Your voice

For thirty years you were my support and my strength. I would rely on you in the most mundane of matters. In a grocery store, I would call you on the mobile phone and ask you something stupid like, The rice you wanted, there’s ten thousand varieties here, white rice, brown rice, Thai rice, Roma rice, bomba rice, jasmine rice, long grain rice, medium grain, short grain, and so on and so forth, and you would tell me which rice you wanted and I would proceed with the shopping.

When we were apart, for whatever reason — you in Michigan looking after your elderly mother, or me alone in a cabin in New Hampshire trying to come to grips with my son’s suicide — we talked on the phone every night, and I longed to hear your voice, and be encouraged by your strength, and heartened by the beliefs in your soul.

And now I don’t have that and will never have that again, and I don’t know how the hell to go on without it.

Tor Holmström, where are you?

TOR HOLSTRÖM drifted into New Orleans like a tropical breeze, inviting yet elusiveness . He was a rakish figure, tall and lean, fair hair tousled in the wind. Here was a man who moved lightly through life.

He “lived above the fray,” as he once put it. He was a young itinerant writer with no permanent home. A single man, a restless man, flying back and forth across America like an insomniac pacing his room.

In November of 2004 he touched down in New Orleans. He checked into a hotel in the French Quarter and began partying in that community. At a local nightspot he met a young woman named Sarah. When he introduced himself she already knew his name. She had read his last novel, The Suitcase Man, but found it “superficial” and not in the same league as the one that came before it, Sleep the Small Death.

“Now that was a hell of a book,” she told him.

I’m sure he stared into her dark-brown eyes, scanned her thick, auburn hair, the untamed eyebrows, the generous mouth. Sarah was an earthy, vibrant woman.

Things moved quickly after that.

VAGABOND

On their second date, he told her about his vagabond lifestyle. That’s when he used the phrase “above the fray.” Sarah was a wordsmith, too. She was an editor at the Times-Picayune. “You’re Scandinavian,” she said. “Instead of living above the fray, you should live according to Frey,” she said, spelling the word.

“The Norse god of weather,” he acknowledged.

“Not just weather,” she noted, “ but the god of fertility, crops, peace and prosperity.”

Sarah told me she looked into his eyes at that moment and said to him, “That’s what you—what we should have, Tor, each of those things. We should live in a house, plant crops, be fertile—in the soil and in the body—and live a peaceful and prosperous life.

Sarah told me she then sang a line from an old folk song about a boll weevil who says to the farmer, “You’ve gotta have a home, you’ve gotta have a home.” This is what Sarah sang to Tor in a low, slow voice.

“Listen to the boll weevil,” she urged him.

FINALLY A HOME

And so he did, and they embarked on all the things she had mentioned. They got married, bought a house and lay the groundwork for a fertile, peaceful and prosperous life.

Tor Holmström, the wandering novelist, finally had a home. He told me about a week after they were married that all the aimless flying around in the sky had been worth it, to arrive at that point with his “earthen Sarah,” as he called her.

The earth was good to them. It was the sky that was insane. One of the most powerful hurricanes ever to form in the Atlantic was heading for the Louisiana coast.

On the morning of Sunday, August 28, 2005, the mayor of New Orleans issued an evacuation order. Tens of thousands of residents begin leaving the city. Tor and Sarah held their ground. Early next morning, Katrina hit. Winds of 150 miles an hour pushed the Gulf of Mexico into waves forty feet high. Water surged over the levees and flooded the city. Destruction and chaos were immediate. Evacuees who couldn’t get out of town packed the Superdome.

INTO THE MAELSTROM

Tor and Sarah were caught in the maelstrom. The hurricane demolished their house. They ran hand-in-hand from the ruins. Debris rained down. A flying brick smashed into Sarah’s head. She fell all at once. The hurricane didn’t miss a beat.

Tor cradled her head. She died like that.

Holmström, I believe, would have prayed for his own death. A witness heard him yell at the sky: “Don’t leave me like this, you bastard!” An impious but fervent prayer.

As if to hasten his own death, he lay Sarah to one side and walked into the hurricane. I learned this from a neighbor, a doctor who witnessed the whole tragedy. Walking away like that, not staying with his wife was a selfish act, perhaps, but I understand it. Here was a man who, until he met Sarah, couldn’t make a commitment to anyone or anything. And when he finally did, it was torn from him.

That was the last time Tor Holmström would ever listen to the boll weevil. And that was the last time, as far as I know, anyone ever saw him. Nobody I talked to afterwards knew what happened to him.

More than 1,800 people were killed by the hurricane and hundreds more went missing. Many were never identified. After some time had passed, I figured Holmström was in that number. Even years after Katrina, there were no definite figures on the dead and the missing. The bodies of many unidentified victims were buried in a field on top of the former Charity Hospital Cemetery. Perhaps Tor Holmström was among them.

ADDRESS UNKNOWN

On the chance he didn’t die, I have tried to locate him these past years. I google his name from time to time, in case he’s gone back to writing. I contacted his publisher, only to be told they have no current address for him.

“He still gets royalty checks, doesn’t he?” I asked. “Where do you send them?”

His royalty checks, I was informed, were automatically deposited into a bank account, its name and location private information. Holmström could be getting those checks anywhere in the world.

Then, in December of 2011, a break. An essay on the release of the American version of the Swedish film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, appeared in the features section of The New York Times. The byline on the piece was none other than Tor Holmström. When I saw that name I literally jumped out of my chair.

He was alive! Not only that, but here was an opportunity to contact him, something I have desperately wanted to do, but feared was lost forever.

At the end of the essay, there was this biographical line: Tor Holmström is a writer who gets his mail in Key West, Florida.

I read that line with great excitement.

KEY WEST

I wrote a letter addressed to Holmström with my phone number, mail and e-mail addresses and enclosed it in a larger envelope that I sent to the features editor of the Times, asking that the letter be forwarded. I waited, hoping, actually expecting in view of what I had put in the letter, to hear from him.

Two weeks went by, a month, two months and then another disappointment. My letter came back: Return to sender, addressee has moved, no forwarding address.

There was one last thing I could try. The next morning I set out on the eighteen-hour drive to Key West, stopping only for gas and just once to grab a fitful sleep in my car.

When I arrived in Key West, I checked into a hotel on Duval Street and began hanging out in the bars on and off the strip, talking to bartenders, writers and other people who might know him, or know of him.

People who did know him told me he had left Key West a month earlier, destination unknown. I drove back to New Orleans in great frustration.

I’m anxious to find him. Sarah was my sister. Five minutes after she died the doctor who lived next door performed a postmortem cesarean as she lay amid the destruction. He retrieved a baby. It is alive today. A boy, seven years old last August.

Tor Holmström (Photo from the jacket of his novel ‘Sleep the Small Death,’ courtesy Norlander Publishing Co.)

 

Stop the biscuits from dancing

Alone in his cell, Vito read the letter from his wife’s seventeen-year-old niece. One paragraph in particular amused him:

“I’ve always thought of you as someone who is living on the edge. I’ll never forget when you were living in Gore Bay and we were all eating dinner and you threw your plate against the wall. It was so goddamn shocking it was perfect. Keep in touch.”

He had emphasized to the prosecutor that it was his wife’s niece, that is to say, his niece-in-law, thus hoping to dispel the taint of imagined incest. (He would grant a tinge, but not a taint.)

The case involved Vito, his wife Helen and their six-year-old son Willy, when they were living in a rented house in northern Ontario. Vito was twenty-seven and beginning a career as a freelance writer. With few savings and a wife who in those days was referred to as a homemaker the pressure was already getting to him. He was into Xanax, washed down with gin and tonics.

They were to have a visitor that summer. She was coming from a troubled home in the city. The girl’s mother had phoned Helen, her sister, and asked if she could take the girl off her hands for a while. And so she came.

ENTER THE NIECE

Vito picked her up at seven o’clock in the evening at the Greyhound bus station. He hadn’t seen her for several years. She was probably around his son’s age when he last saw her. Now, getting off the bus was a young woman, almost his height. The only real indications of a teenage girl were the halter top and cutoff blue jeans.

Her hair was the richest brown and as long as her finely grooved back, which, at the beginning of summer, was already perfectly tanned, save for a single bikini-string line of white just below her shoulder blades.

She walked toward him with a confident bearing. Her legs were long and slim, although keenly muscled in the thigh and calf—pillars of perfect youth and evenly tanned to her toes. Her feet were elegantly slender. She wore wedgies.

“So you’re the famous uncle.”

Her eyes were extraordinary—dark brown, and by some quirk of nature that no one in the family could explain since her parents were pure Caucasian, unmistakably oriental—almond shaped and beautiful beyond her age and parentage.

“Julie?” he said. “I wouldn’t have known you.”

“Not the same little girl who used to sit on your lap, huh?”

Vito picked up her suitcase the bus driver had unloaded and they walked to the parking lot. He put the suitcase in the trunk of his car and opened the passenger door for her. He went around and got in behind the wheel.

“Aren’t you glad to see me?” she said.

“Of course. Why would you say that?”

“You’re so quiet.”

He didn’t answer and they drove through tall white pines and warm evening air to a ranch style house at the end of a dirt road. Behind the house could be heard the rocky rush a rapidly flowing river.

They went inside the house.

IN THE SHOWER

She showered a lot that summer. That was the sound he heard most. The shower, with Julie inside it. He was in his study trying to write. He wrote, but not what he had intended to write. He wrote about a disturbingly Beautiful girl in his shower.

The story got away from him. The language and the imagery became alarmingly explicit and the characterization absurdly transparent, but he regarded it as a good deal above trash. It seemed to him to be a powerful novel. His wife had no knowledge of it. She thought he was writing the article he had been writing before her niece arrived.

“How’s the story coming?” his wife asked.

“Fine,” he replied.

“Good. I’ll get dinner.”

The condemned man ate a hearty meal.

Canada Day came around. Vito had planned a steak and chicken barbecue down by the river, but it rained furiously all day. Helen said she would cook everything on the stove. The four of them sat down to eat. Helen was a rotten cook. The steak and chicken were overdone and dry, the corn on the cob was mushy and the biscuits she served on the side were as hard as rocks. Vito sought solace and nourishment in red wine and after several glasses became quite jolly.

THE FAILED NUN

He was cracking jokes all over the place. Some of them (he learned later, when he was sober) were at the expense of his wife. She had spent her late teenage years as a novitiate in a convent. She wanted to be a nun. She knelt on stone floors at dawn and prayed to God. She wasn’t a strong woman. Many mornings she couldn’t get up at dawn and kneel on stone floors. She prayed to God for strength. It didn’t work. Finally, she left the convent. She left as she had entered: a virgin with dark hair and good breasts. She got a job in the library of the local university. Vito was a student at the university, in his final year.

When he met her she still had sore knees. After she finished work in the library, they would walk across campus to a bar, all the time talking about writers and poets and living in a lighthouse. He told her he felt like a seahorse trapped in a hole, which he thought was a quote from García Lorca. One Saturday, he sent a telegram to her room. Lean out of the window, Goldenhair, he wrote on the cable blank, which he thought was a quote from James Joyce. He did not want to sign the telegram, trusting she would know it was from him.

“What’s the signature on this?” the man in the telegraph office asked.

“There’s no signature,” Vito told him.

When she got the telegram, it read: LEAN OUT OF THE WINDOW, GOLDENHAIR. NOSIG. She didn’t know who Nosig was, but she leaned out of the window. He was standing below in a street of madness. He was twenty years old. She was twenty-four. They were married in a hail of hope and delusion.

MOTHER INFERIOR

Seven years later, at the Canada Day table, Vito recounted to Julie his wife’s time in the convent and her fervent desire to be a nun, referring to her at one point as Mother Inferior. (He couldn’t remember saying that, but say it he did.) Julie laughed out loud. Inspired by her laughter, Vito launched into an amusing tale (to Julie, anyway) lampooning habit-wearing nuns.

His son, capitalizing on the giddy moment, took a couple of biscuits from his plate and made like they were dancing on the table. Vito continued his drunken jesting, Julie kept laughing and his son kept the biscuits dancing on the table like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Helen, getting redder by the second, raised her hand as though to strike the boy, or, at least, (and this was undoubtedly the real reason) to still his frenetic hands.

She screamed at him: “Stop the biscuits from dancing!”

Vito grabbed his wife’s hand and said, “What the hell are you doing?”

“Trying to enjoy my meal,” she yelled back.

“That, madam,” he informed her calmly, “would be an impossibility.”

That’s when he did it. He lifted his plate and threw it against the wall. Everyone looked at the broken, dripping mess in horror, especially Vito. He turned to his wife but she jumped up from the table, ran into the bedroom and slammed the door.

Vito looked at Willy and Julie in hopeless regret. They just shrugged, got up from the table and went into the living room to watch TV. Vito knocked on the bedroom door, but he knew it was a lost cause. He cleaned up the mess of food and broken china on the wall and the floor and fell into a deep sleep on the sofa in his study.

The next day he was so hungover he didn’t care that his wife avoided him. He stayed in his study.

MONSTROUS TALE

Normally, what he was writing would stay where it belonged, in the study, until the time came to mail it off. But this monstrous tale seeped under the door and down the hallway like a secretion of pure menace. He couldn’t remember exactly how Helen managed to read the manuscript, but read it she did, and she was appalled. Her intellect was devastated, her sensibilities betrayed and outraged. She thought she had married a romantic sensitive guy, a writer and a poet, and here was the filth of a maniac.

When she confronted him with it, he told her it was just a book. Fiction. None of it actually happened.

“The desire happened!” she cried.

She had him there.

“So?” he said. “Is that a crime?”

“When it’s my sixteen-year-old niece, you bet it’s a crime.”

The girl was sent home. Vito threw the offending manuscript in the garbage, gave up the house in the woods and they moved back to an apartment in Toronto.

Helen began staying out late at night, riding the subway, trying to figure out what was happening—to her, to him, to their marriage. He was waiting for her when she came home from one of her midnight rides.

She told him right out. “I was with this guy. Incredible, isn’t it?”

She went into the bedroom. He followed her.

“What happened?” he asked.

“The unthinkable,” she said.

She lay down on the bed.

He lay down next to her in the darkness.

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