Scoundrel Time
I had just slipped down a lorazepam when a stranger came to talk to me in the bookstore. This was sometime in the late nineties, in Helsinki, and I was looking for a copy of Prozac Nation. I was thousands of miles away from my home in San Diego and I was still thinking about my problems. “Dependency issues” and “undoubtedly bipolar,” my therapist had said. But I lied to him all the time. Mostly I kept seeing him because I wanted us to fuck. That never happened, and I took a sabbatical to work on a memoir about my ex’s death and my subsequent depression and how Finns are so fucking happy. I hadn’t seen much of that supposed bright outlook—only some dirty old men had smiled at me outside of a library—and my proposed book had stalled. And so there in the bookstore, the stranger appeared, soft and gray and kind. He wore a thick wool overcoat, a disheveled brown suit beneath. His shriveled posture reminded me of my ex after he had gotten sick. The man listed off a series of foreign names, perhaps authors, the meaning of which was unclear. He wasn’t looking at the books but at me—an intense gaze, one far from paternal—and he kept talking, slightly beyond my range of comprehension. Then his words came into focus. “All those people went missing,” he said. “So many of them.” I listened to him, unaware of the context. “They were never seen again.” He handed me a piece of paper. I unfolded it and tried to read his poor handwriting. Beneath the word kadonnut appeared to be a list of names. Finnish names, that I was sure. I gradually realized I had been staring at the piece of paper for some time, and the man had slipped away. The room blurred a little, and I leaned back against a large bookcase, grasping biographies of dead men. A bookshelver approached me and said something in Finnish. I shook my head and asked if she could translate the top word on the list. “Missing,” she said, switching to English. “Lost.” She set down her stack of paperbacks. “Everything okay?” I brushed past her, and quickly left the store, looking for the man. Outside, fresh snow crowned the sidewalk and had coated the city anew. There was no sign of him. I headed the way I thought I had come. I drifted past clothing stores and a Chinese restaurant and an old stone church. An icy wind ran through me, and I kept my head low. I pressed through a fresh snow flurry and turned up one street, thinking my hotel lay at the end of the block. A steel-and-glass office building sat at the corner. I went inside to ask for directions. The guard at the desk refused to speak English and laughed with another man when I walked away. I had no idea why I was writing about Finnish men like him. Outside, I tried to retrace my steps back to the bookstore. But the streets looked different in the darkness. Trams clanked by. Blank faces gazed out into the night. I felt very alone. I walked on for a while, thinking of the last time I had driven my ex to the hospital, his rough hand taking mine, a final request that I not watch him die. It had been the same time of year, the gray of February. Now, around me, a chorus of male voices reverberated, speaking words I could not understand. The voices became loud and threatening. I hurried down some steps into a subterranean room that turned out to be a bar. After-work men were sitting stoically at lacquered wood tables, smoking, and staring into the wells of their glasses. No one followed me into the bar. I ordered glögi, a drink my therapist had recommended. It was sweet and berrylike, spiced with cardamom and cloves, yet had an underlying bitterness. I drank two glasses before switching to a makeshift cocktail of lakka and tonic water. At some point a woman sat at the end of the bar and asked for a glass of white wine. I called out to her, and she looked over, confused. I moved closer, a stool away, and asked if she knew of a bookstore nearby. She studied me, knowing clearly that I was a foreigner, a stupid American. I went on, explaining there was a book I needed to read, one that my therapist spoke great things about. I rambled a little about my past, I think, some memories about my dead ex. “I couldn’t save him,” I said to her once or twice. “I tried. I thought I tried.” The woman didn’t respond. Then she smiled. It struck me that schadenfreude was the key to Finnish happiness. But she was looking at the women in the doorway. They wore nice wool coats. She told the barman to bring her wine over to where the group of women were now seating themselves. “Hold on,” I said. I felt in my pocket for the piece of paper the stranger had given me. I smoothed it out on the counter. I wrote my name at the bottom of the list and pushed the piece of paper toward the woman. She studied the list of names. “What’s this?” I told her that I had forgotten something and took the list back. I added the name of my hotel and the room number. I slid the piece of paper back. I stood to leave. “Come find me,” I said. “Before I’m gone.”

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Christopher Linforth is the author of the story collection The Distortions (Orison Books, 2022). Recent stories have appeared in the Oxford Review of Books and The Barcelona Review.

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Image By: Christopher Linforth  taken in Helsink