Aaron Englund, July 1970
by Lori Ostlund
The summer that Aaron was five, he and his parents embarked on the first (and only) Englund family vacation, a two-week affair involving long stretches in the car. Some days they drove for six or seven hours at a time, his father stopping only for gas or to drink water from the thermoses that he kept in the trunk. Along the way, Aaron learned to read several words—stop, population, and vacancy—only to conclude by the trip’s end that he was not reading at all but was simply memorizing the appearance of each word, in the same way that he looked at a dog and recognized it as such without having to break the creature down into its specific parts: legs, tail, snout. Mainly, he passed the hours by staring at his father’s head with its bristly, policeman haircut. He had not known, until then, how white his father’s scalp was, white like the inside of a potato at the moment that it is split open.
It was hot that summer, unbearably so, and the three of them spoke rarely as they drove, though, in truth, this had less to do with the heat than with the sort of family that they were. “How much longer?” Aaron asked from time to time, and his mother gave cryptic responses involving hours and minutes, which meant nothing to him, while his father threatened to pull over and give him “a good spanking” if he did not shut up, which did mean something. Moreover, it was how his father always spoke of spankings, employing the adjective “good” as though the spanking represented some obvious moral truth.
Aaron had no idea where they were going, knew only that the road seemed endless, the heat unbearable, and that his father’s head was always in front him. He began to think that this was how his life was going to be from now on, the days toppling like dominoes, and so, despite his father’s threats and his mother’s meaningless replies, he continued to ask, “How long?”
On the fifth day, Aaron had a revelation. Every Saturday night before supper, he and his father watched Adam-12, a half-hour television program about two policemen, and though his father’s presence severely undermined his ability to focus, he had sat through the show with enough regularity for its length to mean something to him. Thus it was that on the fifth day, Aaron instead asked, “How many Adam-12s until we get there?”
“Four,” said his mother, and so the Adam-12 system for telling time was born. It was a rudimentary method to be sure, but his mother incorporated it into their daily lives, employing it long past the time suggested by necessity or reason, for she found something useful, even clever, in the system, some glimmer of possibility. The truth was that Aaron had no affinity for time, a condition that would persist into adulthood. Eventually, he would come to think of time almost as a religious inclination that had passed him by, something that others felt instinctively, that gave structure and meaning to their lives.
Though Aaron would later become enamored of irony, he was too young to understand it at the time, to take an ironic pleasure in the fact that at the end of the trip, he was given an unusual gift for any boy of five but particularly unusual for a boy who had no affinity for time: a heavy pocket watch with a silver chain. The watch was given to him by an old man named August, his mother’s relative, who fixed clocks and watches for a living. August had been unable to revive the watch, he told Aaron, his voice filled with remorse, using the word revive as though the watch had been drowning and he had pulled it from the water too late, its hands permanently stopped at 8:11.
They visited August on a Sunday. Aaron remembered the way that his father sat in August’s tidy living room and read the Sunday paper, looking bored and only occasionally pretending to listen to the conversation, which was about his mother’s relatives. Aaron’s father had been opposed to visiting August because he found him peculiar, particularly the fact that he was a bachelor yet maintained such a spotless home, but Aaron’s mother said that she was tired of the way that his father always managed to find something objectionable about her relatives, the way that he referred to them as “imbeciles, kooks, and semi-crooks.” August lived alone in Park Rapids, the town where his mother had grown up. There, he occupied what—Aaron had to agree—was an exceptionally neat house, though Aaron, unlike his father, did not find tidiness cause for concern. On the contrary, he appreciated August’s house, especially the dustless shelves that August had built to hold not books but the clocks that he had been unable to repair yet had not had the heart to discard.
August had extremely large fingers, his mother had told them, a trait that was normally considered a hindrance in his line of work. “But people bring their timepieces to him from miles and miles away,” she added proudly. His father snorted, but because they were pulling up in front of August’s house, he had not replied. As they got out of the car and stood picking at the clothing stuck damply to the backs of their legs, August came out of his house and looked at them from his enclosed porch. He was nearly seven feet tall with stooped shoulders, and at first, Aaron was frightened of him because he was so tall and unhappy looking, but once August was sitting, Aaron did not feel his height so profoundly, and he saw then that August looked unhappy largely because of his eyebrows and mustache, both of which drooped, giving him a defeated expression. His mother introduced August as her “great uncle,” and at the time, Aaron had believed that she was using “great’ to convey her opinion of her uncle, but later she explained to Aaron that August was her grandmother’s brother, which made August her great uncle and Aaron’s great-great uncle. The greats, she said, were just a way of moving back in time. Aaron was fortunate to have a great-great uncle because most people did not have great-great anythings since “greats” generally got old and died long before they could acquire the second “great.”
His mother prepared coffee in August’s kitchen while August hovered nearby, showing her where things were kept and putting them away again as soon as she was finished with them. August’s coffee was not like his parents’ coffee, which was coarse, like sand, and came in a metal container. Rather, his coffee was shaped like beans, which he ground using a wooden machine with an iron handle that Aaron was allowed to help turn. August told Aaron that he had made the machine himself, many years ago when he was a young man, and that his favorite part of the day was when he woke up each morning and ground the coffee. “The smell of the beans bursting open,” he told Aaron, “is better even than the coffee itself.” He waved his hand over the grinder, fanning the smell toward Aaron.
“Do you know what anticipation is, Aaron?” he asked. Aaron said that he did not.
“It means that you’re looking forward to something. Sometimes in life, you’ll find that it’s not so much the event itself that’s important, Aaron. It’s having it to look forward to that means something.”
“What about the other way?” Aaron asked. “When you’re waiting for something to happen, but it’s something you don’t want to do?”
“Ah,” said August as he worked with a small brush to remove the leftover coffee dust from the machine. “I believe it’s dread you’re speaking of.” He paused. “How old are you, Aaron?”
“Five,” Aaron said.
“What does a five-year-old have to dread?” asked August, not unkindly, reaching down from his great height and resting his hand with its extremely large fingers on Aaron’s shoulder. Aaron expected the hand to be heavy, but it was not.
“I’m going to kindergarten,” Aaron explained.
“I see,” said August, nodding his head thoughtfully.
During this discussion, Aaron’s mother had arranged powdered doughnuts on a plate and removed cups and saucers from the large wooden hutch that sat in the corner of the dining room. She assembled everything on a large tray, including a glass of juice for Aaron that August had made out of something called chokecherries. The three of them went into the living room, and Aaron’s father set the newspaper aside reluctantly so that they could begin visiting, as this whole process of sitting and drinking coffee and talking was called. The chokecherry juice was terrible, though Aaron thought that perhaps he was not able to assess it fairly given its name, which implied something about the berry that he found impossible to disregard.
Aaron’s mother described what they had done on their vacation, and then she asked, “Now, what have you been doing with yourself these days, August?” and August explained that he was spending his evenings recording the story of their family history. “I’m writing it out longhand,” he said, an expression that Aaron had never heard and which he understood to refer to the length of August’s hands.
August left the room briefly and came back with what he called his book, which was not really a book but a stack of paper sandwiched between cardboard and held together with two very large rubber bands. He removed the rubber bands and slipped them around his wrist, where they hung like bracelets, and then he opened the stack across Aaron’s mother’s lap, revealing page after page of spidery script, the handwriting so severely slanted that it looked as though the words were asleep on the lines.
“What is the book about?” asked Aaron.
“Well, Aaron, right there on your mother’s lap is the whole story of how we came to be in this country,” August said, looking around the room as though by “we” he meant the four of them.
His mother flipped through the pages of the book, far too quickly to actually be reading anything. “I can’t believe how much you’ve written,” she said to August, turning several pages at once while Aaron’s father snuck glances at the sports page on the table next to him.
August cleared his throat. “I have something in my bedroom that I believe will be of great interest to you,” he announced, clasping and then unclasping his hands nervously, and they all stood, except for Aaron’s father, who had no interest in seeing other people’s bedrooms. Aaron and his mother followed August down a narrow hallway to his room, which was small and smelled of maple syrup. Tucked against one wall was August’s bed. It was neatly made but looked far too short to accommodate August, who had to duck his head each time he passed beneath a doorway. Aaron tried to picture August lying in the bed, his legs pulled up against his chest, but he couldn’t imagine that adults slept like that, the way that he slept when he was cold or scared or especially tired.
As he pictured August’s droopy eyebrows sticking out the top and his feet and calves hanging out the bottom, it brought to mind an image of something that had happened recently, when his father came home unexpectedly for lunch. Normally, his father left in the morning and came home just in time for supper, but that day he appeared as Aaron and his mother were sitting down to eat their soup. His mother quickly stood and ladled up another bowl of soup, but his father wanted hotdogs, claiming that he had driven home specifically to have them, and Aaron’s mother was forced to admit that she had forgotten to buy hotdog buns when she did the grocery shopping that morning. Aaron watched his father, the way that he gathered anger inside himself, pulled it in like a man sucking air. Then, letting it out, his father screamed, “You never think,” slapping his spoon into the soup that Aaron’s mother had put before him.
He could not be dissuaded. It was as though the absence of buns only intensified his desire for hotdogs, and so, while Aaron sat with his soup growing cold before him, his mother boiled three hotdogs for his father, who did not touch his own soup but made a point of drinking every bit of the water in which the hotdogs had been cooked. He pressed each of the hotdogs into a hamburger bun and lined them up on a plate in front of Aaron’s mother, who studied her soup. Aaron, however, had not been able to take his eyes off of the hotdogs, struck by how unnatural they looked, their long, pink tips protruding by an inch on each side of the buns.
Directly above August’s bed hung the room’s only decoration, if decoration could be understood not as an aesthetic term but as a reference to anything beyond the strictly necessary. This particular decoration was a photograph, a very large, ornately framed, sepia-tinted photograph of a woman who did not smile or in any way acknowledge the camera, though she was obviously posing. She sat erectly on a chair, sidewise, the chair’s back almost completely obscured by her hair, which was thick and black and reached for the floor with the severity of a storm funnel. Once it hit the floor, however, the tension disappeared from it, and it puddled around her like the steadily expanding oil stain on their garage floor at home. Aaron could not imagine why August would want to sleep with this photograph directly above him, to awaken to the fleeting feel of her hair like a rope at his neck.
The photograph seemed like something out of The Guinness Book of World Records, a book that terrified Aaron, even as he could not get enough of it. His favorite photograph in the book featured a man whose fingernails had grown so long that they flared out from his hand like five fleeing snakes. At first, Aaron sat staring at the nails, sometimes for an hour at a time, but when he closed the book, he remembered nothing of the man beyond his fingernails, and so he made a point to focus on the man’s other features, to study the turban that the man wore around his head, for example, and to learn the precise shape of his eyes.
The book had become Aaron’s preferred source of bedtime stories, his mother sitting beside him, explaining who was featured in the photographs and how they had come to be included in the book. “This is Charles Osborne from Iowa,” his mother told him, adding, “Iowa’s right below us, you know,” making it seem as though Iowa were located in the dark space beneath his bed. His mother skimmed the text and then announced that Charles Osborne had been hiccupping since 1922. “That’s longer than your father and I have been alive,” she said. “He was weighing a hog one day, and the hiccups just started.”
That night, he dreamt that he was Charles Osborne, his sleep punctuated by a series of jolts from which he had awakened screaming. When his mother came into his room and turned on the light, he told her about the dream. “I was in Iowa,” he said because he did not know how else to explain the dream to her. He gasped for air, hiccupping as he had in the dream. His mother brought him a glass of water, into which she threw a lit match just as he was about to drink, and though his hiccups disappeared immediately, a terrible taste remained in his mouth.
“It tastes like eggs,” he told his mother.
“Yes,” she said, “that’s from the match. It’ll go away, and anyway, it’s better than a lifetime of hiccups.” They both laughed, but as she turned off his light, she said, “No more Guinness Records for you.”
“This woman,” August announced with a slight nod toward the photograph, “is my grandmother Ragnild, who is responsible for our family’s presence in this country. I would be happy to give you the brief version of the story, but even for the brief version, we must be comfortable.” They studied the photograph for a moment, and then August said, “Come,” and led them back to the living room, where Aaron’s father sat with his newspaper.
“Ragnild, my grandmother,” August began eagerly once they had reseated themselves, “and her husband, my grandfather Jacob, lived for the first nineteen years of their married life just above the Arctic Circle, in a valley that had been logged to extinction by a British lumber company that shipped the lumber home to England. When the trees were all but gone, the company abandoned the valley, following the last load of lumber home to England, and the Norwegian government announced that the land was available for settling. Five families, Ragnild and Jacob’s among them, arrived there to take up farming. At first, they had just one child, a boy, but over the years, six more were born. As you can imagine, it was not a climate suited to farming, so they were often hungry, and lonely as well. Besides the other four families, their only neighbors were Lapps, who moved around, chasing after their reindeer.”
Aaron heard this as laps, of the sort that his hands were resting in at that very moment, and he began to laugh because the idea of laps, which were by definition sedentary, chasing after reindeer, which could not only run but fly as well, seemed extremely funny to him. “Don’t be an ass, Aaron” snapped his father, and Aaron stopped laughing immediately, though his father stared at him a bit longer for good measure. “Well, go on,” his father said to August, as though he had done him a favor.
August had distributed napkins with the coffee but had failed to use his own, not in the habit of doing so after years of living alone. His mustache was dusted with powdered sugar from the donuts that he had eaten, and he looked bewildered, the sugar adding to the effect. Aaron realized that even though August was very old, he did not know what to say to his father either. Finally, August said, “The Lapps didn’t like them much at first, but later they all got on well enough,” and something seemed to occur to him then, for he paused and turned toward Aaron, explaining that Lapps were a group of people who raised reindeer. They were nomads, he said, which meant that they moved around, following the reindeer, which liked to wander.
“Can the Lapps fly?” asked Aaron, who knew what reindeer were.
“Don’t be an idiot,” said his father. “Of course they can’t fly—they’re people.”
“Aaron,” said August quickly, “do you know my grandmother told me this story many, many times when I was young, when I was right around your age, but I never once thought to ask her why they moved to the Arctic Circle in the first place, why they wanted to go to a place where the ground was always frozen and the only thing they could really grow was potatoes, and even those not so good. You see, Aaron, when you’re young, the story just is the way it is.
“Well, as you can imagine, life was hard for Ragnild and Jacob. There was frost, even into the summer, and they mainly planted on the south sides of slopes so that the midnight sun would warm the leaves.” Aaron stored “midnight sun” in his memory so that later he might ask his mother what it meant. “So, there they were, potatoes only growing on the south sides of hills and them with nine mouths to feed, and one day, Ragnild up and announces that the entire family’s going to America, where she’d heard there was plenty of farmland and they wouldn’t need to be constantly fighting the frost. Ragnild was the boss, you see.” August said this proudly, and Aaron’s father snorted, but August did not look at him.
“By that time, two of the other families had already left for America, and within a month, Ragnild and Jacob had packed up and said goodbye to the two remaining families. They went first by boat across the ocean, and it was on this crossing that the youngest child, Ingrid, who was just four, climbed into another family’s trunk and suffocated.” Aaron knew the word “suffocated,” which his mother often warned him about in relation to plastic bags and car trunks and abandoned refrigerators.
“Ingrid would have been my aunt had she lived,” August told Aaron sadly, his face growing red. This was one of the many features of time that confused Aaron, the way that it required him to imagine this little girl, younger even than he, crawling into a trunk and dying, and, in the next instant, to resurrect her as a full-blown adult, as a woman old enough to be the aunt of a very old man.
August blew his nose noisily into a handkerchief, dislodging most of the powdered sugar from his mustache in the process, and then folded the handkerchief into a tidy square and tucked it into his shirt pocket. “Well, two more of Ragnild’s children died along the way, and then just after they landed in Canada, Jacob went also. They spent nearly a year trying to gather the money to make the long trip down into Minnesota, but eventually they got there, and they settled down, built a sod house, and started farming. By then, it was just Ragnild and her four remaining kids, all of them boys.
“The youngest, Carl, was born deaf”—August pronounced this “deef”—“and Ragnild had some notion that being out in the fields all day wouldn’t be good for him. But I think that he was just her favorite, and she wanted him with her around the house. He helped with the animals and the cooking and the garden, and every couple of months, she sent him by foot into the nearest town to do errands. Now, in those days, Aaron, there weren’t roads to take you anywhere you could possibly want to go, so he’d walk until he came to the railroad tracks, and then he followed the tracks into town. Of course, he couldn’t hear the trains coming, but he could feel the rail vibrating when they got close, and he’d hop off and walk alongside until the train had passed. My grandmother said that Carl was crazy about trains. The conductors waved at him, and he loved being close to something moving that fast. He felt about trains the way that most boys feel about them, I suppose.”
Aaron’s father looked over at Aaron, and Aaron did not look up to meet his gaze because he knew that his father was smirking. Aaron hated trains, cried at the sounds that they made, sounds that the books his mother read to him tried to present as amusing and harmless—chugging sounds and whew whews. Most of all, he hated the sudden panic that rose up in him when a train passed, for even from the safety of his parents’ car as they sat at the railroad crossing in Moorhead waiting, he felt the train’s power.
“One day,” August continued, his voice growing solemn, “Carl was walking along the tracks, and nobody knows what happened exactly, why he didn’t get out of the way.” August passed his napkin over his face again. “The conductor reported the accident as soon as they got to the next stop. They found his body a good forty feet from the tracks. One of the men said that he was doubled over a tree branch like a rug hung out for a beating.”
“What a terrible thing to say,” Aaron’s mother said, though she had been quiet until then.
“I suppose it is, Dolores,” said August sadly. “Do you think I should leave it out of my book?”
Aaron’s mother looked flustered. “No,” she said at last. “We shouldn’t go changing how things happened, even when we don’t like the sound of something.”
August fiddled with one side of his moustache. “I suppose not,” he said, and then, “Well, now Ragnild was down to three children. One of them was my father.”
He sat back in his chair, letting them know that the story was over, and Aaron wondered whether they should clap. They were saved from making a response by a tentative knock—two raps instead of three—at the front door. August hoisted himself up from his chair and swung the door open. On the porch stood a stooped man with a large wooden radio, which he clutched to his chest like a baby. He wore a gray felt hat with a small yellow feather tucked into the band, and when he saw them sitting there holding coffee cups, he flushed a purplish red.
“Oh,” he said. “You’ve got folks in. I’ll just stop again, August.”
“Nonsense, Earl,” said August, and he took the radio from the man and set it on the sofa next to Aaron. “It’s acting up again?”
“Yut,” said the man. “I hope that’s not the end of her.” He left, ducking his head at them as he backed out the door.
“I’m just going to get this settled in my workroom,” said August, as though the radio were a guest who had come to spend the night. He tucked it beneath his arm, started to leave, and then turned and said, “Aaron, would you care to see where I perform my surgery?” chuckling in such a pleasant way that Aaron wanted nothing more than to follow him. They passed through the kitchen and into the breezeway, on the other side of which lay a small, dark room filled with radios and clocks as well as the insides of radios and clocks, everything arranged neatly like goods in a store.
“Will you fix them all?” asked Aaron.
“I’ll try,” said August, laughing again in his awkward, pleasant way. He took an old pocket watch from one of the bins atop his desk and handed it to Aaron, who was shocked and impressed by the weight of it. “I worked on this one for days,” August told him regretfully, “but
I couldn’t revive it. There’s nothing to be done for it I’m afraid.”
Aaron studied the watch. Its two hands stood perfectly still, not racing along as the hands on his father’s watch did. “It’s better this way,” he said.
“Would you like to keep it, Aaron?” August asked shyly.
Aaron looked up at him and nodded just as shyly.
“Well, let’s make it official then.” He took the watch from Aaron, switched on several overhead lamps, sat down at his desk, and carefully bent over his task, holding the turned-over watch in his left hand while he pressed a small tool to the back of it with his right, moving his hand as though writing. The steady, calm way that August worked filled Aaron with pleasure, a pleasure that was like an ache. The tiny metal shavings curled up along the edges of the carefully formed script, and though Aaron could not yet read, he knew that the words referred to him. When August was finished, he read aloud what he had written: Aaron Englund, July 1970.
Aaron and August returned to the living room. The watch was in the pocket of Aaron’s shorts, and neither of them mentioned it to Aaron’s parents. August seemed to understand the need for secrecy, and Aaron was impressed by this and grateful. He could not bear the thought of his father asking to see the watch, inspecting it and laughing at its frozen hands, waiting until later to remark, “Well, it looks like the old fart really pulled one over on you”—for that was how his father referred to August when they got back in the car and drove away. “The old fart,” he said over and over as they drove. Aaron did not understand how his father could think of August in this way, August, who had two “greats” in front of his name and had built a machine that ground beans into dust, who sat in his tidy home at night writing down the story of their family, who knew how to fix clocks and keep time moving yet did not find it odd that Aaron preferred time stopped.
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