Marius Beck had been big, in both connotations of the word. And he still was, in one sense, even though the oldest pair of pants that he still used once in while had gotten kind of floppy around his once-even-more-substantial rear. But he could still fill out a car seat, and one of the big American ones at that. When he sat down, he sat. And that meant, among other things, that he couldn’t turn around. There were too many immobile kilograms involved.
This made it difficult to drive in reverse, because he never got used to using the rear-view mirror, let alone the side mirror, for that matter. When they moved into the new house in the extension of the housing development (the lots in the original development weren’t large enough), after a week he had gotten the mason to demolish the back wall of the garage and extend the driveway around the house, so he could leave home without going in reverse. It helped protect the house, the landscaping, and the flagpole. But then the house ended up sitting more or less in the middle of a traffic circle. He did have the driveway pavers laid somewhat artistically, so it didn’t end up looking so bad. And at the same time he was able to demonstrate that he was still an industrious and practical man.
Here it must also be said, that Marius Beck and his wife don’t live on the farm anymore. It was sold – and sold out of the family. It’s best not to mention it.
Their farm wasn’t just one of the largest, it was the second largest within several neighboring parishes. And since the owner of the largest one stretched his interests across the region, not to mention nationally, it was Marius Beck who had been the prominent one in their community, was on the council and everything. He had been chairmen – if you can say it that way. He had been chairman several times over.
It was the chairmanships that he missed these days. His leadership and delegating work on the farm had dwindled the last few years. It was like there wasn’t enough to sink your teeth into with just one farmhand and a livestock manager. He missed those council meetings and delegate meetings; things with meaning, having responsibility.
He missed the contact with other important men, missed trading handshakes with the region’s parliament representatives when they met in Karup or Kastrup, missed having the chance to contribute an intelligent and well-thought-out remark. He started to feel so alone that sometimes he started chatting with people he met by chance on the street – even people that he, in days past, wouldn’t have given the time of day: newcomers, the lower class, people like that.
He was going to be 80 soon. That would have to be planned quite carefully, if his reputation was going to be preserve and his respectability extended into a brand new decade.
The list of invitees was complete, Helga figured. She sat at the kitchen table with a notepad, and there had been a long pause, almost a silence, from the adjacent dining room, where Marius lay on the sofa, planning. She counted. There were 70 names – and many of them were now single. So there probably wouldn’t be more than 110. It wasn’t like it used to be, back when their generation didn’t take up so much room in the local cemeteries.
“I guess I’ll have to go out and buy some cards,” said Helga.
He cleared his throat in there. It made the sofa creak. It was pretty old and didn’t match the new dining room furniture at all, but Marius couldn’t be persuaded to get rid of it when they moved from the farm. Now it creaked some more. He must be getting up.
He appeared in the door frame. “It’s a shame we don’t know the editor,” he said. “If it was the old one, we could have sent an invitation.”
Helga remembered the old editor well. They had been with him a couple of times, back when Marius was still one of the newspaper representatives, unless it was the board he was on. It wasn’t always easy to remember if it was one thing or the other that got him out of the house. Sure, she remembered the editor.
“But I guess we can’t,” said Marius, almost to himself, but still directed enough towards Helga that it seemed natural for her to respond, “What can’t we?”
“Send an invitation to the editor,” he hissed.
“I’m pretty sure he’s dead,” she said.
Marius made a sound that wasn’t meant to be complementary. “The new one, of course.”
Helga couldn’t see why they would invite the new editor, when Marius didn’t even know him. She said so. They were in the kitchen, where she was usually the one in charge.
In a somewhat long-winded manner, Marius explained to this member of the female species, that if the old editor were still there, and he had gotten an invitation, then the newpaper would have known well in advance that there was an upcoming birthday they ought to do something with. You know, for their own sake, they have to follow the important events going on in the area, and sometimes they need a little help.
But the new one? No, they probably couldn’t. Marius sat down heavily at the table and began waiting for his coffee. Helga said, “You could always invite schoolteacher Krogsholt. You know he contributes to the paper.” Marius mumbled something about “that twirp of a teacher” – he and Helga had of course always been supporters of charter schools, and he was even on the board of one, back when there was one here, and that’s why they never held schoolteacher Krogsholt – the public school teacher – or the principal, in very high esteem. But the more he thought about it, the more he thought that it could still be a possibility. Krogsholt was a local, and they had been with him at countless events like golden anniversaries and the like, and he could sing with the others when the songs were handed out. And read telegrams, maybe.
Marius nodded. “Go ahead and send Krogsholt an invitation.” The rest of his statement kind of got lost in the chaw with which Marius occupied himself while the coffee maker was brewing. But it wasn’t necessary to hear every word to conclude that he seriously doubted Krogholt’s mental faculties in this regard.
A couple of sips into cup number two, Marius said, “You’d better write them today.” And after coffee, Helga made her way to the town center to buy appropriate invitations and stamps at the stationery store. Marius stayed in the car around the corner. It was a no parking zone, but if he kept the motor running, no one was going to come and say that he was breaking any laws. Some cars did get backed up, and there were also a few childish hotheads who honked their horns. Marius pretended he didn’t notice. It wasn’t his fault they didn’t know him. In a way he enjoyed the commotion, and welcomed Helga back without the least sarcasm. It made her wonder. From inside the store she could hear that the street traffic wasn’t moving along at its normal rhythm, but still she had taken her time, looking at a couple of storefront windows. Maybe she should get something for the birthday party.
Marius said, “How about a little pick-me-up, since we’re in town.” And he got the vehicle moving, drove forward a couple hundred feet, then turned left into the hotel parking lot, right in front of the city bus that, luckily, had its brakes in good working order.
“You don’t almost turn 80 everyday,” said Marius.
The evening was getting on, when Marius said, “I think you’d better cross out Krogsholt after all.” Helga looked up surprised from her writing. She was just about to ask if the new editor should get an invitation, when Marius said, “I’m going to put in an announcement.” He looked at her with a mix of triumph and reproach. “I think you’re getting old, Helga,” he said mildly.
Old Helga, who was actually twelve years younger than her husband, and who also definitely looked it, made the expression on her face that she always did when Marius got out of control. “So you could have saved me all this,” she said, meaning the pile of invitations and envelopes that she had already written. “And the stamps,” she said. “When are we going to use all of these stamps?”
Marius shook his head. Patiently, he explained that of course they would send out the invitations too, because he wanted to make sure that everyone who was supposed to come would actually come. But there should be an announcement too. “Can you just write something up?”
Writing that turned out to be more difficult for Helga than one would think. You couldn’t just write, “Remember my 80th birthday on September 14th,” even though that was the intent.
They discussed it at length. Eventually they agreed to use the usual wording, even though Helga still complained that then they could have skipped the invitations and the stamps. Marius ignored her and told her to write something down. Helga paged through a couple of issues of the newspaper and wrote: “On the occasion of my 80th birthday on September 14th, I invite family, friends and acquaintances to celebrate at a party in the meetinghouse at 7pm. To facilitate the catering please RSVP at the grocery store.”
She read the draft. Marius thought a little, then went outside to spit. He came back in. “Read it from the beginning.” He listened carefully. “No,” he said,”that’s no good.” There was a pause. Helga looked at him questioningly. “It sounds like we’re fishing for guests, like just anyone can show up.”
He thought long and hard. “We can send out the invitations now,” he said, “and then we can put in an announcement ‘to please withhold any acknowledgements.’”
Helga perused the announcement section, took another newspaper and searched that one as well. She wrote. Then she read: “All considerations of acknowledgements on September 14 are kindly but firmly asked to be withheld.” She looked up at him, and he had a suspicion that there might be a bit of teasing in her look. For appearance’s sake he let some time pass. He wasn’t going to let himself be provoked. Then he said, “Don’t you sound a bit too standoffish? Couldn’t you write it more along the lines of ‘that people don’t need to send acknowledgements’?
She wrote again: “Withhold acknowledgements on September 14.” “Please,” said Marius. “It should say, ‘Please withhold.’” It was quiet in the kitchen for a while. Then Marius mumbled, “Please withhold acknowledgements on September 14.” He still wasn’t totally satisfied. He tried to explain. “Most people will understand, but what about the ones who might take it literally? The bank director, for example, or the new guy at the feed store. How’s anyone supposed to know what they’re used to, wherever they’re from.”
Helga was still looking in the newspaper. “Open house,” she said. “How about announcing an open house from noon to 2pm. A lot of people do that nowadays.”
Marius just about sneered with indignation. “Open house! It’s going to be in the meetinghouse, and it’s going to be decorated for the evening. How can we do an open house in these two rooms? If you write it up like that, a hundred people might show up.”
Helga’s skepticism remained unsaid, but was revealed unequivocally in the quick look she gave him. He hissed. The mood in the kitchen had deteriorated. They decided to sleep on it.
So it ended up being both. The 70 invitations to the party at the meetinghouse were sent out, and in the newspaper there was an announcement – across two columns – which Marius figured couldn’t be missed by the bank manager, or other managers, or the editor, or the heads of the political associations and people like that. This is how it read: “On the occasion of my 80th birthday the 14th of September, congratulants will be received at our home from noon to 2pm. Helga and Marius Beck.”
This wording was the result of lengthy negotiations and a difficult compromise. Helga had insisted on “open house,” repeatedly mentioning that that was how it was said nowadays. Marius sneered, “Open house. Nonsense. Do you want the place flooded with random people?” He had even lowered himself to writing a draft of the announcement, and that was when the word “congratulants” was introduced to the proceedings.
Helga had to step aside. Despite everything, he was the man of the house. On the other hand, she was adamant that the announcement should include both their names.
Marius protested. He even laughed. “It sure as hell isn’t you whose turning 80,” he said. But Helga documented, with the help of the majority of the recent papers, that this type of announcement included the names of both spouses at the bottom. He could see for himself. She held up the newspaper and pointed: “Sincere appreciation for everyone who came to my birthday celebration. Sonja and Peter Jensen.” The wives were also included. That’s the way it was done these days. “You don’t want to seem old-fashioned, do you?” she asked.
Marius obviously didn’t care. He continued making a couple of snide remarks about the 80-year-old Helga, but it was no use. “I’m going to be doing all the work,” she said, “so I want to be in the announcement.”
The silence that followed her remark became quite oppressive. In the end, he gave in. “But you have to call it in yourself,” he said. He got up with some difficulty and tramped outside to the yard. “Damned bitch,” he mumbled. “Can’t even have a spittoon in the kitchen.”
Time passed, and it passed slowly. The invitations had been sent, and the responses arrived. The announcement was phoned in; it was printed, and it was read. And some talk circulated about it.
“Congratulants,” laughed Morten Andersen at the grocery store, when he barged in on a conversation about Marius’s upcoming big day. “Congratulants,” he laughed with the tone of voice that was used here in this area for making fun of proper spoken Danish. “I don’t think they mean us common people, going around pretending to be congratulants.” There was nearly audible applause from Jens Christian and Holger. Of course everyone knew that Morten had an old grudge against Marius, and that it hadn’t gotten any smaller with time, even though recently they had sort of become neighbors. But still it was well said. The grocer didn’t participate audibly or visibly in the fun. Of course it amounted to more than peanuts, the wine, beer and tobacco that had been ordered for delivery, some to the meetinghouse, some to the house. And with everything else that was needed for such an occasion, it was a pretty good contribution to an otherwise declining turnover. When the discussion turned a bit more subdued – and more to the point, he discovered – he didn’t refrain from saying that Marius has always been a good man for the area, and that unlike certain others he never moved his business outside the parish. It was a statement that found its mark with a couple of the men present. Still it was the particular Morten-Andersenish way of saying “congratulants” that was memorable, entertaining everyone on their way home. And thereby the word was granted citizenship in the local language with a definition that would not be found fully in the unabridged Danish dictionary.
Not too many hours of September 14 had passed before Helga got out of bed. There was a lot to see to, even though the previous several days had been occupied with preparations, and she had had plenty of help. Kristine, who had been househelp for them on the farm for so many years, was called in. And to Helga it felt almost like the old days, when some large event loomed.
Carefully she closed the bedroom door behind her. Even though Marius always slept like a rock, and he probably wouldn’t wake up too easily, there was no reason to risk it. It would just make everything more difficult to have him around, complaining or making suggestions. She looked up at the clock. He shouldn’t be woken up before seven, anyway.
After making the day’s first pot of coffee, she sat down at the kitchen table and considered the situation. Maybe she should have the deliveryman bring an extra case of beer. There seemed to be plenty of wine – for the people who preferred that.
Then there was the flag. Marius had bought a new flag. And on top that he had called the surveyor to find out how big it should be, when used with a regular-sized flagpole. He would really carry on if she forgot to put it up. She rose and got it out of the closet. Then she put on her clogs and went out into the yard in the still dark morning, and with quite a bit of trouble, she got the rope loosened and the ends tied on to the flag. Then she raised it into the night sky.
That was that. Good thing she remembered. She avoided both Marius’s reproaches and the neighbors’ joking remarks at seeing her fumbling in broad daylight with the flag, which was the biggest one the store had in stock. Looked like Marius had added a bit to whatever measurements the surveyor had given him.
She went back to her coffee cup and a half-eaten roll with marmalade.
And then there were the rooms. She had better dust and vacuum, so everything would be ready for Kristine’s arrival, when it would be time to put things out.
Marius sat as if on a throne, wearing his dark suit. His hair had been cut, he had had his beard trimmed a few days before, and now he sat there looking regal with his freshly scrubbed, pink face beneath his white hair. Time approached noon, and he sat entertaining himself with his two sons-in-law – a couple of middle-aged rascals, one of which was already talking about going on social security.
The mailman had been there with a couple of congratulatory letters, from members of the family who couldn’t be there that afternoon because of geography or illness, plus a bottle of port from the bank. Marius was not too impressed that they sent it. He would have to delete the bank manager from the list of congratulants he had formed in his head, and regrettably, also from the list of congratulants from which he had expected special tributes. He said, “Young people think they are so busy.”
A car approached. Was it slowing down? Marius paused in the middle of a sentence, listening. The car drove by, and Marius continued telling his sons-in-law what he had said during the general meeting of the slaughterhouse in ‘38.
Helga took one last look over the food. Herring, potato salad and small meatballs, smoked halibut, roast pork and red cabbage, liver paté and pickled beets, and five kinds of sausage from the butcher in the town center. She glanced at Marius, whose voice was becoming more and more distant as he spoke. She said – more or less referring to her sons-in-law: “You can start eating.” The older one, the engineer, the one who was looking forward to social security, started to get up, but was brought to his seat again by a look from Marius. “We’re in no rush,” he said. He got Helga to bring him the newspaper from the day before, so he could show his sons-in-law the article. “Prominent farmer turns 80,” it read, and his many activities were listed below. “But they were careless in more than a few places,” said Marius. “It says that I was on the board of the Cattle Association. Actually I was the vice-chairman.” He paused. “It’s strange that people like that never ask for help from the right sources.”
Then he went quiet. Everyone sat listening. When they had the chance, they glanced out the window. A scooter went by, and the blacksmith’s van. “I still think you should start eating,” said Helga. She looked appealingly at her daughters and sons-in-law. Not even the grandchildren had time to come by. They were going to wait until the evening.
The neighbor, who was Morten Andersen, was now busy with yardwork at the end of the afternoon. He had heard that it was a good time to start getting everything ready for winter, even though it was only the middle of September, and around noon he had launched into the hedgerow at the far end by the road, where there was a good view. He had said to his wife, “We’ve got to see what congratulants look like.”
Earlier in the day, he had seen the mailman come, carrying a package. And even earlier he had seen the young girl from the grocery store come riding her bicycle, with a beautifully wrapped bottle. “Probably Gammel Dansk,” Morten had thought, and now as he thought about it again, he felt a slight yearning for a stiff drink. Still he stayed at his raking, cleaning up under the hedge. Something was bound to happen soon.
Nothing was happening. Then it was noon. Still nothing happened. That is, a little happened, but nothing really. The grocer’s girl arrived again, this time with the grocer’s wife as driver, and there were more bottles carried in. And a big box, it looked like. Morten worked his way over to the car and exchanged a few words with Ellen, who told him that people were calling like crazy for bottles they wanted delivered, with cards and everything. From the slaughterhouse, from the feed store and all kinds of places.
Morten gave it some thought. His face brightened with a strange downward smile, but Ellen just looked impressed. “And chocolate,” she said. “the biggest one we had in the store. It was from the Severinsen’s,” she added. “They’re teetotalers, you know.”
The girl came out, chewing something, and sat down in the car. Ellen turned the car around and drove away. There were no other cars on the road. Morten felt so young inside; it was bubbling up in him. He’d better go in to Margareta, who was standing inside, watching from behind the houseplants. It was about time to have something to eat.
“They’re sending things,” he said in an expressionless voice, and no one except for Margareta would be able to sense the undertone of pleasure. “They’re sending things and not showing up.”
He stopped, struck by Margareta’s seriousness. He squirmed a bit. Margareta said, “He is your neighbor.”
Morten shook his head. He went into the kitchen. The table was conspicuously not set, even though it was late. “Despite everything, Marius is your neighbor,” she said again, remaining standing by the window, as if she had nothing else pressing. He protested a bit, but, as usual, it was no use.
Inside Marius’s house, they had finally started stuffing themselves with the good food. There was no need to stand, since there were plenty of chairs. They sat around the table, and it wasn’t so easy to keep the mood bright. The daughters and one of the sons-in-law tried. “The gift table sure is filling up,” said the youngest daughter. Her husband said, “There’s enough bottles to last for years.”
Marius said nothing. Barely even “Cheers.” It was painful to see him sitting there.
There were footsteps outside on the walk. They all looked up. “Someone’s here,” both daughters said in unison. Helga rose nervously. Marius looked at the clock. Quarter to one.
There was a knock at the door and it opened. Morten Andersen entered, newly shaven and hair slicked back, wearing his old suit from his 25th wedding anniversary. He had a large bouquet of fall asters in his hand. “I just wanted to say congratulations,” he said.
Morten was escorted to the table, and they fussed over him as if he were a president, a manager, or some other high-standing individual. One of the daughters dashed over to get Margareta to come, but she declined. She wasn’t dressed, and what would people think if she showed up in her streetclothes? There was no way around it.
Morten lifted his shot glass. “Well then, congratulations.” Marius acknowledged his toast and regained his bearing as Marius Beck.
He gestured towards the gift table. “I’m not forgotten entirely,” he said. “But people are so busy these days, that they only have time to stay for a few minutes.” Morten nodded sympathetically. “They don’t know what they’re missing,” he said, taking another serving of the warm meatballs and the cold potato salad. Helga poured him another glass.
“Yeah,” said Morten. “Time passes, but the good times don’t come back to bite you, as they say.”
The company enthusiastically agreed. Everyone was in good spirits now, and no one could claim that it was because of the libations.
“I’ve had a great many experiences and quite a bit of responsibility,” said Marius, letting his gaze fade away to someplace in the past. Actually he had prepared a little speech about responsibility and duty, but it was for a larger group – and a somewhat differently comprised group – that he had imagined as an audience. He saved it. He would have to be content with using it that night at the meetinghouse.
They had arrived at coffee. They had moved now to the sofa table and sat with their cups, sampling the cookies.
Marius was a bit tired. He would definitely take a substantial rest before the evening festivities.
The rest of the family was still engaged in conversation, showing Morten friendliness and attention like never before.
Marius woke from a little doze. He said, “Time for a cigar. Bring in the box, Helga.”
Helga brought the silver cigar box from the desk and began offering them. The one son-in-law didn’t smoke. Morten was on his way with his left hand, when his expression suddenly changed, and he stopped in the middle of the motion.
He pulled his hand back. He shook his head.
“I forgot I have my pipe,” he said. From different pockets he dug out his pipe, tobacco, and matches, and got it stopped and lit.
“And it’s about time for me to head home,” he said. “I hope I didn’t impose. I just wanted to, as they say, offer my congratulations.”
Knud Sørensen, born in 1928, was a certified land surveyor for 28 years, during which he became intimate with the Danish agricultural landscape. His work is best known for its portrayal of life in rural Denmark and the dissolution of small farming communities. A book reviewer for 14 years, he has also written 48 books and won over 20 literary awards. including a lifelong grant from the Danish Arts Council. In November 2014 he received the highest honor for a Danish author – the Grand Prize of the Danish Academy.
Michael Goldman taught himself Danish over 30 years ago to help him win the heart of a lovely Danish girl by translating a Danish copy of Catcher in the Rye word for word. Over 80 of Goldman’s translations have appeared in 30 literary journals including The Massachusetts Review, Rattle, International Poetry Review, and World Literature Today. Three books of his translations are forthcoming by Norvik Press and Spuyten Duyvil Press. He lives in Florence, Mass. http://hammerandhorn.net/
**By Knud Sørensen, “Gratulanten” ©1991