by Ken O’Steen
I remembered the sun and the warmth and the tall palms. I thought about them during the New Hampshire winters, though I remembered few details from those days in Los Angeles as a toddler, and before our family moved east. But what I did recall remained vivid.
When my mother told me we were moving again, thousands of miles away from New Hampshire, I said, “Leave me here.”
I was serious. And there was no doubt in my mind she strongly considered it. But I was fifteen and she took me with her.
Dad, who hadn’t lived with us for many years mostly paid his child support until he died on his motorcycle wasted. Mother never worked more than temporary menial jobs, and the child support had kept us going.
Public assistance in New Hampshire was stingy, and confusing when it came to how much, and the kind of work allowed before a person began to forfeit some, and always changing with the political winds.
The man from the oil company came one day and pulled the hose around to the side of the house to fill the oil tank and mother told him only to put several gallons in because that was all she could afford to pay for. It was around then that we left for good.
During his time in the Army Dad was stationed in Germany, and he’d met my mother while touring Copenhagen during leave. She had been born in Greenland, and had come to Denmark when she was in her teens.
Now she was returning to Greenland with me along, to Nuuk, the only place we had a relative. Her cousin would provide us with a small house, and whatever its condition it was better than any alternative available to us.
Dad had been estranged from his own family, who I’d been told lived in some remote mountain area of Nevada near the border with California. But I’d never even seen pictures of them, and they were rarely mentioned.
“What are we going to do in Greenland?” I asked mother.
“What does it matter?” she answered, no longer putting up a front to disguise her resignation and weary defeat.
I suspected even then that what had begun to plague her was more than just a hard life, but some form of psychological difficulty, though there had never been any acknowledgment of it, and I’d never dared to broach the subject.
The old car was sold, most of mother’s things, and a few of my own, a sled for instance, and an old electric train set I parted with only under protest, despite it all still a boy. The selling off would pay for our airfare and the rest of the money could provide for us at first in Greenland.
Despite all of the ridiculous dreariness, sitting on a plane for my first time, looking out the window at ragged dunes of gray cloud below, and brief glimpses of onyx ocean, I looked forward to the life ahead of me, expecting all manner of glamor, intrigue and excitement.
Artists often are encouraged to deal in their art with what they know. It could be argued that Miki and I had taken this instruction much too literally to heart. But we had decided that our first screenplay would have to be scrupulously autobiographical. While we learned the craft we at least would be confident in our subject matter.
We’d been doing the bulk of the writing separately, collaborating through email and occasionally Dropbox. Now she was on her way over to talk about it, if for no other reason than we hadn’t spent any time face-to-face in quite a while. She lived in Los Feliz, a short ways away from me in Echo Park. She had a boyfriend and a job, and with the effort she was devoting to the screenplay she was always pressed for time. When she arrived, she hugged me and complimented my haircut, adding that she preferred it when my hair was shorter, the same thing she told me every time. We printed out the screenplay and took it with us to the terrace to talk about. A breeze coming off the Pacific was rustling through the eucalyptus trees snuggled against the building.
Even driving in from the airport after our arrival there had been no sign whatsoever that my mother felt any particular emotion returning to the place she had come from, certainly no warm recognition seeing familiar surroundings. The squat, rectangular airport resembled a bland government building or a dreary warehouse. What I saw from the highway was a landscape of lunar rockiness, ramshackle buildings and forbidding sea.
We didn’t bother stopping at her cousin’s house. He worked on a freezer trawler I was told, and remained at sea for long periods of time. Our own house was unlocked and didn’t have a key. I later learned that like all houses in Greenland it actually belonged to the government, and ought to have been reported as vacant and offered to another Greenlander to occupy, but hadn’t been. As was common practice, our relative had simply kept the vacancy to himself and the house to use as he saw fit.
The house was more of a cabin, perched on the side of a sharply inclined hillside, two sparse rooms inside, one of which had a Russian stove used for cooking and heating. There was a water closet off the other room where there also was an ancient bathtub. In the back room there was a bed and a night table, in the front room where I would be there was a cot. The outside was a patchwork of peeling burgundy paint, clearly weathered by the battering of storms off the frigid ocean fifty yards away.
We left the house after we’d put our things away, then walked to a market a little over a kilometer away, where Mother bought mostly cans of soup, some stew, as well as bread, cookies and deli meats. There was no refrigerator in the house, but as mother pointed out, “nothing spoils outside here most of the year.”
I asked several times about school, and each time she sighed and said, “We’ll figure it out.”
It took her only a day to find a job, packaging fish she said, in all likelihood the easiest job to obtain in Nuuk. With nothing for me to do I spent the time wandering. On closer inspection, I discovered that despite the multicolored gabled houses and glacial plains and icy mountains surrounding the place, Nuuk was little different from other cities. It had its local idiosyncrasies, but there were clothing shops, and restaurants and every other kind of store.
Each night when mother returned home she seemed a little more disconsolate, more removed and irritable than the night before. Until I was ten or so she’d seemed more or less like a normal mother. She had struggled economically to be sure, and was prone to odd behaviors at times, but nothing it would have occurred to me to regard as illness. But in recent years her unpredictability had grown more pronounced, alternately more irascible and distant. Though we managed, every little thing seemed unnecessarily problematic, requiring more effort and rigmarole than it ought have.
Mother told me after a week that her days of packaging fish were over, and that instead she would be working at “a domestic cleaning job,” though she didn’t elaborate, and even that much she conveyed only in mumbles. She got into her bed immediately after that and went to sleep. She left for work the following morning and didn’t return.
I stayed up all night waiting, but in the back of my mind I believe I knew. I spent several days looking everywhere I could think to look, especially around the docks and fisheries. A few times I described her to a merchant or a friendly looking stranger and asked if they remembered seeing her. I found out where the hospital was, and gave descriptions there both in the emergency room and at the main desk. Along with a description of her appearance I noted that she was American, though a native Greenlander of Danish descent.
Going to the police would have been the normal thing, but I was much too uncertain of their reaction. Under the circumstance I had no idea what they might decide to do with me. I assumed there was foster care in Greenland or something like it. There was no one in New Hampshire to whom they could simply return me.
Mother had given me some money, about two hundred and fifty krone, or forty dollars. Most of the food she had bought remained, and I assumed that unless the relative came around and told me otherwise there was no reason I couldn’t stay in the house. As alarming as the prospect of surviving for the foreseeable future on my own in Greenland was, I feared the alternatives even more.
I told myself I could manage until either mother returned or something else changed. I was fifteen and I could simply go out and find a menial job if there weren’t a lot of questions asked. I’d begun applying for part-time jobs in New Hampshire anyhow. I considered this a reasonable plan.
The first nights in the house alone I didn’t think of myself as being alone, but rather as waiting for my mother to return. Once it was clear that I was in fact alone, I often grew nervous in the middle of the night, and if I heard something outside that seemed to emanate from near the house I would clench in fear. Some of this had to do with my terror of wolves and polar bears that wasn’t justified at all in Nuuk. In those moments I would make myself think of the dreaded alternatives to being on my own and it would calm me down.
One of the first serious challenges arrived a week or so after mother had gone, when I realized I would have to restore the diminishing firewood. I couldn’t go out and chop trees down, if for no other reason than there weren’t any trees to chop. I had no idea what it would cost to buy the wood. There was no choice but to filch it from neighboring houses, and though I was terrified of getting caught that is what I did. There was snow on the ground and it crunched every step you took. The wood sheds and covered woodpiles weren’t located far from the houses, and my heart pounded every time I crept near. Realizing eventually that I was much too high strung for thievery, I began cutting back on the use of firewood and bundled up even more in the house.
I missed going to school. I was an excellent student, and I assumed I would continue my schooling eventually, even in Greenland, though I hadn’t the faintest idea how that would come about.
I kept the house neat inside, tidying up after myself, what little there was to tidy, thinking that should mother return she would see again how helpful and self-sufficient I was. I kept the firewood well protected, raked the snow off the roof after every fresh pile-up, and cleaned the sink and top of the stove daily.
Even without mother there I wouldn’t sleep in her bed. It was hers, and sleeping in it might somehow jinx her return. And it would have felt eerie anyhow.
I continued roaming during the daylight hours, still leery of approaching anyone in authority about a job. One good thing about spending time away from the house was that I didn’t go through as much firewood. There was a large shopping center in the middle of Nuuk, two large buildings connected by an enclosed walkway above the street, and I spent a lot of hours wandering there. I would linger in the stores pretending to browse.
It took about a month before the end of the food was in sight. There was soup left and the canned meats. But I could look ahead and see an inevitable choice between girding myself to ask for a job, and stealing more than simply firewood.
One day when I was exploring a new stretch of shoreline I struck up a conversation with an Inuit girl who appeared to be doing the same thing. She was my age, or close to it. Though I was pale and tall and she was neither, we might have been brother and sister, both with broad cheekbones and shiny black hair that flopped in our faces much of the time.
I didn’t know anybody and certainly didn’t trust anyone enough to talk about my circumstances, and discovering that she was friendly and seemed to enjoy talking to me I slowly began to confide. When I told her where I’d come from and about my vanishing mother and all the rest of it, she was most astonished by the absence of family. “In the WHOLE world, that’s it?” she asked.
“Far as I know,” I told her. “It’s always been like that.”
She told me her name was Miki and suggested before she left that we meet there again around the same time the following day. She appeared as promised, and I invited her back to see the house. When we were inside she said, “I’ve definitely seen better. But people here have been living in houses like this forever.”
She told me the best place to look for work was at the docks. “There are a lot of international people working there, and they aren’t very strict about the rules.”
“I could save my money and go back to New Hampshire,” I told her. “But it would be worse for me there I’m almost positive. I’d end up in some nightmare of a foster family. Here I can be left alone at least if I don’t explain too much to anybody. I can go back home when I’m eighteen.”
“The legal age here is eighteen too,” she said.
After we’d been there a while she pointed out, “There’s nothing to do in here.”
“Back home I used to read a lot,” I said, “but even if there were books here I could understand,” referring to books in English, “I don’t have the money to buy them. ” Even though practically everyone in Greenland could speak English books in translation were less abundant.
We agreed to meet two days hence at the shore again, but on the following afternoon she returned to the house unexpectedly. She was holding a laundry bag containing several books, among them translated Scandinavian novels, and some books about World War Two. There were a few tins of fish in the bag and some pieces of fruit.
The next time we met at the shore she suggested that rather than walk, we instead should “go and get ourselves hot chocolates.”
The place we went looked like a rustic market inside, a kind of miniature general store, though there were tables where you could sit and drink your chocolate or coffee. So we sat and talked while we drank our chocolate.
She wanted to know what it was really like to live in America. I told her that the only place I’d ever lived I could remember well was in New Hampshire. “It’s not quite as cold as here,” I said, “but it’s definitely cold. Some of America isn’t so great. It wasn’t that great for us. But it’s great for a lot of people. It’s complicated.”
“Where did you get your clothes?” she asked, nodding at my trusty and worn blue parka I had brought from New Hampshire.
“The parka came from a store called Walmart. Mother used to get other things at a place called Goodwill. Everything there is second-hand.”
“I used to wear a lot of my sister’s clothes,” she said, “and she’s ten years older than me. So a lot of times I was a serious fashion anachronism.”
Anachronism, I repeated to myself. I needed to look it up.
She explained about the relationship between the Danes and Inuit, how Greenland had been a satellite or colony of Denmark for a long time, though recently it was more autonomous.
“It’s complicated here too,” she said.
The next afternoon we hiked around on a particularly rugged and rocky stretch of shoreline farther away from everything. When it got dark, which it did extremely early there, she came back to the house with me again and we sat a long time in front of the stove. I told her to sit on the cot and I pulled up the small stool that was in the house when mother and I had got there.
We talked about a lot of things. I told her that she didn’t seem to have friends, and she said, “I don’t really. I have acquaintances though.”
“Mine in New Hampshire were few and far between,” I said.
We discovered we had the same favorite writer: Kurt Vonnegut.
“Cat’s Cradle and Player Piano are best,” she said.
“No way,” I protested, “Slaughterhouse Five easily.”
At one point I stoked the fire, demonstrating my domestic savvy. I offered to make us soup.
“I’m not going to eat your food,” she said.
“Why not? I’ve got enough,” waving my arm at the line of cans.
But she refused.
I was aware she didn’t have a crush on me. I didn’t have a crush on her either. But I’d never met anyone like her in New Hampshire, and I didn’t think she had met anyone like me in Greenland either. And it had nothing to do with New Hampshire or Greenland.
She asked whether I slept on the bed or on the cot. She seemed to observe things more than most. I explained my reasons for sticking with the cot. Then she dropped something of a bombshell. She had told her parents about me. I was assured there was nothing to fear, and they had no intention of reporting me to anybody.
“They want you to come to supper tomorrow night,” she said. “Please do it. I promise you won’t hate them.”
The family lived in Myggedalen, a picturesque seaside neighborhood of colorful spruced up and well kept houses. Their own house was filled with wooden rocking chairs and knitted afghans and Inuit artifacts and family memorabilia, the latter of which had been all but absent in the houses where I had lived. Miki’s mother worked on a ferryboat that took tourists out for daytrips through the local fjords. Her father worked for the Greenland branch of the Danish Transportation Ministry.
During the meal they asked how my mother and I had come to be in Nuuk, most of which Miki had told them already, but they didn’t press me about it or dwell on my mother’s disappearance. They weren’t familiar with my relative living in Nuuk, and for my own part I couldn’t even tell them where he lived. When I was leaving Miki handed me a package that contained household items and additional food, and better scarves and gloves than I had.
From them on Miki would come by my house nearly every afternoon when she was finished with school. She began to take me to her favorite spots in Nuuk, the best high promontories for looking out at the city, to a place called the Colonial Harbor where there was a giant statue of a famous Dane, and the sprawling quarries farther from the center of town. Nuuk was a city of contrasts. There were blocks of ugly cement apartment buildings and drab offices and squalid small industrial areas, but there also were striking vistas, and in the Tuapannguit District and the Qinnqorput Quarter for instance warm cafes and bookstores.
The next time I had supper with Miki’s parents they presented the idea of coming to live with them. I could stay in the room that belonged to Miki’s older sister who was on her own now. They would take me to get a resident certificate allowing me to legally work. Miki’s mother said there was a job in the evenings if I wanted it on the cleaning crew that cleaned the tour boat where she worked. They even had a plan for my education, which would be a form of homeschooling, with Miki’s sister Sarlik, a teacher herself, coordinating with a retired teacher who’d volunteered to do the bulk of the teaching. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, nor did I want to.
My high school years then were not exactly as they would have been in New Hampshire. For one thing I didn’t go to high school. I went to Mrs. Okalik’s house. She lived in the same Myggedalen neighborhood as Miki’s family, about a ten-minute walk away. She was probably seventy, but something of a whirlwind. Besides educating me she also donated time to various charities and volunteer programs in Nuuk. She had close-cropped hair that was apparently built for speed, and often would size me up over the top of her glasses. I learned Greenlandic and Danish history along with the normal subjects I’d have taken anywhere. I tried to learn Greenlandic but largely failed, though I did finally get the hang of Danish.
I was conditioned by life and circumstances, and probably temperament, to spend much of my time alone. Miki was similar, but we ended up spending the bulk of our time with one another. Our sensibilities were so alike it was hard to imagine it being otherwise.
A lot of what Miki’s family ate I liked, blueberries and halibut and caribou. Her mother made a fish soup that became my favorite dish. But there were some things I would never touch. When Miki and I were first getting to know one another I told her once “I can’t believe people really eat WHALE BLUBBER here.“
“I don’t like it raw,” she said, “but mattak, when it’s all breaded and fried is really good. If you ever eat the fish sticks they sell in the supermarket this wouldn’t seem that different to you.”
I often wondered what had become of my mother, but I didn’t constantly think about her. I never believed she had some to harm, not in Greenland anyhow. I figured she was probably in Denmark somewhere or back in the States, or maybe even Europe. She had always been resourceful. She might have ended up in an institution anywhere in the world. But I never stopped believing that she was alive. I’d struggled at times because of her, but her own life had been a bitter one. And what I felt for her was love and pity, not blame.
I finally tracked down the relative I had in Nuuk, a sullen man who lived with a churlish girlfriend, and I never contacted him ever again.
Miki and I both applied to the free university in Copenhagen and that was where we spent our college years. I rode a bicycle everywhere I went, studied English Literature, worked in a bar and a bowling alley and an Environmental Science Center on campus. I loved Copenhagen and easily could have lived there for the rest of my life.
We spent an enormous amount of time going to movies. On campus there were constant screenings, movies from France and Germany, from Italy and Iceland and from every era, from Italian Neorealism to French New Wave, to the glory days of Seventies American cinema.
We began to talk about it seriously during our senior year, going to Los Angeles and doing something in the film world. I’d been born in Los Angeles after all, not that it would make any difference now. We talked it over with Miki’s parents, who were supportive and gave us their complete blessing. I would in fact consult with them about major decisions for many years to come.
Though Miki and I each had several flings during our college years, nothing serious ever seemed to stick. So after saving for a year there was nothing holding us back, and we disembarked from Copenhagen Airport to California.
“Maybe it’s too drab,” Miki said about the script, as we sat there on the terrace.
“The houses are colorful at least,” I answered. “We’ve put abundant coverage of the neighborhoods in the scene descriptions. “
“I keep thinking we let the first half get way, way too grim. Maybe we’ve over-dramatized your circumstances, or elevated the degree of peril you were actually in.”
“It felt perilous enough to me,” I said. “Besides, we have to have some license don’t we?”
“I know. It’s so weird writing a movie about yourself.”
“What else are we going to write about, cops and murderers, strippers and jewel thieves? Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that. But I don’t think of our characters as really us. I never went north to go out with the dog sleds and neither did you.”
“On the other hand you did stare dumbfounded at the Northern Lights the first time like you were in a trance.”
“I was a little scared to tell the truth.”
“The next thing we write,” she said, “has to be a hundred and eighty degrees away from this. It has to take place here, or in Palm Springs, or maybe Rome, and I’m even fine with strippers and jewel thieves.”
When it was time for Miki to leave, heading down to Hollywood Boulevard to meet her current beau Cliff, the famous Musso and Frank martinis in mind, I walked her to her car. The script had a lot of work left.
“Be careful,” I said through the rolled down window before she drove away.
I’d spent much of my day off hiking up in the foothills, and I was returning home on San Fernando Road. As I approached the bridge crossing the Tujunga Wash I could see a person standing dangerously near the road just in front of the bridge. Fearful the person might stray, or even lunge into the road in front of me I slowed down.
Once I was across the bridge I pulled over to the side of the road and got out. I walked back over the bridge, and stood where the person had stood, looking down into the dried up wash below.
Descending the hill, I could see as I neared the bottom the full extent of the homeless encampment there, tents and lean-tos on the hard, rocky sand under the bridge, and among the trees and underbrush.
I spotted the woman I had seen before at the edge of the road. She was standing near, but not with a cluster of people who were milling about and talking there. When I was close enough I saw that it was true: she looked remarkably like my mother.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“I thought we might know each other,” I said.
She stared at me blankly.
“Have you ever lived in New Hampshire? Have you ever lived in Greenland?”
She continued staring at me blankly. The face was leathered from exposure and was dotted with age spots. Her hair was long and metal gray, though my mother’s had been short and auburn.
“Is your name Hannah Lund, or Hannah Cochrane, which was your married name?”
She stared at me more, and finally said, “I’m waiting for Willie but he isn’t coming.”
The voice sounded a little like her. Could she really have made it all the way back to Los Angeles? It wasn’t entirely impossible. She’d lived here once after all. When I was born my dad was still looking futilely for work in one of the remaining aerospace plants.
But despite the resemblance, I realized it wasn’t her. “It was nice to meet you,” I said.
I walked back up the hill, and across the bridge, and got back into the car.
About the Author:
Ken O’Steen ‘s “Godsent Vermin,” which appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Sleet Magazine, has been nominated by the magazine for a Sundress Best of the Net Award. “Dinner at Musso and Frank,” was included in the anthology, “The Muse in the Bottle: Great Writers on the Joys of Drinking” edited by Charles Coulombe, published by Citadel. “Prattlegate,” appeared in the June 2016 issue of New Pop Lit. “Fierce Bombardier of the Vast Imperial Skies,” appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of British publication The Wolfian, published by the Wolfian Press. “A Few Quirks of Surrender,” appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Cleaver Magazine. “The Invisibility of Wealth,” appeared in the October 2016 issue of Litbreak. The flash fiction piece, “The Thing That Ate Cars and Avatars,” appeared in the May 2017 issue of British publication Litro. “Dialogue in a Dead Zone,” appeared in the September 2017 issue of Connotation Press. “Sex Bomb,” appeared in the December 2017 edition of Literary Juice. “The Projectionist,” appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Whistling Shade. “Sweeper of the Blue Star,” appeared in the April 2018 issue of Blue Lake Review. “The Rains of Abracadabra,” appeared in the August 2018 issue of Quail Bell Magazine. “Shelter,” appeared in the October 2018 issue of Scarlet Leaf Review. “Pills vs. Decapitation,” is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Magazine.