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Words Without Borders is an inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winner!
from the August 2014 issue

from “Finnhits”

Are you completely sure I feel like listening? Have you thought it through carefully and concluded that on Friday at 4:54 PM I'm going to feel like taking in one more life story that starts deep in the bowels of the earth and ends in the heart of the city? Think again. It may be that I don't have space for any more stories, that my hard drive is already complaining. But if you're absolutely sure that your story is unique, lay it on me. Remember: keep it short. Cut it open like velvet fabric, check the back, add half again if your own isn't enough, and offer details. Details we live on, generalities we die from. Give me an experience, not an entire life.

When I left home I got Dad's black suit, a bottle of Mom's black currant juice, and hope. I can still fit into the suit, and I know how to make juice myself, but I lost the hope on the straightaway outside of Liminka. Since President Kekkonen they've all been thinkers and staycationers. I haven't dared open a book since Linna for fear of sperm, and since Rautavaara's death all our singers have been baby faces conjuring open the doors of fairytale castles with their warbling. Being here is like living in a foreign country. Life is just one damn long last-minute discount flight. What are you staring at? You asked what was new. Sometimes you get hash even though you ordered Wiener schnitzel. There are free seats at other tables too.

I left my husband, my job, my dog, my friends, and my hobbies. This break has caused much sorrow and confusion. Let me emphasize that I made my decision of sound mind, without the influence of alcohol or antidepressants. In these situations many people return to their childhoods and search for explanations there. From my own childhood I remember snow drifts, the pond in the forest, and a certain full-color magazine with a story about Stockholm and its famous Opera Cellar. I thought I would never escape this darkness and make it to chatty, light-hearted Stockholm. Now I’m sitting in the restaurant in question, and I don’t regret a thing. The Opera Cellar’s herring is as good as its reputation.

After a short, albeit exhausting introduction, Kale moved on to a detailed account of his relationship with Mari, who, after leaving Kale, had been concentrating on cleaning up after travelers in hotels in Gothenburg. With the looks on our faces we tried to communicate that hey, Kale, we all have our money problems, but he was so caught up in the subject that he continued the torture, which included that he never told us where the drinks were. It is true that dropping one’s host in the well does not demonstrate much sense of propriety, but after we explained the situation to the police, they suggested that we not hoist him up quite yet.

FYI: I have retreated to my cabin to watch as Päijänne runs amok but I do not. I also intend to watch how the trees bend in the autumn wind while I don't for anything. I left my laptop at the Shell station in Tikkurila, the sort of place a junkie can easily find it, and I threw my phone in the trash at a rest stop. If you want to know how I’m doing, listen to Kari Tapio’s last single and add some cellos. PS: Sirkku, I took that grainy wedding picture of ours and laminated it just in case it rains while I’m fishing.

I would send a text, but my cell phone is in the harbor. I would write, but two fingers on my right hand got caught in a circular saw. I would call on the landline, but I can’t find the phone since the move. I would come visit, but I can’t remember whether the apartment number was 34 G 78 or 32 C 87. I’m spreading the word to everyone I know. I talk to people I don’t know at service stations. I show your picture on street corners like they do in police movies. I will find you. My memory may act up, but my body remembers. Your smell is a part of me. The shower is broken.

On Epiphany it will be four years since I last hit a person. My anger management course instructor recommended that I keep a notebook of all the situations in which I’ve wanted to hit someone. I’m on my fifth notebook now and staring at the knuckles of my fists, which look white like the Alps. I came close again yesterday. I was at the scale in the produce department. The buttons didn’t have pictures anymore, just those numbers. I was having trouble finding the button for onions. Somebody gave this deep sigh behind me. I felt like chopping them up and setting them on a display with a label reading: Generic vegetable, number 000. But since I’m the new Jorma with anger management under my belt and promises to keep, I looked at my fellow man and said, “Ah yes, onion, how did I miss that, please forgive me for the delay. I’m sorry to make you late for choir practice.”

Depression, that right of citizenship enshrined in our constitution, is so familiar and safe that one step away from it and there's nothing under your feet. That's what happened to Niko when he met Minna. The earth gave way and the swamp took him. Niko grabbed onto the eyelashes, the ear baubles, the sweet words, the arc of her neck, the red of her lips. Niko strung himself up on the curls and earlobes and promises and water lilies. With only two and a half hours of experience, believing in luck is hard, and even after all these years Niko still wakes up in the middle of the night to check whether Minna is still there or it was all a dream.

Sirpa, I was supposed to tell you back during the Sorsa administration: I love you. Not like those Southern European men, actively and every day. My love is long-lasting, although sometimes with a delay. Delicate words sleep within me. And don't go commenting now on how much they sleep. When I say I love you now, I may not repeat it tomorrow or anytime during the Lipponen administration, so record this in your heart. No, I'm not raising my voice. I'm just trying to speak clearly. I partially blame this background noise on you. I got this trip to the Tyrnävä Salsa Week with your rewards card.

A trio assembled from my late uncle’s acquaintances performed at his funeral. Toward the beginning of the service they stuck to more devotional tunes, but as the mourners moved on to the dessert course, they started playing dance numbers. We tried to send them the message by shooting them appropriate looks, then the widow went over to talk to them. The trio defended their repertoire by saying that the deceased had requested it. The widow didn’t think the living should have to endure Erkki’s lack of style anymore. The trio took the widow at her word, but for the rest of the evening played rather apathetically, out of a sense of duty more than anything else. The guitarist said they couldn’t capture the essence of Erkki anymore, who was at once both warm and tasteless.

No one comes and asks me anything at the bar anymore. I get to sit on my stool like a forgotten tabloid. People just walk on by. When someone happens to bump me on their way past, they don't look back to see if I'm still upright. The days are gone when people asked me for hot tips on the trotting races, hints on casual dressing, or my opinion on the nuclear power plant. I only matter to my children anymore. But why do I say anymore? As if my children's interest were less important. Hardly anyone at this bar has anyone coming at twenty after eight to hustle them home to watch the evening news. Actually, I seem to be the only one.

Mäkäräinen insisted that if I didn't move my Lada from in front of his cabin and pretty damn quick he was going to push it into Lake Päijänne. Then that same day Mirja called me heartless. I went over to Mäkäräinen's cabin, ran the Lada into the lake myself, and then spent the next week screaming. The local authorities called it an expression of emotion and brought me here to this quiet room. The talk therapy lady said that I let everything out at once that people normally unload in little batches as life goes on. How am I going to get that Lada out while I’m stuck in here? The public phones work on euros, and all I have in my pocket is one Estonian crown and seven bottlecaps. Mäkäräinen is unreasonable; when it's dry, it's a perfectly good car.

If I get a new prosthesis and some decent ice fishing coveralls, I’ll go to the stadium to see the Stones. The last time they were in Finland, I was having hip surgery and had a bad astigmatism in my left eye. But I’m getting along. We early retirees here in Vääksy have a carpool system where whenever one of the old-school bands comes to the North Country, we always go, even with limited equipment. We went to see ZZ Top in Ekki Laakkonen’s minibus. Six old goats in the back on sacks of potatoes, three-chord, two-angioplasty men all.

My heart has stopped three times. The first time in Parkano in front of the Prisma superstore when I saw a dog chained to the bicycle rack whose howling resembled Roy Orbison’s early work. The second time at my granddad’s funeral when the musicians mangled “The Silent Violin.” The third time yesterday when a guy at work admitted he lost the Finland-Sweden hockey finals video I lent him from the glorious year 1995. I’m at an age when my heart might not last a fourth time. Despite this, my eldest daughter intends to get a piercing and join a death metal band as their bassist.

Now that we’ve all gathered on this rock to observe a moment of silence for Kale’s left leg, I’d like to remind us all that we’re each responsible for our own actions. But I ask you, whose idea was it to invite Kale along to Tallinn in such a bad mood, in the middle of his divorce? And who had the bright idea to ask him, on the upper deck, in such a lighthearted tone how he was doing? Naturally he’s responsible for jumping down to the lower deck, but we’re all going to chip in for the cost of the prosthesis because we feel so massively guilty. This would be a perfect moment for an uplifting piece from ABBA. Would someone put the cassette in?

When I was a child, I had a tricycle. All last year I was a third wheel. I don’t want to know what the psychologists would say about that. The week before last someone stole my mountain bike. Then I decided I’d spend the rest of my life on foot and single. And for half a year I was. Then in the checkout line at the Alepa I met Mira, whose eyes were like sylvan springs, and now we have single-speeds bought at a police auction and a two-bedroom place in Myyrmäki. Mira has a bun in the oven. We aren’t going to buy him a tricycle though. Mira and I are superstitious that way.

My uncle spent his whole life untangling his long lines. Whenever we visited, he was always sitting with his nose in his fishing lines swearing. The family bought him bifocals, but that didn’t change anything. In the summer of ’98, when I’d been watching him for thirty plus years working on those lines, I decided never to untangle anything in my own life. Not fishing lines, not relationships, not the Paris metro map, not the situation in the Middle East. Hang it all, what do I care? I can sit on this balcony and watch people fight and seagulls screech.

Someday you’ll understand, Dad said, and looked out the window at the lake. That was 1981. Now it’s 2006, and that day hasn’t come. What rock is that great wisdom hiding under and when is that day coming? Why are we here? What does this all mean? I’ve listened to everyone from bishops to pop stars, but it still isn’t clear. Lately I’ve started asking people on the street. That hasn’t turned out to be the best way. People get irritated, and they think you’re crazy. I sent Dad a card saying I was coming on Easter to ask him. Dad called and said he didn’t think it was a good idea. He thought I had taken him too seriously. All he meant to say was that when I grew up, I would understand that I didn’t understand anything.

People talk about money who don’t have it and about poverty who haven’t experienced it. They should switch speakers. The problem is that the poor don’t know how to talk about their own issues, and the rich don’t dare. Both concentrate on being experts about each other’s business. It’s a deadlock. And we don’t have anyone we can send to help. We can’t send Pasi, because he hates both of them and can’t really speak for the middle class either. No one can. Being in the middle is difficult. You don’t get pity or jealousy. You just stand there wondering whether to use a taxi or take the bus. You spend your whole life wavering. And don’t dare complain to anyone.

One day you’ll notice young people start smiling at you. First crookedly, then openly. In six months it will turn to laughter. Worse come to worst, there might be some jeering. To them, you represent the past, even though when they look at you they see their future. They are immortal just like you were at Ruisrock in 1983 when your hair was a mop. The job of the immortal is to chatter and dress funny. Mortals’ lot is dress pants and daily, light exercise. Remember this. Don’t look back. More of them are coming all the time. Look forward, at the traffic lights. You’re that little green man. One long beep and you go. And they’ll follow behind.
 

© Kari Hotakainen and WSOY. Extracts from the collection of short stories titled Finnhits, first published in Finnish in 2007 by Werner Söderström Corporation, Helsinki, Finland. Published by arrangement with Werner Söderström Ltd. (WSOY). Translation © 2014 by Owen F. Witesman. All rights reserved.

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