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Pickled


Magnus Magnussen is a chemist, engineer and  an expert in process management. A smart man. An educated man. A learned man whose interests and talents range far and wide.

Magnus is also a drunk.

He always drank but he began in earnest after the passing of his wife Olga four years ago. Olga succumbed to cancer which had been engineered by something awry in her chemistry, a failure of processes that could not be managed.

Magnus works for an international firm that manufactures equipment and designs processes and systems for the large scale production of fermented foods. He is steeped in pickles. Sauerkraut. Herring. You can pickle virtually anything. You might say Magnus is pickled.

Magnus arrived at work one morning in a mildly inebriated state. The Plant Manager and his coworkers were fully aware of his weaker proclivities but tolerated them because they view Magnus as invincible, indispensable and, most importantly, hugely entertaining. Magnus is not a salesman, never aspired to be a salesman, yet whenever the firm encountered a reluctant customer they send Magnus.

On the morning under discussion, Magnus was strolling along a catwalk, in a spotless white lab coat, suspended above an enormous vat filled with vegetables and experimental pickling fluids that were believed to cut the fermentation process in half, doubling profits for everyone.

The sour and pungent smell and Magnus’ ethereal condition led to light-headedness and vertigo. He toppled over the rail and into the vat where he could not gain purchase on the floating cauliflower. Due to an oversight by his parents Magnus had never been taught to swim.

He heard the panicked voices as he sank and rose, rose and sank, thrashing, choking as his throat filled with pickle juice.

“Mag has fallen! Help him!” Someone called out.

Magnus watched, from above as in flight, his own floundering body bobbing up and down, sinking out of sight only to emerge once more. At one point he saw Olga reach out for him. Their hands touched as they had so many times years ago. Her smile told him not to be afraid.

###

When he was revived on the large, stainless steel prep table on which he had been stretched like a fish to be gutted he could not help but feel a certain disappointment. He lifted himself bolt upright and not seeing Olga among the concerned gathering, reclined once again with remnants of pickling fluid burning in his nostrils.

The ambulance would deliver him to the place where medical experts could test and observe and pass judgment on his post-pickled soundness. The company doctor on the scene, a good man of modest training, had asked him if he knew who he was and where he was to which Magnus had responded, “I’m Mickey Mouse and I am in Disney Land” They all laughed, relieved to still have their Magnus Magnussen among them.

On his ride to the hospital Magnus fingered objects in his pocket. Pieces of carrot. Asparagus tips. Miniature ears of corn. He saw no reason not to snack on these bites of food during his journey.

###

Magnus was pronounced sound, unplugged and released from the medical facility. The company, upon updating and reviewing his employee file after the incident, discovered that Magnus had not taken vacation since well before Olga’s departure. Management insisted on a leave. To everyone’s astonishment Magnus consented, announcing his plans for a respite at a northern fishing village with a trunkful of fishing rods, reels and tackle and his favorite brand of vodka. He didn’t announce the vodka part. He didn’t need to. The other thing he didn’t announce was his out-of-body experience while bobbing like a gherkin in a jar. How it had sapped his enthusiasm for the pickling business on the whole and its various slices specifically. And how he wasn’t exactly sure when, if ever, he might return to work.

###

Bad fortune occurs in threes, they say. They say a lot of stupid shit. But sure enough, on his drive north in his Citroen, which knew very little road time, Magnus lost his way and found himself meandering rural backroads. Distracted and, no doubt, braking erratically as he attempted to get his bearings, he is rear-ended by a commercial truck carrying nothing less than a load of pickled herring, sauerkraut and beets. The vehicles couple like mating beasts on the lonely stretch of narrow asphalt. The truck driver is an instant fatality while Magnus, though unconscious, breathed steadily and regularly. More than two hours later the accident is happened upon by a solitary female driver.

“Mister. Mister. Can you hear me? Are you badly injured?” Magnus can hear the woman call to him as though from far away, much like the voices when he was fermenting in the vat. Somehow the woman extracts him from the wreckage. Magnus is woozy and disoriented but manages to position himself in her passenger seat. She drives a few miles to a tiny village. Magnus, fading in and out, thinks he can smell the sea.

The village has neither hospital nor inn so the woman, who has introduced herself as Sylvie, takes Magnus to her home which has extra rooms to serve as a boarding house when the rare need arises. While Magnus rests on her sofa in front of a fire sipping at a cup of tea, Sylvie summons the town’s physician and alerts far away authorities to the scene of the accident.

After examination, the doctor detects no damage beyond bruises and various minor contusions. The faint possibility of a concussion. Sylvie is advised to keep an eye on the patient and not allow him to drift off to sleep. Magnus complains of a stiff neck and sore ribs. The doctor retrieves bottles of muscle relaxers and pain relievers from his bag. An antibiotic to ward off infections in his wounds. Sylvie listens to instructions. Dosages and frequency of administration. After accepting modest payment for his services, extracted from Magnus’ wallet which he had handed to Sylvie, the doctor retires to the local bar from whence he came.

Thinking it best to keep Magnus alert through conversation, Sylvie engages him. He tells her about the events of the past several days, his out-of-body experience and how, unfavored by luck once again, he has endured an auto-body experience. Sylvie is delighted by the witticisms which offer further evidence of Magnus’ soundness.

Things move quickly. The police assign blame for the accident to the expired truck driver. The medical team never arrives in the village having busied themselves entirely with the totaled truck driver. This meets with Magnus’ approval since he is comfortable in his present circumstances and has no desire to be probed and prodded once again. The insurance company will rely on the police report and the photos of the destroyed Citroen rather than dispatch an adjuster to the remote outpost. They will send the settlement check to Sylvie’s address. Magnus intends to mend in the village for a few days, buy a replacement auto when the check arrives and continue on to his original destination. It doesn’t hurt that his brief stay is encouraged by and under the supervision of Sylvie who is attractive, smart, funny and, by his reckoning, roughly his contemporary. A low mileage, expertly maintained model in mint condition, by all appearances.

The rods, reels, tackle and vodka are casualties of the car and truck union. Not a concern. The fishing gear can be replaced and Sylvie’s home is well stocked with vodka. Despite Sylvie’s concerns regarding his health, Magnus convinces her to join him for a drink by the fire that very evening.

###

When Magnus isn’t enjoying the muscle relaxers and pain pills, he enjoys time with Sylvie and the vodka. Music on the radio or phonograph. Sylvie doesn’t own a television. Magnus didn’t either. She refuses to accept payment for the room but doesn’t complain when Magnus arrives laden with food and drink.

Sylvie has not allowed Magnus an expression of physical intimacy. Over the next few days she,  like a moon in elliptical orbit, alternates between close and distant. Flirtatious one moment, disinterested the next. The townsfolk, on the other hand, don’t seem pleased at all. They view Magnus with suspicion, even alarm. They talk about him amongst themselves when he walks by. He makes it a point to smile and doff his fedora at every encounter but has yet to receive so much as a smile in return.

###

When Magnus receives his insurance check he suggests to Sylvie that, perhaps, it is time for him to buy a car and move on. To his surprise and delight, she protests. “You are not yet fully recovered,” she says, “You are under orders to complete your prescriptions. You can’t drive safely under the influence of powerful medicines”. Truth is, Magnus’ recovery has been nothing short of miraculous. He has never felt better.

He’ll delay purchasing the car, he decides, until he takes his leave. Motorized transport is hardly needed in the tiny hamlet. He can easily walk its width and breadth or borrow Sylvie’s bicycle if he takes a notion.

There is another incentive to stay. The local sauerkraut. The most delicious and unique he has ever tasted. Tart and briny but also somewhat nutty like a wild mushroom. The sauerkraut is consumed every day. Sylvie eats it for breakfast. Magnus adopts her habit. Magnus is no stranger to fermented foods but the magic cabbage is beyond his ken. Sylvie brushes off questions about the kraut as both unknowable and irrelevant and the rest of the town is unapproachable on the topic. Magnus discovers that the sauerkraut is made in a squat cinder block building, without a sign, a few miles from town. In a fit of robustness he walks the distance to ask for a tour. He is curtly refused.

Magnus spends most afternoons in the local library so as to stay out of Sylvie’s way as she attends to business. She maintains accounting books for most of the merchants, handles commercial transactions and serves as a mediator, solving problems that business affairs so often generate. Sylvie is as close to a public official that the village has. She would be Mayor if the town had such an office.

The library is a one room affair divided into small but serviceable collections. Reference, filled with battered old dictionaries, encyclopedias, maps and almanacs. Periodicals that are always at least one issue behind. Fiction which leans toward the classics with just a spattering of popular titles perpetually on loan. History, politics, philosophy, science, whatever the bespectacled, thin lipped librarian chooses to entertain. it wouldn’t take very long to consume the entire collection.

Most fascinating is the local history and genealogy section. Loose leaf pages, three hole punched and assembled in binders that are not allowed to leave the building. Magnus studies the volumes under the librarian’s penetrating gaze which eventually leaves him uncomfortable enough to exit with a novel, allowable under an arrangement with Sylvie since Magnus can’t, as a non-resident, qualify for his own borrower’s card.

In genealogy he found Sylvie’s lineage but the trail leads only to confusion. Sylvie’s date of birth has to be in error since it would put her a century older than her estimated age. Or the Sylvie in the book must be a progenitor. If so, where is the current Sylvie? The records snag and tangle his mind like a briar patch, bringing on the recent irritating headaches which he keeps to himself fearing a medical intervention.

For dinner, Magnus and Sylvie feast on savory elk sausages and sauerkraut. Magnus takes a second helping. By way of intense curiosity masked as innocent conversation, he asks Sylvie about her family.

“What was your mother’s name?”

“Agathe,” she says and corrects him, “Is not was. She lives still.”

Yes, he remembers Agathe from the genealogy but can’t recollect relevant dates.

“Where does she live?”

“Nearby.”

“Might we visit someday?”

“Agathe is a very private woman. She doesn’t suffer visitors well.”

“And your  grandmother?”

“What about her?”

“Her name.”

“Carolina.”

“When did she pass?”

“I’m going to put on a record. Would you like a vodka.”

“Yes. Please.”

Magnus tries to re-assemble names and dates from library records but what he recalls makes no sense. Perhaps he’s suffering a form of dementia from the accident.

###

Magnus takes the insurance check, that he has been carrying around in his wallet, to the town bank. His request to open an account is denied. The banker who operates without assistance offers to cash the check but warns it will take a few days for funds to clear. The banker suggests taking the check forward to a bank at his next destination. Magnus endorses the check, leaving it behind, to the obvious chagrin of the banker.

He returns to the library. The genealogy shelves are bare. The librarian explains that the documents were sent away for professional binding. She isn’t sure when they will return.

Magnus strolls to the tiny cemetery he noticed on previous wanderings.

The older headstones are clustered by surname. The newer ones, there aren’t many, are found on the perimeter where space allowed. Jarvi. Partanen. Wuopio. Peura. Seppa, which is Sylvie’s maiden name. She never married. The collection of predictably repeated names share one thing in common. Each of the stones has a date of passing chiseled into the tabloid but never a date of birth.

“I’ve had an interesting day,” Magnus tells Sylvie over a meal of pork and sauerkraut.

“How so?,” she asks.

“I cashed the insurance check but I can’t get the money for a few days.”

“That’s nice.”

“Then an unfruitful trip to the library.”

“I heard. Why are you so curious about us?”

“I’m a scientist. I traffic in questions.”

“Be careful. You don’t do well in traffic.”

“I also visited the cemetery.”

“What would you like to do this evening?” she asks.

“I’d like to listen to Mahler. And drink vodka.”

“That can be arranged.”

###

Magnus sleeps fitfully. Tossing and turning as is his tendency after over-consumption of vodka. He is in that vague realm between awake and asleep when he hears his unlocked door open. There is no reason to lock doors in a place that offers such safety of person and possessions.

His eyes adjust. He sees Sylvie illuminated by moonlight through the shutterless, undraped window. She wears a light-weight, cotton robe that falls from her shoulders. Her full, firm breasts, with prominent nipples, float celestially.

In the morning Magnus is served a bowl of oatmeal. He doesn’t ask for the sauerkraut. He doesn’t ask any questions at all. Sylvie clears the table when they finish. She smiles a smile she hadn’t smiled before and leaves.

###

It is the day his money is available. He spends the afternoon in the bar. The locals no longer stare at him while they talk amongst themselves. Instead they ignore him. He is making progress. The bartender pours his drinks without comment. He carried the bills from the bank wrapped in an official looking folio. He doesn’t flaunt the cash but he also would be without fear if he did.

When he arrives at Sylvie’s in the evening, modestly inebriated, she is accompanied by a guest. A Mr. Virtanen. Mr. Virtanen sells boats and farm machinery. And the occasional automobile.

“I understand you are looking to buy a car,” Mr. Virtanen says.

“Mr. Virtanen is prepared to make you a very attractive offer,” Sylvie adds.

Mr. Virtanen’s proposition is beyond generous. Without any research, Magnus senses the car is being offered at or below cost.

“You shouldn’t refuse,” says Sylvie. She leaves the room while the two men transact business.

###

Sylvie stands by as Magnus loads his few possessions into the new automobile.

As he’s ready to drive away, Sylvie approaches and delivers a warm kiss. “You understand that you are welcome to return,” she says, “After you’ve taken time to think. Carefully. Which is, perhaps, not your nature. There are conditions. We’re a provincial town not easily accepting of outsiders who don’t understand our ways. Please come back but not as a scientist.”

“I understand,” Magnus says. “I do have one request.”

“No,” Sylvie says. “You can’t take any kraut.” She smiles and walks away.

 

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