By Dorthe Nors, from an unpublished collection of short stories. Nors is the author of four novels and one previous story collection. A volume of her novellas, So Much for That Winter, will be published by Graywolf in June. Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.
Then we were sitting there, Lilly and me, and she had made coffee and baked one of those chocolate cakes that are soft in the middle. During the afternoon she’d also vacuumed and cleared the dead leaves off the windowsills. The budgie was no longer chattering in its cage, it had been put under a dish towel to rest, and on the tube there was some show we could guess along with. When I’d come by in the afternoon, it hadn’t been so nice. We had a falling out about her manner, about the way she’d act up when we were at the senior club, her jealousy and her sweetness, which to me seemed vulgar. And then she’d said that business about my face — that she didn’t like it. “You and your big professor mug,” she’d said. The floor in the bathroom was littered with laundry. She hadn’t made the bed either, and there was that sweetish smell of urine. I know that smell from Aunt Marguerite’s home, back when she could no longer see and fumbled around and knocked everything over, especially herself. It was as if something had taken up permanent residence in her cells, and now it oozed out on her trips to the toilet and settled into the wallpaper. The odor was there when we sat down to enjoy the fruit drink that I mixed up out in her kitchen. Those long afternoons with flat fruit drink, peppermint candies, and Aunt Marguerite, whose teeth no longer fit her. There are some things you never forget: the way we sang from the songbook, for instance, and her transcriptions of the king’s speeches on New Year’s Eve. I’ve never understood why I should have been hostage to Aunt Marguerite’s loneliness, why it demanded my involvement. I was just a boy, and while I sat there and had King Frederik’s words placed in my mouth, I suppose my folks were at the movie theater. “You’re so clever in school,” they’d say, “That sort of thing needs stimulation,” they’d say, and then Aunt Marguerite would be there with her schoolmarm fingers on my neck, the bowl with sugar cubes up in my face: “Take one, my boy, take two, eat them!”
But now Lilly was making the coffee and had covered the budgie and gotten out the nice cups. There wasn’t any more talk about my face. My face, my hands, my knees — now she found everything cuddly. Her little hand up in my hair, inside the waist of my trousers, she wanted to grab hold of me, “Because now we’re going to enjoy ourselves, we’re going to have us a cozy time, yeah, and not talk about it anymore.” Since I first met her in the senior club, her face has gotten more and more porridgy. It’s as if one version has started to give way to another, I can still see the original, and it’s awful how it won’t stick around. It was the druggist who got me into the club, he claimed that we’d play chess, but as a bachelor I had to place my body at the disposal of the cast-off women and their expectations. I had a sock they needed to see to, there was something about my collar, their feet started hurting and they wanted to be driven home. Among the desperate, Lilly stood out. First she tried to latch on to the druggist, but the other women were on him like hyenas around a cadaver. It was his fine beard, she said. No doubt you can say some good things about Lilly, but those fancy blouses can’t cover up what can’t be changed. All that frippery, yes, the budgie, too, it only drags her down, and now we were sitting there, it was Saturday and the tea candles were lit. She had placed them along the edge of the bookcase, with tinfoil wrapped around the bases so they wouldn’t burn down into the laminate. It had happened to her before — that the tea lights had burned into the laminate or exploded. The liquid wax could get to be as flammable as gasoline, so she felt safer with tapers. The dignified sort. So long as you didn’t set them up against the curtains, you could count on them. “They’re a bit like you,” she giggled, “so orderly and erect,” she said, scooting her way off the couch and out into the kitchen, where I could hear her rummaging around. “But if we can just stay awake, the little ones should be fine!” she shouted. I’ve often thought that Lilly’s one of those who could easily fall asleep with a cigarette in her hand. I could see her doing that on the couch, beneath the sun-faded pictures of her relatives. There was one hanging there of Lilly too, from sometime in the Seventies. She’s got her hair crimped with an iron, the way my students crimped theirs back then. They would sit there, trying to make themselves attractive while I struggled with their sloppy logarithm assignments. That is, if they weren’t tottering around on those espadrilles that were way too high, as if they’d attached hay bales under their feet, good Lord, their shampoo stinking in the classroom, mixing with the stench of armpits and sex. They lacked dignity, and the last day before Christmas break was always the worst. The fried doughnut holes and mulled wine, because we were supposed to hang out and talk about the year that had passed. As if the year could do anything else. As if that’s not precisely the way time works.
Lilly had school pictures of her aging offspring on the wall as well. There was something about their faces, something dumplingish and soft. They had too much candy, those kids, and now they’re living on another side street in the same neighborhood with kids of their own, kids who are also too fat, not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s not something you could tell Lilly. She doesn’t feel anything, most of the time, but it takes nothing at all to make her feel everything, and then she was sidling through the door with a tray. “We’re having Baileys with coffee,” she said, Baileys and some peppermints she had leftover from Christmas. “We’re going to have a nice little time,” she said, and then she squeezed herself in next to me on the couch, her fingers with the defunct wedding band, and the jingle of amethyst and other costume jewels dangling from her earlobes. I guess she’s harmless enough, it’s all just heat, I know that and the druggist says the same, but Baileys tastes of German rest areas and the corner of some party where nothing’s happening. Besides, Lilly should have been able to work out that I’m more one for whiskey. Or a dry cognac with a cigar. I want to play chess! I’m nobody’s pet, and don’t think I don’t know what she had under the sink or out by the electric meter, Marguerite. I know all about the liquor from the corner grocer’s, it was starting to pickle her tongue. She can’t hide anything from me. I’ve known her for a dog’s age, and I can’t be led around by the nose anymore. But it was while we were both sitting on the couch, me with her free hand on my trouser knee and her with her eye on the Baileys, that she said, “We’re good friends, aren’t we? I know I’m stupid,” she said, “and it can’t be easy for you with all your brains to go around with someone like me,” she said. “So can’t we just be cozy?” And so we were. We sat there and were cozy, and I can’t account for how we got from the moment she took the last bite of cake to her lying there on the floor, halfway under the coffee table, eyes gawping, mouth, too, but even then, when it all was over and done, it felt as though she were forcing me, yes, she forced me, and I didn’t like it.