My Mother in Jönköping by Christopher Merkner, short story book cover artwork

“My Mother in Jönköping” by Christopher Merkner

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He is a cleric in a rural parish in Sweden. He has never dated, nor loved, another human. She is his American cousin, and married to a man named Kenny. He has written her in pornographic language, in his broken English, and now she is here, wanting him to do what he promised in his many letters.

About the Author
Christopher Merkner is the author of the story collection The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic (Coffee House 2014). His stories have been reprinted in the Best American Mystery Stories and the O. Henry Prize Stories anthologies, and some of his other work can be found in Black Warrior Review, Chicago Tribune's Printer's Row Journal, Cincinnati Review, CutBank, DIAGRAM, Five Points, Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Fairy Tale Review, Hotel Amerika, Midwestern Gothic, and Subtropics. He's currently an assistant professor of English for West Chester University in Pennsylvania, and he is very happily living in Denver, CO with his wife and kids.
My Mother in Jönköping

My mother met my father for the first time in Jönköping. They met by her clandestine design. She was forty-seven. She had been touring the gravestones of her relatives with her husband at the time, Kenny, who I have never met, though it seems his name will never leave us.

Apparently, it was all quite simple: one morning she told Kenny she would prefer to travel to Malmö herself. Kenny put his hand in his pants, as my father’s notes have it, and continued to watch an American football game on the television. She left the hotel, bought the ticket to Malmö, as well as a return ticket to Stockholm, and then she simply stepped off the train at Nässjö. It didn’t take long. She took the next line to Jönköping. It was unspeakably natural.

My mother of course had never seen her cousin, and he had never seen her. This was before the internet. This was when people still crafted language pornography and trusted in the hands of surface mail carriers to share it with its patient interlocutor. My father was apparently standing there in full clerical attire, waiting for her when she stepped off. He was a large sloping man, and his shoulders back then were thick and fatty. He hunkered and hunched, even then, and he wore shoes that were a sort of athletic boot with steel-plated soles. He was at that time prodigiously bearded.

He spotted her easily enough: Americans are easy spots. She was also looking about, side to side, a damsel in desperate disorientation, as he would later phrase it in his notes. He approached her and shook her hand. The first thing my mother said when she saw him was, You are just a mess. And indeed she thought he was a messy, wonderful thing. He was just as she’d imagined him, and she’d imagined him a great deal, she would later tell me. He was apparently an incredible man of letters, but somehow she knew he was also a disaster of a functional human, wildly unkempt, a little dirty, not terribly pleasant to look at, listen to, or smell.

Someone gasped, or according to my father’s notes the entire Jönköping parish gasped, when my mother pulled his face down to hers and kissed him on the lips, and then put her tongue in his mouth. He pulled back, but she pulled him back and closer and pushed her head onto his shoulder. He had to bend over for this. She gripped his thick brown cassock with her fingertips. She worked her mouth against his neck, beneath his beard, and she moved her cheek into his warm throat, her chin against his plastic clerical collar. She had her eyes closed very tightly. He took this in silence and did not move, he notes. He claims he was incapable.

At length, they walked off the platform down a deeply forested gravel road and arrived at a small red cabin. Set back behind the outhouse, adjacent to the cabin, a barn was visible, the broad doors open, darkness inside. They went first inside the red cabin, and my father asked my mother if she might like to go out fishing.

My mother took my father by the hand, turned him toward her, put his hands on her hips and looked up into his eyes. Cousin, she said, Do you remember what you told me in your letters?

He said he did not. He said he could not write in English “worth shit,” and he probably would regret having written what she thought he’d tried to communicate to her.

Listen to me, she said. She reminded him that he had written to her about her body, about her hips, and how he hoped that she would have good hips for making babies. And you also wrote, she apparently said, that you had “a big snake” you would like to “let slither into my burrow, where all the rabbits and goodness lived.”

My father apparently then groaned, and he brought his hands to his left side, as though he were suffering a foul gallbladder, and he pulled away from her and ran out of the cabin. She could hear him coughing outside, and she looked through the small window above the sink in the kitchen. He had his hands on his knees, and he was coughing. She went outside after him. He turned to see her coming again toward him, and he again ran away, lumbering into the barn.

When she appeared in the broad doorway, he gave himself over and went to her. He asked her why she had done this, and she said to him, Cousin, we have been through all of this already in our letters.

This is when he asked her to stop, stop reminding him of what she’d thought he had written. He reminded her that he knew almost no English whatsoever, nor did he realize that she might be serious about flying to see him at any point in time, and they were cousins, after all.

She reached into her small purse and extracted her wallet, from which she took a picture of Kenny—a picture of Kenny and her and their three children, on a trip to Aspen, all of them smiling and holding their skis. I know the picture well: my mother has it above her fireplace, enlarged and framed in bronze. They were incredible Americans. They were a wonderful American family. And when it wasn’t Aspen, it was Boston. And when it wasn’t Boston, it was a new car. She told her cousin these things “disgusted” her, and she took his absurdly oversized hands and placed them softly on her breasts.

He instantly withdrew his hands, as though her breasts were fire, and he paused for a moment before sweeping toward her and bringing her suddenly and entirely into his enormous embrace. She claims he crushed her lungs and she lost her breath, and she claims it was terrifying. He wrapped his arms around her and lifted her onto a pile of wood handled spades, stacked nearly four feet high. Several spades tumbled to the floor and rang out like alarm bells against one another.

She grabbed at my father’s throat and tried pulling off his white plastic collar, but because it was pinned to his cassock, she only tugged several times until he pulled her hands away and undid the pins himself. Then he flung the collar to the floor and lifted the surplice so that my mother could unbutton the cassock. The cassock was double-breasted, however, and my father had it fully sealed, and tightly. She worked her fingers to undo the first button, and then she swore loudly, rousing birds from the rafters, when it would not release. She wrenched her entire fist around the cassock breast, and she attempted to pull the rest of it apart at the buttons, but the materials were handmade and wool, and the buttons would not give, and she could not tear anything. She pushed her hair back and swore again.

My father sighed, and he again took her hands away, so that he might begin tearing off his own clothing. He could not divide the beastly fabric, however, either, only loosen in incrementally, so that in odd and painful order one button finally loosened, slowly giving over to the force of his pulling, but not bursting, as he had hoped, and as she had seen it done before in films.

She swore again, and she leaned in to his abdomen and took a button near his navel in her mouth, and she used her teeth to bite down on the threads. She could smell the woolen fabric, wet with her spittle, and it was rather crude, she thought, rather like an animal. When she felt she had her teeth through, she thrashed her head from side to side, and indeed she pulled that button off. She flung her head back and to the side, and so spat out that button to the hay-soft floor of the barn. And then she went back for another.

The longer this took, they more intensely they worked, the more foul their swearing, the more fecund he smelled, the more desperate they both became. They both reported this moment to me verbally and in notes without humor, as though the tragedy were obvious. My father, a notorious sweater, was sweating excessively down the back of his legs and was beginning to fade. My mother, sensing the moment slipping, reminded him of Kenny in the hotel room back in Stockholm, and that she must never go back.

She was also keenly aware of an immodest softening from beneath my father’s cassock, she likes to say, and she began to push upon what she likes to tell me were my father’s gargantuan genitals through the woolen material. My father was a 290-pound clergyman who never left the rural parish that raised him outside of a small town in southeastern

Sweden. He lived on a farm his entire life, and he writes in his notes that he never once dated or loved any human person. He had not been touched by a woman since his mother had touched him when he was a child, and when my mother pushed upon his genitals a powerful song erupted from his belly and flew from his mouth.

He spun away like a violent dervish, took the bottom hem of his cloak and yanked it so hard toward his head that the material cut into his flesh and burned him along his sides as it cleared his midriff and his vast stomach. He hoisted it over his chest, but those shoulders got the best of him—and he could go no further.

My mother had to grab on, and she pulled at the hem so hard she felt all her weight behind her. At length, they cleared the shoulders, one shoulder at a time, so that all that remained was to pull his head through. But she could not. My mother could not believe it, the neck was fastened along the shoulder line with more buttons and pins, and she said she could honestly wait no longer.

Though his face was not showing, and all his clerical attire hung over his head like an ancient veil, she told him she would receive him in this way, at this time, and she got up on him, his forearms under her thighs and though he was in almost every other sense incapacitated my faceless father knew the fundamentals of this holy act, just as horses will, and he employed his abilities with the sort of tireless purpose that befits an understood end. And my mother, for her part, as she would later tell it to me, sensed in dread almost immediately, and then certainly throughout, and then again nearly every day after, the Kenny in her cousin, and the

Kenny in all of us, and the Kenny in all of this sad Western world, no matter the country, and she said—as she now always says—that I may never forget, never forget that it is from Kenny and nothing else that all men come.

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