2 May 2009 | Vol. 9, No. 1
The Kingdom of Norway
There's this bar we go to sometimes. It's called The Kingdom of Norway and it's very exclusive. In fact, it's so exclusive we've never been there. No one we know has ever been there and no one you know has ever been there either. If they say that they have, they're lying. But tonight—trust me—we're going. And after that we imagine it will be the type of bar we can say we sometimes go to.
There are three of us in the car, which is Matty's and is an old VW Rabbit. Matty is my roommate and he has been since college. Back then we called him Matty and he liked it. "Hey, Matty," we'd say. "What's up, Matty?" "How's it going, Matty?" "Matty, give us a high five."
And back then he would. He'd say, "What's up," and he'd tell us how it was going, and he'd return all the high fives. We'd all slap hands and go to the bar for the three p.m. Happy Hour. And at five p.m. we'd go across the street to the other bar for the other Happy Hour. In college, we were all drunk all the time and Matty was our mascot. He could drink more than anyone and his hair was long and curly and everything was more fun when he was around.
But now Matty won't drink more than three drinks and he wears his hair short and no one calls him "Matty" except for me and his mother and his grandmother. And when we do—when, for example, I say, "Hey Matty, what's going on?"—he doesn't like it. Matty wants people to call him Matt or Matthew. He tells me that names mean something, that every name comes with an implied meaning, and that the name Matty means that no one is going to take your shit seriously. Then he reminds me that in his business shit needs to be taken very seriously.
His business is accounting. He's just a beginning accountant and right now counts decimals for Dickhead, Dickhead, & Associates. But someday he wants to become a chief financial officer. In preparation, he's stopped smoking pot and has learned to tie a tie. He knows the Windsor Knot and the Half-Windsor and is working on the Four In Hand.
I myself don't have a regular job. Until a month ago I taught kindergarten at a private school for rich kids. I taught them how to tie their shoes and finger paint and about the Alphabet People. But one day I failed a surprise drug test. "Nathan," the vice-principal said. She caught me at the end of the day, outside the entrance, as I was walking to my bus stop. "Would you mind peeing into this little cup?" She held the cup between two fingers and told me that it wasn't a big deal. She said that everyone had to take a drug test as part of their six-month review and that, in fact, it wasn't a surprise but was written in our contracts.
So I took the cup. I walked back to the building and into the bathroom, unzipped, and squeezed out some urine. The next day I went to my classroom early, before school started, and cleaned out my desk. Now I have a level sixty-two Viking on World of Warcraft and all day long I kick virtual ass.
Tonight Matty is driving because he's the only one of us with a car. His car is more like a piece of shit than an actual car because nothing in it works except for the air conditioning, which doesn't turn off. It works hard all the time blowing loud cold air in our faces. In fact, the air in the car is so cold we have to roll the windows down to warm up. Matty could fix the car if he wanted. He's got the money and could fix the air conditioning, the brakes, the water pump, the transmission, the windshield wipers, the burned-out headlight. If he wanted, he could buy a brand new car. But instead, he's saving his money so that he can move into a place of his own. He tells me that he still likes me and we'll still be friends and, as far as roommates go, he thinks I'm the best. "But Nathan," he says, "don't you think it's time we got out on our own?"
While he drives, he lights matches and flicks the lit matches out his open window. He steers without hands, his knees locked against the wheel, and the white-and-rust Rabbit tilts along the empty road, a crooked trail of black matches marking its path. These are my matches he's tossing and you can see he takes joy in spending them. I'm trying to quit smoking and Matty says he wants to help. So in this way, by lighting a match and tossing it out the window—match by match—the cigarettes in my shirt pocket become a little bit more useless. By the time we get to The Kingdom of Norway, they won't be much more than sticks of paper and tar.
In the back seat, Helen sings. She sang softly at first, to herself, but now her voice fills the entire car. She sings a song we don't know with words that go, "Je n'existe pas, I'm just a wish. Je n'existe pas, I don't exist. Je n'existe pas. Don't you wish."
She sings because the radio is broken and conversation is impossible over the blast of air. But Matty tries to talk to her anyway.
"What are you singing?" he shouts.
"A fake song," Helen says. "I'm making it up."
Helen is French-Canadian and very beautiful. She's been sleeping on our couch for the past week and Matty and I are both in love. Her hair blows wildly, caught in the lift and fall of the wind, and a black bit of it sticks between her lips. She spits it out and continues her song. She sings: "Je n'existe pas. Je n'existe pas. Je n'existe pas."
When we first met her, she told us that she had been traveling alone for months. She told us that she had just graduated college and was on a tour of the American continents and that her trip would end when she reached the southernmost tip of South America. Matty asked where that was and Helen shrugged.
"I'll know it when I get there," she said. "There will be no where to go but up."
I know all about the southernmost tip of South America. It's a clutch of islands, an archipelago called Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire, and it's half in Chile and half in Argentina.
When I was in junior high, I won my school's geography bee and went to the district semi-finals, and I won those, too. But I lost at the all-state competition to a home-schooled kid who thanked Jesus every time he answered a question correctly. That was the correct answer to the final question: Tierra del Fuego. The Land of Fire. It was neither in Chile nor in Argentina, but was a scattering of islands off the coast of both.
The home-schooled kid took home a big gold trophy and a spinning Rand-McNally globe. All I got was a cheap blue ribbon with "Runner-Up" printed in flaking silver letters. My parents hung it on the refrigerator and told me I'd do better next year. But next year the state ran out of money and had to cancel all the bees.
It turns out The Kingdom of Norway is farther than we'd thought. We've been driving now for hours and all of civilization is long behind. The road has become steep and narrow. It winds up into the mountains, which long ago met and overtook the setting sun.
This whole trip was Helen's idea. She had been given directions by the friend of a friend, some guy she met while lighting bottle rockets for the Fourth of July in St. Paul, Minnesota. Supposedly he used to tend bar at there. He told Helen that The Kingdom of Norway was a former speakeasy and that back in the day the bar was a favorite hangout for celebrities like Bugsy Siegel and Virginia Hill. Now it's so exclusive no one knows about it unless they've been told. You have to drive for hours into the wilderness just to get a drink. People have died there, the guy told Helen and Helen told us. Famous people.
Outside Matty's car, the sky is black and the thousand pines that rise above the road are blacker. Beside and below us the mountain descends into a dark green valley populated by a forest of towering trees. Matty lights the last match and with it sets the matchbook on fire. He waits until the matchbook is completely engulfed in flames and then tosses it out the window. The fiery bundle hits the pavement, bounces, and spins like a pinwheel through the air and careens down into the brush.
Around the next corner is a two-pump gas station. A square and glowing sign stands up in the trees, a beacon, but all the numbers have fallen off the sign except for a five, which dangles and sways in the evening breeze. Matty steers the car off the road and into the gravel lot. He pulls up to a pump and takes a twenty out of his pocket and hands the bill to me. "When you pay," he says, "remember to ask for directions." Then he gets out of the car, inserts the hose into the tank, and leans through the back window to talk to Helen.
When we talk to Helen, we usually talk to her about North America. We want to know where she's been and what it's been like but we're especially interested in Canada. Matty went to Vancouver once to visit his great uncle, but I've never been. When he came back he told me that Vancouver was just like every other place. His uncle lived in a gated housing development named Coopers Quay. There was a 7-Eleven across the street and a mile from that there was a strip mall with a twelve-screen movie theater. Mostly it was cold, Matty said. The wind blew hard and the sun set earlier than he was used to.
But I've seen the maps and I know, just by its geography, that Canada is different. For one, it's bigger. More open. There are no crowds of people. No one lives in small apartments with shared walls and shared floors and shared ceilings. I want Helen to tell us about the exotic places like Quebec, where they speak French, and about Newfoundland, where the Vikings first landed. I want to hear about Eskimos and dog sled races and winter roads that are laid across frozen lakes.
But Helen doesn't talk about Eskimos or dog sled races or winter roads. She didn't even know that the Eskimos have forty-two words for snow. "That's amazing," she said. "Imagine the possibilities." Helen tells us that she grew up in Alberta but has spent a lot of time in Quebec. She spent one summer outside the city working on an organic farm where the owners, a husband and wife, spoke only in French. They were assholes, she tells us. They knew English but refused to speak it and they forced her to work fourteen-hour days. Once, when they caught her eating a tomato off the vine, they deducted it from her paycheck. "A tomato," she said. "Do you know what that's worth? Less than fifty Canadian cents."
About her current trip, she tells us that she's been working her way west and, now that she's hit the Pacific coast, is heading south. She started in Toronto and before she met us had been in San Francisco. She was in Seattle before that. There she saw two killer whales in the Puget Sound. One, she says, lifted its tail like a penitent's hands from the steel-gray water. The other was dead, washed-up on a rocky beach.
The truth, however, is that Matty and I aren't all that interested in Helen's killer whales. We don't really care about how strong the wind felt as it blew across the Golden Gate bridge or the week that Helen survived on nothing but white wine and Hostess cupcakes. What we really want to know is where she slept at the end of every day. Did she sleep on couches? we wonder. Were they regular couches or pull-outs and how did these compare with our own? We want to know if she slept alone like she does in our apartment, as I've seen her when I've tiptoed into the room after Matty's asleep, with her black hair curtaining her pale soft face.
Inside the gas station is an old man with a graying ZZ Top beard sitting on a wooden stool. He grunts as the door chimes open and then goes back to watching the thin red hot dogs turn on the rack inside their little oven. There are boxes of cigarettes behind the counter and near the door is an old Ms. Pac-Man machine and a spinner-rack with dusty comic books. The floor smells as if it has just been washed and my shoes squeak as I walk across it. Outside, through the window, I see Matty leaning into the Rabbit's back seat, talking to Helen. Laughing. He reaches through the window and pushes a rush of hair off her face.
I put a quarter in Ms. Pac-Man and play three lives. Each time I get eaten by the pink ghost.
The guy at the gas station tells me there is no Kingdom of Norway. He flips open a phonebook and shows me the bar listings. There's a long list of names but the one I'm looking for isn't on it. He asks for the address and then unfolds a map. The road I have named is represented as a thin black line that staggers into the map's green wilderness. He shakes his head and his beard swishes across the map. "Kid," he says. "There's no bar on that street. There's no Kingdom of Norway. Out there, there's an electrical substation and an abandoned horse farm. That's about it."
Outside, dark northern clouds wall up in the sky and blank out the stars. Matty and Helen sit on the hood of the Rabbit. They lean against each other and a high cold wind blows pine needles from the trees. The needles patter down to the ground and lie like exclamation points on the parking lot gravel.
When they see me exit the store, they smile. Matty asks for his change and he wants to know if we're getting any closer. I tell him that I spent all of his money, and no. We're not getting closer.
I apologize to Helen and tell her that there is no Kingdom of Norway. I tell them that I looked it up in both a phonebook and on a map but it wasn't in either. Maybe there used to be a Kingdom of Norway, I say, but now it's gone. "It's late," I say. "Let's go home."
We don't go home and I get demoted to the back seat. We continue on our way and the sky fills with rain clouds. The pines loom above and rock in the strengthening wind. In the back seat, I play with my new lighter. I flick it on and off—on and off—and the effect is that of a slow strobe. A small fire flickering in this dark metal shell.
"Nathan," Matty says. "Will you cut that out? I'm trying to concentrate." The rain begins and the large drops break against the Rabbit's windshield. The windshield wipers are broken and the world before us blurs, becoming watery and washed-out.
But I don't stop.
The Rabbit presses through the rain and Matty hunches over the steering wheel, peering through the bleary windshield. He drives slowly now, the car engine whines, and with our windows closed, we are cold. We are very cold. Just when I think I can't take it anymore—the air conditioner, the car's dizzying spiral, the incessant rain—when I think I am ready to tear Matty from the wheel and turn the car around, the road crests the top of the mountain and the forest of bone-straight pines ends.
There, spread before us is a field, dark and broad, with tall grass. The grass whips and lashes in the downpour and in the distance, at the field's edge, we see the form of a building. It's indistinct, the form, but it is definitely a building. "Look," says Matty.
The building is bulky; it appears rectangular and long with a tall, pitched roof. The roof slants into the sky and is concealed, here and there, by clouds of fog.
"The Kingdom of Norway," he says.
"I told you," says Helen. She reaches across the seat and takes hold of Matty's hand. She squeezes it. "Exactly where I said it would be."
But it's not The Kingdom of Norway. Even from the back seat I can tell that the roof is pitched at an awkward angle and the building is dark, too dark for it to be anything but empty. "Turn around," I say. "This is stupid. Look at it; it's nothing. It's the abandoned horse farm. This is not The Kingdom of Norway."
But if they hear, Matty and Helen ignore me. They stare hopefully, straight ahead, through the blurring rain. Helen squeezes Matty's hand again and they look from the ruined building to each other's faces. I know what they're thinking: finally we've arrived.
The year the state canceled the geography bee, I wrote a letter to my principal. In it, I told him that the cancellation of the bee wasn't fair. It wasn't fair to me and it wasn't fair to students like me who had been studying all summer. "I'm a promising student," I wrote. "I'll bring fame to our school. There's not a place on the map I can't identify." The principal liked my letter—"It's a good letter," he told me but then told me that the problem was above him—and he suggested I send it to the district superintendent. So I sent the letter to the district superintendent and waited for his reply. When he responded, the superintendent told me the same thing as the principal. "It's bigger than us," he wrote. "The state's out of money. Budget shortfall. Financial crisis. Cuts need to be made." But he said I was right to complain and that if I really wanted to be heard I should call the local assemblyman. He gave me the telephone number and I called. I called more than a dozen times before the secretary put me through.
"I'm a busy man," the assemblyman said. "What do you want?"
I explained to him about the geography bee and about the year before and Tierra del Fuego. I told him that I'd been studying all summer, the whole map, and that he could quiz me on anything. "Anything," I said. "Come on. Ask me anything."
The assemblyman asked what it was I thought that he could do. He told me that he was only an assemblyman and that the state's budget was already set and there wasn't anything he could do to change it. "Even if I could," he said, "why should I? Why should I change it for you?"
"Because I'm a winner," I said. "I'm a sure winner, and this year I know it's my time."
About the author:
Bryan Hurt is a Ph.D. candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. He is the co-founder of the reading series, The Loudest Voice, and his work has appeared previously in Hot Metal Bridge and Salt Hill.
For further reading:
See the complete list of work by Bryan Hurt at 42opus. Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 9, No. 1, where "The Kingdom of Norway" ran on May 2, 2009. List other work with these same labels: fiction, short story.