy skepticism of human motives, including your own.

Crystals indeed.

He stands to get a drink, but goes to the window instead and just above the lake, in the black starry sky, he sees the Hale-Bopp.

“Look!”

He remembers reading about this in Newsweek, that it had last been seen from earth 4,200 years ago and would not be seen again for another 2,400 years. The reporter for some reason had referred to it as “a frozen dirt ball,” and one of Bluett’s friends said, “He sounds more like the frozen dirtball there.”

Liselotte stands beside him watching it through the window, and he realizes it could mean nothing or it could mean something, it might all mean something, everything, that crystal, our eyes, our lives, every moment we spend together, every word we speak, right up to the last breath we draw into our lungs and release.

~

The weekend with her lays before him like a little paradise, Thursday to Sunday, an island of pleasure. They are to meet at the Europa Café on Amagertorv, and his step is light up to Frederiksborggade, past Israelplads where earthy women in tight slacks hawk vegetables and fruit, across Norreport to Købmagergade.

The streets are full of end-of-the-day office people out to shop, meet for drinks, dinner, and it occurs to him he is beginning to feel a part of it all again after how many weeks, months of estrangement?

Since the divorce. Something he does not want to think about. The connection to someone, the breaking of connection. He has had his life. He passes a bakery, window display of petit fours and weinerbrød Danishes and remembers sitting drinking beer with his friend Sam on a sunny autumn afternoon, and the wasps were at their beer and on the butter and the jelly in the wienerbrød on the next table, and Sam said, “Those wasps are like us. Their work is done, their queen is dead, the hive is gone. They have nothing to do now but take what pleasure they can get from the little time left before they freeze to death or get swatted out. They want sugar, and they’re mean, ‘cause somehow they know they got nothin’ to lose. Nothin’ to do but fly around and look for sweet stuff.”

He has had his life. His kids are grown, and the connection to Jette was a dead end. How odd it seems to him, to have spent twenty years of his life, the central twenty years perhaps, on a dead end. The kids, of course. It was for the kids, and they had turned out well, even if Timothy had not forgiven him yet. Time. They need time. Yet time is a sea that stretches in more than one direction. Memories wash up sometimes, late at night, on a lonely afternoon, of hopeful times, the times after they managed their first adjustment together, when they were a team in the world, part of a net of family. Her family really. His so many years dispersed.

He remembers once Jette saying to him, “You’re my best friend.”

He cannot recall the context, only the statement, how it surprised him with delight and warmth, an unexpected revelation of tenderness through her normally guarded exterior. Other moments, too. Their month roaming the desert in a rented Ford, last fling before having children. Swimming at sunset in a motel pool in a little town in New Mexico. Both of them brown from the sun and trim and wanting nothing more than to be together, talk, share their thoughts, make love, make babies.

Those moments too few and far between. The failure was there from the start, too, a breach inevitable, only a matter of waiting for the right moment.
Oh they are still friends, but only in very small doses. There would be no growing old together, no death do us part, no better or worse left. In the end, there had been only worse and worse.

And that was your life, Bluett. You chose poorly. You have your kids but they are cheated of a family base. They have you, they have Jette, what little remains of Jette’s family, mostly people in their seventies. Whatever became of the old family stretch where there were aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings? What is there now? What chance left?

Passing the post office, a bright-faced couple, arms slung over each other’s shoulder, strolling through the evening rush, catch his eye, and it occurs to him he could start over. He could pick a new partner. He could have a life. Pick more consciously this time. Commit himself. Be joined again, this time knowing something about the place.

He follows Købmagergade out to Amagertorv, the Europa there at the flatiron corner of the street across the torv, and he thinks of Liselotte sitting there waiting for him, knowing somehow she has already arrived. He thinks of the pleasure they have shared these past days. He has told her clearly that he is not looking for love. He wants a friend. He wants to have fun. He wants to live free. She understood. She agreed, accepted. He tries to remember whether she told him what she wanted now with her life. She is twice divorced, two daughters in their thirties, alone again for how long now?

And believes in the intelligence of crystals.

And the two of them, years before, had blithely been unfaithful to their spouses. Together. No, he reminds himself. Not blithely. It was not without regret.

He climbs the steps to the glass door, sees her lift her face from a table by the big plate window that looks across to the parliament, and he becomes aware suddenly of Denmark, this country, of Danes, people with a shared heritage of traditions, a thousand year history, and him an expatriate from a country two centuries old, cut off here from his past, nose at the window of something he cannot have and does not want.

Well what then? What are you then? You’ll never be a Dane. And you’re not American anymore.

He does not break stride crossing the floor to her as these thoughts wallop him like a sudden gust of wind, cut the breath from him.

She smiles, stretches across to kiss him as he sits, a proprietary gesture. He almost draws back, but brushes her lips (less says more) and draws away under the guise of settling in his chair, his thoughts moving too quickly to examine or even to hold for later examination, everything moving so quickly, time like water, a flow of drops, instants. His eyes focus on the glass of red wine on the table before her. “That,” he says, “is exactly what I want,” signals the waitress, glances back at Liselotte, his eyes deflecting from the sag at her throat, beneath her eyes, to her pretty mouth, her breasts, the eyes themselves, so light and warm.

She puts her hand on his. He squeezes, takes his away to go for his wallet as the waitress brings his wine, and he empties his glass in two swallows. Then he picks her hand up from the table, turns it over and places a kiss in her warm palm, sees her light eyes gone tender, touches her nose, says, “I don’t like that look in your eye.”

“What look is that?”

“Like the look of, uh, love, or something.”

Now they flash, and he chuckles.

“Bastard,” she says with a smile.

They eat on Grey Friars Square, at Peder Oxe, a prime cut served by the sweet blond hands of a cute young waitress. Bluett looks meaningfully across the table at Liselotte. “Her?”

She smacks her palm at him.

“No?”

Falling into the game, she shakes her head. “Too young and innocent. I want someone more sophisticated.”

They finish with cognac by the fireplace, then sail out to the dark square. He stands there buttoning his coat, glances at the fountain in the center, the green copper pissoir off to one side, dungareed legs of a pisser visible beneath the bottom edge of the half wall, at the ancient oak tree, huge and sprawling with bare winter arms and fingers pointing everywhere.

“You know this square is older than my country,” he says, and he remembers then all the summer afternoons he had spent here with his wife when they were young, the first summer they knew one another. To blot out the thought, he reaches down to lift the hem of Liselotte’s long blue wool coat, splays his palm over her bottom and squeezes. “May I be so forward?” he asks.

“Oh yes, you are wery velcome,” she says in shaky English, and he gets under her skirt then, but she ducks aside. “If you start that we have to go home right away,” she says, “you make me much too hot.”

They stroll across the square to Skindergade, and at just that moment, a taxi comes along with its green fri light lit. Bluett says, “Talk about your synchronicity,” lifts a finger and it stops. “I haven’t had a joint in years,” he says.

“Let’s go to Christiania.”

“I don’t do that,” she says.

“It’s a wild place. You can have red wine.”

The driver throws the meter, turns round and cuts across the edge of Kongens Nytorv. They roll past the Stock Exchange, the Mint, over Knippels Bridge through Christianshavn, statues of Eskimoes and up Prinsessesgade to the gate of Christiania, an abandoned military installation taken over by squatters twenty-five years before, just barely tolerated now as a social experiment in conflict with the police and conservative citizenry.

They pay, get out of the cab, cross beneath the wooden arch that says, You are now leaving the European Union, through an alleyway to come out on the muddy dirt streets of the Free State, mud and ruts frozen now in the winter dark. Liselotte clings to Bluett’s arm.

“Scared?”

“No. But stay close,” she says. “The Hells Angels run the drugs here.”

“I hear they’re out now.”

“I hear they are back.”

They pick their way down the frozen mud-rutted road.

“Really,” he says, “it’s safe, it’s great.” It looks like the third world. A little square of market stands, old hippies selling chillums, roach clips, glassine envelopes of five joints for a hundred crowns.

He stops at one stall, chats with the vendor, a man his own age, maybe younger, with a Fu Manchu and burnsides.

“These joints any good?” Bluett asks. “You vouch for them?”
The vendor raises his palms. Could mean anything. They stroll to the next stall.

“These joints make me high?”

“Prime skunk, man. Classic.”

Bluett buys four. They continue down Pusher Street, a gauntlet of hash stalls where they sell by weight. Satisfied customers sit around garbage can fires toking happily away.

“I should’ve bought here,” he says. “You can see what you get.”

On the next street, they hear music, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, blaring through the speakers of Café Woodstock. The lights of the bar shine on the dark street. Liselotte holds back; he tugs her gently. “Come on, you’ll love it.”

Inside is loud and warm and crowded. People sit at tables of eight or ten in a long row. The bar is deep with people. Bluett buys a Tuborg and a glass of wine, and they find a place to stand near the toilets. There’s a little shelf on the wall where they can set their glasses and their elbows. At the table across from them an Inuit man sits sketching. He sketches a fighting cock, fills in the background, tears the sheet off his pad, begins to sketch a boat. His hand never stops moving. A young woman beside him takes the fighting cock sketch and goes to Bluett with it, asks in English, “You want to buy a genuine Inuit drawing?” Her face is thin and lined and a tooth is missing on the side of her mouth.

He shakes his head with a smile. She sneers, sits again. The man’s hand is still moving, filling in the lines of the boat.

Bluett and Liselotte chink glasses. She lights a Prince, and he reaches into his pocket for the joint, comes out with a coaster on which is printed a number, a name. He peers at it through the smokey air, sees the name Birgitte, remembers someone named Birgitte in a bar, necking with her, shoves the coaster back in his pocket, goes into the other and locates the glassine envelope. The joint is fat, suspiciously so. He lights it, draws deep, holds it for a second before he coughs. “Out of practice,” he says tightly, draws again, does better, holding it. He feels a mild buzz he thinks, drags again.

Jim Morrison is singing now, been down so goddamn long it looks like up.

There is a little space on their shelf, and someone comes and puts his beer on it, a short, lean man with a ponytail and beard, pale blue eyes, a gentle face. Straight out of the sixties, but he couldn’t be more than maybe thirty-two. He’s drinking snow beer, smiles at Bluett who raises his bottle in salute. It’s empty. Liselotte’s glass is empty, too.

“Want another one of them?” he asks the hippy, pointing at his snow beer even though it is still full.

“Sure,” he says quickly in English. “Tak.”

Bluett has a soft spot for Danish hippies. He buys the round. His joint has gone out so he lights it again, tokes, passes to the hippie who tastes it, smiles apologetically.

“No good?” asks Bluett.

The hippy takes out a little knife. “Mind?”

“Go ahead.”

The man squeezes the cigarette out between his fingers, slits the paper. Bluett notices three fingers are gone from his left hand, from the knuckle. He parts the tobacco inside, says, “You got three seeds there, that’s about it.”

Bluett peers, sees three green seeds amidst the ordinary red brown cigarette tobacco. Finest Turkish and domestic blend.

“Burnt agin,” he says and drinks some beer. He has snow beer now, too. Strong and bracing in his throat.

“What’s your names?” the hippy asks.

“Marianne,” Liselotte says, and Bluett laughs. “I’m Blue.”

“Blue?” The hippy smiles, reflecting on the sound. “Cool. I’m Ib.” Ib takes a bag from his pocket, removes a strip of hash, the little pocket knife. He lays the hash on a scrap of tinfoil, begins to cut it up, telling about himself while he works. He is thirty-eight, married, has a son who’s ten but his wife has left him because she thinks he is a bad influence on the son. He has a pension he got from the gherkin factory in Holland where he lost his fingers. He laughs. “Someone got a freaky surprise in their jar of gherkins.” He scrapes the hash into a chillum. “I love my boy,” he says. “I don’t bother no one. I got to see my boy. We have it good together.” He lights the pipe, offers it. “Marianne?”

She shakes her head, but Bluett takes it, and one toke sends him through the ceiling.

Led Zeppelin is screaming now, about getting back to rock-and-roll, been a long time, been a long time, been a long long long long lonely time!

Bluett takes the pipe again, sees Liselotte’s face, knows he must not accept the pipe next time. He’s as high as he ever needs to be, up where nothing can touch him, not even a thought, not even a memory. He wants to try to explain to Liselotte that if she just takes a hit or two, they will have the best, best sex she has ever known in her whole life, her hole life, but his tongue is not inclined to formulate words just now. He lifts his snow beer to his mouth to wet it, and an eternity passes as the bottle clears the shelf, floats up toward his face. He smiles, all the time in the world between the simplest of gestures.

“So cool,” he says to his friend whose name he cannot recall just now. “So cool.” The three-fingered man snuffles with laughter as the snow beer trickles into Bluett’s dry mouth, waters his parched tongue, his throat. “Oh, yes. Good shit.”

The music is excellent, too. “Dance?” he says to Liselotte, but she shakes her head. He sees fright in her eyes. She keeps glancing to the bar. Bluett follows her gaze. Four younger men stand with their backs to the bar, facing across the room to where Bluett and Liselotte stand. Two Danes and two dark foreigners. They look very young to Bluett, like kids, his own boy’s age. He doesn’t want to think about that. He doesn’t want to think. He feels the nose of panic seeking its way up inside him, remembers how a wrong mood can topple you when you’re high, forces it down. He looks at Liselotte again, and words find his mouth.

“Hey, you got to relax and let be, sweetheart.”

Her eyes soften. “What did you call me?”

“Marianne.” He leans to her ear and tells her what he wants to do to her, draws back and her smile is easy again, warm. Her blue coat hangs open, and he puts his hand inside it.

“I go to see my boy tomorrow,” the man whose name Bluett cannot remember says. Ib! “We have the whole day together.”

Liselotte’s smile is sad watching him. There is too much sadness here suddenly. Bluett thinks if he could just take one more hit of the peace pipe he would be ready to climb on her but the pipe seems far away and there is too much sadness in Ib’s beard, in Liselotte’s smile. He whispers in her ear, “You want to go?”
She nods, grateful, and they finish their drinks.

Ib says, “I go, too. I go to my boy tomorrow.”

They walk together through the frozen mud toward the gate. Bluett is thinking about the guy who sold him the fake joints. Twenty crowns for a goddamn cigarette. Three and a half bucks for a fucking cigarette. “Guy ripped me off,” Bluett says.

“Gonna talk to that guy. Tell him something.”

Liselotte squeezes his arm. “What if he is one of those, you know. Bikers?”

“No one know for sure,” Ib says.

As he wonders what Ib means by that, Bluett’s high begins to climb again. He sees his feet in the dark, spattered brown shoes, gliding across the frozen ruts. A dog trots past, a mongrel with some labrador in her, and Bluett calls to her, but Liselotte tugs at his arm.

There are people walking behind them. Bluett glances back for the dog, sees the four young men from the bar, moving four abreast across the frozen road as they pass through the stalls of Pusher Street. Only one or two are open now. Beyond, in the little square where he bought his joints, he sees that the guy he bought from has closed shop, a hundred crowns of Bluett’s money richer.

That’s a whole goddamn page of translation, net, he thinks. He can hear the shoes of the four boys behind them slapping in the cold mud as they move closer. He peers around him for an escape route if necessary, but sees no possibilities. Abruptly he comes down. Should have stopped at one of those hash stalls. He remembers vaguely there is a restaurant, the Fleabag, not far ahead where they could phone a taxi, but the taxi couldn’t come in to Christiania anyway.

The boys are just behind him now. He glances at Ib, who moves close to the wall of a long dark building they are passing, and it occurs suddenly to Bluett that Ib is one of them. Maybe they saw his wallet, bunch of hundred crown notes, saw him duped by the bad joints, figure he’s some rich fuck slumming, so they get him bent and jump him. He spies a pile of lumber scraps along the side of the road, his eye searching for a plank he can use as a weapon, but his will locks. What can he do against five of them? Stay calm, reason, keep Liselotte behind me.

Liselotte grips his arm as the boys come up behind him. Bluett hesitates, braced. The boys continue past, through the passageway out to the street.
Bluett’s knees are weak in the aftermath. He wants to comfort Liselotte with a hug, but is embarrassed about the trembling of his arms. He says to her, “There’s usually a cab outside.”

“You take a taxi?” Ib asks. “I ride with you a little? Just up to the bridge. I pay ten crowns.”

Through the passage to the little square outside, and a single taxi idles there in the cold, a Mercedes, green fri lamp burning behind the windshield, and Bluett heads for it gratefully.

Then he hears shoes on gravel behind them. The four boys waiting against the wall. They are moving toward them now in a wedge, a blond hard-mouthed boy in the lead. Bluett is thinking how incongruous the blond hair, blond whiskers seem for a tough guy, as he moves for the cab, shoving Liselotte before him.

The blonde boy lunges and his fist hooks with a sharp crack into Ib’s face, spinning him face down with a groan onto the hood of the taxi.

Bluett calls out, “Hey!” He has the taxi door open and shoves Liselotte in. “Lock the other one,” he mutters and stands there behind the open door, staring at the blond boy.

The driver says back over his shoulder to Bluett, “You coming or not? Get in or beat it,” but Bluett is staring into the blond kid’s eyes, glances past his shoulder to Ib.

One of the others, a dark-haired foreign kid, has Ib’s arm. Then he punches him in the stomach so Ib grunts, doubling over, as the dark-haired boy’s knee rises into his face with a thud.

“You take it calm,” the blond boy says in Danish. “You take it completely calm. You go home now. You don’t know this business, so fuck off. Understand me?”

Ib’s face and beard are smeared with blood, but his eyes are calm as he glances across at Bluett, at the door of the cab, an island of escape he just missed. One of the dark boys punches him in the side, and he grimaces with pain, then his face is calm again.

“Så er det nu bedstefar,” the blond kid says. “That means now, grandpa,” and shoves at the door so it smacks into Bluett’s chest. “I don’t say it again.”
Bluett is transfixed by the calm sadness of Ib’s face, his silence. He hears himself say, “Yeah, but . . .”

The driver breaks in, “Either get in or close the door,” and puts the car in gear. Liselotte is pulling at his arm. “You got to come now, now,” and Bluett slides into the car seat, into the dark warmth of the interior as the door smacks shut, and the blond kid gives him the finger and kicks the quarter panel of the rolling taxi.
Bluett watches for a moment through the side window, Ib on the ground and the four of them over him, their legs working. Liselotte sits very still, unspeaking.

“Hey, you got a radio,” Bluett says to the driver. “Call the police. Quick.”

“Call what?”

“The cops. Call the cops.”

“Why? It’s just a Christiania thing.”

“They were killing that guy.”

“Who? What guy? It’s a Christiania thing. The police won’t come at night. They throw rocks at them and they can’t see who does it.”

“Jesus Christ, stop this fucking cab up here, you son of a bitch!”

Liselotte whispers, “No, Blue, we must get away, what if they come back?”

“Stop the cab!”

In a bar across from Asiatisk Plads, the foreign ministry, he dials 112 on a pay phone. They ask his name and the number he’s calling from and his social security number.

“My social security number! There’s a guy getting beaten, killed. . . .”

“Stay calm, please, sir, we need your name, social security number, and the number you are. . . . ”

“Outside Christiania four guys are kicking his head in.”

“We require . . . ”

He slams the phone down. Liselotte sits hugging herself at a table, a glass of red wine before her. Bluett orders a double vodka on the rocks.

The bartender says, “They won’t go to Christiania at night. Some people there throw stones. They can’t see them at night, can’t see where they’re coming from. I wouldn’t go in there either.”

Bluett looks into the man’s face, a reasonable, middle-aged Danish face, Nordic, broad-jowled from Christmas pork and Danish lunches, frank friendly eyes.

“They were kicking this guy. Four of them. Kicking him on the ground. In the head.”

The bartender shakes his head. “That’s what they do now. In my day, they used their fists. Now they kick. They kick in the head. In the face. They use knives. It’s from America, comes from America. Anything happens in America we get it here a few years later.”

“These were Danes kicking a Dane,” Bluett says.

“They see it in all these American films. On the television. Life means nothing anymore.”

Another taxi comes to collect them from Asiatisk Plads, carries them back across Knippels Bridge and through the city. He tries to put his arm around Liselotte, but she is huddled into herself, stiff, so he takes his arm away and watches the night streets roll past, thinking about Ib, the son he should have visited tomorrow, the calmness of his eyes, the blood clotting in his beard.

Bluett considers the fact that he watched as the man’s head was kicked in and did nothing, knows he could do nothing, feels tiny and fragile here in this taxi, something less than a man, some kind of rodent that can only hide, only run. Dimly, in his mind, he sees himself hurting back, sees himself with a bat, swinging at the hard-mouthed blond man, feels his eyes narrow, his mouth tighten in a cruel smile. Could I? No. Could I do that? No, he thinks and stares out at the dark streets reeling past, uncertain what is happening.

Back at his apartment, he tries to turn the mood. “What we need now,” he says, “is a little bit of natmad. Night food. And Eine Kleiner Nacht Musik!” He puts Mozart on the stereo and butters a platter of open sandwiches on rye bread halves—salami and chives, liverpaste and saltbeef and raw onion, medium strong cheese. The aroma of the cheese hits his nose and he begins to salivate. He takes down snaps glasses and lifts the frozen aquavit bottle out of the freezer.

He serves the food at his oak table, pours snaps, beer. He lights candles all around the room, switches off the overhead light as the violins leap through the changes Mozart programmed for them two hundred years before. He closes his eyes, his head moving like a conductor’s with the spring of the music as he munches, swallows, lifts his snaps glass.

“Skål, skat,” he says. “Cheers, my treasure.”

She lifts hers, nods. “Skål,” she says, her voice toneless, eyes flat. She eats half a salami sandwich, finishes her snaps and curls up on the sofa with her back to the room.

Bluett sits there in the candlelight watching her back, wondering where she is, what she is thinking. He looks at the platter of sandwiches, the frosted green snaps bottle, the beer. He carries the platter out to the kitchen and scrapes it into the garbage, shoves the snaps back into the freezer. He looks out the kitchen window at the dark backs of the houses across the little yard, sees through one window a big grey sheep dog asleep in a pool of light from the yard lamp. Up above, the dented moon hangs in the navy sky over the peaked silhouetted roofs.

He sleeps on the opposite sofa. When he opens his eyes in the morning, he realizes he was woken by the kid upstairs running back and forth across the floor. Bump bump bump bump bump. Turn. Bump bump bump bump bump. Turn back. Bump bump bump bump bump. . . .

Liselotte is no longer asleep on the sofa. He looks across the room and sees her dressed at the table, warming her hands around a mug of coffee, looking out the window.

He rises, hunched to conceal his hard-on as he slips into the bathroom, pees, brushes his teeth, rinses his tongue with strong blue mouthwash, looks at his face in the mirror over the sink, guesses the time at eight-fifty, but sees by the kitchen clock it is already ten, overcast. The clouds had fooled him, curtained the light. He makes himself a cup of Nescafé, stands staring into the refrigerator as he waits for the water to boil, staring at the bottle of grannini tomato juice. His favorite kind. Perfect for bloody marys.

Why not? They have the whole long weekend still. It’s only Friday morning. He pours the steaming water over the Nescafé grounds, stirs, carries it to the dining table and sits across from her.

“Want a bloody mary?”

“Good God no, I don’t,” she says without looking at him.

I see, he thinks. Let’s say the world stinks today and it is generally my fault, but he says nothing. Let her stew. He begins to consider alternate plans. Send her home. Take in a flick. Jerk off. Take a long walk in Deer Park. Check out the bucks in winter. Take the train up to Louisiana and see the Picasso exhibit. Have lunch there looking out over the sea. Open a cheese sandwich and a draft sounds pretty good about now. Snaps, too. Who knows, maybe the woman of your dreams seated at the next table, just waiting for you.

He sips his coffee, glances at Liselotte. “Aren’t you overreacting a bit?” he says. “So we saw something ugly. What could we do? What can we do? That world is not our world, we have no control over it, we can’t do a thing but stay clear of it.”

She looks at him. “What are we doing?” she asks.

I don’t have time to talk about this just now, he thinks. Can’t it wait until I’m dead? “We’re drinking coffee,” he says.

Clearly she is in no mood. “You know what I mean.”

“Well suppose you formulate your question a little more precisely?” I’ve been through a whole twenty year marriage of this. I’m not about to start taking shit from you just because we fucked a few times. You want war, you got it, babes.

“What is the point of our getting together? What is our goal?”

“Now I’m glad you asked that,” he says, “because it gives me yet another opportunity to make things perfectly clear. We are together to enjoy ourselves. I didn’t think about us having any particular goal. Except maybe to have fun. To please one another. Isn’t that okay?”

She looks older when she’s testy, her mouth unattractive in petulance. “Just for fun, you mean. You see me just for fun. We are together just for fun. To amuse yourself. Well, I am not a just for fun girl. I am not just for fun.”

“I’m not certain what words it is you want to hear from me now.”

“Do you have other girlfriends?”

“Maybe I do and maybe I don’t.”

“Because I am not interested in getting AIDS.”

“Oh for Christ’s sake, you know that half the time I can’t even get it up anyway.”

“This is not a joking thing for me. I have to know if you are using me.”

“I hate these questions. I hate this conversation. It reminds me of everything I hated about being married.”

“Will you be honest with me? I am second to none with a man I sleep with,” she says. “Who is Birgitte?”

He thinks for a moment, then: “So. Now you go through my pockets, do you? This is moving fast.”

“Who is Birgitte?”

“None of your business, that’s who.”

“Will you be honest with me?”

“In another minute I will but you might not like it.”

“I want you to be honest and tell me what is our future?”

“As far as I can see right now, on the basis of this exchange, we have no future at all. If you really want to push it to this point. Look it was a pretty depressing night the way it ended yesterday. Don’t you think you’re overreacting? We’ve been having a great time together . . . ”

“You and Birgitte have a great time too, maybe.”

He sighs.

“Thank you for being honest,” she says. “I appreciate that.” She carries her cup out to the kitchen. He hears the water run. Then she is standing in the doorway in her boots and long blue woolen coat that matches the blue of her eyes. He says to her, “You know, you are dishonest in a way you don’t seem to understand.”

“I am not dishonest. I am not just for fun.”
And you’re second to none, I know. So take a fucking hike.
The door clicks shut after her, and he slams the flat of his hand on the table top so his mug leaps off and spills across the beige carpet.

“Shit!”

From the kitchen he gets a cloth and sponges cold water on the coffee, soaks it up, rinses the rag and sponges more cold water on, rinses. Then he takes a clean rag and scrubs at the spot. The stain is lighter but still there. He flings the wet rag into the sink, goes out to the front window. Halfway across the frozen lake, the back of her long blue coat is moving away over the ice.

“Stupid,” he mutters. “Fucking liar!”

His eyes drop to the window ledge, the hunk of crystal there. He picks it up and hefts it in his palm, runs his fingers over the rough surface. For a moment he believes that he can feel something coursing through it, decides it could only be the flow of blood in his own fingertips.

His stomach growls and he thinks of the sandwiches he dumped into the garbage last night, and he stands there, heavy-headed, in the dark morning, wondering whether he wants to crawl back into his narrow bed, rolling the crystal against his forehead.

 

Thomas E. Kennedy’s thirteen books include four works of literary criticism and five of fiction, most recently the novel The Book of Angels (Wordcraft of Oregon) and the story collection Drive, Dive, Dance and Fight (BkMk Press), both in 1997. He has also written a book-length study of the short fiction of Andre Dubus, published by Twayne/G.K. Hall/Macmillan in 1988. (10/1999)


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