On the make

31 December 2007 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Benjamin Kivi (WSOY, 2007). Introduction by Lauri Sihvonen

Benjamin Kivi alias Into Penger, the 1930s

What was Kuihkä worth? What were this little man and his sons worth? What was I worth?

I drove where the little man told me to, with no lights, through a densely populated area. I could only see half a meter in front of me, trying to sense the bends and curves in the road and still keep Tallus’ car in good shape. When we got to the woods I turned on the lights and glanced at the little man sitting next to me. He was stuffing a handkerchief into his sleeve like an old housewife. The top of his head was sweating. He brushed his hair back and shoved his cap down on his head.

I had two hours to think as I drove, but it felt like a few minutes. If I didn’t drive the car, someone else would have, everything would happen just like the little man had planned, and I wouldn’t know anything about Kuihkä. What was I going to do, watch while he was thrown to the wolves? Kuihkä rescued me once. Was it meant to be that I should drive the car? Was I meant to change the course of events? How many coincidences can there be in one lifetime, and what do they signify? If events weren’t random, then what the hell was I supposed to do?

The pay I’d get for this drive would mean I wouldn’t owe anyone. I could say goodbye to Alvar Tallus and his wife, start my own life again. Look for a mate and raise a swarm of tough, beautiful kids. The meatloaf sandwich I’d had for lunch rumbled in my gut. We passed a brick barn and a field, an owl flew over it, I don’t remember if I ever saw an owl again after that.

I promised myself once that I would always be on the winning side. Who was going to win this one? At first it felt like the little man and his sons would win. Then I realised that that wasn’t the way it worked. As long as the game wasn’t over, there was no knowing who would win. The surest way to choose the winning side is to be the winner yourself.

*

It was a bumpy ride, an asphalt road and more light for a moment where a town was, then into the conifer forest again, with dark water on both sides. If I were to drive into the trunk of a tree at full speed, the little man would die instantly. So might I. Could I talk my way out of it? What are you, nuts? Not a chance.

‘Take the next right,’ he said when we came to a cowshed with a stone foundation.

I asked him what would happen if I turned left. He said he’d shoot me in the knee if I asked any more questions. I glanced at his eyes. You can tell what all a person is capable of by his eyes. A family man doesn’t shoot somebody in the knees just like that.

We drove the last few kilometers through the middle of the forest, over tightly rolled gravel. The road started from nothing and ended at nothing. I turned off the engine as the road turned to mud. Nature had cleared a parking place between two birches. The little man aimed his flashlight straight into my eyes and took the keys out of the ignition, then turned the beam toward the back seat, blinding the boys. I could still see yellow spots in front of my eyes. Kuihkä drooped and wheezed.

‘You’re going to stay in the car,’ the little man said. ‘You’re going to be quiet. You won’t see anything. You won’t hear anything. You won’t know anything. It’s going to make you a rich man. If you make any fuss, you’ll be a dead man.’

*

The beam of light turned towards the inside of the little man’s coat. He was outside the car now, digging in his pocket for a cigarette. He put the flashlight sideways under his chin, and it lit up a slice of the woods. A flame flared up, he sucked on the cigarette and said something to the boys. They let go of Kuihkä, who slumped sideways onto the ground. I eased the window open and heard my own name spoken, or the name they thought was mine. I couldn’t make anything else out at that distance. Then the flashlight came up level and shone on Kuihkä and the boys.

…almost a million…’

…shouldn’t have pushed him like that…’

‘…why did we leave the… Dad knew that…’

Even though I couldn’t hear them clearly, I got the gist of it. They had crossed a line, and now it was every man for himself, and if they could manage to get even a little bit of the blame onto someone else’s shoulders, it would make things easier. Humanity is pathetic.

Kuihkä moved a little, and vomit dripped out of the bag they’d put over his head. He got up onto his knees and the others took a step backward. Then the little man aimed his gun at him. The flashlight beam turned toward the car. I bent my head over the steering wheel. The wedge of light remained in the car for long seconds. Then it was dark again.

When I sat up I saw the little man’s sons lit up and yanking Kuihkä onto his feet. They must have knocked him down and now they wanted to hit him some more. They had taken the sack off. The most important thing in the world was about to be confronted. People look the most ridiculous when they’re in deadly earnest. Kuihkä shielded his head with his hands.

The little man stepped toward him and tossed the flashlight to one of the boys. The light formed two complete circles in the night.

I didn’t think about anything.

I didn’t decide anything.

I dug the spare key out from under my seat. I wriggled onto the back seat and got into the trunk from the inside. I tugged the gasoline can out, opened the stopper, and stepped out of the car. I was scared as hell. The boys heads turned first, then the little man’s. He had his gun aimed at Kuihkä’s neck. It was something out of somebody else’s life.

‘Get in the car!’ the little man yelled. ‘Now! In the car! This is none of your business!’

I started toward him, lit a match, letting the gas trickle out as I walked. I made a circle around him, several meters out, letting the gas gurgle out of the can. I said that we had two choices and lit another match. We could all die, or none of us. I’m taking Kuihkä.

‘Who?’ the little man roared, pointing the pistol at me now.

I said that if he started shooting, even an idiot could see what would happen.

‘That’s me,’ Kuihkä said.

The boys were talking over me. Their father told them to be quiet.

‘Don’t you know anything, Penger? I don’t think you understand. I’ll remember your face. The boys will remember your license number and phone number. When we find you – and we will find you– Christ Almighty, are you going to be messed up.’

I lowered the burning match cupped in my palm toward the mouth of the can and ordered him to throw me his gun. I would leave it with its cartridge still in it out where the better part of the road started. For wolves and bears.

‘I’ll kill you,’ the little man said.

I sounded almost certain when I said he wasn’t going to kill anyone, being a father and all.

‘I’ve killed a lot of people. I’ll pull the trigger.’

‘Or else you won’t’ Kuihkä said, snapping out of his swaying routine and grabbing hold of the barrel of the pistol. He bore down on the little man’s knuckles until he lost his grip on the gun. Then Kuihkä threw the gun to me. The little man and his sons had forgotten that they might lose. They had been on the winning side for too long. Kuihkä walked to the car and I lit another match. I ordered each of them to hold onto the trunk of a pine tree and count to three hundred.

*

I was never going to have another day like this one. I had two hours until the beginning of my shift. I had to disappear before then, but I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t want to make myself scarce again. But the little man would make it to a telephone soon, and then there would be bad guys waiting at my door, and even if I got away from them I wouldn’t be able to get away from the police and the courts.

I backed the car into the space in front of my house. I already thought of the place as my house. I told Kuihkä to carry in the bags that the men had left in the car. I took two of them and cleaned the food and spilled fuel off of the seats. Why should I have, though? – I was never going to drive Tallus’ car again.

When we got inside, I sat down in Kuihkä’s chair, got him a glass of water, and told him to start talking.

I fetched the bags from the entryway end dropped them in front of us. I told Kuihkä that if there were any pistols or brass knuckles in them, we were going to take them out and drop them down the chimney, throw them in the ocean, bury them. Wrap them up and mail them to a nonexistent address. We all get into fights, have shot nerves, or bad moods we’re trying to shake, but that doesn’t mean we need bits of metal travelling at three hundred kpm, putting holes into healthy men capable of reproducing. Understand?

‘Turning into an idealist, kid?’ he asked.

I told him I’m not a kid. I’m a man. God damn hell, you guys should all be killed so that you’d learn not to kill.

Kuihkä tugged on the zipper of one of the bags and unclicked the lock on the other. The telephone rang. Just what I needed.

‘You should be here by now,’ Alvar Tallus said through the receiver. Kuihkä spread the mouth of the bag open.

‘Hello… Do you hear me… You should already be… ‘

The bag was so full of money that the bills on top spilled out and slid down the smooth leather onto the floor like autumn leaves.

‘You have three minutes to show up, Into. Hello, Into?’

I reached out for the bag nearest me, touched the money with my hands. There was enough to buy four apartments, in cash, or even five, it was several times more than I would ever need. I looked at Kuihkä, whose expression hadn’t changed in the slightest. He licked his lower lip and looked out the window. A chimney sweep was crossing the roof of the building across the street.

‘You’ve been out celebrating, haven’t you?’ Tallus said.

I hung up the phone. It rang again a moment later. I pulled the connection from the wall. I scooped the money into a bag, filled another one with my clothes and gave it to Kuihkä to carry. Even if the little man didn.t make it here, Tallus would.

I ran quickly across the busy street toward the park’s twisting paths, with Kuihkä in front of me. I would take a train someplace far away. Kuihkä could tell me everything on the way to the train station.

‘Let’s sit down,’ Kuihkä said. He took hold of my shoulder, and all my strength left me again, I don’t know how he did that. I concentrated on the money, and my grip on the bag. He said that if there was one thing the little man would expect, it was exactly this, that I’d run away like my ass was on fire.

‘When we stop, the others will run right past us. Don’t try so hard. You have a head, use it.’

A rat ran out from under a bush, crossed the path, and ran under another bush, with something in its mouth discarded by humans. Beyond the bush was the sea and the bay, I used to walk this way to go swimming, summer villas on the opposite side. The water tower, the railway bridge with the locomotive going across it chugging smoke. I asked who the money belonged to.

‘You’ve got it, haven’t you?’ he said.

I said I was going to keep it. Not the same thing. Whose was it?

‘I’m sure you know, you drive for that crowd.’

I said I drove anybody. I didn’t ask my clients the purpose of their trip.

‘Don’t you think you should?’

‘Think carefully,’ Kuihkä said, after a long silence. ‘Do you want to hold onto the money?’

It’s the only thing I didn’t have to think about even for a second.

‘You’ll bear the consequences of it,’ he said.

Precisely, I said. I’m not the one trying to be stingy and calculating. You can all go to hell with your self-importance and poking your noses in other people’s business. I know where I’m going. I know what to do! If Kuihkä was not going to tell me where the money came from, then I couldn’t care less. The world belongs to those who take it.

‘Relax,’ he said, and put his hand on my shoulder. ‘It’s not such a big deal.’

‘Time goes by, shit happens, pretty soon we’ll all be gone. In a hundred years none of this supposedly huge stuff will mean anything anymore. Nobody will care. People write books about it, try to be clever about it. It makes you think. It’s a drag to be so small and trivial. Your train is leaving.’

Besides holding me down so I couldn’t move, Kuihkä’s words made it so I couldn’t say anything. We got up off the bench, walked to the train station, touched foreheads under the granite statues in front of the building, and didn’t see each other again for decades.

Benjamin Kivi alias Jasper Hauser, the 1940s

We set up the projector in a barn and showed the villagers the month’s newsreels and a movie. We got to keep the money from ticket sales tax-free because we were showing movies that the authorities approved of. We would pick up the flicks from the Official Distributor – exaggerated things, indistinguishable from each other.

There was only one exception in the bunch, an enemy movie infiltrated in among the rest by the enemy, starring a blond superhero. It was poorly dubbed, with a plot so over-the-top that I threw it out with the trash, though it would probably be a collector’s item today. I gave the money we got from the showings to my father’s workmate’s wife.

Inna was playing with my father’s workmate’s youngest children, griping about the fact that she didn’t have more siblings or a flock of cousins, while Feather tried to keep up, gritting teeth that weren’t there, and dragging herself over the lawn on her hands. I only helped her if she was in mortal danger.

*

I went back to the shed. The light items at the end of the newsreel were playing. There was an exploded tank on the screen, with five enemy dead lying beside it. Potential customers, all of them, going cheap. How much does a single bullet cost?

Soldiers from our side were grouped in front of the tank. The commentator’s crackly voice ran through a description of the preparations, recited the men’s names, ranks, and ages. The names didn’t mean a thing to me, but the faces told it all. The announcer explained that they were the epitome of the self-sacrifice of our soldiers, reaching toward heaven.

Two of them were the little man’s sons.

They lit cigarettes for each other in front of the corpses, some people in the audience cheered, the film unwound to the end, and Mirko changed the reel. The next newsreel described the same events from the point of view of headquarters. Military personnel and government officials around a table, looking at a map with coffee cups around its edges, the commanding officer explaining the situation. One of the people in civilian clothes was the little man.

They would definitely come. When the killing ended, and it always does end. After 30 years of war, a year would come that was the first year without any more killing, and then they would come for me. The only thing these guys handle worse than defeat is humiliation. Unless maybe a bullet would solve the problem. No, you can’t rest your hopes on things like bullets. It will just keep repeating and repeating.

*

For about a year the little man’s sons flashed through news items. Outflankings, quiet deaths, saved lives, extraordinary bravery, willing sacrifice – and sufficient cruelty, which could be read between the lines. It’s amazing the way the world admires pricks like them. I don’t deny their accomplishments. And let people be stupid, if they are actually stupid, but when supposedly intelligent people who’ve gone to school start waving flags and falling in love with the word sacrifice, then they ought to get it in the ears. The stupidities of the body politic will end when individuals stop acting stupid.

Then one of the little man’s sons went down somewhere and the one that was left started to give speeches instead of using his gun. In no time he was of no use to them any more, and he slid into obscurity, another name on the list of those suspected of being a threat to world peace. The little man was imprisoned and was of no use, even though the college crowd, guys like Mariia’s brother, carried torches and sang hymns not suitable for studentss.

Our side didn’t know how to lose. We tried to make a defeat into a victory, because it was honourable and gutsy. It was like a consolation prize given to the little brother when the big brother has a birthday. Or else the whole thing, all the killing, was thought of as something planned by a couple of lunatics, as if a thing like that could happen without the silent majority being involved at all. Keeping silent is itself an act. People go in packs to throw stones at the windows of a parsonage or a primary school, but only the one who gets caught by the janitor gets in trouble.

But there was still some crow to eat. There we sat in our wet pants, praying we wouldn’t freeze. Maybe some people regretted their bravado. A lot of people tried to fade into the woodwork.

In addition to running the projector, I took a second job helping farmers hide their stolen army weapons at the bottom of the lake. I marked their location on a map and hired youngsters to bring them up again. I sold some of them, some I hid again in a new place, for the hell of it. There’s nothing more tragic than seeing someone great and powerful become weak and lost. Even if he deserves it, it’s hard to watch a grown man cry.

Those who had been kept down started keeping the people down who had kept them down. The cycle wouldn’t stop until one of them grew a spine and forgave the other.

I sent handsome cars to pick men up from secret locations, men who would have been shot and left in a pit before. Now they wore silk hats and gave speeches. The same crowning of ants with laurels, in rows of four.

A different point of view appeared in the newsreels. In my largest theatre they watched victory marches and fireworks, supposedly celebrations of peace, although people don’t get all worked up like that about peace. The losers had been humiliated, the evil shitheads had been hanged, or given a pill to swallow in their cells, or run through with swords.

I spent nights in the theatre alone drinking myself silly, because I was so pissed off by everything. I was waiting for the noise and the requests for reparations and revenge carried out in the name of justice to end so that we could continue where we had left off. But where, basically, had we left off?

Well, let them wallow in it, I had other fish to fry, and I was laughing inside. I didn’t read the papers, and I didn’t listen to the news.

Mariia had lost a brother in the killing. I understood her personal distress, supported her, stood at one end of the coffin. I even gave a speech. The shortest possible speech. Everybody wept.

*

I bought three competing downtown theatres. Two of the owners readily agreed. I arranged for the third one to be filmed with a hot teenager by the best telephoto photographer in the country. If business doesn’t grow, it dies. If my chain didn’t grow, I would die.

I kept one theatre closed, and I showed only children’s movies in one of them. In the daytime the smallest kids came with their mothers. I provided pulp novels for nursing mothers and big bins of candy that I got free from damaged goods and sold at half-price. I rented the empty theatre to clubs for meetings and private showings. There were naked dwarves and crazies in white robes. I didn’t ask, I just set up tape recorders and surveillance cameras all around the room. You never know when you might find something you can use against someone, or for someone.

The theatre that drew the biggest crowds was Cathedral II, where I realised the half-finished designs by architects of those parties that had committed the worst atrocities in the war. A soaring ceiling, a mad palace, frescoes by a nationally famous painter who was in debt. I did foolish things, and I succeeded.

The victorious armies sold the losing armies’ supplies and their own surplus dirt cheap. I brought sound equipment, 8 millimetre film cameras, nuts and bolts to serve as spare parts for the projectors. I filmed my children, my wife, and myself, and wondered at how boring a moving picture can be without a script or proper editing.

The movies at Cathedral II offered the kind of experience that made you go out afterward into the street and not know where you were. And you didn’t want to be there anyway, you wanted to go back into the theater and be in the story again. At last there were good stories. The killing had improved the receptivity of screenwriters, producers and audiences, there was no need to go into too much background story. And when martial law was replaced by the law of the market, it became clear what would sell.

My competitors didn’t die, but they congealed. Old business models weren’t doing the trick any more, and they hadn’t thought of any new ones.

The tax inspector visited often, being polite, eating buns with his cups of coffee, looking for something. He asked about what I had busied myself with in my previous life, since there was no paper record of it. I said I had drifted around before dropping anchor in the harbor of family and business. I said it with a grin that could be interpreted any number of ways.

There was nothing in my bookkeeping that would have got me in trouble, it had been checked by my bookkeeper as well as by Mariia and Inna – after she had turned ten, Inna preferred playing with numbers to playing with dolls that peed. She had given up archery when she reached the highest rank, now she liked solving equations of the third or sixth degree. Instead of a novella, Inna was planning some kind of epic saga.

The real accounts were in my head.

*

Every evening I thought about what people would like to see, eat, and think, and in the daytime I made it happen. The economic boom would start before you could say boo, an insane amount of energy, people, and seed exploded from front lines all around the country.

*

The kids and the business grew, years went by, Mariia got her doctor’s degree, with the academic paraphernalia attached to it: a hat and a sword, which I blunted and gave to Feather to play with. I put Mariia’s silly hat on my head and went fishing. I never caught any fish, but white currant juice is best enjoyed at the lakeshore, and a child splashing around in the water is silly in the wisest way in all creation.

At Mariia’s graduation shindig, I couldn’t understand the speeches, or the bad posture. They were going on about something, words and formulas, nobody really knew what, it didn’t add surplus value to anything. All of their ideas were based on the ideas that preceded them, which were based on those that preceded them, and so on. There was a man there who’d invented a new silage system and won some big prize, and everybody was brown-nosing him. I went to tell Mariia that I was going to go put the kids to bed, and I spit the shrimp salad out as I went by the church and bought myself a poorboy from a hamburger stand.

The second time with that dandruff-shouldered mob was the last. That time there were politicians, and people appointed for political reasons. Country people playing at being urban got drunk on two glasses of champagne. After that you could see their forefathers’ mental trauma in them, open wounds and overbearing mothers, fear of themselves. There’s no escaping people like that in this country, except in a kindergarten, or the loony bin. They should have been solving important problems, making decisions, improving the country, but as soon as they got a glimpse of free drinks, they formed a circle. You could reach the top ranks as long as you didn’t fall for more than three servings of alcohol in an evening, and once you got there, you wouldn’t be kicked out unless you drank enough to get into the record books.

Mariia stuck to mineral water. I told her to give a kick in the balls to anyone who tried to grope her precious rear-end. She said it depended on who did the groping. One guy belonged to certain brotherhoods, the next one had the right kind of man for father, the third had the scientific society by the balls. Soon she got a position as some kind of expert on international politics, and although there is some use for that sort of thing, we agreed that we wouldn’t talk about work when we were at home, and we wouldn’t talk about home at work.

*

Feather was in the first grade and so cheeky that if she hadn’t been mine, I wouldn’t have listened to her sassing for a minute. She wasn’t afraid of anything, all she saw was opportunity ahead, doors that she was either going to rip open or go around. But she didn’t have Inna’s intelligence, discernment, or sense of direction.

I was able to sit on the patio all day, although I wasn’t exactly sitting any longer, I had bought a divan, and I was lying on it, eating cold cuts, pickles, ribs, brown trout in almond sauce, and Margola bread cheese. Inna was playing F. Emelianenko’s fifth symphony, or whatever, on the grand piano. After math she threw herself into classical music. When I turned my head, I saw Feather whacking a croquet ball on the lawn, occasionally a mallet went flying into the swimming pool or through a window.

In those moments, I sufficed. I obeyed every order I was given and fulfilled every hope I was asked to fulfill, I showed them how to croquet another player’s ball, or I made them some food, something different for each of them – one of them wouldn’t eat sausages with macaroni on top, and the other insisted on it.

Mariia kept a tighter grip on them, put the family on a schedule, and cursed my laxness, wondering how we would ever make our children respectable members of society. I asked why we had to. My children weren’t going to be told to subjugate themselves and obey orders, they’d get farther with some sassiness and defiance. You have to hit your head up against the wall a bit to get it working.

‘Don’t confuse their lives and yours,’ Mariia said. ‘Don’t confuse their lives.’

The busy years came, we fed the kids, made sure they did their homework and brushed their teeth. We saw each other when we switched shifts. But back then I felt that nothing was missing in my life, and I think my woman felt the same way.

And I’ll always remember the evening when I was driving the girls in our cream-coloured convertible to pick up Mariia. I showed my girls the city and showed the city my girls, and I understood the inevitability of age. Under the bluster there’s sentimentality. Maybe things would just go on like this, maybe there was a state of mind where I wouldn’t need anything from the outside.

We bought some peas and strawberries, sat on the steps of the cathedral and waited for Mariia, whose office was across from the church. I watched my daughters in their dresses and shoes, I watched Mariia waving from far off, her youthfulness, her competence. I saw something in myself, and I looked out at the growing city, ants moving here and there, unaware of their own smallness, every one of them with an essential place and an essential job, in their own minds. After the killing, they believed in an eternity without killing, with every single one of them just as worthy, and as worthless, as the rest.

‘Dad, are you crying again?’ Feather asked as she came to take more peas from the palm of my hand. ‘Geez, I can’t stand how you’re always crying for no reason.’

Translated by Lola Rogers

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