by Adam Hunault
I step down out of the train and look around. It isn’t what I was expecting. Jeez, you’re in the freakin’ country, I think, then I mutter to myself, “Shut up.” It’s true. There’s nothing but farms all around, fields with nothing planted in them, white with frost in some places. It’s April, still winter in Norway. There’s no ticket window on the platform. No one but me got off the train. Not a soul in sight, no one to ask for directions. A chime aboard the train rings: in a moment the doors will close. What are you gonna do? “Fuck it,” I say. The sign on the platform says LIER. I think that’s where I’m supposed to be. I let the door close.
Okay, what now? the voice in my ear asks. I mull it over as I stroll down the gravel path. My red Converse sneakers are covered with white dust by the time I reach the bottom. I’m annoyed. The shoes don’t look right when they’re dirty and I’m getting dirt on the cuffs of my tight designer jeans. The jeans are pre-worn to look like you’ve been wearing them for a week when they’re clean so you don’t want to actually get them dirty. You’re such a whiner, Nick, the imaginary voice says to me. Its commentary makes me smile. “Quiet,” I say. “Help me figure out where I am.”
I’m on the shoulder of a two-lane highway. There’s no sidewalk, not even a parking lot for this Oslo commuter train stop. Nobody uses it, obviously. Did you get off at the wrong stop? I don’t really know where I’m going, after all. All I have is the name of a place—Sylling, Lier—written down by my mother twenty-five years ago, told to her by her mother who was remembering it from her childhood. And the photograph. It’s a black and white photo of rolling hills dotted with simple cottages, descending into a large fjord with two small islands in it, grouped together to one side. On the left hand side, on a hill overlooking the fjord, is a simple church, white and boxy with a steeple, and a towering bluff behind it. My grandmother was born in this town but her parents died when she was nine and Nana, along with her even younger sister, was sent to live with relatives in Nebraska. That was 1919. Nana took this picture the only time she returned home, in 1946, to visit the grave of her brother Knut who was killed resisting the Nazis during the war. He’s buried behind the white church.
My mother never went to Norway but she loves that photo. In our dining room in Redding, Colorado, the photo has always hung across from her seat at the table and her eyes would dart over to it during dinner. Its importance to my mother is so obvious that my sister Helen knew without asking that she should bring it along when my mother went into the hospital the first time. It has hung in her hospital room on every visit since, along with a picture of Mom and my late father hiking in the Grand Canyon.
No one from my family has set foot in Sylling since ’46. Who knows if it even exists any more? Google drew a blank on Sylling. There were a few hits for Lier, because it’s a stop on a commuter train line out of Oslo. But not much of one, it turns out.
I head north. From the train platform I saw a building up the road, in the distance. As I walk I realize my earbuds are still in my ears, silent. I take them out, wrap the cord around my new video iPod (cutting edge, out less than a year!) and stick it in my pocket. Cutting edge, my ass! Should’a stuck with the old one. You couldn’t have watched those retarded anime videos on the flight and the battery wouldn’t be dead now. “I’m freezing.” Put on your hat! “It’ll mess up my hair.” Your hair is supposed to be messed up! “No, it’s supposed to look messed up.”
When I was younger I had the bad habit of talking to myself. About a week ago it came back and I haven’t been able to shake it since then. I was in Nantes, a city in western France, at a dim and smoky jazz club. Luc Clochard, its owner and main attraction, had named the club Le Vanguard after the Village Vanguard where he had played back in the ’70s. Luc had been inviting me to Le Vanguard every night for a week but that was the first night I sat in with his band. At the break between the second and third set I was sitting at a table, a little drunk and I heard that old voice in my head saying, Isn’t this fun? “Damn straight,” I replied, “I haven’t had this much fun playing music in years.”
When I realized that I had blurted this out I was mortified. Growing up sheltered in a small Colorado town, ten years younger than my sisters, therefore practically an only child, I had begun having conversations with my teddy bear almost as soon as I could talk. At age eleven I decided I was too old for the bear but the damage was done. Most people (if I can believe what I’ve read in books) think in some kind of internal monologue but my thoughts always came to me in a dialogue: an imaginary voice spoke to me, often sarcastic and amicably insulting, and I answered it out loud. After high school when I moved from Colorado to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I decided this habit was extremely uncool, totally at odds with the hip young musician image I was trying to cultivate. With much difficulty I trained myself to stop. I hadn’t spoken a word to myself in six years when suddenly the voice was back. “What the hell,” I said to myself in disgust. Don’t worry about it, it said to me, refusing to go away. Besides Luc you haven’t heard English in a week. You need somebody to talk to, ’s all. Plus, you’re drunk. “Am not.” Lightweight. “Fuck you.” After years of suppressing it I fell into that old patter as naturally as ever.
When I woke up the next morning the voice was gone. Everything was back to normal. I left my hotel and went for a walk in the city’s botanical garden where the first April flowers were beginning to bloom. I was pensive. “I haven’t had this much fun playing music in years,” I’d said to myself. What was that supposed to mean? In the past six years I’ve played a variety of instruments in twenty-six bands. Gig after gig, I even recorded on a few records. Music is my career. I’m very successful for someone my age. When exactly did I start thinking, “I haven’t had this much fun playing music in years”?
I’d come to Nantes with The Bowser Rebellion, one of the bands I’m a member of. We’re an experimental techno group from Williamsburg, the hippest musical neighborhood in New York. Figuring Europeans might appreciate our cutting edge arrangements of classic video game music more than Americans had, our three German members set up a European tour of cities they had lived in. First stop was a two-week residency at Le Lieu Unique in Nantes, an old LU cookie factory turned arts center, where some fantastic crowds turned out to dance to our stuff. I played synth (we don’t say piano in techno) in that industrial assembly line of music, basically a computer center on stage. My eight band mates mostly stood around or danced, pausing occasionally to change the setting on a computer or adjust the mixing boards.
After the shows I wandered Nantes’ old quarter which is how I found Le Vanguard and made friends with Luc Clochard. My twenty-six bands are a drop in the bucket next to the number Luc has played with. As a sideman who started his trumpet career teaming with Ed Willis in the early ’60s, Luc played with every major jazz star to come through Paris when Paris was the place to be for black Americans escaping the racial strife at home. Thanks to Willis, Luc played with Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Thelonius Monk, to name only a very few. Those old Truffaut and Godard films with bebop soundtracks? That’s him. When the French modern jazz scene cooled down at the end of the ’60s, Luc followed the stars to America and had a second career in New York, St. Louis and New Orleans. Then, drawn home in the ’80s by the socialist utopia François Mitterrand promised to build in France while America and Britain went conservative, Luc opened his own club in Nantes. With his partner Michel, he made Le Vanguard into one of Nantes’ main tourist attractions, on par with the Jules Verne Museum and the famous restaurant La Cigale. And yet his passion seems to be meeting young musicians like me, telling them stories, and passing on his love for jazz.
After that first night I sat in for a few numbers every night, playing piano most of the time but taking an occasional turn on trumpet when Luc was off stage. I borrowed an instrument from Luc’s student Amandine, who was only sixteen and not performing in front of crowds yet. I must have looked strange up there, the slightly dough-faced American kid with a perpetual trace of a blush, his spiky hair dyed blue and his soul-patch beard too, wearing tight indie rock tee shirts and jeans on stage when all the other musicians, middle aged French men, wore ties.
The other members of The Bowser Rebellion were in Barcelona partying since all the gigs for the next few weeks, set up at the last minute, had fallen through, and I would have been happy to stay at Le Vanguard playing jazz for a small share of the tip money until I had to meet the band in Frankfort three weeks later.
Then I got a call from my sister. “She’s going back to the hospital,” Helen said. It was evening in Colorado. In Nantes the call woke me up at three in the morning.
“It’s spread?” I asked.
“No,” said Helen. “Some kinda infection. Mom’s immune system’s shot from the chemo.”
I hung up the phone a few minutes later, then, stone cold sober, started talking to myself. Don’t worry, dude. She’s been through lots worse. “I know.” She’s tough, Nick, she’ll be fine. “I know.”
“Perhaps,” said Luc, the next day, “you should go home.” His English was barely accented after all the years he spent playing in bands with Americans. “Perhaps you want to be with her.”
“I’m not worried,” I said. “She’s been through lots worse.” Repeating the same words I’d used earlier to convince myself. “She’s tough, she’ll be fine.”
That night I didn’t play, just listened and sipped drinks and thought about my mom sitting in her hospital room, and about how Helen, Stacee and I sat with Mom in Dad’s hospital room after his heart attack, Mom sobbing quietly at times, waiting for him to wake up. He never did. I hate hospitals. I hated to think of Mom in a place like that but at least Helen and Stacee were with her. Her photo of Sylling was hanging on the wall. And later that night as I walked home I drunkenly imagined myself in Norway on that hill overlooking the fjord, cell phone in hand, me saying, “Hi Mom, guess where I am?” In her hospital room Mom would smile, touched that I would travel to this place she loved. In my imagination she had no trace of illness.
By the time I got to Le Vanguard the next night I already had my ticket to Norway, purchased at a travel agency I happened to pass. “What do you think?” I asked Luc after I told him my plan.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather just go home?” he asked me.
The next day I went to Samaritaine, a swanky department store near the cathedral, to look for a heavier jacket that could stand up to Norway’s climate. I tried on some very snazzy looking overcoats, things that would look amazing on Nick Skylark, the hipster synth player of The Bowser Rebellion, but looking at that version of myself in the mirror I felt a vague and creeping disgust. I left the store without buying anything and found what I needed in an army surplus store, a delightfully ugly olive jacket and a knit winter cap. I felt absurdly happy about this as I took the TGV to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris to catch my flight.
I phoned home from the airport. “How is she?”
“Worse,” said Helen. “Pretty out of it. They’re doing some more tests. We should know more by tomorrow.”
“Should I come home?” I asked.
For a moment there was only the low white static of all the distance between us on the line. “I don’t know,” said Helen finally. “Call me when you land.”
Ten minutes’ walk north from the train platform brings me to a crossroads and a small roadside restaurant like you’d find at any crossroads in rural Colorado. Why would they even build a train stop when this restaurant’s the only thing nearby? I remind myself I’m not in the States. With state-owned oil companies and less citizens than New York City, Norwegians have literally run out of things to spend their money on. Nana’s Norway was an impoverished colony of Denmark. She never saw a banana until she stopped in England on her way to America. Now that they live in the richest country in Europe, Norwegians grow bananas in government subsidized greenhouses and sell them in supermarkets at an enormous loss so that, on paper, they’re not dependant on food imports. No one bats an eye at a useless train station.
In the restaurant my spiky blue hair gets some strange looks from a half a dozen conservatively dressed Norwegians. Whatever. I ask the old woman at the counter if she knows which way Sylling is. She doesn’t understand English. Am I even pronouncing Sylling right? No one understood when I sounded out words in France. I dig a piece of paper out of my pocket and write it down. The woman breaks into a long monologue, gesturing in many directions but most emphatically to the west. I point west and give her what I hope is an interrogative expression. She nods.
The westward road winds through a valley beside a fast-flowing drainage ditch. The bluffs that frame the valley aren’t mountains by Colorado standards but they aren’t tiny either. The valley is like a wind tunnel. Wind howls down from those tree-covered heights, gluing my clothes to my body. I have to lean forward into it to make progress. The sound is amazing. The wind fills the world. I can’t even remember the last time you walked without your iPod playing, my imaginary commentator offers. “I’m glad the damn thing’s dead!” I blurt out with a delighted laugh that surprises me. The wind’s a far purer music than I could have chosen. It’s cold, clean and refreshing. The extra effort to push against it gives each footfall such weight and purpose. This is incredible, says that voice inside me in an awed whisper. For once I have no rejoinder, nothing smart or witty to offer.
By and by I see a gas station at another crossroads. It has a gravel parking lot and the wind kicks up a dust cloud that I take right in the teeth. Eyes shut, lips pressed tightly closed, I reach the gas station and go inside. The snack shop is like any in the States. It’s too bright and too large, all florescent tubes and racks of candy, spinning skewered hot dogs and shiny white tile. Music plays softly—Johnny Cash, of all things. My ears are ringing and painfully numb from the wind.
A young woman at the register seems most likely to speak English. “Do you know how to get to Sylling?” I say as clearly as I can.
“It’s not far,” she says, pointing out the station’s windows at one of the branches of the crossroads. “Follow this road to the north. It is about forty-five minutes.”
My heart practically leaps. I’ve done it! I’ve found it! For the first time I realize how unlikely it was. A train to the middle of nowhere, a foreign language, no directions, no map. I was stupid to expect to find a place I’d never been, never even seen except in an old photo, but I found it!
I hand my Coke and Snickers bar to the cashier. “Which petrol pump are you at?” she asks as she scans them.
“I’m walking,” I say.
“Oh,” she says. She looks away, embarrassed. Sylling is forty-five minutes by car. After a moment she tentatively says, “There’s a bus. But I don’t think it’s driving today. Tomorrow is Easter.” I finally realize why everything in Oslo was closed when I left this morning. The entire country must shut down for the holiday.
I go outside. As I eat my candy bar I do some math. The speed limit’s eighty, that’s like fifty-five miles an hour. “So forty-five minutes means Sylling’s, like, what?” Thirty miles. What time is it? “Three o’clock.” And what time does it get dark? “Dunno.” We’d never make it. Let’s see if the bus is running.
I find the bus stop, which is across from the gas station’s auto shop. Schedules are posted on the signpost. On the one I think is for Saturday a bus is listed to arrive in fifteen minutes. There’s also a lot of fine print which probably includes, I think pessimistically, the Norwegian word for Easter. I sit down on the curb and wait to see if the clerk was right. I’m facing the auto shop, which reminds me of the garage my grandfather owned before he retired. There’s a bored looking mechanic on duty there. “He doesn’t get the day off, why should a stupid bus driver?” I mutter to myself.
Time passes. I’m hoping to see the bus roll into sight but the only thing that appears is a person walking up the shoulder towards me. At first it looks like a kid around fifteen, wearing an ugly, worn out leather jacket, baggy jeans and army boots, carrying a stuffed backpack on one shoulder and a motorcycle helmet that swings like a clock pendulum at the end of a gangly arm. I realize it’s not a boy after all but a girl as she gets closer. I wave as she passes by and she nods her head. She looks tired. She’s about my age, maybe five foot four, with a freckly face, glasses and a cute pointed nose. She’s adorable, to tell the truth. I bet she’s gay with this tomboy look she’s working. She clearly isn’t Norwegian. She goes into the mechanic’s shop.
Still no bus. Ten minutes go by. It isn’t coming. “What the hell am I doing here?” I wonder out loud. I suddenly remember that I haven’t called Helen since landing in Norway. I fish my cell phone out of my pocket. No reception, of course. I’m seriously roaming today. Looks like I’m headed back to Oslo, so I can call from there. The whole trip’s a bust. Why didn’t you go home when Luc said? “You could’ve said something at the time!” I say, absurdly annoyed. “Why am I even talking to you?” ’Cause I keep you out of trouble. I tell you when you do dumb shit. You tried not listening to me ’cause you thought I was lame and look at you! You’ve grown a soul patch and dyed it blue! Your band’s named after a Mario Bros. character and its music sucks ass.
I sigh. Still no bus. This is pointless. Stupid Norwegians and their stupid country that shuts down for Easter. Head back to Oslo and call home, I guess. As I pick myself up off the curb I catch sight of the tomboy in the mechanic shop. She’s talking to the mechanic, waving her arms in frustration, then she walks out of the shop, takes a deep breath and sighs to calm herself. She digs a cigarette out of a crumpled pack and tries to light it but the wind is too high and she yanks it out of her mouth in frustration. I’m walking by at that moment. Sensing another soul in pain, I say, “That bad, huh?”
She glances at me warily.
“You speak English?” I say.
She nods. “My bike broke down.” I think her accent is American but I can’t place what part of the country she’s from.
“What kind of bike?” I ask.
“The guy I bought it from said it was called a Hornet.”
“Nice,” I said. “That’s what’s called a Honda 919 over in the States.”
The girl smiles. “You know motorcycles?”
“They were my dad’s hobby. Him and my grandfather both, actually, but Grandpa was too told to ride them much. He pretty much just fixed ’em up.”
“Well, I wish he was here now.”
“That guy’s no help?”
“If I understand him right he can’t tow me until Monday.”
“Everything’s shut down for Easter. Including my bus.”
“That sucks, man.”
“What’s wrong with your bike?”
“It started losing power this morning so I pulled over and now it won’t move. The engine just keeps revving.”
“Sounds like the transmission,” I say. “It’s not that serious but it’s hard to fix yourself.”
She’s got me thinking of my dad. Right up until he died he was restoring some old bike. Those wonderful Saturdays at Grandpa’s house when they finished one my dad would climb on and kick start the bike, then my grandfather would bend down and lift me up and put me on the back, his old bones creaking under my weight. He’d say, “Hang on tight, Nick.” Then, with me hugging his waist, my father would drive slowly through the neighborhood. He never drove fast when I was on the back. The bike would sit there beneath us, vibrating slightly, the engine rumbling and popping with power as we cruised around my Grandfather’s neighborhood at just twenty-five miles per hour. Then Grandpa would sell the motorcycle, buy another broken down bike for cheap, and they’d start tinkering again. Later, after Grandpa died, the bike shop was moved to our garage. Mom wasn’t happy that she had to park in the driveway but Dad worked long hours as an engineer at Lockheed (not bad work for a mechanic’s son, Grandpa used to say) and this let him blow off steam. He was working on a Honda similar to what the girl was describing when he died. I remember it sitting under a tarp in the cold garage all those weeks he was in the hospital—the heart attack, then the bypass surgery, then the infection—and how I felt a few months after he died when my mom sold it.
“Can you fix my bike?” says the girl.
“You got tools?”
She nods. “I’m Sage,” she says.
“Nick Skylark,” I say, and we shake hands. We stand there for a minute smiling at each other like idiots. “Lead on, I guess.”
“So, Nick Skylark,” Sage says as we walk, “where’re you from?”
We talk about me. I tell her I’m from Brooklyn. I tell her I was born near Denver. I talk about my grandfather’s garage. We discuss my hair. I don’t think she likes it. I finally crush it down with the hat I bought in Nantes, too cold to care. I tell her the hair’s part of my look for the band I’m in. I explain The Bowser Rebellion. She doesn’t know who Bowser is. She never played video games. I tell her about some of the other bands I’ve been in—rock, folk, jazz, classical, blues, metal, country, punk. She asks what instrument I play. Keyboard, guitar, trumpet, cello, clarinet, bass guitar, ukulele and harmonica, I tell her, “plus, you know, I kill on bongos.” She laughs a lot, bowing her head when she does it to hide her toothy smile. She clenches her smiling jaw as if to stop the sound from escaping but it does anyhow, like an explosion of nervous giggles that quickly subsides. Not lady-like but it’s a terrific laugh.
We talk about her.
“I’m trying to learn harmonica,” says Sage.
“Not very good yet.”
“You from the States?” I ask.
“What’re you doing on the side of the road in Norway?”
“Long story,” says Sage.
“I think we have a few miles to go.”
“Okay,” she says, laughing again. “So I was living in London. I was working as a counselor through this Commonwealth work exchange program and living in this flat that my great uncle owns. It’s on the East End so it would cost like fifteen million pounds today but he’s had it forever. He usually rents it out when he’s at his place in France, which is most of the time, but he doesn’t need the money so he just let me stay there.”
“Yeah, I know. So, anyway, I was seeing this girl, well, this woman, right? She was like thirty-five. And she was looking for a place so she moved in just temporarily and it didn’t go too well and we broke up. So we’re roommates and it’s getting kind of uncomfortable. So I ask her to move out. She looks but she can’t find anything in her price range that’s in a neighborhood she wants to live in.”
“Sounds like she’d found a great place and she was making excuses so she could keep freeloading.”
“Yeah, well,” says Sage, and hesitates. I think she agrees but is embarrassed that this woman took advantage of her. I wish I hadn’t said anything. “Maybe,” she says, finally. “So it’s basically miserable. And the job sucks, and it’s always raining in London. And I think, you know what, fuck it. So I call my uncle and tell him to rent the flat to somebody else and I quit the job and I get on the next flight to Poland and start traveling around Eastern Europe and it’s really awesome, you know? So I get down to Prague and just love it. I live in a youth hostel for a few weeks and I’m starting to write poetry again and I date this German guy for about two minutes but nothing really happens except that he’s broke and has this motorcycle he wants to get rid of, this Hornet, so I buy it off him for forty thousand koruny which isn’t as much as it sounds like, it’s like twenty-five hundred Canadian dollars. And I start riding. That was last November.”
“And now you’re all the way up in Norway.”
We’re well acquainted by the time we turn off the road onto a dirt two-track that winds into a nearby field, following the contour of the hills. About twenty feet from the road Sage pushes open a barbed wire gate without a second thought and we continue to follow the trail, trespassing now. We walk until the dirt road runs up alongside a row of trees, a wind break. It takes only a minute to cross the woods and there is Sage’s motorcycle balanced on its center stand. It’s a Honda 919, all right, a beauty with a naked body, a six-speed transmission and a 919cc inline engine with four cylinders. It’s been years since I’ve thought about such things but the facts leap immediately to mind. You and Dad could’ve taken this apart and put it back together in a long weekend. Hope it’s still rattling around in that head of yours.
Now that we’re sheltered from the wind Sage smokes the cigarette she couldn’t get lit back at the garage. I kneel down to get a close look at the Honda. It’s seen better days. Sage’s trek across Europe has been hard on it but it’s clear the guy she bought it from had neglected it criminally. I see evidence of some half-assed repairs. It’s hardly worth the pittance she says she paid for it. I climb on and start the bike. I put it in gear and throttle up but the engine just makes angry noises. It might well be in neutral. There’s definitely some kind of transmission problem.
“You said you got tools?” I say to Sage.
She digs around in one of the saddlebags and hands me a tool kit that barely has more than pliers, an adjustable wrench too large for fine work, a flat- and Philips-head screwdriver, some screws, nuts and bolts. I had pictured a bit more. If you’d known this was all she had you could’ve bought some tools at the garage. I mutter, “Can’t do much about it now,” and get to work. I’m hoping it’s just the screw in the center of the clutch cap. If it’s just worked itself loose I have a decent shot at getting the bike running again, although even that will be difficult with these tools.
Even though it’s still winter the days are already very long this close to the Arctic Circle. The bike outlasts me. By a quarter after seven the sun is down behind the wind break. My gloves have slowed me down a lot, as has using a screwdriver to remove the clutch pack’s derby cover and flat gasket by hand. In the failing light I can see that, like I thought, the clutch cap screw has slipped out but I’ll need a long ball Allen wrench to put it back in, which Sage doesn’t have. And once the screw is back in it isn’t going to be easy to hold it in place and tighten the lock nut with nothing but Sage’s pliers.
While I was absorbed with the bike, Sage has gathered a pile of logs and kindling from the wind break and stacked them next to the motorcycle. “What’s this for?” I ask, noticing for the first time.
“I haven’t seen any four-star hotels nearby.”
“You mean we’re sleeping here?”
“Can you fix it tonight?”
“It’s too dark.”
“Then I guess we’re camping here.”
“Aren’t we on private property?” I ask.
“I think we’re okay,” says Sage, who finds my skittishness about trespassing amusing. The wind break hides us from the road and there are no houses in sight, so she’s probably right.
“Won’t we… I don’t know, catch pneumonia or something?”
“We’ll be fine. You can fix it in the morning.”
She works methodically to create fire, building a box of four larger logs, then, with big sticks, a tipi that houses the kindling, dried pine needles, small sticks and some newspaper. She strikes a match, gets the kindling lit on the first try, then finesses the fire to an ever larger size first by blowing on it, then by fanning air onto it with an old magazine. The fire spreads from the kindling to the tipi which suddenly catches and goes up. Sage adds medium-sized logs. Rather than throwing logs into the fire she places them exactly where she pleases with a blackened pair of those metal tongs they use to dole out food in college cafeterias.
I admire her fire-building ability. I can play a piano concerto or a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo. Starting a fire, a survival skill millennia old, baffles me.
I say I’m impressed. Sage tells me about her childhood growing up on a farm in Alberta and her summer trips to the Badlands with friends to camp. She takes a large bag of trail mix out of her overstuffed backpack. I haven’t eaten since the candy bar at the gas station so I shovel hands full of peanuts, raisins, M&Ms and sunflower seeds into my mouth.
“When you were working you talked to yourself.”
I stop eating. “I didn’t know you could hear me.”
“Don’t be embarrassed.”
“I’m not,” I say, though I am. “It’s just a bad habit.”
“Not necessarily,” says Sage. She works as a counselor, I remember. She’s probably good at it. She listens with such evident curiosity that I want to tell her more.
“I stopped doing it years ago but it suddenly came back.”
“What do you think that’s about?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
There’s a lapse as we munch on Sage’s trail mix, then I’m suddenly talking again. “Say somebody’s mom was sick. Really sick. But instead of going home to see her in case she, you know?” Sage nods. She knows. “Instead of going home,” I continue, “he fucks off to a town in Norway where his grandma was born. What’s that all about?”
“I’m not sure,” says Sage cautiously. “Are we talking about someone we know?”
“Let’s pretend we aren’t.”
“Okay.” With her tongs she nudges a log closer to the fire and says, “He wants to do something nice for his mom ’cause he really loves her and he’s worried about her. But he can’t drop everything and fly halfway around the world because if he did that he’d be admitting she could really die.”
Frowning I watch the fire burn for a little bit. Sage scoots over next to me and holds my hand until I stop brooding, smile at her and run a hand over the top of her head, ruffling the short, prickly hair at the back of her neck.
She takes out her harmonica and tries to play but she keeps getting the tune confused. When she tries to sing what she wanted, it becomes clear that she has very little rhythm or pitch. I listen politely anyway. I’m thinking of how every time I get critical about a performance my mom says that music is for enjoying yourself, not for being the best. When she was a kid, she invariably adds, music emanated from every living room, not from media conglomerates and broadcasting companies. The snobby, blue-haired, audiophile New Yorker I’ve become hates it when she says egalitarian bullshit like that but I sort of see the point. Here are Sage and me, camping out under the stars, huddled around an illegal campfire, draped in scratchy wool blankets, and Sage is tinkering with a harmonica. We’re like hobos living off the land, like Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. She’s not a virtuoso harp player? Who cares. Sitting beside this fire with Sage is the first thing I’ve done in years that doesn’t have a trace of irony.
After a few minutes Sage gets embarrassed and puts the harmonica down. “I’m still not very good,” she says.
My eyes are lusting after the harmonica the moment she sets it down. I let a decent interval pass so I don’t look like I’m showing her up. I haven’t played any blues for a long time but it seems like the thing. I begin a simple twelve bar shuffle progression, nice and slow. Now and then I add some ornamentation but mostly I keep it simple, stick to that pounding rhythm that makes the blues so hypnotic and primal. One, and-two, and-three, and-four, and-one, and-two, and-three, and-four…
Sage says, “This is why I bought this motorcycle.”
Normally I’d say, Why? So you could break down, have to camp out in the freezing cold with a stranger? But this isn’t a night for ironic quips. Fire and music are elemental. They clear the confusion and bring the truth out where you can see it.
I play on. The harsh edges of the sound become pleasantly blurred in the wide open space. The music swirls around the campfire and the motorcycle, through the wind break and along the winding path, down to the road and all the way up it to Sylling where my grandmother was born. If I had a guitar I could make up words to this song. The fire and the bike and the field and the road deserve some lyrics, I think. Norwegian Blues, it would be called. Don’t be silly, says my good old imagination. You haven’t learned the words to this song yet. Stop day dreaming and pay attention or you never will.
Sage kisses me on the cheek as I play. She leans her head on my shoulder and wraps her arms around me, one hand slipping under my jacket, sweatshirt and tee shirt, against my bare skin. Her fingers are icy as they slide slowly from my stomach to my chest. Every sensation is magnified by this sudden vulnerability.
We kiss and kiss for a long time next to that fire. Then we zip ourselves together into Sage’s sleeping bag with wool blankets heaped above and below to insulate it. Once we’re warm we take off all our clothes and kiss and touch each other. Her small body feels wonderful against mine. Her skin is soft and slightly cold. Her hands run from one end of my body to the other.
“Do you have a condom?” she asks.
“Me neither,” she says, and sighs.
We kiss and touch each other a little bit more until eventually we fall asleep.
The next morning Sage wishes me a happy Easter and I get to work on the motorcycle. It’s every bit as clear, cold and windy as the previous day. My fingers are becoming numb as I get the transmission screw in just right—a half turn shy of strong resistance—and get the nut tightened to it won’t move. It’s a tough job without an Allen wrench and I’m a little surprised when I start the bike and it runs perfectly. Sage and I laugh and hug each other to celebrate this Easter resurrection I’ve performed.
Sage driving, me on the back, we sail down the road. We reach the gas station in twenty minutes. Turning north from there we follow a winding road that snakes through the valley for about twenty minutes and then climbs and climbs to the heights and dives into the woods. We chase the signs for Sylling at the rare crossroads, then suddenly we come out of the woods and down a short curving hill and the fjord is stretched out below us on our left. There was no sign at the edge of the village but I recognize the water immediately, with its two islands, lying several hundred feet below us at the bottom of a gradual, grassy slope. We’re here. Sage stops the bike.
The village doesn’t seem to have grown at all since the photograph was taken in 1946. A few small houses are scattered on that gradual slope with a larger concentration down by the water. I’ve only seen these houses in black and white and I’m surprised that they’re painted in reds, yellows and oranges with white trim around the doors and the small window panes. Other than that everything is as I imagined. For a long, long time I look at the houses and the field they’re in, the fjord beyond them, its islands and the gusts of wind ruffling long swathes of its surface, the church and its steeple on the hill to the left and the towering bluff beyond it. The cold wind stings tears from my eyes as it comes off the water.
The beauty of what I see drowns out everything else. I fall into the center of it like I’m being pulled through a telescoping lens. The feeling of playing the harmonica by the fire returns. I’m a blank. No muscle ache from sleeping on the ground, no motorcycle repair, no stupid techno concerts in Frankfort next week. No history. Just a witness to the moment that I’m living right now.
Clarity: I fantasized when I called my mother from Sylling she’d be elated. That’s not what’s about to happen. A fatal loneliness hits me. Hollowness, absence, orphanhood, the nomad sense that I don’t have a home any longer, the vague impression of something I love out of reach far above me, ascending at this very moment.
Without snapping the pictures I came for, I find a pay phone outside the town’s elementary school and call. My sister Stacee answers, crying. She can’t form a clear sentence so she passes the phone to Helen. By the time I hang up I’m crying but Sage can’t tell the difference between these tears and the tears that the wind had coaxed from my eyes so she asks me, still upbeat, if they were surprised I was calling from Sylling. I shrug. She follows me up the hill to the church to find my great-uncle Knut’s headstone. I sit down Indian-style on his grave. I tell Sage what’s happened.
A few hours later, after running into Oslo for my suitcase, we roll up to the airport. We leave her bike in short term parking and walk into the terminal. The first ticket back to Denver flies from Oslo to Dublin, Dublin to Chicago, Chicago to Denver. I buy it. Sage and I kill the time until boarding in an airport bar. When the time comes we hug and exchange e-mail addresses. Looking back from the security checkpoint line I see her small figure with her boyish walk leaving the terminal through the sliding doors and wonder if I’ll ever see her again.
Landing in Dublin I have a pint of Guinness and a cornbeef sandwich. In a men’s room I strip off my dirty shirt, rub water from the faucet all over my body and pull on a clean tee-shirt, green with shamrocks and Gaelic writing, that I bought at a gift shop. I study myself in the mirror a long time. There are circles under my eyes. My blue hair, normally spiky has been matted by my winter hat and sticks out in five directions. My blue soul patch sits in a sea of blond stubble that’s started to sprout all over my ruddy, wind-bitten face. The wear and tear just highlights how ridiculous I looked to begin with. “Who is that?” I mumble. That was you a few days ago, man. “Oh,” I say.
I wet my hair and begin to comb in black hair dye, the only shade I could find in the airport pharmacy that could cover up the blue without bleaching first. With a disposable razor I shave off the ridiculous soul patch and wash it down the drain. From the mirror the new Nick Skylark studies me with curiosity.
Copyright (c) 2009 by Adam Hunault.