It is summer and luminous. Sheldon Horowitz sits on a folding director’s chair, high above the picnic and out of reach of the food, in a shaded enclave in Oslo’s Frogner Park. There is a half-eaten karbonade sandwich that he doesn’t like on the paper plate cradled in his lap. With his right index finger, he’s playing with the condensation on a bottle of beer that he started to drink but lost interest in some time ago. His feet twitch back and forth like a schoolboy’s, but they twitch slower now at the age of eighty-two. They produce a smaller arch. He will not admit it to Rhea and Lars — never, of course not — but Sheldon can’t help wondering what he’s doing here and what he’s going to do about it before the wonderment passes.
Sheldon is an arm’s length from his granddaughter, Rhea, and her new husband, Lars, who is just now taking a long pull on his own beer and is looking so cheerful, so kind, so peppy, that Sheldon wants to take the hot dog from his hand and insert it up his nose. Rhea, who looks oddly pale today, would not respond well to this, and it might condemn Sheldon to further socialising excursions (‘so you can adjust’), and in a world filled with fairness Sheldon would not deserve them — nor Lars the hot-dog manoeuvre. But it had been Rhea’s idea to move them from New York to Norway, and Sheldon — widowed, old, impatient, impertinent — saw in Lars’s countenance a suppressed desire to gloat.
None of which was fair.
‘Do you know why hot dogs are called hot dogs?’
Sheldon says this aloud from his commanding position. If he had a cane he would wave it, but he walks without one.
Lars looks up in attention. Rhea, however, silently sighs.
‘World War I,’ says Sheldon. ‘We were angry at the Germans, so we punished them by renaming their food.
‘Better than the War on Terror. We’re angry at the terrorists, so we punish the French by renaming our own food.’
‘What do you mean?’ asks Lars.
Sheldon sees Rhea tap Lars on the leg and raise her eyebrows, implying — with the intensity of a hot poker — that he is not supposed to be encouraging these sorts of rants, these outbursts, these diversions from the here and now. Anything that might contribute to the hotly debated dementia.
Sheldon was not supposed to see this, but does, and redoubles his conviction.
‘Freedom fries! I’m talking about freedom fries. Goodbye, French fry; hello, freedom fry. An act of Congress actually concocted this harebrained idea. And my granddaughter thinks I’m the one losing my mind. Let me tell you something, young lady. I’m not crossing the aisle of sanity. The aisle is crossing me.’
Sheldon looks around the park. It is not the ebb and flow of random strangers one finds in any American metropolis, the kind who are not only strangers to us but to each other as well. He is among tall, homogenous, acquainted, well-meaning, smiling people all dressed in the same trans-generational clothing, and no matter how hard he tries he just can’t draw a bead on them.
Rhea. The name of a Titan. The daughter of Uranus and Gaia, heaven and earth, Cronus’ wife, mother of the gods. Zeus himself suckled at her breasts, and from her body came the known world. Sheldon’s son — Saul, dead now — named her that to raise her above the banality that he steamed through in Vietnam with the Navy in ’73–’74. He came home from the Riverine Force for one month of rest and relaxation before heading out for a second tour. It was a September. The leaves were out on the Hudson and in the Berkshires. According to his Mabel — vanished now, but once privy to such things — Saul and his girlfriend made love only one time on that return visit, and Rhea was conceived. The next morning, Saul had a conversation with Sheldon that transformed them both, and then he went back to Vietnam where, two months after he landed, a Viet Cong booby-trap blew off his legs while he was looking for a downed pilot on a routine search-and-rescue. Saul bled to death on the boat before reaching the hospital.
‘Name her Rhea,’ Saul wrote in his last letter from Saigon, when Saigon was still Saigon, and Saul was still Saul. Maybe he remembered his mythology from high school, and chose her name for all the right reasons. Or maybe he fell in love with that doomed character from Stanislaw Lem’s book, which he read under the woollen blanket when the other soldiers had faded off to sleep.
It took a Polish author to inspire this American Jew, who named his daughter for a Greek Titan before being killed by a Vietnamese mine in an effort to please his Marine father, who was once a sniper in Korea — and was undoubtedly, even now, being pursued by the North Koreans across the wilderness of Scandinavia. Yes, even here, amidst the green of Frogner Park on a sunny day in July, with so little time left to atone for all that he has done.
‘Rhea’. It means nothing here. It is the Swedish word for a sale at the department store. And, so easily, all is undone.