Hulga turned up at my door looking like a Valkyrie. Five foot six maybe, brunette hair going gray, eyes like flashing lights and a tightness of the skin under her nose that presaged unpleasant things to come. If Valdi was now close to 90, his daughter would be around fifty four.
If I remembered correctly, he said Mary had their daughter a year after they got married. There wasn’t any hanky panky wtih Mary in the hay before the trip to the altar. Given Valdi’s predilection for hot babes, I was surprised but he’d explained it by saying that after he’d gone to the drugstore six times to ask Mary for help in locating items, she’d said yes to going with him to the local Icelandic dinner and dance but she was not going with him to his hayloft or the back of his pickup truck or to his bedroom. He had a reputation. She said if he wasn’t serious to quit wasting her time because she had lots of other offers.
She was, Valdi told me, gorgeous, fantastic, and while she worked there, the drug store had an unusual number of single men and some married ones wanting her help and advice. She mostly played it straight, never indicating there might be any ulterior motive in their wanting to know where the toothpaste was shelved. Stunning, voluptuous, he said, and he put his hands out as if to cup them around her breasts.
“Was she smart?” I asked.
“Smart? Smart! I wasn’t’ interested in smart. Do you think a bee asks if a flower is smart? Do you think a buck chasing a doe across the field wants the doe to take an IQ test?”
“She wasn’t interested unless you were serious, if you were serious, you could end up living with her for the rest of your life. What if she was as dumb as a post?”
“You think too much,” he said, and shook his head. “No wonder you are single.”
“Are you spending any time in your wife’s bed?”
“No,” I replied somewhat testily.
“Single. Have you got a girlfriend?”
“If I had a girlfriend, I wouldn’t have time to come to visit you and to do research for my book.”
“There is more to life than writing a book.”
“Once is enough. “
“I didn’t give up farming just because sometimes my crop got hailed out.”
Anyway, the result of Mary’s agreeing to hanky pank once they were married was standing in front of me. Librarians were supposed to be modest, self-effacing, quiet. She said, in a loud voice, angrily, “You could have killed my father. You lame brained idiot. Taking a man in a wheelchair into the countryside in winter.”
I was torn. I was embarrassed that everyone on my floor could hear her because she was in the hallway. She would be muted by if she were in my apartment but I wasn’t sure that I wanted her in my apartment. She settled the question by brushing past me. If I hadn’t stepped aside, she’d have knocked me over. Head down ready for a head butt, shoulders braced, she reminded me of nothing so much as a snowplough. She stopped at the end of the short hallway, now that she’d charged past me, not sure where to go.
I didn’t offer her a seat. Not that it would have mattered. If she’d wanted to sit, she’d have sat. “You, you,” she said, exasperated, jabbing an index finger at me, “how dare you? I don’t know what you think you are doing but whatever it is, quit. Quit pestering my father. I’ve told the people at the nursing home, you are not allowed to see him.”
“I’m just doing research,” I said but I might as well not have said anything.
She clasped and unclasped her hands and I thought she was going to take a run at me. I looked to the side to see if I could grab a cushion off the couch so I could fend her off without hitting her. It was an IKEA couch. It didn’t have any cushions. It had a futon that folded up and down depending on whether one was sitting on it or lying down on it.
“Research! What kind of research? Two idiots in a van on a country side road in December. Taking a ninety year old man on a Skidoo.”
“That wasn’t me,” I protested.
“Don’t deny it. If you hadn’t decided to take him exploring this wouldn’t have happened. Who do you think your are, the Franklin Expedition?”
“Laxness,” I said in my own defence. “He called me. He said…”
She cut me off with a look of fury. “Laxness. I don’t want to hear any more about Laxness. A two bit writer from a country so small that it’s not even the size of a suburb.”
“You’re Icelandic.” I was outraged. Iceland may have a small population but it punches way over its weight.
“I am not.” She pointed her finger at me again and pressed her lips together. “I am fourth generation Canadian. I was born in Canada. I don’t even make vinarterta.”
There are some things you can say and some things you can’t. Vinarterta is to people of Icelandic descent what peroghis are to Ukrainians. Vinarterta is a seven layered prune torte that is a symbol of all things Icelandic. Well, not Icelandic in the sense of Iceland today. In Iceland, they’d quit making, forgot what it was, but in the Icelandic Canadian communities, it was revered. No social occasion could be a success without it. Even men learned to make it. There were vinarterta baking bees. Vinarterta were auctioned off at fund raisers. No good hostess would consider serving coffee without a plateful of sliced vinarterta.
I restrained myself. After all, she was Valdi’s daughter. “That’s your loss,” I said. “Would you like some coffee and kliener?”
“Kliener,” she yelled as if I’d stuck her with a sharp object. I backed up. “Kleiner. Icelandic donuts. Is that all you people think about are your stomachs? Grossly overweight, potbellied vinarterta, kleiner, rullupylsa gobblers.”
“I’m not overweight,” I said sharply.
She looked me up and down and found nothing to approve of. “You’re young. You’ll soon by like all the others. A few more vinartertas and no one will be able to tell you from a seal.”
“I run every day. I go to the gym twice a week. You aren’t exactly slim.”
She was used to dishing it out. She obviously didn’t spend much time looking in the mirror. Her fury had undone her hair so it had started to stick out in places. He face turned purple at my mention of her not being slim.
“You will not get the farm. You will not trick a poor old man with dementia into signing over everything he owns.”
I didn’t know which I was more enraged about, the describing Valdi as a poor old man with dementia or me as a horrible person trying to take advantage of him.
Even though she was old enough to be my mother, I shouted, “Out. That does it. Out.” And I stepped toward her and put my hands in front of me as if to push her. I didn’t touch her but she backed up and once I got her moving, I kept her moving . She kept trying to say something but her rage made her sputter and I kept shouting out, out and pushed forward until she turned around and fled out the door. In the hallway, she stopped, turned around to face me.
“I’ll go to the police,” she yelled. “Elder abuse.”
I shut the door and locked it. Then I fell onto the couch. I had no allies. Valdi had a granddaughter but she was in Saskatchewan at university. If she was like her aunt, there was no point asking for her help. I realized that my heart was beating faster than usual. I felt like I’d just survived an accident. His daughter was wicked, he’d warned me, but I’d thought he exaggerated. Hell on wheels, he’d said, the devil in bloomers, although she didn’t appear to be the bloomers type.
This book I was working on was important. It was my path to freedom. I had been teaching high school for eleven years. My hair was thinning and my nerves were frayed. No discipline was allowed and everyone got passing grades. If students complained, they got an A. The principal had recently explained that even if a student turned in no work, they still should pass the course. He’d taken down the large framed picture where our top students were honored. There were to be no distinctions made because distinctions hurt people’s feelings. However, he didn’t mind making distinctions among the teachers. It wasn’t do your own thing there, like come late, don’t bother to teach a class, be rude. If he’d had his way, we’d have lined up outside the front door every morning and kissed the students’ asses as they wandered in. Since some were still wandering in half way through the morning, we would have needed knee pads.
The book. The portal to a better life. There might be the opportunity to teach non-fiction at a local college but a scrapbook of articles wasn’t enough. It was good. But I needed a book. A book would bring the program prestige. It would give me credibility. A friend of mine taught in the English department there and acted as my spy. He fed me inside information. He was a nerd, had hair that always looked frightened, wore a suit jacket that was two sizes too big but which he’d got for a great price on sale, pants that folded over his shoes but they hadn’t hired him as a fashion statement. He had a book of short stories and a novel published. They were with a local publisher but that didn’t matter. It gave him the bona fides. People took his pronouncements seriously.
Instead of thirty hours a week of teaching with classes of thirty to thirty-five students, it was impossible to know for sure how many students in a class because students wandered in and out at will and the class lists were always being changed as the students shopped for the most entertaining teacher. The male students gravitated to classes given by young, attractive female teachers. They did not describe their classes as Chemistry or Physics or English but as Hot, Hotter and Hottest. They were at the age where they followed their dicks everywhere. Some of those who were in a relationship necked with their girlfriends at the back of the room. The girls were into their friendships. Packs of them rotated in and out of the washroom, putting on makeup, gossiping, smoking some dope. When going past you needed industrial earmuffs to protect your hearing from all the squealing.
I was trying to teach Pride and Prejudice, the humor of it, the intricate structure, the themes, the different kinds of marriages demonstrated and some blonde with too much makeup, her hair bright green, no bra and platform shoes that looked like stilts, raised her hand and said, “Mr. Kristjansson (that’s me) do you think Elizabeth was frigid?”
I’d resorted to pills. White pills, then blue pills, then white pills again. One before I left in the morning, one at noon and one before I went to bed at night. On a really bad day when someone threw a television through a window because he’d learned his girlfriend was getting it on with one of his friends, I took a pill right then and there. These kids drove Porches, Mercedes, the kind of cars the teachers couldn’t afford. They wouldn’t go to a college. They were destined for university. They were destined to become CEOs, political leaders.
Laxness would give me an edge. There would be other contenders for this job, if and when it was advertised. There were other people writing non-fiction books. None of them would have a chapter on a Nobel Prize winner. Maybe, just maybe, because of the connection, the book would get translated into Icelandic. That would carry clout, would draw admiring glances, would promote sales. I would have published in a foreign language.
I sometimes lay on my bed at night fantasizing about the book being accepted. “Mr. Kristjansson, this is a brilliant book. We have a contract all made up. We’ll start looking for co-publishers right away.” Sometimes this fantasy publisher would say “immediately” instead of “right away.” I saw myself receiving an award and me, modestly, accepting it. I saw myself teaching fifteen hours a week to workshops of fifteen students who wanted to learn to write, who chose to be in the class. Sometimes, I stared at the ceiling and said out loud, as if God needed things said out loud, “It’s not so much to ask.”
I wished I hadn’t got off on the wrong foot with Valdi’s daughter, Hulga or Ulga. I wasn’t sure of her name. When I’d mentioned Laxness, she’d reacted. That meant she knew who he was, she had heard stories about him. Maybe if, in a few days, I called her to apologize, to say I was sorry, that I had no idea the road would be so bad, maybe I could sneak out of her what she had heard about Laxness. I should not, I told myself, think of her as Valdi’s daughter but as a source. Writers did absurd things to get information from their sources. They flattered, they bribed, they eavesdropped, they manipulated. I cringed and blushed with embarrassment. I stared at the ceiling and thought about how badly I wanted to change jobs.
When I went to the nursing home, Valdi said, “Hell on Wheels.” His adventure had perked him up. He was using a walker. He’d refused to use a walker until now. It was, he said, the humiliation of being old. It was a step down from a cane, even from the wheelchair. He was making compromises, something he wasn’t good at, but when you want something badly enough, you made deals with the devil. He figured if he could use the walker, he could go back to the farm once the snow was gone. His walker needed to be taller so he didn’t have to bend over it.
“It’s got moveable feet,” I said. “Sit down.”
I turned the walker upside down. There were holes in the legs and pins that fitted into the holes. I pushed the pin in, moved the leg down as far as it would go, then did the same with the other three legs. I gave him back the walker and he was able to stand up straight.
“Thanks,” he said. That made me suspicious. He had a hard time saying thanks. If I did something for him, it was usually acknowledged with a grunt.
“She thinks I’m sucking up to you so you’ll sign your property over to me. I’ll get your bank accounts. The whole shmear.”
“Not a chance,” he said. “You’ve got a job. Even if your wife ran you through the wringer, you’ve got a paycheck coming in every month. Work ten months and get paid for twelve.”
“The payment,” I said, “is for ten months work. We just agreed to spread it over twelve months because some people aren’t good at saving and come July and August, they have no money.”
“Nobody paid me when I didn’t work,” he said, then he veered back to his daughter. “I know Mary didn’t cheat on me so either the devil slipped into bed during the night or Ulga is a throwback to some earlier ancestor.”
“I’m not trying to get your farm or your money. I teach school. I write. I’ve been asking you to help me with information. Do you want that information to die when you kick the bucket?”
I had him there. He’d heard that I was working on a book about the area and had contacted me. He was a Wickipedia of the Interlake, that vast area in Manitoba between Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba. Much of it was marginal land. A lot was swamp that grew nothing but cattails. There were sections of good soil deposited by the glaciers as they melted. They also left behind stones, vast fields of stones that had to be picked up and moved to the side of a field so they wouldn’t dull or break a plough. The job was never ending. A field was cleared and the next winter, the frost would force up more stones so the whole job would have to be done again. Every farm had piles of stones, brought from who knows what distance. Every person who’d grown up in the area had stone boat stories, endless days of following a horse or a tractor pulling a wooden sled onto which they put stones. A lot of these stones, pink, white, grey, red, black, were boulders requiring two people to lift them. Lifting stones was like a hard-labour sentence for some unknown crime. As soon as they were old enough, most of the kids fled to the city.
Valdi had parceled out his information. He knew about families, about feuds, about scandals, about deals, about crimes, about triumphs, about love affairs. He hadn’t written it down. It was all in his large head with its shaggy white hair. He knew about Laxness. He had the inside dope. I’d realized, after a time, that he was torn. On the one hand, he didn’t want to reveal any secrets but on the other hand he was afraid that he’d die and no one would ever know the passion and the pain that had existed in these isolated places.
We were having coffee in the dining room. Coffee and cookies or cake were available all day long. A lot of the residents were Icelandic and Icelanders were notoriously addicted to their coffee. Coffee came to Iceland in 1703. It was as much part of their self-image as vinarterta. I’d brought a plate of cookies to the table, filled two cups, found a metal creamer with some cream left in it, and set it down in between us. In the hallway, some of the residents were bowling. An attendant had set up pins in the hallway and another was helping individuals to roll a ball down the hallway to knock down the pins. It was a good nursing home. The staff worked hard at keeping the residents entertained. They hugged them a lot.
“She said I mustn’t visit you,” I said. “She told the staff I’m not to bother you.”
“I’m still all here,” he said. “When I’m not, I want you to take me to the harbour and push me down a loading chute. Drowning’s not a bad way to go.” He was, I knew, more afraid of that, of becoming like many of the residents, no longer knowing where they were, or who they were. There was a woman in the home whom he’d admired for her writing. She’d been a historian. She walked up and down the halls holding onto a book she’d written. When he’d say hello to her, she’d say, “I’m carrying this book around but I don’t know why.” She was always cold and even in summer, she wore a red toque. No one ever came to see her. His large hand enclosed the coffee cup in front of him. He had a mug in his room that held two cups of coffee but we’d forgotten it. I thought he might tighten his hand and crush the cup. Instead, he took his hand away and picked up the cup between his thumb and index finger and raised his pinky in mock politeness. “You come whenever you want. She’s not my keeper.”