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101 Reykjavik: A Novel
Anyway. I normally try to wake up before dusk. To get some light into my day, check in, punch my card. The sun is a time clock. Even if you're not working. For the sun or anyone else. Hey. Solar system, welfare system.
Waking up never gets easier. It's like you've been buried for four hundred years and have to claw your way through six feet of mud. Every day. The light filters through the curtains. All of a sudden it's as if the numbers on my radio alarm were years. 1601. Woke up too early, not due to be born for another four hundred years. Ah well. I reach out for the Coke supply, have myself a flat one. One stale morning kiss. You should never kiss a girl the morning after, there's always that putrid smell, like she's started to rot, like she's died. Usually she's died. One shouldn't sleep around. Sleep is death. Resurrection every morning. Resurrection of the flesh. My man, always the first one up. I find the remote under my foot, haven't quite mastered switching the TV on with my toes yet.
Channel 52: interview with a German bar owner. He's pulling three steins. I want a beer. Take another sip of Coke. Channel 53: British gardening. Channel 54: recording studio in Madrid. Channel 36: an Indian singer (20,000). Channel 37: weather forecast for Southeast Asia. Looks like they're in for a sunny weekend in Burma.
I surf around. No pussy. How come there's no porn shows in the morning? Have these people never heard of a morning glory? At least there'd be something to wake up for. Breakfast porn. My little man, always the first one up. Maybe that's how they're programmed. Cos it's easier to get the rest of me out of bed once he's up. That little giant. That throatless muscle-pumping Cyclops. Has a head but no brain, or maybe he's used it all up, coughed up all his little gray cells. I refuse to get up until he gets up. I grab him by the throat and wrestle with him, but he doesn't give up until we're in the john. I milk him into the palm of my hand. Why don't fortune-tellers read wet palms instead of peering into coffee cups? There's my life mapped out for you, sprayed into my hand. Trickling down the undulating streams of my lifeline.
Cigarette. A day is like a cigarette. A white cigarette tracked by the sun as its smoldering embers vanish behind the clouds of smoke and die in the yellow filter of the night. The sun and cigarettes. Both equally hazardous to your health. It's getting dark. Hardly worth opening the curtains. I fasten my watch, chain myself to time, the rotations of the planet, the sun, the whole system: 16:16. I go into the kitchen. Cheerios. Already waiting for me in the bowl. What's going on? Is she trying to mom me up again? A bit too much. She's put too much into the bowl. The right portion is 365 rings. I shovel them down with some milk. Radio. The first song always sets the tone for the day. "Passion," by Rod Stewart. Not so sure about that.
ReykjavÍk calling. Hope you had a good day. We're getting late up here, running out of days. You know. Wintertime in Iceland. The Kingdom of Darkness. And everything Johnny Rotten. Went to the bar last night and then to some after-party. There was a girl there who'd been to Budapest and she told me about a bar called Roxy or Rosy. Do you know it?
Bi. — Hlynur.
"Hlynur," says Thröstur.
"Thröstur," says I.
"How's it going?"
"Yeah, OK. You didn't turn up yesterday."
"No. Did I miss anything?"
"Nah. We went back to Jökull's afterwards."
"And what? How was it?"
"Yeah. Lóa was there and Sóley, and two lanky model types."
"Yeah. One of them was a real Cosmo type, but the other one was more House and Garden."
"And what? Are they there with you now?"
"No, that's just the TV. What are you up to?"
"Hey, I saw your dad. We went to the Castle, myself and Marri, and there he was, he was great."
"You're bullshitting me."
"No, he was great, man, bought us a round and then invited us back to his place afterwards."
"Did you go?"
"No. He gave us conflicting addresses."
"Are you sure it was him?"
"Hey, Hlynur, I know old graybeard when I see him."
"How did he look?"
"Yeah, fine. Kind of third-dayish."
"Out of his skull?"
"Yeah. He was pretty sozzled, all right, but he was in great form. I mean he was fun and so on."
"Yeah. He spoke about your mother a hell of a lot...and you. You should look him up, you know."
"So what d'you say? How about tonight?"
"Don't know. What you have in mind?"
"Just the usual, the K-bar or just the Castle, maybe; it's a wicked place, I'm sure you'll bump into your old man there."
"What time were you there at?"
"Kind of one-ish."
"I don't know."
"OK, I'll give you a buzz."
"Hi, darling. Wasn't sure whether you'd want these or not. Got them in Bonus's."
She throws three pairs of white underpants wrapped in noisy plastic onto the bed, as I swivel around from the computer. Then she walks to the bed, takes the underpants, puts them on the bedside table, and starts tidying up.
"How did it go today? It's a bit stuffy in here, Hlynur dear. Wouldn't you like to open the window a bit?"
"It's been a while since I washed these sheets, hasn't it? Shall I take them now? No, can't do them until tomorrow anyway. Is that a Coke bottle in your bed? I bought some more if you'd like. Lolla's coming for dinner later. How's it going, darling?"
"Didn't you say you were doing some job for Reynir?"
"There's a delay. I'm waiting for him to give me the SyQuest disk."
I turn back to the computer.
"Well, then. Think you can use these undies? Hope they fit. Only had large. Shall I bring you a Coke?"
She comes over and puts a hand on my shoulder. I can feel her breasts on the back of my neck.
"All right, darling. I won't disturb you. What, are you writing in English?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. Curiosity box."
She kisses the crown of my head and leaves, saying, "I bought some sirloin steaks and Lolla's bringing some red wine. We're going to be posh tonight."
Sirloin is my favorite. She's definitely trying to mom me up. Something's up.
They're talking about Heidar, the beautician, when I walk in. Lolla says she likes him. I like Lolla. She's got serious breasts and she's funny. The laughing type. She might take the piss out of me sometimes, but she often comes with something to smoke and she brings nice vibes to the place. Mom's more fun when she's around. Especially if she smokes with us. It kind of moms her down a bit. They're good together even though they're different. Mom is fifty-six, Lolla thirty-seven. They met in the Faroes. Or Mom was there for some kind of committee meeting or something. Mom is kind of National Channelish, but Lolla is more cable-channel 2: I don't know her that well, I haven't watched her enough, there's more to descramble. She's an AA counselor. An AA counselor. She's full of good alco stories, especially when she's pissed. Drunken stories never sound as good when they're told sober. We live on Bergthórugata and eat in the kitchen.
Mom: "Didn't the underpants fit? I bought him some underpants today, in Bonus's."
Lolla: "Bonus undies? She'll be a happy girl who gets her hands on them. Do they have the logo of the little pink piggy on them?"
Me: "Don't know."
Mom: "Haven't you tried them on yet?"
Me: "Mom. Any cabbage left?"
Lolla: "Pricks always remind me of pink piggies."
Me: "Oh yeah?"
Lolla: "Yeah, so cute...and tasty..."
She laughs. Mom grins. I smile a JR smile.
Me: "I thought you didn't eat pork. Aren't you a lesbian?"
Mom: "Ice cream anybody?"
Lolla: "Less b than bi. But no, I was thinking more of you, Hlynur, my dear....You have that kind of piggy bank look...."
Me: "How d'you mean?"
Lolla: "Well, you know. You're always saving yourself up, aren't you? You're not exactly splashing it around. Aren't you always saving up for the one and only?"
Me: "What's this all about?"
Lolla grins at Mom, who has stood up.
Mom: "Enough of that. Shouldn't we have some ice cream and talk about something else?"
Me: "Hey, Mom, have you been blabbing to her? Whatever happened to privacy?"
Mom: "She's only teasing you, Hlynur dear. Lolla dear, are you sure you wouldn't like some more?"
Lolla: "No thanks, I'm full..."
Me: "...full of crap. Where's the paper? Maybe I should check it to see if there are any flats to let."
Lolla: "You're not thinking of moving out, are you?"
Me: "Mom, did you buy the paper?"
Lolla: "I mean, you're too old for that now, aren't you? Thirty-three years old..."
I have a sudden longing for a secluded cell where people don't knock on the door but have to ring a bell. Just me and me alone, the two of us, with our computer, TV, a sixteen-tape weekend, the entire Woody collection, away from all lesbians. There's something about these brazen women, women who are just as smart as men, pussies with their tongues in the right place. I can't take them. You never know how to talk back to them. You're paralyzed. Especially if they've got breasts as well. Then it's just like there's some kind of swindle going on. I mean. Women look a hell of a lot better than we do, I'll say that. But we were supposed to get the brains instead. And now they've taken them as well. What's left? They've got it all now. Brains and looks. And we just lie there speechless with that brainless beast in our hands, squeezing out his last few cells.
Mom belongs to another generation, before brain surgery became the standard thing. Mom presses her side up against me.
"Now, now, Lolla dear. My little Hlynsey can stay here as long as he wants."
We smoke a joint after the ice cream. Lolla rolls. Two joints. I get one of them (sulking with her has its perks sometimes). We move into the living room. The news is slightly less boring through the haze of a spliff. Normally I can't stand Icelandic TV. Talking about fish all the fucking time, and the sea this and the sea that. What smartass had the bright idea of going down to the bottom of the sea to grab a bite? Those snowbanks look quite appetizing on grass, like ice cream. Vanilla in the West. Nougat on the North Fjords. They're both out of it now and start rambling on about the underpants again. Oh no.
Mom: "But didn't you tell me you needed underpants? He always needs underpants, I don't know what he does with all those underpants, I feel I'm always buying underpants for him. Ha ha."
Lolla: "He probably leaves them around town like a visiting card when he's...It's quite common among single guys who want to avoid commitment. They deliberately leave their briefs behind, all...ha ha...pissy yellow and smelly. That way there's less of a risk of the girls ever wanting to see them again...."
Me: "Well, some girls are really into golden showers, aren't they, Lolla? And even golden flowers, too...."
Me: "I keep on telling you, Mom, you're the one who's always losing them."
Lolla: "Aaaah...Beeerglind...ha ha ha..."
Mom: "Ha ha. What? What do you mean?"
Me: "In the wash."
They're really getting into this underpants thing now and dare me to try them on. I don't know, maybe I'm just too stoned to stay in my clothes. Suddenly I'm standing in the living room again in nothing but my Bonus briefs. I strike some poses. They gasp and wow like two women at Chippendales. Women don't watch stripteases the way we men do. They just let loose and go straight into top gear. Men freeze into their shells and slip into low drive, become so deadly serious, swallow their Adam's apples. Lolla asks me to come closer, pulls on the elastic and snaps it, says they fit perfectly, and then adds: "In his current state, that is." And they fall about on the sofa with shrieks of laughter. The one-eyed idiot is on eye level with her and I get the feeling — even though Mom is there — that he wants to stick his head out to look her in the eye. Time to get out of there.
The Castle at midnight. Not exactly wicked. Despite the name, it's just a cellar. "The Dungeon" might have been more apt. You step down into the past. A dire, bluesy little piss hole: a murky cave, phony brickwork on the walls, complete with (fake?) swords and armor. Prehistoric rock music spurting through the speakers, a tinny sound, like the records have just been dug up in some archaeological find: Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin. "Eye of the Tiger," as it happens, when we walk in, myself, Thröstur, and Marri. A trip down mythology lane. Feel like I'm in one of those Quantum Leap episodes. Ancient Greece, except everyone's wearing jackets. Bacchus behind the bar cracking his whip, the old master torturer, fat and furious, thrashing the mob — eternal slaves to alcohol with blistering wounds on their backs — impressively equipped: the beer taps like levers on the torture rack, the thumbscrews tightening each time they're pulled. He can afford to laugh with the arsenal he's got behind him: Hot-Shots on the shelves, Black Death. Juggling his bottles like guns, he levels them at his victims, metallic spirit measures screwed to the nozzles like silencers. Uncapping the beer bottles with his teeth, he hurls them into the room like grenades, shakes Molotov cocktails. Pours boiling acids into poisoned goblets, and the customers sign their credit card slips as if they were signing their own death warrants. A highly combustible situation. Alcos tanked up to the hilt and sloshed women staggering about with boobs full of gas. One of them (3,500) comes over to ask me for a light, as pissed as a newt. I feel like I'm about to set her ablaze as I lift the flame. Her face ignites and she thanks me with a kiss, a 43-percent-proof kiss. I slither away but can't seem to wipe off the taste of cod liver oil left from her lipstick.
It's an oblongish place, with a bar about the length of a small-town swimming pool. The really sozzled ones are at the deep end, clinging to the ledge. Opposite the bar there are some sofas made out of some unknown material that seems to suck in light. People vanish into them like black holes. The only lighting here seems to come from the bottles on the glass shelves behind the bar — a whiskey yellow glow: like a faint dawn beyond the mountains of Kamchatka — and three pairs of earrings in the armchairs. And some teeth here and there glistening in a smile.
"I can't take this."
"Sure you can, we're just taking a look, you know. You're always so fussy, Hlynur."
Thröstur and Marri seem to have a third eye for this kind of stuff. Maybe I can't take it because I know Dad could be here. Going out "gallivanting," as Mom sometimes calls it. Maybe because in the olden days there used to be galley slaves. Yeah, that's exactly what these are. Slaves drooped over their salt-beaten benches, chained to the bar, rowing over oceans of beer, braving the whiskey main, each man clinging to his years, the years of yore, the years of oars, holding their wretched lives in their hands. It could actually make you feel seasick, this place, with all these people rolling about.
At the bar we find three free stools, those who sat on them before us obviously dead drunk by now. Executed by alcohol. We take our places on death row. Thröstur is tall, with arms and a chin. He's slightly taller than me. I'm six feet. He has this dodgy goatee beard, kind of patchy and shabby. Like he's got a few loose nerve ends dangling from his chin. He's a bit of a nervy type. Thröstur, the thrush, always fluttering about. Marri is shorter than we are. Marri's real name is Marel. Something to do with the sea. He's a bit like a fish out of water. With those bulging eyes and sudden twitches. One's a fish, the other's a bird. I'm neither fish nor fowl.
We order three beers. Thröstur starts talking about the difference between bungee jumping and parachute jumping. He says it's like the difference between sex with love and sex without it. I don't quite get it. I make out a silhouette of a man at the far end, just his back, looks like he's pissing. The man beside us is wearing a baseball cap and a hippopotamus-hide jacket so thick it takes him a while to turn around to us. He's got eyelashes on his upper lip and thick lips around his eyes. He's young, if one can use that word. Question:
"So how are you, guys? Did you just get out?"
"Huh? No, we just got in."
An ancient Peter Frampton number blasts through the speakers. "Show Me the Way." Feel like I'm at the Icelandic Natural Science Museum, which has been closed down for the past twenty years. Stuffed animals covered in dust. Except that most of the dust in this place has been snorted up through people's noses. A substance that gives fairly stable highs. Those cold glazed eyes and desiccated, mummified faces. Thröstur says this place was once used to store spare parts for American cars. Spare parts. Nothing's changed. Die here and you'll wake up on a kitchen table in a house on the back of Smidjuvegur with a kidney missing and a tattooed wound.
Marri nudges me, signals me to turn. Dad sails past. That's him, all right. That face. That expression he put into my mother's womb. He sails past. Like a ghost. Like a specter out of some old Idnó Theatre drama. Slowly sails across the stage, somewhere in the depths of the scenery, elbowing his way through the curtains, causing ripples and waves. He doesn't see us. His clothes look OK, his beard and hair, too, and his cigarette is still in one piece, but his glass looks unpaid for. Twelve hundred krónur's worth of whiskey. Somehow you can just tell it's been rung up on plastic money. Another one of those and he'll sink the ship. He takes a swig, I watch it all float away: rugs, carpets, parquet, his entire apartment, company, car.
"You've got to talk to him."
"No. I can't take him right now."
Suddenly I get that smell. That's no Pierre Cardin. No, that's Dad. Hafsteinn Magnússon. That good old Old Spice. Not a bad choice for a ghost, though. He rests his glass on my shoulder and I turn. The smile that made me. The smile that bedazzled my ma. That was many teeth ago. Completely false now. Still, though, he looks pretty good. Those red cheeks actually suit that gray beard, if one can talk of color in the darkness of this rock-'n'-rolling cave. In fact he looks too good for this place. What's he doing here? This ain't his scene.
He says that like he's referring to himself. His state of mind. A high hi.
"Just the man I needed to talk to."
Don't like the sound of that.
"Yeah, I just need to have a chat with you, what'll you have? I'll buy you a drink and we'll sit down here, just you and I, and have a powwow together, man to man."
Pissed man to man. He treats me to a beer on his card, and I leave the guys at the bar with their four eyes and follow Dad through the rain forest to the corner. We sink into our separate holes, under some kind of spear contraption on the wall. A twenty-three-year-old guitar solo erupts and he has to speak up, comes too close. I can only listen to him with one ear. He starts off with a long intro. The bottom line of which is that I'm his son and he's my dad.
"It's about your mother. I know we're divorced and all that, and you know that too. That. I know it's none of my business what she does now, us being divorced and that. But I'm also. I'm mainly thinking about...er, you, it's about that friend of hers there, what's her name again?"
"That her name? Yeah, the little dark-haired one. With the beauty spot."
Lolla has a fairly noticeable beauty spot on her right cheek. A bulging freckle with hair. I picture it now, see nothing else: a beauty spot about the size of a fingernail hovering in the air before my eyes, furry. Like a homosexual fly. I nod.
"Yes, you know what I'm talking about. Anyway, she's a lesbian."
"Yeah, you know that, and they spend a lot of time together, don't they? Don't they spend a lot of time together?"
"Yeah, she comes over and eats with us sometimes."
"Yes, exactly, yes, and. They're together a lot. I hope you don't mind me asking, but does she ever stay with you?"
I study his face. We're not very alike. My face is like his face whittled down to look like Mom's. I take after my mom as much as my father will allow me to. He has a pretty big nose. Mine is small and the glasses make it even smaller.
I look into his eyes. These are eyes that look back. Eyes that can no longer look ahead. Are there no glasses for people who can't look life in the eye? Maybe he should just wear shades.
"Are you sure? Are you sure she doesn't sleep over sometimes?"
"Yeah, she sleeps with me sometimes."
"What I'm trying to say here, Hlynur, is that I think your mother is a lesbian."
The song ends right before he says that last word and it comes out far too loud. I look at him again and glance around. Some fat old dipso queen of tarts (7,000) deep on the sofa with a linocut face looks at us, and smiles at me. I see her lipstick moving. It seems to be saying: but I'm not. I'm not a lesbian. I check out her breasts a moment before looking back at the old man. No centerfold. Even though he's drunk Dad somehow manages to strike a sober Hafsteinn air. There's a slight pause before the next song begins — "Highway to Hell," it got to number 17 on the American charts in '79, the summer of my driving test, he lent me his car or, more to the point, made me drive him everywhere, symbolic or what? — and we can talk again now.
"So what do you say to that?"
"I don't know. Why do you say so?"
"I just think so. A friend. A friend of Sara's saw them together in that gay bar. The one down KlapparstÍgur."
"So they were obviously there for each other."
I can feel the tip of his nose in my ear. Feels like his prick, penetrating my auricle. Dad's the crazy Scotch king who pisses in every ear and drinks from every beer. "Thou art begotten of a king"...Yeah. I smoke Prince.
"You don't say anything?"
An AC/DC silence.
"You don't say anything, maybe it's all the same to you, maybe you think it's OK? Imagine, she's almost sixty, and all of a sudden she's a lesbian! Just like that."
"Better late than never."
Copyright © 1996 by HallgrÍmur Helgason
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