There was the letter.
He found it among the pile of papers he had brought home from the office the night before and tossed carelessly on the kitchen counter, where it lay now with a bill from the dry cleaner and a collection of other mail that Sal had pressed into his unwilling hand before he had left again, tired of business and the worldliness of it. The corner of the envelope was soaked through from the puddle of milk he had not cleaned away, and it stuck to the table top when he tried to pick it up. There was a strange, foreign stamp on it which made him frown.
Norway, he knew no one in Norway, and he didn’t think he wanted to, either, right now.
Impatiently, Jon was on the point of phoning Sal and giving him a good rant about it, but then decided otherwise.
The morning had started out beautifully. He had woken from the sun streaming in through the roof window straight into his face and the sound of the surf as it beat against the boards under the house, and lain on his back, gazing up through the roof window at the clouds as they passed overhead through the clear, deep azure of the dawn sky. The small house had been so quiet that he could hear the wood creaking as it adjusted to the changing temperatures of the mild February day and the cry of a seagull as it flew past the open balcony door.
Despite the serenity of his surroundings, Jon had rolled out of bed listlessly and stared at the prospect of another day that promised to make little sense to him, but had forced himself to shave and shower and dress, even though he knew for sure that he would not go out into public.
Maybe a brief trip to the small supermarket down the road for cigarettes and some bread, but that was the extent of his ambition.
Downstairs, a room filled with the residue of cold smoke and the aroma of bourbon greeted him; the ashtray was full, old newspapers covered the couch and dining table, the phone was still blinking with all the messages he had received and refused to respond to, and that pile of mail stared at him in accusing bleakness. The piano, pushed against the wall under the narrow stairway, dusty and unused, the music sheets a disorderly pile on the keys and the bench before it, a silent reproach.
While the coffee percolated, he opened the glass front of the terrace to let in the tart sea breeze, hoping the new day would, at least partly, blow away this new bout of depression, even though he was certain it was a pretty useless measure.
Sal had not called yet, the office had kept quiet, and Jon pondered about a stroll on the beach, barefoot, before starting to think about work.
With his coffee and the letter he wandered out onto the deck and leaned against the wall, still in shadow at this time of day, before the sun crept completely over the mountains behind the city. The sea had a pearly sheen to it now that it was retreating, quiet in the gentle breeze that hardly seemed to stir the water. Its color reminded him of the smooth surface of a well-polished opal, changing in the reflecting light. There were only a few people down on the beach, they never came out this far from the city beaches, where there wasn’t much to do besides walk and think. Mostly these early morning wanderers were locals who took out their dogs or gave themselves some space before heading downtown to their jobs.
It really seemed to be much too early to be up and around, but he had been restless, wanting to start something, wanting an incentive, something to put him on a path towards something new.
Turning around, he eyed the piano thoughtfully, then his desk, wondering whether he should start tinkering with melodies or go for lyrics. It was time to think about a new album, had been three years already since the last one, and Sal was getting restless.
Jon hated it when Sal got restless.
Sal was like a very unfriendly tiger then, pacing the living room floor and smoking too much. He talked a lot, too, gesticulating with his large, long-fingered hands. And inevitably he would start talking about concert tours, TV appearances and interviews, and how important it was to stay on top.
Only the sense of it all had somehow eluded him more and more during the past years.
“You’re drifting into depression,” Sal had warned him one night when they had been sitting right here on his little porch, “Just look at you, Jon. This is a farce, you know, you, living here among Wal Mart workers and shoe shop sales women. They are not even pretty, and the men run around in underwear.”
He had paused meaningfully, staring at the frayed t-shirt his friend was wearing. “Not that they would recognize you, of course, you look just like one of them. You have a wonderful house waiting for you, for God’s sake, and you rent it out to Art and live here, in this hovel. One day one roller too many will shake the foundation and you’ll drift out to see with this collection of clap-board and then you can sing to the sharks, you know, while they gnaw your bones slowly and painfully.”
When there was no reply, he added acidly, “But maybe that’s what you’re aiming for, right, since you can’t manage to do away with yourself on your own.”
So here now, a letter from Norway, opened, of course, by the office, because it had been addressed to him via his agent, and it made him wonder why Sal had pressed it on him. Fan mail almost never got through to him anymore, he had seen to that a long time ago, too disenchanted with the unoriginal offers and the repetition of the contents.
This one here, once more, same, universal words to catch his attention.
“You don’t know me, but my name is Joshua.”
Jon put it down again to light a cigarette and retrieve his coffee before he took himself out onto the porch.
“My mother’s name is Naomi Carlsson.”
The paper dropped from his hand and fluttered to the ground where it lay, face up, on the fine grains of sand the wind had blown up from the beach during the night. It fluttered a little with the breeze that found its way up there now, grating gently on the rough surface, taunting him.
Very carefully, Jon retrieved it and read on.
“We live in a small town in Norway called Floro, and she manages a hotel here, the Seaside. She told me you are my father. Is that true?”
Time seemed to stop for him.
From a little, unused cranny of his mind Jon took note of this: It was less the fact that the images around him froze, but more as if they ingrained themselves into his memory to be forever connected with this instant: the roiling water that was slowly retreating and laying bare wet stretches of beach, the seagulls dancing in the air, the single sailing boat skimming over the waves, and a big container ship far out on the ocean, seemingly standing still while it made its way up north; the few small clouds that heralded moisture in the air but seldom brought any rain, and the growing haze over the hills in his back as the sun rose higher and the traffic on the highways got denser.
“I’m sixteen,” the letter said, “And I really wanted to know. So on my birthday a couple of weeks ago I finally got her to tell me. It is hard to believe, you know. I don’t really like your music, I think, but you are very famous anyway. How did you get to meet my mom?”
“You can’t still be pining for that girl, Jon,” Sal had asked after their third bourbon, “You’ll have to get over it at some point, man. There are so many out there, one of them must be good enough for you. This is only your usual hard-headedness. She left you, you know. A long time ago, too. She left you a long time ago without a word, and you never moved on, Jon. You’re still pining.”
In the end, it sounded more like an accusation that a question, and he never received an answer, either.
“You’re such a sentimental bastard,” Sal had thrown at him before he had left, “But I guess it’s okay. It makes you write great songs. So go on, suffer some more!”
Jon had watched him drive away into the night, piqued by the tart words and the stark truth in them, but not shaken enough to change his ways. Alone again, he had wandered to the shelf over the piano where those framed pictures stood and looked at them as he did every day.
And here it was, at long last, the moment he had envisioned so often in so many scenarios, and it was not at all what he had expected.
He did not care for the fact that the letter had been opened at the office; this he needed to sort out for himself before the machinery started its work and decisions were taken out of his hand, even if only to make it easier for him.
Again he read the words on the single sheet of hotel stationary.
“My mother’s name is Naomi Carlsson.”
As if he had forgotten.
As if he had allowed himself to forget, putting up those snapshots and dusting them every day himself despite the harangues of his housekeeper that this was really her job.
Gone. One night, she had been there, the next morning, gone without a word, and everything that reminded of her, except the single hairclip on the sink in the bathroom. Naomi, and he had stood there and stared at the thing, his brain frozen and his heart numb, and then done what he always did, he had called Sal and cried for help.
“What do you mean, she’s gone?” Sal had asked, “Where did you put her? People don’t just disappear, you know, overnight.”
But he had shown up half an hour later, bleary-eyed and cross to be woken up again so soon after he had gone to bed.
“For God’s sake, Jon,” he had said, “She’s not dead. She also was not abducted. Look around, she’s taken all her stuff. She only left you, man. Happens all the time, right?” and returned to his house and sleep.
And he had been left alone once again in that huge house by the beach, stunned and speechless.
As quietly and softly as she had stepped into his life she had left it again, and left in such a way that in all the years he had never solved the riddle of her disappearance.
“It would be really nice to know you,” the boy had written, “If it is true what my mom told me and she did not only make it up. Maybe she only said it because she likes you so much. She has a photograph of you on her desk, you know, and all your CDs.”
This nearly tore him apart, and he had to read it again a couple of times.
Norway, and that was where she had been hiding herself away from him, and her child. It hit him then, the realization that he had become a father somewhere along the line without ever knowing of it.
Deep inside he felt the nudge like the tiniest thorn, irritating and insisting, and he tried to ignore it while he finished his cooling coffee.
The letter, crumbled up in his hand, felt like a captured bird that wanted to fly again, and so he opened his fingers and held it up on his palm to stare at it. The idea that it would lift off and show him the way he had to take now was a wild, scary thought and made him reach for another cigarette, but it also made him realize that at long last he actually had an opening and a choice.
The nudge turned into a push, just like that.
He clamped down on it firmly and returned inside, closing the door behind him again. It was time to start working again, clean the piano and tune the guitar and get some new music written and recorded and pick up the routine. Sal was right, it was high time to put out something new, and he had been allowing himself much too long to linger.
The dust on the piano keys irritated him unaccountably. He wiped at it futilely and gave up again; there was no melody in his mind anyway that he wanted to try out and write down, had not been for a long time now.
Depression, Sal had called it, and he had suggested counseling, but discreetly, please, or work, or a new girl friend, but neither of those had seemed attractive enough to entice him.
A shove, nearly strong enough to make him jump from the piano bench, and he did rise after a couple of breaths and paced the restricted space of the living room.
He could just go, actually. No one would miss him for a while, and he could just go on his own, all alone, so that when he finally found and confronted her nobody would witness the humiliation and shame when she turned him away like a stray dog, or laughed at him, or, nightmare and most probable vision, had her husband throw him out.
Naomi, and she had walked through the big white house like a lost selkie, silently, softly, a beautiful shadow in his otherwise crowded life. Returning to her embrace after the harsh lights of publicity had always felt like falling backwards into a balmy, azure ocean, and being caught on the gentle swell of a wave that would take him away to unknown and graceful shores.
Carefully Jon placed the empty coffee mug in the sink and even wiped down the kitchen counter, returned the milk carton into the fridge and the coffee tin on the shelf. Almost it seemed to him as if he were fulfilling a ritual, putting everything in order like putting it behind him step by step, and the first one of those had been shutting the porch door. Now they were gaining momentum, one following the other in its own rhythm, but each a little faster than the one before.
There was, he knew, an overnight bag somewhere upstairs in the corner of the wardrobe; he had received it as a Christmas gift from his sister a couple of years ago and tossed it there, puzzled by its intention. He never used overnight bags. When he left here, it was always with a trunk containing many sets of clothing, as many as he needed for the official functions he would be carted to.
On his own, privately, he had not gone anywhere recently.
Not even when Sal presented him with an exclusive invite to a film star’s private Tropical Island, stating, “Go, for Heaven’s sake. Take swimming shorts and nothing else, get drunk every night, fuck every girl you can grab and come back tanned and rested.”
So now, this seemed like the right thing to use. One change of everything, a toothbrush, nothing more.
He would go, find out what he wanted to know, and return.
At long last, there would be an answer to the question that had been torturing him for years. She would have to tell him herself, look him into the eye and tell him why she had walked out on him like that, leaving him in misery, and he would have the fitting response, oh indeed. He would fling it at her, all his pain and bitter loneliness, and watch with grim satisfaction how she wilted.
And the boy.
His son, the child she had kept away from him, something would have to be done about that, too.
While he stuffed a couple of shirts into the bag his blood boiled up at this thought.
The promises he had made her, the dreams he had painted for her, and nothing had obviously been good enough to make her stay, and she had even taken that from him on top of everything else, the baby.
Not only had she torn out his heart and destroyed his soul, she had also carried away this secret.
After a moment’s thought he decided to leave his car in the garage and call for a cab instead. It would not be advisable to let the Porsche stand at the airport for more than few hours, he knew.
This in itself made him pause, because his plan had been to be away no longer than two days.
Jon was still pondering this, standing on his doorstep while he waited for the taxi, when his neighbor stepped outside and nodded to him.
“Morning,” he said, “Lovely day, isn’t it? Are you traveling again, then?”
They knew, of course. His face was far too well-known, but the people around him here had developed a kind, tight-lipped protectiveness concerning their famous neighbor, and he was never molested, always treated like one of them.
“Yes,” Jon replied, surprising himself, “I’m off to Norway for a while. Don’t know when I’ll be back yet.”
“Supposed to be cold there,” Mike remarked judiciously, eyeing the silk-lined leather jacket Jon was wearing, “That won’t keep you warm. Not a lot of luggage either for a trip to Europe.”
“I’m not staying that long.”
This conversation, Jon realized, was assuredly the craziest he had ever had with someone who was not a star-struck fan, and he was playing the asshole-part in it.
“Right.” The man, he knew, owned a small but quite nice hamburger restaurant over in Santa Monica, right on the promenade, too, and why he lived out here, this far north, Jon had never been able to figure out.
“Someone taking you to the airport?” A box of cigarettes had appeared in Mike’s hand. He offered one to Jon who took it with a nod and a word of thanks.
“Nah. Called a cab.”
Actually, it felt rather good, he noticed, to stand outside his house on an early Tuesday morning with a small travel bag and a smoke, waiting for something as mundane as a taxi, and chatting with the neighbor.
Mike squinted at him against the slants of the sun.
“Not like you,” he commented, “To take a cab. I’ve only ever seen you rush away in that fancy German car or being picked up by one of them dark limousines. Are you lighting out, then?”
“Lighting out?” he had forgotten to pack a razor.
“Yes, man, running away, are you running away from it all? I would, if I were you, you know, run away. At least from time to time.”
Thoughtfully Mike observed the glowing ashes on his butt, “Must be hard, living in the limelight all the time.”
“No, there’s this girl….”
He caught himself just in time. This was so not like him, talking about his most private things with anyone, let alone with strangers.
Mike, though, was grinning at him in understanding, and with some warmth, and answered, “Yeah, it’s always about them, isn’t it? Well, I wish you luck, mate, even though I can’t see what’s wrong with Californian girls. You really need to go all the way to Norway to find yourself one? Must be someone special, then.”
With a brief wave he stepped down from the threshold and, picking up the newspaper on the way, walked to his car with a merry whistle.
“Thanks, Mike,” Jon mumbled, but somehow the short exchange had lightened his heart considerably and set things in a proper perspective for him.
There was no anger. Anguish, that yes. Anger, no. There had never been anger, really, only the deep pain of being left alone, and the unanswered questions.