Ships of Stockholm

He smelled the brackish water and the sharp sting of diesel coming at him in the wind off the bay. It was the first Tuesday in July, a week after his father died, and the city was crowded with tourists and locals off of work for summer vacation. The sun was out and the day was warm.

“It’s a lovely city,” the woman said.

image by Michael Caven via flickr

A group of tourists were pointing and taking photographs of the building with the stone sculpture of a vulva carved into the acanthus leaf cornice above the entryway. Lennart watched this. He smelled the brackish water and the sharp sting of diesel coming at him in the wind off the bay. It was the first Tuesday in July, a week after his father died, and the city was crowded with tourists and locals off of work for summer vacation. The sun was out and the day was warm.

At Slussen, he put three ten kronor coins in a graffiti-covered vending machine for a copy of DN, and sat on a bench, warmed by the sun, near the center of the square. It was summer and the news was slow. He scanned headlines about outbreaks of stomach viruses on cruise ships, and the wedding of a Scottish footballer who’d briefly played in Sweden. Light, inconsequential stuff, all of it. He read half an article about rats. The mild winter had allowed an infestation to develop in some government buildings.

He was late for a meeting with his father’s lawyer. Matilda, his youngest sister, was probably already there, as were Ulrika and Magnus, his older siblings. Matilda lived in the city, but the other two had come from abroad to be in Stockholm for the meeting. Lennart had started to go, but the thought of sitting around a conference room table in a cramped office, listening to his father’s stern lawyer list assets and properties and tax liabilities dug into him and his head hurt. The office walls were crowded with cheap prints of bad artwork, idyllic Nordic landscapes made claustrophobic and menacing behind dusty plastic frames. And the furniture was too bland, bureaucratic for the austere old-town space the office occupied. The place always made Lennart a little sad.

Someone at the lawyer’s office called twice. Soon after the second call, his sister started calling. Each time, he watched her name flash on the screen until it stopped. From the bench, he had a clear view of the bay. Steam rose from the stacks of one of the Silja Line cruise ships. It had been years since he’d been on one of the Baltic cruises. Once, when he was young, not more than ten as he remembered it, he and his father had gone to Finland for a couple days, just the two of them. His father had some business in Helsinki. On the return trip, Lennart had been allowed to play one of the electronic slot machines. Even at ten, he knew he wasn’t supposed to do this. The machine his father picked was tucked away from the sight of the casino attendant, partially blocking a small window completely blackened with the night. Rolf had stood close behind, obscuring any view of Lennart pressing the buttons on the screen. Lennart fed a one hundred kronor bill into the machine and watched as the screen came to life with a brightly colored set of images of fruit and gold coins and treasure chests, all connected by a complicated web of blinking lines. On his second spin, the machine hit the jackpot, and a happy sounding but deafening bell rang out. His father clapped him cheerfully on the back and quickly took Lennart down from the stool he’d been perched on. Rolf had had to walk into the casino to fetch someone to arrange for the payout and left Lennart at the machine, the bell still sounding and the word WINNER flashing on the screen. He sat transfixed by this and by his own fear of being found out, of his father getting in some kind of trouble.

Finally, his father returned with an attendant, a rough looking guy with bursts of red veins flowering out across his cheeks from too much drinking. He looked at Lennart, messed his hair. “Good luck charm,” the attendant said in a thick Finnish accent. Then he gave Rolf a slip with the amount of their winnings. They’d only won 500 kronor but his father let him keep the money, a small kindness that Lennart often returned to much later when he and his father had had an argument, something that happened frequently even into Lennart’s adulthood.

His sister called again. Again he ignored the call. He decided he’d like to have a drink.

There were plenty of bars along Götgatan but Lennart passed each of them on his way to the terrace at Mosebacke, the bar behind the Söder Theater. He wanted to sit outside, and the bar was a large outdoor terrace high up on a cliff overlooking the water, picnic tables arranged along the edges of the terrace and foosball and Ping-Pong tables in the center. All the seating at Mosebacke was full. He circled the terrace looking for a group that might soon be done. On his second pass, a woman sitting near the edge of the terrace smiled at him. “You’re welcome to join me,” she said in English. She was holding a Stockholm tour book and waved it at him. “I was just reading.” She laughed and smiled at him.

There was a good view of the water from the table.

Lennart thanked her and sat down. She pointed to his drink. “I didn’t know you had to go to the bar to be served. I sat here for ages waiting.” She laughed and shook her head at this. Lennart couldn’t place her accent exactly, but it was American.

“It’s a lovely city,” the woman said. The umbrella in the center of the table was closed. Its crisp shadow reached across the table and onto the woman’s chest and face. She sounded affected in a way he thought she meant to indicate she was the sort of person who traveled, had been places. He often met such people when he lived in North Carolina. Doctors and university professors who had visited France once and pronounced the names of each village they’d visited in exaggerated ways. “Everywhere I’ve been has been so crowded. Yesterday I followed a Chinese tour group around the modern museum for an hour. I didn’t learn anything but the art was lovely. An artist named Mamma Andersson. I bought a poster. Do you know her work?”

Lennart’s phone rang.

The woman raised her book. “Oh, sorry,” she mouthed. “Go ahead.”

It was his sister again. He rejected the call, and put the phone on top of the newspaper in front of him, waiting to see what the woman might say next. “Are you enjoying your stay?” he asked after she didn’t say anything for a little while. He immediately regretted the simplicity of the question.

“It’s so beautiful here,” the woman said. “The Venice of the north. Is that what people call it or just the tour books? It seems like a fair comparison. I’ve never been to Venice, though.”

“It’s the water,” he said. “Islands and so on.” He had the feeling that a conversation with the woman could take any turn at all, and he liked this, the possibilities it presented. He was also attracted to her. She was pretty, if plain, but more than that, he was drawn to where the afternoon might end if he let it. His phone buzzed. On the screen, a message indicating that he had a voicemail flashed brightly. He deleted the message.

“You’re busy,” the woman said, touching her chest, below her neck, where the skin was freckled, “and I just keep going on and on.” She returned to her book, quickly thumbing through the pages. He watched her read. Soon he was distracted by all the movement below in the bay. There were dozens of boats and ferries. A rollercoaster at the Gröna Lund amusement park crested the top of its track. He looked from this back to the woman. He sipped his beer. She wasn’t the sort of woman he normally found attractive. She was older than he was, or at least looked older than he was, and though he was of course only speculating about it, she seemed to have a sadness about her that was far more complicated than he was interested in sharing or even tolerating—a messy divorce, a dead kid, recovering drug addict, something like that. But still, there it was, this attraction, undeniable, present in spite of his attempts to ignore it. He wanted to reach out and take her hand.

“I keep interrupting you,” the woman said. She looked up from her book and turned it so that it faced Lennart. “But am I reading the map properly? I think I am but it’s hard to tell. All the water. And the jet lag. I slept all morning. Coming this way, east I guess it’d be, is the worst.”

He pushed his phone and the newspaper out of the way so the woman could place the book in front of him. “What are you trying to find?” he said. He knew the city well. Here was a problem he could fix.

The woman pointed to the map. “The Vasa Museum,” she said. “That’s it there, right?” She tapped her finger on the map and then pointed across the bay, leaning to try to see the museum. Lennart didn’t think it was possible to see it from this side of Skeppsholmen, even from high up at the terrace.

“Yes,” said Lennart, a little disappointed that what she was looking for was close, so easy to point to. “It’s just beyond the island there, the larger of the two. You can’t see it from here, but it’s on the far side. Can’t miss it.” He had meant to suggest that he take her there himself later that afternoon, but now that he’d explained how easy it was to find, he’d need to come up with something better.

The Vasa was accidentally rediscovered when the channel in the bay was dredged to accommodate the increasingly large cruise liners that came in and out of Stockholm. Centuries of mud and silt preserved the ship and now, exposed to the air, it was slowly crumbling.

“I’m only here for a week,” the woman said. “Would you recommend touring? I’ve already been to a number of museums.” She didn’t wear any jewelry and had slender fingers that moved quickly from object to object in a way that Lennart thought was inelegant but attractive. He’d been to the Vasa many times. The ship rested on a group of metal pylons arranged at the bottom of a dry-dock in the center of the building. The main hall always smelled damp, thick with tar. The ship was remarkable in size, but only because it was indoors and so old.

“I haven’t been in years,” he said. “My father took my sister and me to the opening. 1989, that must have been.” The Vasa sank in 1628 on her maiden voyage. He’d always remembered historical dates easily but not those from his own life. One summer when Lennart was a boy, not long after the trip with his father, a heavy storm had hit the island where his father had his summerhouse and flooded the house, sea water reaching all the way inland to the village that straddled the canal between the island and the mainland. He remembered the rain lasting days. The night after his father died, Lennart had been unable to sleep. What kept him awake wasn’t the grief of losing his father, at least not exactly. It was the question of whether the storm had occurred the summer before or the summer after his parents divorced. He’d been at the house, he thought, but had his father? Had his mother? The storm held greater symbolic meaning if it happened the year before the divorce, but he couldn’t be sure he wasn’t forcing that meaning to exist where there was none. But what difference did it make? The storm was neither a sign of things to come, nor the result of the past. It was heavy rain and waves that broke high on the shore, flowed into the house, carried his father’s boat away. There was no meaning. It just happened.

“It must have been quite the ordeal,” the woman said.

Obviously, she meant the museum opening itself, not his father’s having taken him to it, but the inclination to respond literally itched coarsely in his throat. He tried to recall if it had been an ordeal. There must have been some sort of celebration, but he couldn’t locate a clear memory of the day he’d gone, and his father disliked crowds so it was unlikely they’d gone to a ribbon cutting or a parade. For as long as Lennart could remember, the fact that he had gone to the opening of the Vasa museum had been a fact of his life. To revisit the memory had never occurred to him. “I guess I don’t remember,” he said.

The woman looked down at her guidebook and Lennart followed her eyes to an image of the three familiar stylized masts rising from the boxy red building. “The architecture looks gorgeous,” she said “Where I’m from in Chicago there are tours you can take just to learn about architecture. I’ve never been but I hear they are very informative.”

“I don’t think we have anything like that here,” Lennart said.

“No,” the woman said as if to confirm the fact. “That’s too bad.”

Lennart’s phone buzzed again. A text message from his sister: “Where are you? We’re waiting. M & U are pissed. Answer me?” He deleted the message.

“What do you do?” the woman asked suddenly. Though he had lived in the United States for a long time, it always took him a moment to understand that when Americans asked this they were asking about work.

“I’m an engineer for a mobile telephone company,” he said, a little disappointed he hadn’t thought of something else to tell her, art historian, gastroenterologist, minister of education, anything.

“And you’re skipping out on work?” she said, starting to laugh. “That must be why your phone keeps ringing.”

“Summer holiday,” he said, raising his glass. “I have full permission to drink during the day.”

She raised her empty glass at him. Beyond her he could just make out the small figures of people lined up in the glass-walled gangway attached to a cruise ship’s hull farther down the wharf. On the water, there were ferries and motorboats. It was a nice day to be out on the water. In North Carolina, he’d once been in love with a woman who’d claimed people have eleven senses. Everyone was mistaken that there were only five, she’d told him. It was so limiting, so inhuman. There were four different types of touch: pain, cold, pressure, and heat. Then there was taste, sight, hearing, smell, balance, and acceleration. And finally kinesthetic sense, which is the ability to locate various body parts (the shoulder, for example) when not looking at them. His phone buzzed.

“Working vacation?” He watched her eyes dart quickly to his empty beer glass and then back up to him.

“It’s nothing serious,” he said. “Just something I don’t want to do.” Once, he must have been in fourth or fifth grade, he told his friend Conny that his father beat him. He’d wanted to see how Conny would react. Lennart often lied just to see what might happen.

“Turn off the phone. Enjoy the day,” the woman said. She raised her glass, sipped from it, and looked away.

Lennart turned toward the bar, looking for one of the waitresses so that he could order drinks. “You’re right,” he said and turned back to the woman. He felt the gentle rub of the alcohol brush against the inside of his stomach, rising pleasurably. He was happy and hopeful about the afternoon, and about his father, and his siblings. Let them wait, let them make a decision for once. He turned to the woman and said, more weakly than he’d meant, “Perhaps I can show you the museum.”

“Look at that,” the woman said. She pointed to the water with her empty wine glass.

In the bay, only a finger or two from shore when seen from the distance of the terrace, a passenger ferry had caught on fire. Flames clawed the fore section of the boat. They jumped and pulsed, lipped over the top of the pilot’s cabin. A steady cloud of black smoke rose up and outward, obscuring parts of the ferry and the passengers racing madly across its decks. Lennart was surprised he’d missed the commotion until then. Gusts of wind pushed the smoke toward land, forming a long tubular cloud. He leaned forward across the table toward the woman for a clearer view. “I hope no one’s hurt,” she said flatly. “It looks bad.”

Three white lifeboats drifted slowly away from the flames in the direction of the crowd of boats that had by now circled the ferry. From the terrace, it was only possible to see a raised arm, an upright torso, a blur of color from panicked movement. Most of the people at the bar had come to stand at the wall, drinks in hand, conversations lost. He felt knees pressing into his back as people strained to watch the fire. More boats circled in the water. A firefighting boat raced in from the east.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” the woman said.

A person jumped from the boat to the water. Lennart placed both of his hands out to steady himself against the table. The woman put her hands on top of his. Her hands were warm and the table was warm from the sun. One of the enormous Viking Line ships, inbound from the archipelago, approached, its passengers unaware of the tragedy they would soon witness.

Lennart’s phone rang again. It vibrated loudly against the table. He started to reach for the phone. The woman gripped his hands tighter. “Don’t,” she said. “Everything is going to be fine.”

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