December 26, 2012 § Leave a comment
It turns out the crystal sculptures displayed throughout the hallways in the lobby of the Keep are gifts from the Royal Norwegian embassy. Otto told me this yesterday as I was getting the mail. Why didn’t I know this before? For years I’ve wheeled past the display cases, and always assumed that our cooperative’s board of directors had purchased their gleaming contents. The sculptures are supposed to represent organic life forms from the Norwegian Sea, an unspoken reminder of the royal history of the Keep, or at least the ground beneath it, but Otto hinted of their otherworldly origins, saying they may not be made of crystal or anything known to man.
Otto asked: “Do you believe in ghosts? Or invisible worlds?”
When I asked him what he meant, he squeezed my shoulder and said he was just testing me, and to just forget about it. How vexing!
December 20, 2012 § Leave a comment
‘Didn’t I say all good families are very much the same?’
Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill
December 18, 2012 § Leave a comment
That night, Otto and I continued to sip brandy for the next hour or so. I was supposed to avoid drinking too much alcohol due to my meds, but I found over the years that combining both was often a very good idea. Besides, the brandy proved alluring; my nose lingered in the cave-like opening of the snifter, letting the fumes penetrate inside my head, loosening my tongue.
I tried not to bore my companion with too much talk about business. I did recall to him my occasional contracts involving various Norwegian ventures, mostly involving farmed salmon. My father had always said that food would forever be a top trading commodity, and he was right. Otto said that years earlier he had invested in a salmon farm in Norway, among other things. He stopped there, but I could tell from the twinkle in his eyes that his “other things” had turned out very nicely.
I’d had enough talk about returns on investments, though. “Tell me about the royals. What was your connection to them?”
Otto set down his glass. “I come from a family of servers. And servants. My grandfather owned a small café in Oslo, by the docks. He expected the family to help out. My grandmother baked and swept. My uncle, the oldest, tended bar after school. My father had other ideas.” He smiled to himself. “After graduating from high school, he vanished for a couple of years. My grandparents fell apart with worry. One day he suddenly appeared before Farfar, my grandfather, and said that he’d been working on a merchant ship and had been all over the world. We Norwegians have a saying—“away is not to be at home”—and certainly for Pappa, that was true.
“Now he was ready to help out the family. Farfar grew angry, for he realized that the dockworkers, some of his steadiest customers, had lied to him during an earlier, frantic search. He had been serving them beer and sandwiches, accepting their krone, accepting their overtures of friendship, and all the while he’d been deceived. So he shut down the café and went north with Farmor, to open a homestead by a large birch forest. He turned his back on Oslo, and civilization, forever. For it was civilization, that is to say, civilized behavior, that broke apart his family.”
“My father and his uncle had to fend for themselves. Uncle Mats became a chemist, no doubt because of his boundless curiosity and exploration of alcohol’s spell that began in the café. Eventually he developed a formula for something you use everyday.”
I leaned forward, but Otto shook his head. “It’s not a brand name, but a chemical process that enables you and I to exist on this very polluted planet. The name is not important,” he said, waving his hand. “But the formula made Uncle Mats a very wealthy man, wealthier than the Norwegian king. It is also partly why I was able to escape a modest retirement in Norway, the fate of so many children of servants, and live a very comfortable life on the grounds in America where the Crown Princess once lived.” Otto paused, and I recalled the Rolls Royce lurking several floors beneath us, the one he bought brand new. Comfortable life indeed.
“Pappa followed a humbler path. Never one for studies, he got a job as a waiter at the Røde Mølle restaurant in the Tivoli district in Oslo. It was a glittering place where people gathered to dance. It featured American jazz. Papa did quite well there for a couple of years, and then he met Crown Prince Olav, who visited the restaurant a couple of times. He always served the prince and his lovely wife Märtha, whenever they came, and they noticed his attentiveness and wit. Papa received a call from the palace. It was an offer of employment. He became a herskapstjener, a footman, and he served at all the big events. Until, one day, the Nazis invaded.”
Later, dear readers…I hope you don’t mind my drawing out this tale, but it’s proven difficult to sustain after a long day of contract negotiations.
December 13, 2012 § 2 Comments
“I had a dog once in Norway. His name was Brennevin—” Otto pronounced this word deep in his throat, each syllable dense as stone. “—It means brandy.” He swirled the snifter and inhaled. “He was a very, how you say, mischievous dog.”
We sat in the corner of the restaurant, with a plate of cheese, figs, and toast between us. The place was empty except for two elderly women wearing once-fashionable heavy-rimmed glasses. Otto had already been drinking by the time I showed up, and he was in a talkative mood. I wanted to lift the shroud that enveloped me, so I let him order me a brandy, a variety that he said had been produced by his French brother-in-law’s family for several centuries. He showed me how to swirl my glass and breathe in the odorous fog.
“Brennevin.” I paused, unsure of my pronunciation. “What kind of dog was he?”
Otto wrinkled his nose. “The devil kind. He tore through the house while we slept. I found broken glass on the floor, constantly. And the noise. I had to keep him chained outside. My wife, she insisted. Things improved for a while, but then one winter morning we woke up, and there was only a shattered chain on the ground.”
I thought about the responsibility of caring for something that couldn’t be controlled, despite one’s best intentions, and finding that things had gotten too far out of hand. It was a lot like love, the fumes of which had once overwhelmed me and then suddenly evaporated. It explained why, as predicted, I’d left Rachel’s Hanukah cocktail party halfway through despite the thousand kindnesses bestowed upon me, the offers to fill my drink or retrieve the dropped napkin or call me sometime (and this from a newly divorced professor of law at American University, who decided to remain silent after all).
I touched Otto’s hand. “Devil dog, huh? I wonder happened to him.”
Otto shrugged. “To tell the truth. I put him on a truck headed to the west coast. One of the royal farms took him in and put him to work, herding sheep. That’s what I heard, anyway.”
We talked about so much more that night, with Otto hinting at mysteries that had not yet been exposed. I’d tell you more, but I need to make some phone calls. Business, you know. I’ll reconnect with you, my dear readers, as soon as I can.
December 9, 2012 § Leave a comment
I saw Otto yesterday. I called him after our first meeting at the Norwegian festival, and he mentioned that he’d gotten ill and was resting. I’d offered to bring over some chicken noodle soup (the excellent kind from our building’s restaurant, but of course I’d pass it off as homemade), but he gently declined. He said he was fine, and besides, he was a vegetarian, which he’d been for sixty of his eighty-four years. Apparently his son was taking good care of him.
So it’s been a couple of weeks. I focused on finishing up several million dollars’ worth of contracts with olive oil manufacturers in Italy (the oil would bypass the U.S. and go straight to Latin America, mostly likely Argentina).
Then I saw Otto again in the parking garage. It turns out he parks on the same level I do. Funny how he has lived here for years, and I never realized who he was. I’d seen his Rolls before, but never went beyond admiring the gracious lines of the car. You see, I park much closer to my tower’s elevator, in one of the disabled spaces that provides more than enough room for my van’s electric ramp to unfold. Otto parks much further away, closer to his tower.
The only reason why we met again was that he’d seen me drive in. I’d just come back from my warehouse in Baltimore, inspecting some newly arrived containers and hosting a luncheon with some customs officials. I saw someone waving at me as I drove by, and I realized it was Otto. I parked the van and wheeled over to him.
“That’s a gorgeous car,” I told him, reaching out to touch the ornament on the hood.
“Thanks,” he told me. “I bought it new a long time ago. I had just decided to leave Norway for good. This was my way of celebrating.”
I asked him how he felt, and he said much better. He looked pretty much the way I remembered, his finely lined face as composed as ever, his shoulders still erect. I remembered that he said he was the child of a royal servant, or something like that, and right away the thought entered my head that such an attentive posture and watchful expression must have come from his elders, the ones who cleared a plate or made arrangements for some king or another. Then I realized he was watching me. That made me nervous. What did he see?
He promised now that he had recovered, that we should have a drink in the restaurant upstairs. He said he was fond of their brandies. So we agreed to meet later this week. I said goodbye and wheeled away, still feeling his eyes upon me.
December 6, 2012 § Leave a comment
- Cocktail napkins with cranes on them (the most elegant of birds).
- A candle that smells like the ocean.
- A psychic reading, during which I will learn that my paralysis has been temporary after all, and soon I will walk.
- A visit to the hot springs, during which the said walk would occur.
- To make Mrs. Hansen admit that she cheats at Rummikub.
December 3, 2012 § Leave a comment
The Pooks Hill Keep rises above the single-family homes and townhouse units that jut sporelike along the hills and streets of suburban Bethesda. It is composed of a trio of satin-skinned towers twenty-five stories high, all linked via hallways to a spacious central lobby and entrance. Gleaming cabinets in each of the hallways display crystal sculptures seemingly excavated from ice. I wheel by them on my way to get the mail, and their twisting forms pull me, if only for a moment, into their space, rather like stepping into a walk-in freezer at a restaurant and inhaling the frosty air.
Rachel’s voice yanks me away from those enticing arms. “Hey, Max.” She stands above me, jingling her keys. Her cheeks are red, and she’s wearing a sleek wool commuter coat that attorneys about to make partner usually wear.
“Hey,” I tell her, feeling all too aware of my t-shirt and jeans, my go-to work-at-home outfit. “I meant to reply to your text.”
“I know, you got distracted.” She fans herself with a Bloomingdales flyer. “I’ll need your help for Friday.” Rachel is throwing a last-minute cocktail party in honor of Hanukkah. The guests are to bring donations of food and clothing.
I nod. “I guess I’ll be good for a bottle of wine or two. I’ll pick something up at the store.”
She grins. “I need you to go online and invite more people to come. Make some more phone calls. You’re more persistent about those things than I am. So far I have ten yeses, and you know only half of those will show.”
I grimace. It was just like Rachel to make me do the dirty work that she didn’t have time to do, for her to pressure me to bring up her numbers. When it came to Rachel and her do-good parties, it was always about the numbers. “Just promise me one thing. If I vanish in the middle of your little party, don’t send a search party of eligible men to my place.”
“Believe me, any eligible men are staying right where they should be,” she says, winking, “in my kitchen.”