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As Things Stand Now

T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land, “April is the cruelest month,” and in the poem, “Home-Thoughts, from Abroad,” Robert Browning penned, “Oh, to be in England/Now that April’s there.” I don’t know that I find April crueler than any other month, but I do have thoughts about returning to England. The daffodils are blooming. The grass is green. I like going for walks in the north of that country, and I feel at home while fishing there. Be that as it may, the regulations of present day Oceania have passed from the brazen into the absurd. As such, the idea of attending a masked Evensong at York Minster is the very image of dystopia come home.


Amid all this daydreaming, I have been peeling back layers of mulch from our crocus flowers. The flowers appeared April 18th. On that same day, we dug a pit in the snow and set up Tore’s new tripod to build a fire and grill hotdogs and make popcorn. It was Tore’s 50th birthday celebration. We sat on a snowbank, nibbled popcorn and hotdogs, and talked about islands we could reach on paddleboards and where we might go fishing come summer. There are no definite plans at this still chilly point in the year. However, Stein Erik, who lives up the road, did say we would go salmon fishing July 2nd. I’m not homegrown to the Far North, but talk of islands and salmon fishing while grazing in a half meter of snow on a Sunday afternoon in April—well, that just warms the heart.

On April 20th, I went into town for groceries and saw my first patch of hesterhov of the season, which, like the return of tjeld, indicates that warmer days are on the way. The hesterhov sprouted from a sloppy patch of snowmelt. I had to resist the urge to crawl among the flowers. I’m not sure what I would have been looking for either. I’ve tried to convince myself it would have been interesting to see the ground beneath the flowers. Would the soil have been cracked? Would there have been signs of a struggle between the flowers and the thaw? All pretty mythological stuff, but I have since decided it would have been more interesting to have bright yellow flowers close to my face. Bright yellow in a world of snow and grey surely counts for something.

In fact, there hasn’t been much talk of hesterhov this year. In past years, chatter about the flowers and other signs of the season is common between neighbors. Not so much this year. But I have been keeping mostly to myself this spring. I’m not sure why, though partly it is because I have been working construction jobs. I pick-up trash and do whatever tedious job needs doing for shorthanded contractors whenever they call. I wake up around 4:30. I pack my gear. I drink a cup of tea. I eat oatmeal or a couple of fried eggs. I leave the house a little before 6:00 and drive an hour to the job site. I’m not in a hurry on these drives. I spend a lot of time looking out of the windows. The sun has returned, so I see new lines of mountains and new stretches of the sea. There are rocks along the shorewhere sea eagles perch. There are nausts where local fishermen have hung torsk to dry.

There is not a narrative for these drives. There are pieces. Lately I have been listening to Irene Kral’s version of “This Is Always,” which comes from her album, Better Than Anything. This same album has a nice cut of “Just Friends” and, while not my favorite rendition, “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry.” Kral’s voice, with Junior Mance on piano, opens an agreeable door for the plush fantasy of some evening hour spent in an apartment on the Riviera. There is Kral’s voice tuning the background and a window overlooking lamplit cafes and shops shuttered for the season. Although, in such a space, I am more likely to choose Krall’s Where Is Love? album and go straight for the title track. Yet for now, I am driving beside the sea and between mountains in a Far North still snow-covered in April, with torsk hanging from salty lines attached to nausts and Irene Kral’s voice on the radio. I am on my way to pick-up trash.

At the job site, all of us working men go about our day wearing ridiculous head-to-toe reflective clothing. Most of the workers wear bright orange. For some reason, I have been assigned bright yellow. I asked a co-worker, why do they put us in such bright clothing? We work short meters apart. Who is going to run us over? Who could possibly confuse us with deer? He wasn’t sure. I shrugged and went back to reading my copy of 1984. Reading is what I do on my lunch and smoke breaks. Although I don’t smoke, I’ve been thinking about it. I appreciate cigars—really good and, consequently, expensive cigars. Maybe I could smoke an H. Upmann while collecting trash, which, with a little attention and bite, could make for a nice poem.

Returning to reality, I continue reading 1984. I read again, “It struck him as curious that you could create dead men but not living ones.” Also, there is this passage, “You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We are destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day.” And I read again this deeply ironic assertion, “As compared with last year there was more food, more clothes, more houses, more furniture, more cooking-pots, more fuel, more ships, more helicopters, more books, more babies—more of everything except disease, crime and insanity. Year by year and minute by minute, everybody and everything was whizzing rapidly upwards.”

Soon, though not too soon, our 30 minutes are up. Phones are put away. Chairs scrape the floors. I pack 1984 into my knapsack, between a writing journal and a thermos of already stale coffee.

Only the Polish man I work with has noticed the book. “Ah,” he said, “Orwell.” He smiled and opened his locker to take out his work clothes and grab his hardhat. Daniel, as he is called, is the one person I’ve seen on the job site who does not wear reflective clothing. He has a habit of saying, “This is life.” We talk about fishing and not having enough time to fish. “This is life,” he says. We talk about not sleeping enough but still staying up a little late to watch movies. “This is life.” He shows me the blunt looking scar on his left shoulder where he was shot in Kosovo. “This is life.” He tells me about his father who, as a policeman, was imprisoned for two years for refusing to batter people protesting Poland’s Communist government. “This is life.” We go on working, and I make mistakes cutting ceiling tile. “Yes, but this is okay.”

Given how often Daniel and I talk about fishing, it can be awkward for other people who work with us. But catching fish is one thing, eating fish is another. When the non-fishing Greek worker, Antonio, spent an afternoon helping us carry doors, the conversation shifted to good eats and good drinks. We talked of grilled fished drizzled with lemon juice and fresh olive oil, lamb seasoned with thyme and mint and rosemary and roasted on a spit, of rosé from seaside tavernas, of drinking a case of beer and a fifth of vodka in a single day while working under the hot sun with one’s father-in-law, “but this is life, and this it is okay, too. You do not get drunk. It is so hot, you sweat out the alcohol.”

I told a story about an old man I saw off the coast of Aegina who, while swimming, speared an octopus. Back on shore, the old man slammed the creature repeatedly against the ground.

“Yes!” said Antonio. “This is to remove the ink and to soften the meat.”

“And grilled octopus…” I said.

Antonio tilted his head a little to the side and opened his arms to speak what was obvious for him. “My friend, this is the best.”

I do not recall how the conversation turned, but Daniel and I were talking about the advantages of “the spin” over “the fly” and vice versa. Antonio listened, as he rolled a cigarette with tobacco he teased from a leather pouch. He shook his head.

“I am not a fisherman,” he said, “But as kids, we found a sandy place in the sea, you know, very sandy, and we wiggled our feet in the sand. Then the octopus attached to our feet.” He lifted one of his legs and reached for his foot. “We peeled it off and then…like this” He pretended to throw the octopus to the ground. “This was fishing!”

A couple of days later, while working with just Daniel again, I asked him, “Where would you wish to be right now, right at this moment?”

“You mean here, in the building?”

“No, I mean anywhere. Snap your fingers and you are there. Where would you be?”

He leaned over his worktable and re-checked his measurement on the ceiling tile and held the tape in place with his thumb. He looked up and grinned. “Fishing,” he said. He then nodded at the floor-to-ceiling, wall to wall window and at the sun warming the glass. This was one of our first very sunny days. There was talk of leaving early and drinking beers.

By the end of the day, we are tired. We smell bad. Some of us vanished an hour ago back to our other lives, whether we left them or not. Some went to drink beers, some go to the gym, to see children, to stare at computer or television screens, to do whatever we do, to be wherever we go. And on Fridays, all of us leave early.

I try not to hurry when I leave. I don’t want to want anything that much. Instead, I take extra time to organize and re-pack my knapsack, including the volume of Orwell, as I do not want my old Secker & Warburg edition torn up any more than it is. I might sit in my car and read a couple of pages before I go. I want to be last. Eventually, I put away the book. I look around for what cars remain, and I am thinking about the last roundabout before the long stretch to my place truly begins. It will be difficult to write after such a day. Probably I will not write. Still there may be unexpected colors on the mountains or in the sky. There may be worlds of sunlight on the sea. I do not know. Rather, I know that I will drive slow, not slowly. Anyone can pass.