Jonas Moody

Neither Odd nor Even

After Celia tells her fourth-grade stu­dents she’ll be gone for the week to a wed­ding in Iceland, they dis­cuss the country’s lat­i­tude and lon­gi­tude, its place­ment on the Arctic Circle, its unusu­al pat­terns of day­light and dark­ness. Thankfully they don’t ask about the wed­ding. Explaining a love for a man who loves men on a dif­fer­ent con­ti­nent is not as easy as shin­ing a lamp on a globe.

Nearly a decade has passed and Sam does not look old­er. Just dis­tilled over time—more mus­cu­lar, keen­er. Standing alone in the arrivals hall he tells Celia, “We’re thrilled to have you here.” On the dri­ve into town he con­tin­ues speak­ing to her in the UN diplo­mat­ic plur­al. “We’ve cleaned out the office and bor­rowed a bed for you. We planned a big din­ner for tonight.”

Once Celia unpacks and wash­es her face Sam wants to climb a moun­tain with her. She has flown all the way across the con­ti­nen­tal United States and the Atlantic Ocean to see him mar­ry the Viking (his words), and all he wants to do is drag her up a moun­tain. He hasn’t even asked her to be his maid of hon­or. Or best lady. Or how­ev­er you’re sup­posed to say it. The entire con­cept was a for­eign lan­guage to her.

There had nev­er been talk of mar­riage on their trips to and from col­lege. Junior year they drove from Texas through the South up to Connecticut with dis­pos­able cam­eras, a car­ton of cig­a­rettes and not one men­tion of wed­dings. In the spir­it of mix­ing with the locals, he coaxed her into buy­ing knee-high moc­casins from a road­side teepee while he shoplift­ed a T-shirt with BAMA print­ed on it. In a Louisiana swamp they stopped at an alli­ga­tor farm where they split fried gator nuggets. His he lobbed into the water. “From gator you came, and to gator you shall return,” he chant­ed and threw the alli­ga­tor meat back to the alli­ga­tors. His mean­ness was not so much a streak, as it was a car­rot she chased. It ele­vat­ed her. It moved her along.

In Atlanta they made friends with street kids and helped them pan­han­dle for a day, which lat­er bankrolled enough malt liquor for them all. Georgia end­ed with Celia deflow­er­ing a 16-year-old boy and Sam sleep­ing with a man twice his age. They passed the Carolinas in silence, in remorse­ful togeth­er­ness. But in DC they threw out the cig­a­rettes and read aloud from the course cat­a­log. At some point they stopped tick­ing the miles from Houston and start­ed mea­sur­ing to New Haven. And at some point they stopped mix­ing with the locals and start­ed mar­ry­ing them.

The bus from Reykjavík takes them all the way to the base of the moun­tain. Sam knows the way because he has lived in the coun­try for sev­en years. She has not been count­ing down the days to his home­com­ing, but she has not been on the look­out for fun peo­ple to take road trips with either. Instead she rent­ed the apart­ment upstairs in her mother’s duplex, failed to apply to grad­u­ate school and adopt­ed Chernobyl, a used Russian wolfhound with a leaky blad­der. And then there were sev­en years. On the bus to the moun­tain she has clocked 25 min­utes and not­ed three traf­fic rotaries, an idio­syn­crasy she has devel­oped since liv­ing alone—timing and count­ing. It’s the larg­er incre­ments that elude her.

How far is the hike to the top?” Celia asks.

You mean how tall is the moun­tain or how long is the path?” Sam says.

She shrugs, just look­ing for con­ver­sa­tion.

You’ll see when we get there,” he says.

They pass through what may be a sub­urb, a clus­ter of low hous­es gath­ered around one stretch of com­mer­cial drag with ice cream par­lors on both sides of the road. The sub­urb looks recent­ly con­struct­ed, an out­post. It isn’t the build­ings them­selves that give the appear­ance, but the areas around them. No trees or bush­es, just earth. Like the wait after con­dos are built and hab­it­able, but before the land­scap­ers have laid out the green. Past the city lim­its they cross water, a wide surge that runs into a bay. Is this a fjord? Is it an estu­ary or a catch­ment? A basin? Is this a sound? She teach­es the words every year in her geol­o­gy unit, but faced with the thing, she can’t name it. At the last stop the old bus dri­ver shuts off the engine and shuf­fles out­side to smoke.

Should we thank him, Sammy?” Celia asks as they step down.

If you want, you can call him höfðin­gi.”

Are you try­ing to get me to call him a codger or some­thing?” Celia turns to see if Sam is grin­ning. “Is this the same as me ver­bal­ly yank­ing down his Depends?”

Not at all. It’s an old word, like chief­tain. Old men like it when you call them that. If you won’t, then I will.”

Sam doesn’t wait for her. He calls out to the old man, who nods and waves at them. The lan­guage has become his liv­ing, trans­lat­ing the local hub­bub for the wires. It’s a shame, Celia thinks. He would have made a won­der­ful American jour­nal­ist.

Are you in a funk?” she asks.

Not at all. We’re just so grate­ful you were able to take time off from work to make the trip.”

Standing in front of the moun­tain she still can­not make out how large it is. There is no visu­al yard­stick: no trees along the slopes and switch­backs lead­ing up to a flat sum­mit. Its tree­less­ness gives it an almost infal­li­ble sym­me­try. Simply up one side, straight across the top, and down the oth­er. She has been told it’s a moun­tain. But it looks more like a mound of dirt, she tells her­self, quite pos­si­bly a mole­hill.

Celia packed heels and a ray­on shawl for the wed­ding, so they have to wait for the Viking’s sis­ter, Björg, to meet them with moun­tain-appro­pri­ate clothes. With the name Björg, Celia con­jures up a woman in a muumuu, per­haps play­ing a ket­tle­drum, per­haps with a turkey leg. She fore­sees tent-like cloth­ing, nylon and bil­lowy. But the woman who pulls up is slen­der and gra­cious, younger than Celia. Her hair is pulled into a bal­le­ri­na bun, which accen­tu­ates her apple cheeks. She nods and smiles as she hands over dark wool clothes knit­ted with bright, Scandinavian pat­terns.

How do you like Iceland?” Björg asks.

It’s very nice,” Celia says. “But no trees.”

Yes, but it means we don’t have to buy leaf brooms.”

Celia deci­phers it too late to laugh. Rakes, she thinks, are noth­ing if not essen­tial­ly leaf brooms. She thanks Björg who glances sweet­ly to Sam and gets back in her car.

Rakes in Iceland,” Celia says as the woman dri­ves off. “I guess that’s like ocean lin­ers in Nebraska.”

She’s shy about her English,” Sam says, “but she’s try­ing. She has been prac­tic­ing for the wed­ding so she can talk to some of the guests.”

Who else is com­ing?”

Dad couldn’t make it,” Sam says. “But I have a cousin in Phoenix who was plan­ning a sum­mer vaca­tion here any­way, so that worked out well. It’s just a long way to ask peo­ple to come.”

Celia almost says some­thing about how short the trip felt, how lit­tle trou­ble it had been, but stops her­self. “Only two days now,” she says instead. “Aren’t you ner­vous?”

I’m relieved. Björg and her mom have tak­en care of every­thing. The cake. The priest. We’re going to have the recep­tion in Björg’s back­yard.”

Celia changes into Björg’s clothes behind a rock away from the high­way. She nev­er imag­ined a pon­cho could fit so tight, but this one clings to her midriff. With bor­rowed long johns and a yel­low pom-pom stock­ing cap she com­pletes her trans­for­ma­tion into a Nordic sausage ready to roll up the moun­tain­side. Sam stands at the trail­head in a green rain suit and red cap. He looks trav­eled, like Nature Boy, a strange enchant­ed boy, who wan­dered very far.

After grad­u­a­tion they had planned to get an apart­ment togeth­er in New York, but then there were ter­ror­ist attacks and nei­ther of them could find a job in the city. Celia went back home to California, and Sam flew off to Iceland on a Fulbright. It did not feel like a fun­da­men­tal diver­gence at the time. Just a detour. During his first year he sent her type­writ­ten let­ters in red and white air­mail envelopes, dis­cussing every­thing that was exot­ic to him: babies left in their strollers out­side gro­cery stores, a phone­book list­ed by first names, lamb cold cuts, no word for please but dozens of words for sheep and their var­i­ous parts. The let­ters were replaced by infre­quent emails. About his job. About her dog. Three years ago when she was named vice-pres­i­dent of the Teachers’ Local 5095 he had gag cam­paign mate­ri­als print­ed up and sent to her house—buttons, stick­ers and a cof­fee mug with her dog’s face, Chernobyl McElroy for President. He didn’t know it, but Chernobyl is any­thing but a leader. He fol­lows Celia from room to room, a lum­ber­ing, melan­choly shad­ow. The for­mer own­ers called him Lionheart but weren’t them­selves brave enough to deal with his incon­ti­nence, the drips and pools he leaves behind in his many rest­ing spots. But he came to Celia as a boon, a con­fi­dant who would nev­er break her trust. Her moth­er has crashed in on her heart-to-hearts more than once and scoffs at Celia’s cocka­mamie notion that dogs can talk, that they want to hear about your prob­lems.

That thing doesn’t even know its own name, Celia.” Her moth­er likes to call the dog by the wrong name to dri­ve her point home. “Come here, Dr. Shit-for-brains.” Her moth­er pats her thigh, and Chernobyl, loy­al and ungain­ly, comes bound­ing. “Get over here and let me tell you about my child­hood and my oppres­sive moth­er.”

So what, Celia thinks, he doesn’t know his name. That which we call Chernobyl by any oth­er name would smell just as stinky, would sit just as qui­et­ly, would lis­ten just as faith­ful­ly. She some­times brings him to her class­room. More than after­noon snacks or writ­ing on the over­head, her kids like to stand around Chernobyl and love on him. She makes him their reward. They nev­er notice the wet newsprint or the smell of dog pee. Or if they do they nev­er say any­thing. She admires their dis­cre­tion.

After a steep climb Sam and Celia stop near a sus­pen­sion bridge, the halfway mark. From the bridge she stretch­es her hand out to a nar­row water­fall drop­ping from a height too high to see. It is cap­ti­vat­ing in that it is unlike any­thing she has seen in America.

Falling water, Sam.” The water is icy cold and makes her hand go numb to the bone. “Nature calls.”

Let me get to the oth­er side before you pee,” he says.

Oh, it doesn’t mat­ter.”

Sam turns his back as she squats on the ground. He asked to see her pee once. They were drunk at a naked par­ty in col­lege where too many Ivy Leaguers thought it avant-garde to put their lumpy bod­ies on dis­play. For him she dumped out her drink, hoist­ed her leg up on the counter and filled the cup with urine while he looked on like a sci­en­tist, an Arctic explor­er. In her mind it was a moment of def­i­n­i­tion, a moment of truth. This is a truth that she now sens­es has been rede­fined not by her or him but by four thou­sand miles of land and sea. One-time ques­tions of earnest explo­ration have been dis­placed by ques­tions of equiv­o­ca­tion and detach­ment. He is cold. She is cold. This is a cold place.

The women she works with have accused her of unfriend­li­ness, cit­ing the pro­fes­sion­al dis­tance she main­tains even in the break room. They used to pimp their men friends to her, pic­tures of cousins and ex-boyfriends, ask­ing her to come to din­ner and meet them. She would tell them she is con­tent on her own, that she’s not look­ing for a man. The con­sen­sus has become that she is a les­bian. A bit­ter one. And as long as it keeps the pimps at bay, she wears a loose but­ton-down and slacks once a month. However, her libido is strong and has only grown stronger in recent years. She some­times imag­ines anony­mous encoun­ters with men. They don’t have faces, but they have won­der­ful­ly deep voic­es. Only recent­ly has she found a forum to play out her dal­liance.

Am I speak­ing to Celia McElroy?”

This is she.”

My name is Jeremiah and I’m call­ing from Physicians’ Care Group. Your request—”

I already have health insur­ance.”

But does your plan offer you den­tal and vision?”

I’m not sure but do you have a big cock, Jeremiah? Is it large and in charge?”

The moment has only ever dete­ri­o­rat­ed into one of them hang­ing up, but there is a light­en­ing strike when she talks this way with a man on the phone. The elec­tric instant is enjoy­ment enough. No one knows, not that it would mat­ter. The only ones she cares about are too young to have night jobs as phone solic­i­tors.

Panting and clam­my with sweat in the chill air, Sam and Celia come to a straight­away on the path where they can walk side by side. “What are you doing with your­self these days?” Sam asks.

I nev­er thought a degree in chem­istry would lead back to fourth grade, but I like it. I like the tiny chairs and the posters and how much excite­ment they still have.”

I have to admit, it’s not what I expect­ed from you,” Sam says. She finds it hurt­ful.

I sup­pose nei­ther of us have tak­en the pre­scribed course.”

Well are you see­ing any­one?”

Only casu­al­ly, Sam.” Her breath is heavy from climb­ing and a reluc­tance to answer such thought­less ques­tions.

Her casu­al dates begin with red wine and some­times pot. Then Nat King Cole LPs on the floor with Chernobyl. The croon­ing voice and the heav­i­ness of her dog’s head leave her with a won­der­ful­ly poignant nos­tal­gia for a peri­od of life that has nev­er hap­pened. But intox­i­ca­tion pries open the bulk­head between mem­o­ry and desire so they can slosh around togeth­er for an evening. And Chernobyl is so full of love. He loves her for com­ing home, for putting food down, for turn­ing left instead of right, for going to sleep and for wak­ing up. With him Celia always feels in good com­pa­ny. She read that the Russian wolfhound ranks 75 out of the 78 breeds includ­ed in Stanley Coren’s The Intelligence of Dogs. It takes Russian wolfhounds 80 to 100 rep­e­ti­tions to com­pre­hend a new com­mand, and they obey the first com­mand less than 25 per­cent of the time. Celia lis­tens to the uni­verse, but she is not con­vinced it is a mat­ter of com­pre­hen­sion as much as a mat­ter of will­ing­ness to com­pre­hend.

At the top of the moun­tain they write their names in a large book that means their names will remain at the top of the moun­tain for­ev­er. A type of mat­ri­mo­ny, she thinks. There is snow­fall at the top and bright evening sun­shine, and she can see the entire penin­su­la the city sits on, all at once. Just a spit of land that juts out into the sea. Under chunky, sum­mer snowflakes Sam says he want­ed to bring her up here to see what he’s gain­ing.

You won’t come back?” she asks.

Not after we’re mar­ried. We can’t. Not togeth­er.”

She under­stands why he has cho­sen this spot. With the snow it looks like Christmas, but it is actu­al­ly the place where Sam departs.

Her love for him is not com­pli­cat­ed. But when she forces her­self to explain, it stu­pe­fies her and she sud­den­ly knows noth­ing. The same way her stu­dents shy away when she asks them if zero is odd or if it’s even. They look at her and smile coy­ly and they can­not say. It wasn’t that he’d ruined their big plans for a straw­ber­ry farm in Maine where they would take in stray dogs and hors­es and kids. It wasn’t that she missed being at home—if any­thing she was glad to escape her moth­er, who only chas­tised her for hav­ing long con­fes­sion­als with the dog. It wasn’t the time away from her class­room with its mul­ti­pli­ca­tion tables and mod­el solar sys­tem and oth­er tables and mod­els and sys­tems to explain every­thing in the world. It was sim­ply that Sam would no longer be a part of her America.

The apart­ment the men share in down­town Reykjavík is small. For din­ner the table is expand­ed with both its leaves, which blocks the door to the room where Celia is stay­ing. So she sits at the table and cuts pota­toes and car­rots for their roast while Sam read­ies the oven in the kitchen. She sees the Viking for the first time as he comes through the front door.

You must be Celia.” He is not as blocky or beard­ed as she had expect­ed. He is tall with broad shoul­ders and a kind, plain face. As guile­less as a turnip. He seems lost for words. “Sam tells me you have a dog.”

It’s so nice to meet you.” She can still only call him the Viking. “It’s embar­rass­ing, but you’re going to have to teach me your name.”

How do I say?” He con­torts his face with over enun­ci­a­tion. “You say it hreg­gviðurþórgnýr.” He does not repeat it, only stares at her as if she should have inter­nal­ized it after his one demon­stra­tion. A hor­ri­ble teacher.

Well it’s so nice to meet you,” she says again. Sam will mar­ry this man and she will still have no idea what his name is.

I hope you like lamb,” the Viking says.

She doesn’t. The slaugh­ter hor­ri­fies her. The bleat­ing. The tiny faces. “Sure.”

Sæll, elskan,” Sam says as he walks to the Viking.

Sæll sjál­fur,” says the Viking. “Hvernig var upp á Esjunni? Var ekki notalegt?”

Jú. Það var ágætt.” He leans in to kiss the Viking. It’s not their talk that seems most unfa­mil­iar to her but their kiss: per­func­to­ry and domes­tic.

You’ve met?” Sam asks and they both nod cor­dial­ly. Sam pulls him into the kitchen, though Celia can still see them.

Ég get ekki hengt þes­sar hillur upp einn,” Sam says to the Viking. He’s com­plain­ing about some­thing. “Það er tveg­g­ja man­na verk” He’s point­ing to the wall. To a blank space.  “Hjónaband hvað? Ha?” Sam shakes his head in dis­be­lief. “Þetta er bara orðið eit­th­vað svin­dl, sko, elsku hjar­tað mitt.”

Svo san­narlega.” The Viking speaks solemn­ly, slow­ly. “Svikult er hjar­tað fra­mar öllu öðru, ástin mín.”

The men give each oth­er know­ing looks. It might be con­tempt. It might be sar­casm. Celia can’t fol­low. Sam has become unin­tel­li­gi­ble. She looks down to her chopped pota­to and is glad she knows any­thing at all, even if it’s just how to chop a pota­to.

The phone in her dorm room rang. It nev­er rang unless it was Sam so she knew who it was before answer­ing. She found the name of the restau­rant unap­peal­ing: The Rusty Scupper. It sound­ed like a joke between two proc­tol­o­gists. But it had a rep­u­ta­tion for serv­ing New Haven’s most expen­sive seafood. Sam asked her to come with him and his voice was crack­ing with dread. From the bits and pieces he let slip over the years she had gath­ered that his father lord­ed over large amounts of mon­ey in Texas. Ate expen­sive meat. Ravaged women. Knew lit­tle about his son.

I need you to be affec­tion­ate with me,” Sam said brusque­ly.  “Hold my hand. Rest your head on my shoul­der.”

You need me to be your beard?”

We have to kill him with the chem­istry between us.”

At din­ner Sam sat frozen with appre­hen­sion. She ordered scal­lops, but hard­ly touched them, too busy play­ing the twit­ter­ing bird. With an impec­ca­bly starched shirt and wolflike salt-and-pep­per hair, Sam’s father laughed deep bel­ly laughs as Celia sang her song of praise for the man’s son. Their roman­tic road trip through the South. The clever post­cards he sends over sum­mer. How he lifts her up and grounds her with defin­i­tive pur­pose at the same time. All this she could say because the evening was a sham. Nonetheless she was flu­ent in the lan­guage she was speak­ing. Alone in her bed that night she allowed her­self to extrap­o­late. How eas­i­ly the thought of their mar­riage, some­day their chil­dren, slid off her tongue and rever­ber­at­ed in that unchart­ed place in her mind.

The Viking dom­i­nates din­ner con­ver­sa­tion with the sur­pris­ing ingre­di­ents in all the dish­es. Sugar in the mash. Coffee in the brown sauce. Beet juice on the lamb. Relish in the may­on­naise. The end­less eccen­tric­i­ty in every facet of the meal exhausts her. While the men do the dish­es Celia sits with a cup of cof­fee. It’s all she can do to keep her­self from falling asleep. Jetlag and stodgy food have deplet­ed her patience. If she has anoth­er moment with Sam tonight she will ask him out­right if he wants her to stand up for him at the wed­ding.

Celia,” Sam calls in from the kitchen, “if you’re not too exhaust­ed we’d love for you to come to choir prac­tice.” Singing in Icelandic. It couldn’t be any more alien­at­ing than speak­ing in Icelandic. “You can see the sanc­tu­ary before the wed­ding and you can sit with Björg.” Sam sweet­ens the pot. “She’s eager to get to know you.”

Only a block away from the doll­house apart­ment is the church: a severe obelisk out of some Stalinist fairy­tale, con­crete and grey, perched on the high­est hill in the city. Björg waits for them just inside the narthex across a wide cement square in front of the doors. She smoothes her hair and her skirt, look­ing anx­ious.

It is please to see you.” She extends a hand to Celia.

Yes. It is please to see you, too,” Celia replies and intu­its Sam’s reproach.

The inte­ri­or of the con­crete mon­ster is ribbed with vault­ed truss­es like a whale cap­sized. The nave is spare. Unadorned walls and hap­haz­ard group­ings of wood­en chairs in place of pews. In the blank, gap­ing space it gives the impres­sion of tran­sience. A cave tak­en over by vagrants.

Björg grabs Celia by the hand and they sit near the front with oth­er women. Facing them is a men’s choir of stern, round faces and dark woolen gar­ments. Their white-haired direc­tor can bare­ly lift his arms past the girth of his mid­sec­tion, and with only a slight move­ment of his hand he opens the sound. The sanc­tu­ary fills with the dark, stout liq­uid of deep voice. To Celia its heady tim­bre is as wel­come as sleep. There are over a dozen men on the steps, but all she hears is an uncan­ny uni­son. As the tone swells and divides into parts, their song becomes eerie and omnipresent with­in the church’s acoustics. The har­monies are sung in fifths, fore­bod­ing like a Gregorian chant or the cadence of the Wicked Witch’s sol­diers.

What are they singing?” Celia whis­pers to Björg.

Lullabies.” Björg replies. “What men know about lul­la­bies? I don’t know. But they like to do singing, so here we sit.”

It’s love­ly,” Celia says. She wants to say that it sounds grim, but per­haps so is child­hood in Iceland.

Then Björg leans into her and whis­pers, “They asked me for egg.”

Celia con­sid­ers whether some­thing could be lost in trans­la­tion while she watch­es the woman pat her bel­ly. Celia feels the entire weight of the Viking Age, the burn­ing and plun­der­ing, come to bear on her chest.

They asked you for an egg,” she cor­rects the young woman and lets the sad song wash over her.

She finds Sam’s face in the choir. Even among Nordic men he’s gold­en, but she can’t pick out his voice. If she didn’t know she would nev­er have guessed he was once an American, once a kid who went to col­lege with her, once her clos­est friend. He has become the expec­tant father of apple cheeks and imper­fect English. There had been a plan at one time. Or it might have been an idea, or just a con­ver­sa­tion. On anoth­er trip, through the mid­dle of the coun­try. Someplace flat and infi­nite like Kansas or Iowa. To the sound­track of a Bobby Darin album there had been talk of a baby between Sam and Celia. And they would name it after a Midwestern town wher­ev­er the notion was con­ceived. Olathe. Holdrege. Guthrie. Lenexa. Their Midwestern child stands on gold­en sands and watch­es the ships that go sail­ing.

Sometime after every­one is in bed but before they wake up to the day before the wed­ding, Celia will take her suit­case out­side and pull the door shut sound­less­ly. She will leave know­ing Sam is not a bit­ter bride; in fact, he may be the most win­some groom she could ever imag­ine. It was one thing to stand on cer­e­mo­ny, on his­to­ry, she will tell her­self, but it is anoth­er to pin it to the ground so it can’t get up and walk out the door.

The bus to the air­port will be full of sleep­ing peo­ple. The sun will have dipped down briefly while she sits on the bed and waits for the house to fall asleep, but by the time she’s on the bus the sky will be glow­ing again. Outside her win­dow the fields of lava and moss will speed by in the morn­ing twi­light like the sur­face of the moon, but she will be blind to it. Over the veloc­i­ty of the vehi­cle all she will be able to sense is the slip­ping of her ghost­ly wife­hood and moth­er­hood towards their cer­tain end. Every day it’s get­ting clos­er.

When she goes home she will line up her stu­dents and have them grow bean plants on the classroom’s win­dowsill. They will com­pete to see who can grow the tallest, largest plant. She will encour­age them to do what­ev­er is in their pow­er to make them grow. They can play music for their plants and move them to larg­er pots. They can drown them in vit­a­mins and fer­til­iz­ers and they can bring in arti­fi­cial lights. They can heap their care onto the soil and cul­ti­vate the hope that their seeds will burst from the ground and rise over the class­room, tow­er­ing like sen­tinels of Giant Sequoia.