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It looks like I may survive this week after all.
For the longest time I’ve been eyeing with dread the circle around week 49 on the calendar, the ill boding date the car would go into the shop to have the fender repaired. What weighed most on me was not the fact that poor little Cloudberry (so named because her color and form are that of the Arctic’s only indigenous species of fruit) had been smashed. It happened months ago when Veronica too hurriedly exited the garage, one of the few times she’s ever felt late for something that I wasn’t involved in. She left Cloudberry wedged in the side of the garage door, motor running, and returned to the house where she stood on the porch and rang the bell to summon me. That tells you how bad she felt, but I took it in stride. Having twice been involved (strike that, responsible for) car accidents involving innocent human lives (once my child and once a bicycling migrant worker), I said tsk tsk and jogged on down to rescue the car from the jaws of the garage.
That’s the only accident the car has had in the year I’ve owned it, although there was a close call the time Veronica backed down the driveway and ended up millimeters from the neighbor’s wall, unable to turn. From the kitchen window I saw the neighbor from across the road bolt over his lawn waving his arms and shouting Stop! (If a Norwegian’s decibel level can ever truly qualify as shouting is disputable, but his body language was definitely shouting.) Without a word to Veronica, who was still at the wheel and may not even have seen him, the man quite astoundingly lifted Cloudberry up by the rear bumper and set the car down a foot and a half from the wall. With a friendly wave he trotted back to his woodpile and resumed chopping.
Remind me of this if I ever tell you Norwegians aren’t helpful and friendly. However, I will answer that in general they aren’t. This man’s action was the exception to the cardinal rule of Norwegian social etiquette: Avert your eyes and don’t say anything. It is best to leave people alone. I can prove this with quotes from the newspaper call-in column where on occasion, among the whiners and complainers, you read something like this:
A thousand heartfelt thanks to you, kind Samaritan, who last Thursday stopped to help my 95-year-old father after the sliding glass doors at the airport closed on him and crushed his legs. It brings tears to my eyes to know there are kindhearted souls in the world who can allow themselves to be bothered…
It was only while discussing cultural communication at the sixth form college that my students were able to explain to me that when my neighbors failed to come over with casseroles or offer help unloading the 20 foot container we arrived with from Hawaii in 2001, it was because they were being polite. Their somewhat confusing rendition of the cultural norm was: you don’t want to impose by introducing yourself to people you don’t know yet.
On behalf of Cloudberry, Veronica and I are glad our neighbor felt on familiar enough terms to save our car’s literal behind. It may sound like Veronica’s the only one who drives the car, and that is true. I walk to work. I have the luxury of walking to work, so of course I don’t have to go by the grocery store on the way home to pick up milk and apples, or the gas station for fuel and a car wash. I live a blissfully car-free life, with all my car-requiring-errands done by someone else. In fact, I use the car only once a week, to and from my choir rehearsal. That’s it. As I’ve been known to skip choir rehearsal for reasons less pressing than no car, there is absolutely no explanation why I dreaded Cloudberry’s absence during the 4-day operation to fix her dislocated shoulder and broken collar bone. No reason for me to feel so cut off, stranded; to fear we’d run out of milk and apples and firewood and wither away in this barren wintry wasteland. Forget that there are three bus lines that run nearby, or that one can, if called upon to do so, walk 20 minutes each way to the grocery store like all the university students do who live in the basement apartments around here.
No, I simply dreaded the thought of being without transportation. I insisted we stock up on essentials, like the whole milk I use to make evening café lattes and the cream I use in my morning tea. And, OH MY GOODNESS I ALMOST FORGOT – dog food! Luckily I noticed last week, when we still had the car, that the dog food was bound to run out. I arranged a stock-up plan that involved Veronica venturing out in the pitch black crack of dawn to catch the bus so I could have the car and drive to get dog food before the vet closed at 15:30. I’d swing downtown and fetch Veronica, who would be standing ready packed in her school’s parking lot, and we’d beat the afternoon rush back to Hunstad, swoop up Bia, who also would be standing packed and ready at the bottom of the driveway, and get her to piano lessons by 16:35.
My plan was foolproof except for the unexpected glitch that the vet was out of dog food. My first shock entering the clinic was the sight of Pernille, the leader of the choir I used to belong to, grinning at me from behind the counter the way she used to grin at me from across the room in the fluty soprano section. She has a pretty smile, but you never knew if she was admiring or mocking you. Worse than her perfect smile and perfect voice, she had perfect hair, and wore unique stylish clothing that could not possibly have been purchased this side of the Arctic Circle. It took me a moment to adjust to the sight of her here in the vet clinic wearing an animal hair coated wrap-around tunic with Dog Doctors embroidered on it in cursive script. Hi Pernille! I said to her, while thinking to myself: like hell you’re a dog doctor! Haven’t you been working on your dissertation in social work for the past half decade?
Well, it turned out Pernille was just an assistant to the dog doctor. It must be a hobby. Sort of a reprieve from social work. She was, in fact, one of five or six assistants running around the place. One of them, I could have sworn, was my friend Laura Weinert, last seen in 1974 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee in the company of a white Arabian gelding named Thunder. The woman even said Oh! HI! as if she knew me, as if we were neighbors or colleagues, but she was just a few years older than Laura Weinert would have been in 1974, so I couldn’t have known her. It was one of those moments when you should probably ask someone politely to remind you where you know them from, but I didn’t. My mind was clouded by the sight of the dog food shelves being mostly empty and the veterinarian assistants milling around with pencils and notepads. Apparently it was inventory restocking time.
Despite valiant efforts, the assistants could not locate the dog food I needed. Pernille examined every bag remaining on the shelves. Laura asked the vets if they’d seen any lying around. Pernille checked the store room. Laura reviewed the computer database. It was past the clinic’s closing time when Pernille emerged from yet another consultation with the Dog Doctor holding two small bags in her arms. They were puppy food. Large Dog Puppy Food. I had a vision of Hector, my large dog who at age 3 weighs 63 kg, eating this stuff when he was just a wee thing about the size of Cloudberry’s trunk. (Now to get Hector into the car we have to remove the backseat.) Pernille relayed the doctor’s message that puppy food would be fine to tide Hector over, and due to the inconvenience they’d give me this bag free of charge.
She held up the smaller bag and asked if it’d be enough to carry us along until the regular dog food arrived. I looked at the bag and wondered, yet again, if Pernille was mocking me. I tried to visualize Hector’s half-liter scoop interacting with the contents of this bag and told her I reckoned it would cover a day and a half of Hector’s nutritional needs. Well in that case, chirped Pernille, you can buy the 5 kg bag and we’ll throw the 2 kg bag in for free! Wonderful, I said, but you see, when the regular bags of food arrive in week 49 I won’t have a car… we won’t be able to fetch the food… (my most dire imaginings now appeared imminent)… I wonder how long he can live on 7 kg of puppy food… maybe I can put him on half rations…
I was fretting in this manner when the Dog Doctor strolled by and Pernille called out: “Rasma won’t have her car next week. Can we drive the food out to her or something? She lives in Hunstad.” The vet smiled and said sure, she could drop it off.
She makes house calls? It seemed simply Victorian. I had a sudden vision of this woman in her Dog Doctor wrap-around tunic, driving her land rover, black doctor’s bag by her side, heroically saving the day in emergency situations like breached calf births, broken equine legs, and stranded starving Leonbergers. I thanked Pernille, and told myself that this little encounter had confirmed it once and for all. Her smile was genuine.
When I finally picked up Veronica, who was dutifully waiting outside her school, ready to jump into the car on the fly, I was plotting my aggressive approach to beating rush hour traffic and didn’t notice her staring questioningly into the backseat at the two bags of puppy food, one 2 kg and the other 5 kg, until she burst out laughing. “I walked to the bus so you could pick up that?” You betcha, and guess who sold them to me! I made her guess a while but Pernille, whom she also knows from choir, was not among even her wildest guesses.
The morning Cloudberry was to be dropped off, I found myself fretting again like the mother of an ill child. I was in the middle of reciting a long list of questions for Veronica to ask the head of car body repair when she interrupted to remind me that she was just parking Cloudberry and dropping off the key. I guess I had known that. After all, she had to walk a good 25 minutes from the body shop to work and her classes start at 08:10. I also realized that the questions I wanted asked were of the sort family members affectionately call Rasma Questions. On occasion they are called Dumb Questions, but with a certain admiration. My willingness to ask dumb questions has proved useful in a number of situations, from sacrifices in the courtyard of the temple of Kali to the wilds of online travel reservations.
Right, I told her. Just drop off the car. I’ll call the shop.
The head of car body repair appeared to be used to women like me, a bit nervous in anticipation of not being taken seriously about anything car-related, who start out saying things like, Do you have the car key? I actually asked him that. I asked him that after he told me he had the car. But I quickly kicked into Rasma-mode and asked Dumb Questions about my real concern: Cloudberry’s color. You see, Cloudberry is, and should remain, the color of a cloudberry, which is somewhere between yellow and orange and gold. I was worried she would come back looking like patchwork because her previous owner had already managed to get one door repainted in an off-cloudberry-gold. The slightly off color door has been a charming feature. It makes the car easy to identify when an identical little metallic gold-yellow-orange Toyota Yaris is parked next to Cloudberry in a shopping center parking lot, a situation that happens more often than you’d think in a town this size. It’s almost like these cars have a built in homing device. You hardly ever see cars that look like Cloudberry driving around, but in public areas when their owners are unawares, they tend to flock.
I told the car body head that I didn’t want the fender to end up looking like the odd back door on the opposite side of the car. He was patient, as car body heads go. He explained the precautions they take to keep that from happening and I hung up the phone feeling at ease.
That was yesterday morning. Yesterday evening Hector struck again. He came whining into my study to show me his fur. Look, look, he wagged until I saw. Lice. The damn dog had lice. How in the world can he get lice when he hardly ever leaves the house? It was a nightmarish moment, with nothing to do but put him to bed and plan to contact the vet in the morning. That is, plan to have Veronica contact the vet in the morning. As we got the household settled, I rattled off information to her about Hector’s allergies, food, shampoos, brushing routines, etc. When I finished she said, Why do you want me to call when you’re the one who knows his condition? I had three ready reasons, one lamer than the next. 1) She has an office phone. 2) She has a better Norwegian vocabulary than I do. 3) She has had a cat for years.
We left it there, but this morning when I got up I knew I had to do the calling. The fine art of Dumb Question Asking would be crucial in this situation. Furthermore, I would safeguard the situation by calling two different vet clinics, the one Hector used to go to and the one Pernille works at. After one call I got the most pressing information cleared up: no, we won’t get lice from the dog; no, the cat won’t get lice from the dog; no, we don’t have to shampoo all our furniture and fumigate the house; no we don’t have to shave the dog down to a stubble; no, I won’t have to bring the dog to the clinic by bus or maxi taxi (I even had a back-up plan brewing in my mind that involved my ex-husband’s semi-truck).
I felt thrilled by this information and decided to take the bus down to the vet’s and get the medicine. My students were having their 5-hour written final, and I didn’t have to be at school all day. By golly, if I planned things right, I might even be able to take the bus in broad dim daylight! There was a margin of about one and a half hours midday in which to accomplish that.
I have actually never caught a bus in Bodø. Rather, I’ve never caught the bus I intended to catch. Sometimes it’s been due to my needing bus schedule reading remediation. Other times it’s been the clock’s fault. Once in a while it’s been mysterious forces that defy explanation, like the night a few summers ago when I managed to miss every bus for a sequence of about ten buses, even though I started out in the city center and walked along the bus route. I ended up walking all the way home. It took two hours.
It didn’t really surprise me today when, despite careful studying of the schedule and synchronizing of my watch, I found myself once again standing in a vacant bus stop awaiting a bus that apparently everyone else knew wasn’t coming. I always feel conspicuous when waiting for buses. I imagine the neighbors are looking out their windows and snickering. Look at her! She thinks a bus in coming! They place small bets on when I’ll finally leave and go look for another bus at another bus stop. I usually try to feign control and avoid obvious examinations of my watch, a clear admission of being at the wrong place at the wrong time that will make the bus stop spectators increase their bets.
I waited and waited for bus 13. I pondered the possibilities for its lack of arrival and found none that made sense. It couldn’t have come early; I could see the bus stop a good five minutes before I arrived at it, and no bus had come by. It couldn’t be the wrong schedule; it was a regular day, not a weekend, not summer holiday, not Easter holiday, not winter holiday, not Christmas holiday, not autumn holiday (also known as Potato Holiday); it wasn’t even a red day, one of the days you are allowed to fly the flag, like the Crown Prince’s stepson’s birthday. There was no explanation, so when it was sufficiently past the time that the bus could possibly have come late, I began to saunter down the road and across the Galnåsen condo complex to the stop for bus 22. Of course, half way there the 13 bus drove past my right shoulder, sending clods of snow flying through the air. It had been THAT late? At THAT SPEED?
It was now dark, being close to 2 p.m. and I leaned against the bus 22 glass wall and played the headlight game. That’s where you try to predict if the headlights you see floating through the air toward you are low enough to belong to a car or high enough to belong to a bus. It’s a game I have a lot of practice doing, from spending a fair amount of time at bus stops where buses, as a rule, don’t pass. Luckily I don’t have to take the bus often. Since getting Cloudberry I don’t think I’ve taken the bus at all, but that did not make my feeling of frustration and humiliation any less while standing at the number 22 bus stop in a forced pose of confidence intended to ward off the sneers of the peering neighbors. Finally, headlights that had to belong to a bus approached, and pretty much on time too. Instead of the number 22 across the front, it said Not in Route. As it swooshed past, flinging clods of snow at the glass windows of the bus stop, I saw the reason for the sign. It was crammed full. Those would be my students, whose exam finished at 14:00, I reasoned, and was just as glad to not get on that bus. Another soon came. This one transported only three people. I got on and paid my 28 kroner for the six kilometer trip to the vet’s.
I had to walk a short way from the main road and cross the highway. It was like I was in a different city. What seemed like stadium lights along the road blinded me, a sudden blizzard defying all laws of nature sent snow through my wool coat, fleece jacket, wool sweater, turtleneck pullover and down my back, and the traffic roar which included ambulances and semi trucks playing chicken drowned out the audio book I was listening to on my iPod. I left the highway and stumbled along the dark snow clad side road, glad for the reflectors that dangled from both my pockets, and made it as far as the first vet clinic. I had intended to go to both of them, just to see if they had the same advice and the same price on medications, but when I got to Dog Doctor’s, shaking the snow and ice off the hood of my coat and taking off my double layer of gloves, there was Pernille, standing before the half empty shelf of dog food making notations on a pad of paper in consultation with the Dog Doctor.
We were just talking about you! she beamed, flashing me that Cheshire cat grin. It seems the man I had passed smoking outside the clinic, the one with the thick white hair and thick white mustache, who looked like he would be found working in a Tivoli arcade, was the dog food delivery man. They had told him about me and ordered ten bags of Hector size food. They had discussed with him the situation of my not having a car to transport the food. We’ll fix that when the time comes, said the Dog Doctor, and once again I imagined her saving the day for distraught animals in remote corners of the county in her land rover. Or did she just happen to drive by my neighborhood after work each day and that’s why she offered to deliver the food? Maybe Mr. Gray Hair would deliver it. One way or the other, here was a team that was not going to let Hector starve. I decided not to shop around. I bought the medicine from the Dog Doctor. 470 kroner, at the moment, seemed like a deal. Here it was, week 49, the week of no car, and I had managed to get my dog treated for lice and fed. I trudged back to the bus stop. Once again I was the only person there, but the bus came more or less when I thought it would. Ten minutes and 28 kroner later I was home again, making Hector some pasta to go with his puppy food.
Tomorrow is Thursday. Friday, with luck, we’ll get Cloudberry back and once again we’ll be mobile. Just one more day. Was it only yesterday morning Cloudberry went in? It seems weeks have passed.
I feed Hector and put on the coffee. I’ll have a nice latte ready for when Veronica gets here. She’ll be on time. She never misses the bus. I open the refrigerator and feel I am basking in abundance. Three quarts of whole milk line the bottom shelf, two unopened. We’re not going to run out. Tomorrow is Thursday. We’re going to make it.
A selfish poet
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