Secretaries to the Spirits
– A WRITER IS BORN
For Mamma Sigga,
Thanks for all the stories you gave me.
KEN AND BARBIE GO WESTFJORDS
Translation: Philip Roughton
KEN AND BARBIE
Mom sighed that it would be hard to find another person as classy as her daughter. Eyja drank in the adulation like a newborn lamb at the teat.
Sure, it was her home. Which she’d made for herself— so to speak. She’d thrown out the empty beer cans, put potted flowers in the windows, vacuumed the couch, bought a plastic tablecloth at the Co-op for the kitchen table and arranged fruit in a basket. She could do little other with the dusty living-room blinds than keep the overhead light turned off, and she solved the problem of the broken washing machine by sticking the dirty laundry in a cabinet. But the guest bedroom was fine: a made-up bed with new linens from the Co-op and The Idiot on the nightstand.
Pretty nice apartment, said Ken, awkwardly encouraging. He scrutinized the worn sofa set and the stained coffee table before turning to the wall shelf. Lying on it were two photo albums, a pile of rusty tools, the book Thirst for Life and pieces of rock that appeared more beautiful on a wet beach than they really were.
Without a word, Ken’s eyes wandered from the shelf. He acted as if the picture above the couch were calling to him: an ink drawing of a naked woman with a snake between her thighs and devils in her hair. Pretty nice picture! he said.
Yes, hiccupped her mom. Really nice, isn’t it!
Eyja looked with great interest at Ken, this generally very gentle person whose inner devil was unleashed after only a few drinks.
She hadn’t been aware that he had personal taste, as such. He was bound to find their living room nice just for having a framed picture hanging above the couch.
Ken had extremely practical views on what constituted the norm. If the sofa painting were in its place, Ken was satisfied. Same story if he were given meat and potatoes and could plunk himself down on the couch to watch the news, the sleeves of his no-iron shirt rolled up and tucked into his jeans, which, like his white socks, smelled of fabric softener. He always wore white socks. Even when he’d put on their mom’s frotté bathrobe, turned off the TV, and turned on Enya. When he climbed buck-naked onto the roof and stood there erect, his white socks looked gray in the thick snow. He didn’t feel the cold on his penis in his tennis socks, beating his chest to let everyone in the starlit world know that he was Tarzan. Everyone: Mom and my little sister.
Eyja had moved out by then. She’d been roaming since she was fifteen, having moved several times to town and to the west and back to town and from there back west, with a stop or two at Mom’s or Grandma’s. The younger sisters, however, continued lurking at home, consigned to their normal routine: whispering while Ken took an afternoon nap and declining second helpings of food because Ken might want an extra bite and preferably not watching videos because Ken might want to watch TV.
Maybe he wanted something entirely different but didn’t know how to say it, being friendly and helpful when he was sober. Mom had met him at a party with friends. How could she resist his Colgate smile, his golden cowlick and his sweet way of talking? She’d planned to go out for just a short time while the three older children looked after the youngest, and hurried to pour herself a drink so that she wouldn’t think too much about them.
The single mother simply had to have the opportunity to giggle and flirt for at least a moment, if she didn’t want to lose her mind. She had to forget her children: the firstborn who was a peculiar mix of teenage angst and epilepsy, the favored child who took comfort in drugs but ended up with immediate hypersensitivity, the unexpected prince who suffered from migraines and moved in with his father, and finally the runt who was diagnosed with a rare bone disease.
Eyja knew Mom well enough to understand that she found it cute how Ken didn’t always understand her jokes. But it was so good to rest in his supple arms and gaze at his beautifully shaped face, which resembled that of a Greek god. She cooked Beef Stroganoff with bay leaves the day he moved in, ready to save her from the bank director. Completely stuffed, he settled down comfortably in this house, which bore signs of the housemother having lived through two times. It’s divided into two: a brownish-green wooden house built by the naturalist during his hippie period, and the extension, an icy-blue stone chunk that the German film producer built, and which contributed to his bankruptcy when he mortgaged it to finance his films. At a glance, the house seemed split into two different worlds.
She stocked up on fabric softener for Ken’s jeans at the same time as she threw out the producer’s old Boss sweaters, and smiled to herself as she recalled how she toyed with the Child of the Republic several months earlier by announcing that it was high time she placed an ad in the personals section: Mother of four, her life a mess, seeks a financially secure man.
The Breeze cut an imposing figure as he stepped into the room. He and Mom looked each other in the eye. Peers. Neither of them born yesterday. He saw a pretty woman. With an aristocratic nose and shapely lips that gave her mouth a particularly likable look. Her glance was strong, mischievous, and positively radiant.
She also saw a pretty man, though in a rustic way. There was ambiguity in his gaze. His mouth was marked by an eternal grin. His hair was unkempt. The winter had left his skin red and weather-beaten. He emanated such a manly vibe that Ken’s knees weakened.
Hello, said Ken, in an agitated voice, but The Breeze barely acknowledged him. Just gave a tiny nod of his head, his gaze fixed on Mom. Both of their eyes flashed as they exchanged greetings.
Hello! said Mom, neutral, yet in a moderately happy voice.
Hello, cooed The Breeze coyly. Are you my mother-in-law, old lady?
Yep, that’s me, giggled Mom, with her familiar old self-irony that she’d ingested along with mother’s milk, or rather, cow’s milk from a bottle.
A quarter-hour later they were toasting with red wine— which The Breeze called old man’s milk, completely indifferent as Ken read them the information on the label. This was, after all, a bottle of finer red wine, all the way from the State Liquor Monopoly in Reykjavík and bearing the mark of an outstanding wine-growing region in Argentina.
Eyja drank the wine quickly and enjoyed it. Unlike the others, who hoped as they toasted each other that someone would soon ask whether they oughtn’t switch to something stronger. She looked from one to the other, refilled her glass and relished tossing candy to babies when she asked if they wanted an aperitif.
Gin and tonic for me, said Mom, beaming.
Yes, me too, said Ken, giving Mom a hug, because she was suddenly so sexy that he couldn’t restrain himself.
Yes, and me, snorted The Breeze, with his good-natured grin pasted on his face, without taking his eyes off Mom. And make sure you have more gin and tonic!
The others laughed in approval and Mom was in high spirits as Ken squeezed her. Eyja looked with a smile at The Breeze, contented at having such a good mom, who also had such a debonair boyfriend. All at once she felt so much affection for Ken that she simply couldn’t understand why she called him Ken. It was so wonderful to have him there. He hugged Mom and the love dripped from his eyes. Everyone loved Mom. She as well, and now Mom was here… and…. she gulped more wine and asked: Mom, will you please make your spaghetti afterward? And your tomato salad and your garlic oil and….
Your mom has it all, announced Ken in a good-natured tone, giving her a fatherly wink, as if they’d lived together for twenty years.
Your mom’s got a moveable feast in her purse, he added, squeezing her tightly, in utter amazement that such a literary reference should have popped out of him— a man who didn’t read apart from the occasional self-help book, which he called philosophical works and needed perfect peace and quiet at home to peruse.
Hemingway, yes, Hemingway, intoned The Breeze, his pipe in the corner of his mouth. The Breeze actually read this and that— he found it cozy to read, he said. In the wind and rain at sea, one sometimes found time to do so. He was in the habit of taking a box of library books with him when he went to sea; some of the men who’d read everything in the library spent time memorizing pages and recited them for anyone who wanted to hear when they were back on land.
Yow! If that wasn’t called devouring books then Ken didn’t know what it was! Mom laughed at his wit, perfectly happy when she swept into the kitchen to recreate her daughter’s childhood memories.
In his utter contentment, The Breeze let slip that he’d never seen the apartment looking so fine. For the moment Mom had spread a checkered cloth on the kitchen table, lit candles and arranged salads in all kinds of bowls that had looked like old junk inside one of the cabinets, but now revealed themselves to be the finest antiques.
Spaghetti was eaten. The best spaghetti that The Breeze had ever tasted. And toasts were made with gin. Then White Russians, because Ken wanted so much to make some. It had started snowing. A spring storm hammered the kitchen window but they didn’t let it bother them, and instead sang “Guantanamera,” having come all the way west to spend time with people and cut loose.
They continued to nibble at tomato slices as they drank, long after the spaghetti was finished; sang more “Guantanamera” as well as “Everyone on the Bus”— everyone on the bus, no one with Steindór, because he’s such a swindler.
Then mother and daughter, accompanied by their fine fellows, strolled out into the storm, all the way to the village pub where Ken got to have Enya on replay all evening. He could scarcely believe his own luck— so fortunate that suddenly fifty people were clapping for him, who’d bought a round for everyone in the pub. White Russian for one and all!
Mom and Ken danced and kissed and Ken was on the verge of buying another round. Maybe Martini Bianco this time; how about it? Just then some boring jerks declared they’d had their lifetime fill of Enya and it didn’t matter what he offered them, no, he could either silence Enya immediately or…
Ken blinked, stunned by these people’s attitudes, and shook his fist in his innocence, entirely unused to having anyone shake his fist back at a Christmas party of a pioneer company in Reykjavík. It could have turned very ugly if The Breeze hadn’t suddenly turned up.
Someone had whispered to Eyja that The Breeze hadn’t gotten his name from running marathons, but because he was colder than the north wind when it came to bar brawls. Yet he wasn’t cold now, felt Eyja. No, The Breeze was warm. The motherly instinct was aroused in him as he pleaded with his step-father-in-law to head on home, the endurance level of the company for the singer having started to approach a testosterone-boil.
The men disappeared into the night; for a moment she continued sitting there with Mom and a loquacious blonde in her forties.
The woman was from Raufarhöfn and sported a brand-new permanent and purple eye shadow; she was newly divorced, she said. She laughed sharply and talked so much about divorce and idiot men to Mom that Eyja immediately felt left out.
Not knowing what to do with herself, she ordered three Orgasms and asked the women to toast with her. The divorced woman tossed down her Orgasm and asked Eyja to order another round, right away. Yes, more; put it on my bill! shouted Eyja.
She longed to drink. And drink more. Drink until she drank Mom under the table.
Maybe she should? Drink more than her. Mom would be appalled, finally. Then she’d beg Eyja to stop, see. Eyja would stare at her, as mischievous as her, on her fifth glass. Her dark eyes flirtingly sly. Mom would yell: Stop stop stop! But Eyja would just drink. Drink drink drink. Pound Orgasms.
There now, settle down, Eyja, we’re having a conversation, said her mom.
I’m drinking! hiccupped Eyja.
Don’t be such an attention seeker, dear. I’m chatting with… what did you say your name was?
Yes, Dóda; sorry about that! Dóda is so enormously entertaining, Eyja dear. Did you just hear what she said about how the Northerners brag?
Listen, dear. You and your dad don’t come from northern stock for nothing.
Mom, I’m talking!
Have you ever had an orgasm?
That sticky stuff you just ordered? No, I’d rather you order me a Campari.
I’m talking about an orgasm. Have you ever had an orgasm? With Ken. Or anyone?
Mom stiffened. Eyja grinned.
Savored the moment like the cream flavor of the white Russian. Leaned forward on the table, her look meaningful as she whispered: I’ve had an orgasm. Often. Sometimes many times a day. That’s why I live with The Breeze.
We should get going, Eyja dear. This is quite enough, Mom half-screeched. Eyja looked at her triumphantly.
You can’t bear talking about orgasms? she giggled, finishing her mom’s glass. Is it because you’re forty? I read that. Women around forty fake it and can’t bear talking about it and everything. Just everything.
Mom looked apologetically at the divorced woman from Raufarhöfn, beside herself with terror, but the other woman was already marked with a look of sincerity and whispered ceremoniously: It’s true, so very true. Kjartan Björn, you know, my ex— don’t you young folk say that?— he never could masturbate…
Eyja grimaced. This wasn’t the mood she’d been fishing for, but her face lit up abruptly when Mom called out: Enough already! I’m not about to sit here and listen to some blather about orgasms. Where’s my husband?
Don’t be thinking about him! hiccupped Mrs. Raufarhöfn. Your daughter’s absolutely right. For my part, I just know that it didn’t matter how much Kjartan Björn thought he was stimulating me down there… down in my private parts; he rubbed and worked like mad but never wanted to go all the way down, so I just…
Where’s my man? repeated Mom, turning completely around. When the only reply was the song “Steel and Knife,” she shouted: Did he go? Where did he go? Will someone tell me? What’s it all supposed to mean when you come all the way here to see your child and…
But Eyja had stopped listening. She’d slipped under the table and fallen asleep, with a cloy smile on her face. Like the infant that Mom once knew.