Extracts from the collection of short prose, Mielensäpahoittaja (‘Taking offense’, WSOY, 2010)
Past pushing up daisies
Well, yeah, so I took offense when the doctor said that considering my age I’m in tip-top shape. His theory was that my 25-kilometre ski circuits would keep an old coot like me in shape, if they didn’t kill me first. He said if I were to start just sitting on the couch and waiting, then the Reaper would be on my back in no time.
I don’t ski for my health. I ski because it’s pretty in the forest, and when a body is sweating he doesn’t think a whole lot.
Of course the doctor also started going on about Benecol and all that. I said stop, I said: don’t talk, I’ll do the talking. And talk I did: everything has its time, particularly people, in both directions. This life shouldn’t be shortened intentionally with alcohol, work, or carelessness, but in my experience it also shouldn’t be stretched out excessively. So instead of extending a life as much as possible, we should honor its proper length. The doctor claimed that he always honors, cherishes, protects and defends life with every tool there is.
And that’s the problem. Modern medical science has a damn sight too many of those tools. Sure, life is precious, but not so precious that I’d start counting calories, drinking carrot juice and lurching about in some aerobics class with people half my age.
I was on the front when I was eighteen and got to see plenty of boys my age seriously wounded who would have liked to just live to tomorrow but didn’t get to. They begged for one more day and didn’t even get that. So yeah, a guy like me has lived plenty long, many lives. I’ve done my deeds and seen my sights, and now sometimes it all starts to feel like an old replay. I don’t always know if I woke up this morning or yesterday.
The doctor thought I sounded depressed. I thought I sounded more upbeat than in ages. I said that the length of your life is just like the world economy. If you grab up too much, it just takes it away from others.
Our time ran out. Next in he had a preschooler with an ear infection. That there is a devil of a sickness – keeps the whole family awake, hurts like the dickens and lancing it makes it hurt worse. Luckily these days they treat it with antibiotics.
I drove over to see the wife. The black-haired nurse was feeding her in the window seat of the cafeteria. I let them finish up the smearing – food was running from the corners of her mouth and her head was shaking – but in the mornings she’s always right here in this world, and it’s important that her hair is done up right in case I happen to come visit. I don’t know if she thinks of me as this age or as the age back when we met, a twenty-three-year-old.
I handled the pudding, blackcurrant. I know what my wife would say to me if she could. She would say well now you get to do what you didn’t do when the boys were little. You always wondered how the house could be such a mess.
I know that my wife believes in heaven. I don’t believe that the road from here goes any farther than pushing up daisies. They’re both good alternatives though. The aches and pains will be gone and won’t be at anyone else’s mercy.
I don’t know which of us fell asleep first, but the nurse woke me and said the missus had been taken to her own bed and that I could spend the night in the guest wing if I wanted.
PS: The leaves have come in on the trees.
Well, yeah, so I took offense over switching out the old light bulbs. Change and change and change – couldn’t something just stay the same for once? Even the tax rates are always being adjusted: the VAT, the corporate tax and my own personal tax rate. The parliament changes and the bureaucrats change, but the fiddling continues. Yes, there could just be one and the same percent for income, expenses, purchases and sales.
They could just focus on the real issue rather than making adjustments. The same thing goes for warming a house. With the missus we were always negotiating about it i.e. clamming up. She always thought the rooms were always too cold or too hot. I was always going to get wood for the fireplace or down in the cellar to adjust the oil burner. In fifty-three years I never got her to understand that eighteen and a half degrees is enough for a body. If you’re cold you just have to go somewhere colder, like outside, and do some sawing or lie on the frozen ground on your back for a minute. If you’re hot, then off with your clothes or into the lake.
I sure miss the times when the missus and I were quiet about so many things.
Those light bulbs.
If in my house there’s one light bulb burning at a time and no other electricity being used, then is it me that’s using the world up so horribly? Is it me that’s creating impossible living conditions for the Mexican Eskimos?
Not a bit of it.
The same goes for those digital set-top boxes. What was wrong with the old system? Since colour television came, I haven’t wanted for anything as far as the tube is concerned. The same poorly chosen faces still show up on it, for example Mikko Kuustonen the pop singer. A Christian man, but with hair like a girl and a wine glass next to him. And he’s started putting on weight lately, too…
They should have no-nonsense announcers like Teija Sopanen, and church services. If it’s a familiar church it’s nice to watch on TV, the architecture and the altarpieces and how many people go up for communion. Last time it was twenty-three; I did the statistics.
I know more methods that will save more than using a fluorescent light bulb.
Like turning off the lights when you don’t need them. Once I asked the missus who she was keeping the light on in our bedroom for during the day. And then she asked how a man can pore over a single power bill for six days, all over a few pennies or cents. Apparently I was whining. Not a bit of it. I was looking out for our rights – you can save a pretty penny over the course of a life.
Here are more free ways to save: keep food in the cellar in the winter. If you absolutely have to use the refrigerator, then don’t open it just to amuse yourself, don’t stand there daydreaming over the cups of yogurt. You can just as easily decide in the morning what you’ll need over the course of the day. You’ll need buttermilk and butter and cheese.
You can also save by getting up off the couch. Instead of television, it’s a good idea to read during the daylight hours, and you can get books for free from the library. Make sure it’s the sort of book that doesn’t make things up and has an author who looks like someone you’d care to have over for coffee.
PS: I got the old Petromax lantern out of the shed. I might just swap out all the incandescents for them or maybe go straight to tallow candles.
Adidas or sneakers
Well, yeah, so I took offense when I got a tax refund. I keep close track that my percentage is right starting from January 1, but last year it looks like the timber royalties were less than I figured.
Kolehmainen had got two thousand back and was bragging grandiosely about it at the mailbox, saying he was going to take the money and go to Estonia for a spa vacation. Well I decided not to say anything about what a half-wit he is, didn’ I, and how stupid a nation is that’s always gushing about their tax refunds and wasting their money. It isn’t some extra gift, it’s a loan to the government caused by your own carelessness. It would make more sense to pay back taxes, since then at least the debt obligation is the right way round. Then the citizen has taken out a loan from the government, and up to a certain point it’s tax-free.
Kolehmainen said that he had enough that he might bring back a vanload of sparkling wine and other drinks for his daughter’s wedding. Well, his talking was getting on my nerves, but I stayed calm. How can he not understand basic things? How much does the trip to Tartu cost? It certainly isn’t cheap. And for that matter, why buy alcohol for a wedding? People can make connections with each other just as well with home brew, coffee and a good band. If anyone wants to drink, let them bring their flasks.
Kolehmainen walked back with me, even though I would have wanted to be alone. He opened another envelope he had received; it was some sort of electric bill and of course he complained that they take too much and that salaries and pensions are too small.
Food doesn’t cost too much.
Paying for a place to live isn’t expensive, and neither is driving a car.
No one in this country is really in trouble if you compare it to the famine year of 1914.
You can get by just fine as long as you’re meticulous and frugal. Sure, I’ve complained about plenty of things, but never spending money, because it’s me who uses it, and I’m able to control myself even though I can’t control the world.
The church can give out food, and the Salvation Army can give out soup, but why don’t they give out hoes and seeds? There is always enough soil lying fallow to get up spuds and carrots for the masses. And it isn’t just old folks who complain. Once I saw a talk show where a single mother was saying how horrible it was not to be able to buy as many things for her kids as the others have.
At what point did these sorts of comparisons move up to the adults? Sure, let the kids show off their trainers to each other, but then say to them in a deep, chesty voice that it doesn’t matter whether you have Adidas or plain old Finnish-made sneakers on your feet. The question is how fast you can run in them, how long you can stay on your feet or how hard you can kick.
I ain’t against competition or anything, but an arms race for gettin’ stuff is crazy. Buying things just to show them to others. It looks like the middle class has become so big that it’s like royalty or the tsars in the olden days, an idle lot with enough time to gussy themselves up and put themselves on display.
PS: I promised to pick up Kolehmainen’s mail during his trip. Look at me always promising everything too.
Well yeah, it made my heart glad to visit Yrjänä’s grave. I took him an expensive bottle of liquor just like we agreed three weeks before he left. They disappear to be sure. I suspect the sexton. But a deal is a deal, and I’m a man of my word.
I chatted with Yrjänä at the grave about what’s happened recently. I told him about Jukka Keskisalo’s great summer on the track, which reminded me of the 1970s long-distance runners. Do you remember when we saw Juha Väätäinen in person, Yrjänä, and how amazed we were about his sideburns? I told him how the weather had been, i.e. just the same as always, i.e. mixed. I told him that my son and I still don’t really get along being in the same place, but it’s probably just because the older he gets the more like me he becomes. I didn’t mention anything to Yrjänä about losing my driver’s license as it was embarrassing enough and Yrjänä might take offense at something like that. He felt others’ cares keenly. He was that fine a person.
At the cemetery there was a pretty line of candles burning. In the church there was some New Year’s service, but I didn’t go. It served as background music, and a couple of squirrels scampered up a tree trunk and jumped from tree to tree.
From the cemetery I continued by taxi to see the missus at the Spruce Home. I fed her her Christmas porridge, and she would have got an almond. I hid it – it’s this big deal that if you get an almond everyone’s supposed to sing. The missus isn’t singing much anymore, and I neither sing nor dance. I know my limits, and I wish others did too.
I wiped the corners of her mouth, brushed her hair behind her ear from her forehead, and quickly stroked her cheek. I looked into her eyes long enough that I found the strength that was in them when our middle child was dying of pneumonia. I had already given up, but the missus said we had to be strong when the other is weak. Well, that was an awfully long time ago too, and that child is working in Belgium now, sending a card home at Christmas. I probably should have told him sometime how much it scared me that a person was being taken from us whom I hadn’t had time to get to know at all.
I looked at her hands, which had become shaking skin and bones, hands whose grip had always been huge compared to her size. The stream of warmth, how she opened my locks and everything those hands had held. Now I was holding them.
There were pictures on the television – I don’t know what.
I pushed the missus a couple of metres from the screen in the wheelchair and sat down next to her. That was how we sat on Saturdays after sauna, watching German cop shows or the election returns.
Nothing is left after a life, and nothing goes with you. When you realise that, I tell you the value of ordinary minutes like these goes way up. But a person can’t do better than he can do.
The missus had fallen asleep in her chair, and so I took her to her room. One of the girls came to help lift her into bed; they always asked kindly about my life and how I was doing. I said that I lost my license and that my son likes the Beatles and what year is it now anyway?
Translated by Owen Witesman
Tags: short story
No comments for this entry yet