Fiction

The Old Man's Last Sauna

A short story by Carl Dow
Editor and publisher
True North Perspective

He saw her beautiful through the waiting-room window. She looked as young and as lithe as memory. Indeed, because of the way she carried her years, and because he so imaged his father, casual observers would conclude anything but that they were mother and son. Their embrace, though brief, was as enclosing as lovers; then cheek-to-cheek several times saying hello repetitively, just as most of us say goodbye.

"So our hero has finally come," she said, her sensuous mouth a slash of ecstatic smile that suggested nothing of the sarcasm of the words.

"Ugh!" he said, "so she's still at it!"

She took his left arm, holding it firmly with her gloved hands, "Oh never mind Susan, I just have a way of repeating her crusty one-liners. Your sister loves you, you know, in her own way. How was your trip?"

He had disembarked from a bantam eighteen-passenger Pratt-and-Whittney turbo prop at the micro Fallsburgh airport, where security was a myth, his laptop computer in one hand, and an overnight bag in the other.

"Once I could get it under way, it was easy enough — you know, sit back, commit yourself to death, then let them move you from place to place until they tell you you've arrived. If they never tell you that, then you've nothing to be concerned about, because you're dead."

She whimpered with delight, increased the grip on his arm, and upped to her tip toes as they walked, to brush her lips again on his cheek, "My! But you're so much like him!"

His grunt was passive. "Speaking of the dead, I suppose The Old Man's in his prescribed resting places." The breeze tousled his soft, light-brown hair as he stopped to search the airfield's parking lot.

She tugged at his arm, "It's okay. Nobody knows. Nobody. Yes. He is. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, scattered to the four winds, exactly as ordered."

His frown became playful, "Of course. His Will Always Was Done on Earth, as it is probably now being Done In Heaven. Anyway, there's no such secret that's not subject to leaks. But," and this with another sweep of the tarmac and the flat farmland beyond it, "this secret looks like its holding, at least so far." It was his turn to take firm grip on her arm. "I'm just happy to be alone with you for awhile, at first, anyway."

"I know dear Thomas," her smile was serious, "It seems that's what The Old Man wanted too, and I've done my best."

Then her nurturing instinct flowered anew, "Come," she said, taking him by the wrist of the hand that carried his laptop, "I've got champagne on ice, and plenty of tasties to go with it. We can satisfy ourselves on the move and be palate-and-tummy comfortable when we arrive."

"Once a Mommy, always a Mommy.. especially the Nomadic Mommy ... day or night, rain, sleet, snow, or dust-storm, always packed and ready to go — and we sure did have fun, thanks to you."

"Hey! it was The Old Man's initiative!"

"Yeah. Sure. But you made it work I know other women who'd have nervous breakdowns just driving around the block at high noon. But you, you'd be happy as a bee in clover to just up and go from coast-to-coast on a moment's notice. The Old Man, he sure got some woman when he got you."

"Thomas," her voice fell as solemn as her face, "It took two of us, you know. We were really lucky. . : " Her voice caught. A quick glance at her face was blocked because she just as quickly gave him the back of her head.

Guilt glimmered faintly on the periphery of his mind. He would never want to hurt her. She was his mother, sure, but of all the women he had loved, and of all the women he would come to love, he was certain that there could never be another woman he could ever love more than her. Not as a son loves a mother. But, plain and simple, as a man loves a woman.

She opened the passenger door to the old `64 Mercedes 220S, thereby inviting him to drive. Without skipping a beat, he slid in behind the wheel. "Nice antique," he purred as his hands caressed the steering wheel and the polished leather dashboard of his all-time favourite, "In its day, as you've heard me rave a thousand times, this old bus was one of the first to have diminishing power-steering. You know, maximum when you're sitting still, decreasing with speed, always leaving you with a sense of the road. Lot's of cars got that now. But these led the popular pack, while even so, these'd still rust as fast as any plain ordinary Ford or Chewy. It's good that salt isn't much thought of around here."

They didn't have to talk about destination or directions. It already had been established by e-mail that The Old Man had wanted them to take one last look at the farm before they made a final decision about what to do with it. He had insisted — well, more like an urgent request, that they do it alone, just the two of them And so, on this very pleasant, cloudless, late October afternoon, they set about the assignment he had given them. She took furtive glances at Thomas while pouring the champagne, and laying out between them the complimentary fixings. How much his father, she thought again, even though when she first met his father, the latter was a great deal older than his son-and-heir even now.

The Old Man, just about everyone called him.

Ursula Pender had just turned twenty-two when she, with skipping heart, entered that day John Principal's office in the history department at Fallsburgh University. She had been short-listed to three candidates for the special project that could give her a much coveted Research Associate status under the Dean of Arts. Her peers and competitors made fun of his name and title in silly ways, Principal Dean, Dean of Principals, and she was thinking of things like this to mask her terror when their eyes met in his messy office — a seemingly impossible tangle of books and papers piled every which way on top of each other. He looked a young fifty; relatively, she felt as if she had just gotten the final push out of the womb. And he told her later that she showed it.

He lowered his brows at her and growled, "Are you an ageist?" He didn't bother to use her name.

She floundered on her feet, and would have to be reminded later whether or not her mouth had fallen slack, but she found herself quickly and said, "Why no!" She wanted to add Why? What a strange thing to ask! but thought better of it.

"So you think it's such a strange thing to ask?"

Then she did need to sit down, and did so on the edge of the chair, setting aside some books and papers, careful not to disrupt the disorder. An act that he observed with keen satisfaction.

"You're twenty-two and I'm sixty-two. That's a spread of forty years. Does that frighten you!"

"Well, no! No! No! That is, unless you'll be asking me to marry you ... well ... then..."

"Well then!"

"Well then ... well then ... well ... then ... I suppose then. . . I'll have to think about it. After all, it isn't everyday a man asks me to marry him."

"But I'll bet it's hardly a day goes by that there isn't a man, and probably a few women too, considering the way things are going these days, who doesn't try to proposition you, one way or another."

Ursula was beginning to conclude that this was a mistake; that the professor's pristine reputation had well camouflaged his grasp in more ways than one. She twisted to her feet in disappointment and dismay, trying, this time not so carefully, not to dislodge anything, when she heard him saying, "Well, I'm not an ageist. The title and responsibilities of a Research Associate, is applied to someone a lot older and experienced than you, however, I've studied your CV with satisfaction. I admire your manner under stress. Unless you've just now come to hate me, I'd like you to appear here, dress casual, ready for work at nine a.m. tomorrow. We've got a major project, and, naturally, we're right-tight on deadline."

Of course she couldn't come tomorrow. She had to bring her personal and Research Associate life on stream, and it took the rest of the week to do that; but that's how it began.

Thomas drove slowly, his eyes and memory savouring the countryside, at least as much as the champagne, "I don't mean to sound trite, but you truly loved him, didn't you?"

Her smile was soft with fond recall, then turned a little foxy as she glanced at him, quoting the song, "More dearly than the spoken word can tell."

"Didn't the fact that he was a full forty years older than you, slow you down, even a little?" His face was a puzzled frown, as he breathed-in more deeply than usual, "I mean, I'm convinced that ageism, like the universal condemnation of incest, represents a powerful taboo prompted by our biological compulsion for healthy reproduction and survival. Ageism has primal roots. The young female, since coming down out of the trees, wants a young male, strong enough to replenish the larder while she births and nurtures. Old men just can't kill the sabre-toothed tiger."

She closed her eyes, comfortable with the sound of the motor, the soft motion of the ancient luxury vehicle, and with the reassuring sound of her son's voice. She had always taken pleasure in conversation with him, ever since he was a child.

"Well," she said, "the sabre-toothed tiger is no more. Old men carry wisdom, if not the strength, to kill the tiger. But, yes. It did give me cause for pause," then she glanced at him with impish alarm, "I don't know why I said that just now, cause for pause, he always hated that phrase, thought it a most offensive use of rhyme. Anyway, I must admit I stumbled a bit; not much, just a bit. But then the full force of the sensible took over and I was away."

"The full force of the sensible ... ?"

"Well. Yes. Of course, I had to measure time. He was already sixty-two. But he had good longevity genes, as you know, on both sides of the family. That meant he'd have a good shot at marching to a solid ninety with his boots on. Say, I told myself, he'd make it a full thirty years more, just to make it easy on the counting — you know how bad I am at arithmetic — well, that would give me his company until he was a healthy ninety-two. Thirty years. Three decades. Three generations by the way they count `em now. Three generations in active companionship with the finest, most brilliant man I had ever met, and would ever meet. Why throw away thirty years of grace just because he would die before I would? I could have gotten cancer and died of that. I could have died in an automobile or air accident, or simply by falling down a flight of stairs. Or I could have married a man my own age and he could have died as in any of the above."

He spared a glance at her, and saw that her face and posture was now one of glowing satisfaction. "Well, you got an extra ten out of him."

"Yes," she said with a sigh of triumph that caught an abrupt laugh in her throat. "One-hundred-and-two! One-hundred-and-two he was, when the stubborn old bugger decided to let go."

Silence settled at realization renewed that The Old Man was no longer among them, then Thomas said softly, "How was he, Mother, how was he at the end?"

She didn't bother to remove her glove when she used the thumb and index finger of her right hand to pat away the wet that suddenly formed at her eyes which were, as usual, free of all make-up.

"Oh, you know what he was like in full flight. Very tough. Very tender. Humour always brilliant, some times self deprecating, but never used to make others feel uncomfortable. Always to bring out the best in others. Toward the end ... well ... toward the end ... as he began to accept that he was losing control ... that others were beginning to ... and would, increasingly ... be making decisions for and about him ... there settled about him a kind of sadness . . . no, not so much sadness, as resignation ... most accurately, an acknowledgement that for even he, the time had come to surrender himself unto death."

"Were you there . . . I mean at the very moment he died?"

She nodded, as she paused to breathe, "Yes. At the very last moment. I knew he was going. His lungs were filling as his great heart gave out. I told him again and again that we loved him, and that it was okay to go. Against the pallor of death, his eyes closed, he glowed with satisfaction ... with a subdued flush ... and let go. You can be sure he went in peace."

Through his nostrils Thomas drew long to capacity, then he held it. She glanced at him but said nothing. She knew he would speak the pain when he could. Finally he said, "He was never one for writing personal letters. As you know, he would always say he spent so much time writing at his work, that the extra of writing letters was just too hard a task."

She nodded but kept her silence.

"He wrote me a note about three years ago. All it said was Dear Senko, you know how he liked to call me Senko, it said Dear Senko, I need two bullets. Not one. But two. And I need them now. And he signed it, as he always did in his rare letters to me, I love you, as I love life itself."

There were tears brightening four eyes now. Neither bothered to conceal them, or to wipe them away.

"Three years ago," she said, "he was still walking on his own, even though with a cane."

Renewing control over his voice, while even so it came a little harsh and moist, he said, "It broke my heart. I knew what he meant, but I felt there was nothing I could do for him. I was totally unprepared But heart-broken as I was, I was also angry because he was imposing on me something that he should have arranged for himself. God knows! We all know that we're going to die at one time or another. We all should make preparation for self-termination should we survive being cut down by accident, or terminal disease. Now this man, who I was so proud to know as my father, who had given me so much, in so many ways, was asking me to rescue him from the disgrace of a slow death. And I couldn't do it!"

She waited for his grief and guilt to settle back away from the ramparts of his soul and, when she thought it would be okay, she said. "For what its worth, of course, the two bullets were metaphorical. . : "

"Well, yes, and no," his voice sounding more sharp, more reprimanding, than he had intended. "It came right from the Old Country where he had fought many a bloody battle ... where was it? by the River Berezina, in one day alone, eleven times out of the trenches in hand-to-hand combat, to carry the field with only thirty-seven standing battered, cut, and bruised, but without fatal holes in them, out of a unit of five thousand men. Two bullets then were not a metaphor. The method of execution was one bullet in the back of the head. The second bullet, if necessary, was to make sure the job was done. He had lived his life. And three years ago he asked me for two bullets so that he could die with dignity! And I let him down! I just couldn't do it! Bullets! Or pills! What difference does it make! With my connections it would have been easy to supply the two bullets but I just couldn't become my father's executioner. And so I let him slowly die, until his dignity ran out before his life force! I hate myself for my cowardice. I hate him for putting me in such a position!"

She wanted to touch him, to stroke him. But she was a creature with a highly sensitive sense of timing, so she held back.

"And you!" he said, voice brimming softly with accusation, "What about you? How was it for you to watch him die?"

She puffed her cheeks, and a quick, defiant pout of a smile formed on her closed lips, before she said, "Did you want me to slash my wrists and throw myself on his death bed?"

His face broke in a silent, embarrassed laugh. He took his right hand from the steering wheel and gave her a quick, gentle hug with his powerful arm, then settled his hand back on the wheel. "Of course not! I'm sorry! I just lost it for a moment!"

"He never asked me for two bullets," she said, her voice soft again, almost to the point of a whisper. "That was him talking to you, his first-born, man-to-man. I'm sure he never expected you to come through. It was just something he had to say. I suppose, in a way, punishing you for living, while he was dying. The mind, at the end, must do strange things, if it does anything at all. You know how he loved life, no matter how tough things got, and there were some very tough times in between the good ones. He always used to say, The only thing I resent about living is the knowledge that one day its going to end!"

Thomas nodded, "I know. I remember"

"And you," she said, trying to lift the burden a little, "what have you done to arrange your final days on our busy little planet?"

"Touché," he said on a long sigh, his smile at her was shy, self-deprecating. "I'm thirty-one. I'm in love with a wonderful woman. Within five months, I'll have sired my third child. I'm going to live forever!"

"Of course you will," she said with a wink in her voice and a reassuring smile on her lips, "and so will I. But when and if we should decide not to, let's hope there may be some new rules in place that will take the burden out of the direct hands of our progeny. Otherwise, with all this life-support in place, our world will be filled with human vegetables with just enough sense left to be wishing they were dead."

He nodded in silence, and in silence they remained until they got to the gate of the old farmstead. She moved to open her door but he stayed her with a gentle hand, "No. Please. Let me. That was my job." He got out, opened the gate wide, then was back in the car, slowly moving it along the abandoned lane, trying, and failing, to dodge pot-holes, some of which were so deep and so wide that the hood of the car sank and rose as if a boat on waves. He pulled the car up at the back of the old house that had fallen into considerable disrepair. He looked at her. She shrugged, "It was his idea. If the children don't want it, he would say, let nature take it."

Thomas tugged at his lower lip with his even upper teeth. He shook his head. He poured Ursula and himself the remainder of the champagne. It had been a magnum, and both of them were warmly feeling its pleasant effects.

As they toasted each other, he smiled, "I remember when we were kids, how he always used to tuck little To Do notes in that little glass jar that he kept in the special cupboard he had made in the sauna for that purpose. Chore instructions, so that we would pay, with useful work about the place, for our play."

"Developing a sense of responsibility, he would call it," she murmured, savouring the champagne. The glow she felt now relieved her of sadness, replacing it with memories she could caress. "His mind was always busy, with his work, and with his family. My how he loved us. And how proud he was of his children."

"And perhaps more of his wife."

"Hah!" she said, with almost a giggle, "I was nothing more than his vessel, the mother of his children."

He wanted to say nonsense! but he didn't because they both knew it wasn't true. The Old Man loved his wife as a person, just as much as he did his children; and yes, perhaps her, just a little more, because she was, in fact, the mother of his children.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, then without speaking, decided in unison that they should get out and walk around, for this, after all, was what he wanted of them. The clapboard farmhouse would need thousands of dollars, or hundreds of hours of talent, energy, and muscle, to restore. It hadn't been used by their dispersed family in more than ten years. The out buildings, including the tool shed and two-car garage were in the same condition. The snowblower, the rototiller, the seedplanter, had been stolen. Only the sauna stood proud and unbroken and it beckoned them with its happy memories, and resistance to decay.

After half-an-hour of reconnoitring, they stopped down at the beach that fronted their small but very private lake. He picked up a flat stone and failed to make it skip. His smile was surly but he didn't try again. He looked at her, slowly shaking his head, his voice heavy, "There's no point. This was a great place for kids. But there's no kids here now. Susan's in New York and loving it; Brian's in Los Angeles ... I'm in Chicago."

"And I'm not having any more."

His arm was again tender around her shoulders, hand pausing, lightly flexing, at the back of her neck before withdrawing; his head nodding in short, almost imperceptible jerks, "And you're not having any more ... there's no grandchildren around here ... there's simply no point in keeping it. Let's sell it cheap to a young family who'll put it to good use."

Now it was her turn to touch him, her hand gentle on his arm, "That's my boy," she said softly, and turned away, slowly leading the way back toward the car.

They walked up the path in silence for a few moments, then he said, his voice shy, almost pleading, "You know, what do you say we ... well ... well ... what do you say you and I finish the place off with a final sauna?"

She stopped suddenly and turned, the angle of the rise placing her head higher than his, and she looked down at him, her eyes shining with memory, "I was hoping you'd say that. The sauna was the heart of the place. It would be a shame to walk away without one last salute."

Evidence that others, unknown, had taken advantage of the lonely bathhouse, could be found in the supply of dry hardwood ready-to-hand by the door under the extended eves of the peaked roof. Once there was a good start to the fire in the old stove that was surrounded by a cement casing and topped with rocks, Thomas hauled water from the lake to fill the barrels inside the sauna. There were two of them. One with a pipe that ran through the heat, the water from which would be thrown on hot rocks to make steam; the second for relatively cool water, for soaping and rinsing. While he fired it up, and hauled water, Ursula walked a couple of hundred yards to a grove of birches to secure the ritual instruments with which they would flog each other to increase the heat that would make them sweat to the tiniest pore.

Sauna is the Finlander's appellation for a method of bathing that was developed throughout the world by almost all peoples living from within the temperate zone to the lair of the Wolf Wind. It remains a curiosity of history that it should be what the Finns called it that should become universal, considering their relatively small population and limited travel.

Another anomaly is that the High Lutheran-restricted Finlanders, generally prudish in the extreme about public expression of sex, should so easily disrobe and caper about stark naked in mixed company. The larger the company, the less self-conscious they would be. Ursula and Thomas, mother and son, neither being Finns, now alone for the first time as adults, looked at each other with some discomfort, but then, being of single purpose, shrugged, and stripped naked in the dressing room.

Trying not to look at each other, they entered the heat room and climbed the three benches to the top. They settled back against the cedar wall and stared straight ahead and down at the low cement wall and the stones that contained and covered the sides and top of the stove. They could hear the fierce flickering and quiet roar of the flames as the latter greedily devoured the dry maple he had stacked inside. Instinctively, they both looked at the metal stove pipe leading to the chimney. Care had to be taken at all times. Too much heat. Red hot pipes. Fire, And the old, dehydrated structure could explode in flames.. They both knew it could happen. They both knew of it having happened to others. They both looked at the door and satisfied themselves that emergency exit would be easy. They looked at each other, knowing they were thinking of the same thing, and he smiled, "Ladies first, of course."

This helped to relax them and she brushed the first beads of perspiration off her thighs. "Why don't we scrub each other's back until the heat's up enough for a good sweat," she said. "You fill the basin, and I'll do yours first."

She watched him with pride and admiration. His hard, muscular body was smooth and well-rounded. As he did as she told him, she was kindly amused at his modesty. Prompted mostly by the fact that they were adults alone, he tried to keep his genitalia as much out of sight as possible.

"You're in fine trim, young man, I'll bet you could kill my tiger. Do you work out?"

She came down off her perch on the top bench to stand beside him. She turned him so that his back was to her and she reached for the facecloth and soap. As she worked his back, she thought again, how much like his father, but kept her silence.

He shrugged, "No. I just keep busy. And you? You work out? You're in fine trim yourself. If you don't mind me saying so, you've got the shape of a twenty-year-old." She smiled but made him jerk and wince as she thrust her thumbs into his flanks, "Don't be silly. No. Like you, I keep busy. But I'm lucky. I'm one of those women who hold their shape through the ages."

"It's hard to believe that you're sixty-two. Your breasts look as firm and upright as when I first put lips to them."

She waved the praise away, her smile, however, revealing her pleasure at his compliment. "I must admit their sag could be worse, but what would you remember of my nipples when-you-first-put-lips to them?"

She reached the bottom of his spine, and gave his nether cheeks a slap with the back of her hand, "Okay sport, now its my pleasure."

And he obliged, taking his time, his powerful fingers working slowly, firmly, from shoulders to buttocks. But these he didn't slap. With both his hands he worked them. He dropped to his knees and massaged with cloth and soap, the backs of her thighs and calves, then lifted first one foot, then the other. The sound of their tense, tight breathing was absorbed by the fierce humming of the fire.

Still on his knees, he lightly touched her thighs and turned her to face him. He looked up at her. She shivered, took a long draw on the hot humid air and her hands came up and clasped behind her neck.

"Thank you," he whispered and stood, rinsing the facecloth and resoaping it. Slowly, gently, he attended to her face, forehead, cheeks, nose, above and below her lips, her neck, and shoulders. Then, with tender circular motions, her chest, and her breasts. He took her arms, then her hands, working each finger. Again he dropped to his knees and soaped her stomach, her thighs, calves, and back down to her feet. She gently broke their mutual silence, saying in a fluttering whisper, "You're in the wrong business ... give up computers and please women's bodies."

He smiled up at her, standing now without inhibition. He placed one arm around her waist and the other against the small of her back, closing their soapy bodies against each other, "Do you want me to splash you, or are you hot enough for a run to the lake."

"I'm hot enough for a run to the North Pole ... but let's go for the lake," and she led the way out

He ran after her, letting her keep her lead so that he could watch the melodic motion of her body, until, out of a running leap, she made a graceful dive and neatly cut the cold October water. They gasped and laughed, and splashed, until chill began to grip them, sending them back for more heat. Several times they did this, each time taking pleasure in whipping each other, and in being whipped, with the bound birch twigs she had gathered. After the third swim they knew it was coming to an end and they sat high in the heat in the frank comfort their new intimacy allowed

After a long silence, he said, "Please, for old time's sake ... I just ... just once, would like to have the feel of one of your nipples between my lips."

Her smile flattened narrow and wary, but she had no heart to sunder the sensual threads that now bound them. This was, after all, the last sauna, ever ... she took his head between the palms of her hands, and drew it to her left breast. His lips and tongue were quick, gentle, eager, and firm. In hot, flash-points of rapture, they both eagerly surrendered to the moment.

* * *

They wouldn't leave until they were sure the fire was no longer a danger. He raked the few remaining coals evenly, then shut the grates down so the hot ashes would smother. Slowly they walked back to the car, afraid to look at each other. There was another bottle of champagne on ice, but neither was interested. The sun was setting, hauntingly enhancing the rich colours of the time of the year. The air was still, their hearts barely beating.

At the car they finally turned to look at each other, each with a shy smile. Then they embraced. Not the embrace of lovers; but the embrace of a man and a woman who had become mother and son born again. They got back in the car, turning their backs on the sauna for the last time. Their exercise, having been taken in unexpected but in mutual consent, would remain forever private. This, and their mutual forgiveness, gave them enormous emotional release and renewal. There would be energy now, to go into the solid, old, university city of Fallsburgh and spend easy time with good relatives, and old friends.

* * *

A young couple, with three young children, bought the place that winter. In May, when they began the work of restoration, they found a bottle in a curious, one-bottle cabinet in the sauna. In the bottle was a note, in shaky handwriting.

This one is on me, my darlings. I hope you enjoy the act, half as much as I enjoy the thought. May your sails always be set hard against the wind. I love you, as I love life itself. I leave it now, with you. My time has come. I go in peace, with no regrets.

The couple looked at each other, puzzled a moment, then shrugged. They used the paper to light a fire in the sauna. They charged the stove with the dry maple, then went back to the house to fix a snack for the children. Twenty-five minutes later they heard a roar like a high-balling freight train. Outside, against churning black smoke, they saw bright auburn flames dancing on the sauna roof. The couple looked at each other in awed, silent acceptance. They calmed the children by saying that the sauna was too old anyway. That they would build a new one before school started. Their talk was then silenced for a long moment by the power of the fire.

Finally, one of the children said, "Some sauna."

"Yep," said her brother, "and this time the sauna is having its last one ... all by itsownself."

"Oh wow!" said the youngest, "There was someone in it! ... I just saw his happy face going up with the smoke."

End

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