Karl

Gilles van der Loo


Josie came home from the north and helped out where she could. Her parental home was being sold, her mom and dad both moving to separate apartments in the village, but she seemed as cheerful as ever. Karl had been waiting all day for an opportunity to ask his daughter what she thought about it all, if she’d been shocked by the news.

The moment she started looking glum was when he was drinking a cup of coffee in the kitchen with her and placed his hand on her shoulder. Because Josie had gained some weight, the shoulder felt padded – as if there was another sweater underneath her knitted jumper – and suddenly, Karl pictured her as a toddler: naked, pink and soft, laughing in the bathtub and underneath the sprinkler in the yard. He changed her diaper and tapped her nose to hear her cackle.

‘I just feel so bad,’ said Josie, ‘that you guys waited until I moved out. That you stayed together for me. That you weren’t happy.’

Was that true? He had chosen Agnes. At least he thought so. A first encounter turned into a date, which led to sex and more shared moments, moments strung together until their two student rooms seemed ridiculous and an apartment made sense. Soon enough they needed a nursery, then a garden. For twenty-five years, they lived in the white-painted house on number 34. Karl’s job at the academy took its toll, and whenever he wasn’t working he toiled in the garden, which swallowed more time than he had deemed possible. Agnes worked for the mayor every morning, picked up Josie from school and ran the household. Everything ran smoothly and everything stood in its rightful place, and although that might not seem like such an important thing, it had been, for Karl. They separated amicably enough, but he did feel the loss of everything that had just been there all these years – a punch to the gut, every time he drove to his new place and couldn’t turn into Heather Road.

‘But I’m not unhappy,’ he told his daughter, in the same kitchen where he used to stick Band-Aids on her knees, wipe honey off her cheeks, where they’d celebrated Josie’s high school graduation. She dropped her head onto his shoulder, warm tears soaked into his shirt, as Karl wondered when his daughter would finally tell him she was attracted to women.

Why, whenever he thought of the house on number 34, could he only picture emptied rooms? Dented carpets and the ghosts of furniture on floors and walls? Why couldn’t he remember any big emotions? Hadn’t he had any, or did they fade, just like the pain of giving birth apparently faded? Did we forget the big emotions in order to make space for a lot of tiny new ones?

Karl was looking out the window of his studio above the fire station – the noise hadn’t been so bad at all, they only rarely drove out with their sirens on – and reasoned that the arthouse film club and the Italian lessons had been a good idea, though he hadn’t met any unattached women his age there. Marcy didn’t count – what an idea. His former neighbour, who lived at number 36. Once she'd followed her kids into the city, Martin had stayed there for a long time with that new one, Elsie. But last month, Marcy had suddenly been there, at his Rialto club. They had nodded at one another, exchanged a slight smile. After spending five years in Amsterdam she seemed to have aged ten, and Karl had wondered if the same was true of him, but during the tea break Marcy told him he hadn’t changed one bit. The image of her on top of him had flashed before his eyes: her breasts overflowing in his hands, her grey-black curls falling all around his face as if he were lying on a blanket underneath a weeping willow with her, and some frolicking kid or mountain biker could catch them at any moment. Blades of grass were poking into his bare back. He had shaken his head involuntarily.

‘You still have that tic,’ Marcy said, laughing, and Karl figured that she was still a blabbermouth. ‘That headshake of yours, as if something’s crossing your mind that you don’t want to think about whatsoever.’

In the days that followed, he found out that she was right: sometimes he thought of things he didn’t want to think of, until the tension rose inside him and he had to shake his head to be rid of it. Like scratching an itch, drinking to quench thirst, screaming out loud in his car during rush hour. But the image of Marcy seemed impossible to shake off, her long hair and the tight way it curled, the locks of grey, freed from the pins on the back of her head. And him, there, among those vines, the way her face glowed, her flaring nostrils, pupils like brooding mires in between hazel banks. Was it too soon for a whole new person?

Not Marcy, in any case.

Not Marcy.

Her appendectomy scar, had he made it up or really seen it? On a sunny day, perhaps, when he went to borrow Martin’s lawnmower and she was lying there on a lounger in her bikini?

Whenever his phone had rung in the past few days, he had been sure it was her, but each time it was Agnes calling about some insurance, a phone bill, one of the burners on her stove that didn’t want to stay lit. How many times had he driven her way by now, with his collection of screwdrivers and a pair of tongue-and-groove pliers? She would open the front door before he could knock, before he’d managed to walk all the way down the corridor.

Want some coffee? A beer?

A glass of water, please.

How nice of you to come.

Of course I came, he would say, and tighten or loosen some things, sweep a wire brush over some bimetallic strips and screw them back on. They didn’t live together anymore, but nothing else seemed to have changed. Two placid people in a clean kitchen. He’d finish his water, round his screwdrivers back up and leave. Shaking Agnes’s hand would be absurd, but a kiss or a hug didn’t feel right, either.

Finally, Marcy sent him an email.

I thought you would have shown up on Tinder at some point. We’re single, after all – or am I mistaken? – and living in the same village again. Should we go and have a nice little cup of coffee together? Or a teeny glass of wine?

Karl was sitting in the bathroom with his computer on his lap and her diminutions vexed him so much that he wanted to erase the entire message, but at the same time he noticed his hands were trembling. His growing erection was pressing against the aluminium of his laptop, destabilizing the MacBook. Was it possible he had some rare fetish? Was he turned on by women who annoyed him?

After he had let four days pass by without responding – his work email had buried Marcy’s message soon enough, thank God – and realized that tomorrow was Thursday, so film club night, Karl toyed with the thought of cancelling. Of course Marcy would be there. Of course she would ask, in front of everyone, why he hadn’t replied yet.

If he cancelled, he delayed the problem by a week – nothing would be solved – and Karl had never in his life half-assed anything. If he wrote that he wasn’t ready for a relationship, of course she would say that he shouldn’t be getting any ideas. If he wrote that he didn’t feel capable of being intimate with someone yet, he might as well be calling Marcy a slut. A whore or a hussy or any of the other names he had for her by now, under cover of his bedsheets. The constant shame he felt only made it worse. No matter how many times he washed his hands, they kept smelling of sin.

Ok, he typed back with a dry throat and his ears ringing. Tomorrow night, then? Or in two days, after film club?

After that, Karl didn’t manage to pull himself away from his emails, but all that came in was work. When he closed his laptop late at night, he still hadn’t gotten a response. He slept restlessly, checked his email around three when he got up to pee, and again at four thirty. When he finally dozed off again, the firemen rode out and the night was over.

Take it or leave it, she offered around lunchtime.

I’ll take it, he said, and pressed send. It was only afterwards that he realized he wasn’t sure whether he actually wanted to. Wasn’t the Marcy living behind his closed eyes someone other than Martin’s ex? Karl couldn’t concentrate any longer, called in sick and drove home. Only when he saw the new fence around number 34 did he become aware of having driven the entire way without really perceiving anything.

Nobody seemed to be home. From his car, he saw that the new owners had taken out the kitchen walls. Now, the light filled the entire space, which was so much better. Why hadn’t Agnes and he ever thought of that? Would a joint project like that have been good for them?

As if she felt his thought, Josie called. In the picture on his phone she had never grown past thirteen, and it was never not sunny.

‘What’s wrong, honey?’ he asked, when he noticed that his daughter was struggling to speak. Bitten off too big a piece of an apple, in a rush on the way to school – or that time even longer ago, when she had put cake in her mouth with both hands and turned red, thrashed about in her high chair. He and Agnes had looked at each other and had the same thought, he was sure of it. It would never be mentioned again, but what they’d both thought was that their life together would end once that of their child did. That all would be lost if Josie choked on that piece of cake.

‘Dad…’

Now, too, his hands were trembling. Josie sniffed and Karl’s eyes immediately started watering, as if each little squeak in her voice was connected directly to his tear glands.

‘What is it, sweetie?’

She hiccupped, sniffed again, and Karl stared at the unopened pack of tissues in the middle compartment of his Volvo. ‘Dad, I’m so happy.’

After leaving her, with his calmest and most paternal voice, on the side of the line that ended way up north, Karl smiled widely, and then cried until the snot ran into his mouth. He cried so hard that the windows fogged up and he was certain that all of Heather Road could hear him.

His daughter was in love. She had met a girl. A girl who slept over in the room he had painted for Josie. A pretty, nice, young woman, of whom she would send a picture soon. A smart one who was funny, too, and completely mad about his daughter.

Smiling through his tears, Karl turned the engine back on and drove back to his studio above the fire station.

 

Gilles van der Loo (Breda, 1973) graduated as a clinical psychologist, worked each job imaginable in Amsterdam cafes and restaurants, and made his debut as a literary writer with the short story ’Palermo’. Since then, he has published several works at Uitgeverij Van Oorschot: the collection of short stories Hier sneeuwt het nooit (2011, nominated for the Academica Literature Prize) and the novels Het laatste kind (2013), Het jasje van Luís Martin (2016) en Dorp (2021, nominated for several awards), which all received rave reviews. Gilles’s fiction has been published in magazines and newspapers. He served as an editor of the literary magazine Tirade for years and still contributes to its blog every week.

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