Originally published in Annalemma
How These Things Come To Pass
Hanna does her best thinking late at night when all the usurpers living in her house are asleep. If it isn’t winter, which is not often, she climbs out onto her roof with a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. She smokes and stares up at the blue black night sky. She lives in the North Country where the stars make sense. Hanna shares her home with her unemployed husband, her twin sister, her sister’s husband, their son, and her father. She is the only one who works—mornings, she waits tables at the Koivu Café and nights, she tends bar at Karpela’s Supper Club. She leaves most of her tips at her best friend Laura’s house. Hanna is plotting her escape.
The most popular dish at the Koivu is the pannukakku, a Finnish pancake. If Old Larsen, is too hung over, Hanna will heat the iron skillet in the oven and mix the batter—first eggs, beating them lightly, slowly adding the honey, salt, and milk, finally sifting the flour in. She enjoys the ratchet sound as she pulls the sift trigger. She sways from side to side, and imagines she is a Flamenco dancer. She is in Spain where it is warm, where there is sun and beauty. Hanna likes making pannukakku with extra butter so the edges of the pancakes are golden and crisp. Sometimes, she’ll carefully remove the edges from a pancake and eat them just like that. She’s still in Spain, eating bread from a panadería, perhaps enjoying a little wine. Then she’ll hear someone shout order up and she is no longer in Spain. She is in the middle of nowhere, standing over a hot, greasy stove.
Peter, Hanna’s husband, comes in for breakfast every morning. Hanna saves him a spot at the counter and she takes his order. He stares down her uniform, ogling her cleavage and waggling his eyebrows. She feigns affection, smacks his head with her order pad, and hands his ticket to Old Larsen who growls, “We don’t do any damn substitutions,” but then makes Peter three eggs over easy, hash browns with onions and cheese, four slices of bacon, white toast, and two pannukakku, slightly undercooked. When his food is ready, Hanna takes a break, sits next to Peter, watches him eat. His beard is growing long. A man without a job doesn’t need a clean face, he tells her. She hates watching Peter eat. She hates that he follows her to work. She hates his face.
Her husband thinks they are trying to have a child. He wears boxers instead of briefs though he prefers the security of the latter. Peter once read in a magazine that wearing boxers increased sperm motility. He and Hanna only have sex when the home ovulation kit he bought at Walmart indicates she is fertile. Peter would prefer to have sex every day. Hanna would prefer to never have sex with Peter again, not because she’s frigid but because she finds it difficult to become aroused by a perpetually unemployed man. Two years ago, Hanna said she was going on vacation with Laura downstate and instead drove to Marquette and had her tubes tied. She wasn’t going to end up like her mother with too many children in a too small house with too little to eat. Despite her best efforts, however, she has found herself living in a too small house with too many people and too little to eat. It is a bitter pill to swallow.
When she gets off work at three in the afternoon, Hanna goes home, washes the grease and salt from her skin, and changes into something cute but a little slutty. She heads to the university the next town over. She’s 27 but looks far younger, so she pretends she’s a student. Sometimes, she attends a class in one of the big lecture halls. She takes notes and plays with her hair and thinks about all the things she could have done. Other days, she sits in the library and reads books and learns things so that when she finally escapes she can be more than a waitress with a great rack in a dead Upper Michigan town.
Hanna flirts with boys because at the Michigan Institute of Technology there are lots and lots of boys who want nothing more than to be noticed by a pretty girl. She never pretends she’s anything but smart. She’s too old for that. Sometimes, the boys take her to the dining hall or the Campus Café for a snack. She tells them she’s in mechanical engineering because Laura is a secretary in that department. Sometimes, the boys invite her to their messy dorm rooms littered with dirty laundry and video game consoles and roommates or their squalid apartments off campus. She gives them blowjobs and lays with them on their narrow twin beds covered in thin sheets and tells them lies they like to hear. After the boys fall asleep, Hanna heads back across the bridge to Karpela’s where she tends bar until two in the morning.
Peter visits Hanna at the supper club too, but he has to pay for his drinks so he doesn’t visit often. Don Karpela, the owner, is always around, grabbing at things with his meaty fingers. He’s a greedy man and a friend of her father. Even though he’s nearing sixty, Don is always breathing down Hanna’s neck, bumping up against her in the cramped space behind the bar, telling her he’d make her damn happy if she’d leave her old man. When he does that, Hanna closes her eyes and breathes easy because she needs her job. If Peter is around when Don is making his moves, he’ll laugh and raise his glass. “You can have her,” he’ll slur, as if he has a say in the matter.
After the bar closes Hanna wipes everything down and washes all the glasses and empties the ashtrays. She and Laura, who also works at the supper club, will sit on the hood of Hanna’s car in the back alley and hold hands. Hanna will lean against Laura’s shoulder and inhale deeply and marvel that her friend can still smell good after hours in that dark, smoky space where men don’t hear the word no. If the night is empty enough, they will kiss for a very long time, until their cold lips become warm, until the world falls away, until their bodies feel like they will split at the heart. She and Laura never talk about these moments but when Hanna is plotting her escape, she is not going alone.
Hanna’s twin sister Anna often waits up for Hanna. She worries. She always has. She’s a nervous woman. As a child, she was a nervous girl. Their mother, before she left, liked to say that Hanna got all the sisu, the fierce strength that should have been shared by both girls. Hanna and Anna always knew their mother didn’t know them at all. They were both strong and fierce. Anna’s husband worked at the paper mill in Niagara until some foreign company bought it and closed it and then most everyone in town lost their homes because all the work that needed doing was already done. When Anna called, nervous as always, to ask if she and her family could stay with Hanna, she had not even posed the question before Hanna said, “Yes.”
Hanna and Anna are not openly demonstrative but they love each other wildly. In high school, Anna dated a boy who didn’t treat her well. When Hanna found out, she put a good hurting on him. Hanna pretended to be her sister and she took the bad boy up to the trails behind the county fairgrounds. She got down on her knees and started to give him head and she told him if he ever laid a hand on her sister again and before she finished that sentence, she bit down on his cock and told herself she wouldn’t stop biting down until her teeth met. She smiled when she tasted his blood. He screamed so softly it made the hairs on her arm stand on end. Hanna still sees that boy around town once in a while. He’s not a boy anymore but he walks with a hitch and always crosses to the other side of the street when he sees her coming.
On the nights when Hanna and Laura sit on the hood of Laura’s car and kiss until their cold lips warm, Anna stands outside on the front porch, shivering, waiting. Her cheeks flush. Her heart flutters around her chest awkwardly. Anna asks Hanna if she’s seeing another man and Hanna tells her sister the truth. She says, “No,” and Anna frowns. She knows Hanna is telling the truth. She knows Hanna is lying. She cannot quite figure out how she’s doing both at the same time. The sisters smoke a cigarette together, and before they go in, Anna will place a gently hand on Hanna’s arm. She’ll say, “Be careful.” Hanna will kiss her twin’s forehead, and she’ll think, “I will,” and Anna will hear her.
How Hanna Ikonen knows it is time to get the girl and get out of town
Hanna and Anna’s father Red lives in the basement. He’s not allowed on the second floor where everyone sleeps. When Peter asks why, Hanna just shakes her head and says, “It’s personal.” She doesn’t share personal things with her husband. Her father used to work in the mines. When the last copper mine closed he didn’t bother trying to learn a new trade. He started holding his back when he walked around, said he was injured. He collected disability and when that ran out, he lived with a series of girlfriends who each kicked him out before long. Finally, when there was no woman in town who would give him the time of day, Red showed up on Hanna’s doorstep, reeking of whiskey, his beard long and unkempt. He slurred an incoherent apology for being a lousy father. He begged his daughter to have mercy on an old man. Hanna wasn’t moved by his plea but she knew he would be her problem one way or the other. She told him he could make himself comfortable in the basement, but if she ever saw him on the second floor, that would be that. It has been fifteen years since the mine closed but Red still calls himself a miner.
The whereabouts of Hanna and Anna’s mother, Ilse, are unknown. She left when the girls were eleven. It was a Thursday morning. Ilse got the girls and their brothers ready for school, fed them breakfast—steel cut oats topped with sliced bananas. She kissed them atop their pale blonde heads and told them to be good. She was gone when they returned home from school. For a while, they heard a rumor that Ilse had taken up with a shoe salesman in Marquette. Later, there was news of her from Iron Mountain, a dentist’s wife, with a new family. Then there was no news at all.
Hanna and Anna have five brothers scattered throughout the state. They are mostly bitter, lazy, indifferent and unwilling to have a hand in the care and feeding of their father. When Hanna organized a conference call with her siblings to discuss the disposition of their father, The Boys, as they are collectively known, said it was women’s work and if The Twins didn’t want to do that work, they could let the old man rot. One of the brothers, Venn, offered to send Hanna or Anna, whomever shouldered the burden of caring for Red, twenty dollars a month. Simultaneously, The Twins told him to stick it up his ass and then they told The Boys to go fuck themselves. After they hung up, Hanna called Anna and Anna offered to take care of Red until he drank himself to death but Hanna worried that death by drink would take too long. Anna had a child to raise, after all.
It is an ordinary Tuesday when Hanna decides to go home after working at the café instead of heading across the bridge to the Institute to play make believe with college boys. She can feel grease oozing out of her pores and what she wants, more than anything, is to soak in a clean bathtub, in an empty house. When she pulls into her driveway and sees Anna pacing back and forth in front of the garage, Hanna knows there will be no bath or empty house today. She parks the car, takes a deep breath and joins her sister who informs Hanna that their mother is sitting on the Salvation Army couch in the living room drinking a cup of tea. Hanna thinks, “Of course she is.”
How Hanna met and married Peter Lahti
Anna fell in love when she was seventeen. His name was Logan, and he lived on the reservation in Baraga. She loved his long black hair and his smooth brown skin and the softness of his voice. They met at a football game and the day after graduation, they married and moved. When Anna left, Hanna was happy for her sister, but she also hoped beyond all hopes that her sister and her new husband would take her with them. She could have said something. Years later Hanna realized she should have said something, but she became the one who stayed. She got an apartment of her own and started hanging out at the university sitting in on the classes she couldn’t afford. Peter lived in the apartment next door and back then, he worked as a truck driver hauling lumber downstate so dating him was fine because he wasn’t around much.
After a long trip where Peter was gone for three weeks, he showed up at Hanna’s door, his hair slicked back, beard trimmed, wearing a button down shirt and freshly pressed jeans. In one hand, he held a cheap bouquet of carnations. He had forgotten that Hanna had told him, on their first date, that she hated carnations. He thrust the flowers into Hanna’s hands, invited himself into her apartment and said, “I missed you so much. Let’s get married.” Hanna, elbow deep into a bottle of wine at that point, shrugged. Peter, an optimist at heart, took the gesture as a response in the affirmative. They married not long after in a ceremony attended by Anna and her husband, Red, and three of The Boys. No one from Peter’s family attended. His mother was scandalized her boy would marry any child of Red Ikonen.
How Red Ikonen got his reputation
Red Ikonen had mining in his blood. His daddy and his daddy’s daddy had been miners up in Calumet when mining was something that mattered up there and the town was rich and every Sunday the churches were full of good folks grateful for the bounties of the hard earth. As a boy, Red loved his father’s stories about the world beneath the world. By the time it was Red’s turn to head underground, there wasn’t much mining left to do and that was a hell of a cross to bear. He was as a soldier without a war. Red started drinking to numb his disappointment. He married a pretty girl, had five handsome boys and two lovely girls and continued drinking to celebrate his good fortune. The pretty girl left and he drank so he wouldn’t feel so lonesome. Finally, drinking was the only thing he knew how to do so that’s just what he did.
He was a tall man—6’7”, and he had a loud voice and no sense of how to act right. That sort of thing just wasn’t in him. There wasn’t a bar in town where Red hadn’t started a fight or done something untoward with his woman or someone else’s woman. Things had gotten so bad he needed to drive over to South Range or Chassell to drink with the old guys at the VFW who really were soldiers without a war because no one in town wanted to serve him a drink. When The Boys were still in town, bartenders would call and have one of them come get their father. By the time Red Ikonen was drinking so he wouldn’t feel so lonesome he had become a mean drunk. He never had a kind word for his boys who drove miles into the middle of the night to bring their drunk daddy back home.
One by one The Boys left home, tried to get as far away from their father as possible, until it was only The Twins left and then he started doing untoward things with them and it was a small town so people talked and it wasn’t long before no one at all wanted a thing to do with Red Ikonen.
How Laura and Hanna became best friends
Laura Kappi grew up next door to the Ikonens. For a while in high school, she dated one of The Boys, but then he moved away, went to college, and didn’t bother to take her with him. Laura was, in fact, a friend to both Hanna and Anna throughout high school. When Anna and Logan moved down to Niagara, Laura saw how lost Hanna was without her twin. She decided to do her best to take Anna’s place. Hanna was more than happy to let her. They became best friends and then they became more than friends but they never talked about it because there wasn’t much to be said on the subject.
How Hanna reacts when she sees her mother for the first time in sixteen years
Before they go inside, Anna reaches for Hanna’s waiting hand. They both squeeze, hard, their knuckles cracking and then The Twins go inside. Ilse Ikonen is sitting on the edge of the couch. She is a small woman with sharp features. She has always been beautiful and neither time nor distance has changed that. Her hair is graying around the scalp, her features hang a bit lower, but she doesn’t look a day over forty. Red is sitting where he always sits during the day, in the recliner next to the couch staring at his estranged wife. He has tucked in his shirt, but his hands are shaking because he is trying not to drink. He wants to be clear headed but his wife is so damned beautiful that with or without the drink he doesn’t know up from down. Peter is sitting next to Ilse, also staring, because the resemblance between his wife and her mother is uncanny. They have never met. Anna’s husband Logan is sitting next to Peter, holding their son, half asleep, in his lap. He is deliberately avoiding any eye contact with his mother in law. He is helping his wife with the burden of her anger.
As soon as they enter the room, Hanna and Anna’s stomachs churn. Beads of sweat slowly spread across their foreheads. Ilse leans forward, setting her teacup on the coffee table. She smiles at her daughters. Hanna thinks, “Why did you offer her tea?” Anna thinks, “I was being polite.” Hanna bites her lip. “What are you doing here, Ilse?” she asks.
Ilse Ikonen uncrosses her legs and folds her hands in her lap. “It has been a long time,” she says.
Hanna looks at all the broken people sitting in her living room on her broken furniture looking to her to fix their broken lives. She turns around and walks right back out the front door. Anna makes her excuses and rushes after her sister. She finds Hanna holding on to the still warm hood of her car, hunched over, throwing up. Anna’s stomach rolls uncomfortably. When Hanna stands up, she wipes her lips with the back of her hand and says, “I mean… really?”
How Laura finally convinces Hanna to run away with her
Hanna sits in her car until Ilse Ikonen takes her leave and gets a room at the motel down the street. After her mother leaves, Hanna drives to campus and goes to the dank room of one of her college boys. She lies on his musty, narrow twin bed and stares at the constellation of glow in the dark stars on the ceiling while the boy awkwardly fumbles at her breasts with his bony fingers. She sighs, closes her eyes, thinks of Laura. Afterward, when the boy is fast asleep, his fingers curled in a loose fist near his mouth, Hanna slips out of bed and heads back across the bridge to Laura’s house.
Laura smiles when she opens her front door. Hanna shrugs and stands in the doorway, her cheeks numb, still nauseous. She shoves her small hands into her pockets, tries to ignore the cold. Laura wraps her arms around herself, shifts quickly from one foot to the other. “Why don’t you come in?”
Hanna shakes her head. “I can’t do this anymore.”
Laura arches an eyebrow and even though she is barefoot, she steps onto her snowy front porch. She gasps, steps onto Hanna’s boots, slides her arms beneath Hanna’s coat and around her waist. Laura lightly brushes her lips against Hanna’s. Hanna closes her eyes. She breathes deeply.
How Hanna falls even more in love with Laura than she thought possible
When Laura can no longer feel her toes, she says, “We better get inside before I get frostbite and I am forced to spend the rest of my life hobbling after you.
Hanna nods and follows Laura into her house. It is familiar, has looked mostly the same for the past twenty years and in that there is comfort. Inside the foyer, amidst coats and boots, a shovel, a knitted scarf, a bag of salt, Hanna sinks to the floor and sits cross-legged. Laura sits across from Hanna, extends her legs, resting her cold feet in Hanna’s lap.
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
Hanna shakes her head angrily. “My mother’s back.”
“I mean… really?” she says.
Hanna doesn’t go home. She calls Anna and assures her sister that she’s fine. Anna doesn’t ask where she is. She’s starting to make sense of things. Hanna lets Laura lead her up the steep staircase lined with books. She lets Laura put her into a hot bath. She lets Laura wash her clean. She follows Laura to bed and for the first time in months, she falls asleep in a mostly empty house. She thinks, “This is everything I want.”
As Hanna sleeps, Laura calculates how much money she has saved, the tread on her tires, how far they will need to travel so that Hanna might begin to forget about the life she’s leaving behind. It all makes Laura very tired but then she looks at Hanna’s lower lip, how it trembles while she’s sleeping.
How it has always been
The next morning, Laura hears the knocking at her front door. She wraps herself in a thin robe and takes one last look at Hanna, still sleeping, lower lip still trembling. Laura has always loved Hanna even before she understood why her entire body flushed when she saw Hanna at school or running around her backyard or sitting on the roof outside her bedroom window. Dating one of The Boys a way to get closer to Hanna. Laura would kiss Hanna’s brother and think of his sister, her smile, the way she walked around with her shoulder muscles bunched up. Being with the brother was not what Laura wanted but she told herself it was enough. For the first time Laura feels something unfamiliar in her throat. It makes her a little sick to her stomach. She thinks it might be hope. Downstairs, Anna is standing on the front porch shivering. She has a splitting headache. When Laura opens the door Anna quickly slips into the house. Anna squeezes Laura’s hand and heads upstairs into Laura’s bedroom. Anna crawls into bed behind her sister, wraps her arms around Hanna’s waist. Hanna covers one of Anna’s hands with hers. She is not quite awake yet.
“Don’t make me go back there,” Hanna says, hoarsely.
Anna tightens her arms around her sister, kisses Hanna’s shoulder. Anna says, “You have to go back to say goodbye.” There is a confidence in Anna’s voice that reassures Hanna.
Hanna sighs, slowly opens her eyes. She sees Laura standing in the doorway. Hanna smiles. “You don’t have to stand so far away,” she says. Laura grins and crawls into bed with The Twins. Laura says, “Remember when we were kids and the three of us would lay on your roof at night during the summer to cool down?” Both Hanna and Anna nod. The three women roll onto their backs and stare at the ceiling—the cracks and water stains, how it sags. “We were miserable even then,” Laura says.
How Hanna finally confronts her mother
Where Hanna has always been the protector, Anna has always been the voice of reason, able to make the right choices between impossible alternatives. When they were girls and Hanna would plot retribution against anyone who had wronged The Twins, it was Anna who would deter her sister from acting thoughtlessly. When Red Ikonen would stumble into their room drunk and Hanna would try to stab him with a kitchen knife or bite his ear off it was Anna who grabbed her sister’s arm and said, “It’s him or Superior Home.” It was Anna who would sing to her father and stroke his beard and soothe all the meanness out of him. In these moments, Hanna would feel so much anger inside her she thought her heart would rip apart but then she would let the knife fall to the floor or she would unclench her teeth because anything was better than Superior Home, the state facility where motherless children were often discarded until they turned eighteen. They heard stories bad enough to make them believe there were worse things than the stink of Red Ikonen’s breath against their cheeks as he forgot how to behave like a proper father.
Anna held Hanna’s hand as they walked back to their house, a bracing wind pushing their bodies through the snow. Hanna tried to breathe but found the air thin and cold and it hurt her lungs. As they climbed the porch stairs Hanna stopped, leaned against the railing, her body heavy.
“I don’t feel so good,” she said.
Anna pressed the cool palm of her hand against Hanna’s forehead. “You get to leave soon,” she said. “Hold on to that.”
Hanna stared at her sister. She said, “Come with us—you and Logan and the baby.”
Anna shook her head. “It’s my turn to stay.”
“Bullshit. We’ve taken our turns long enough.”
The front door opened. Peter glared at The Twins. “Where the hell were you last night?” He grabbed Hanna by the elbow, pulling her into the house and she let him. She wanted to save what fight she had left.
In the living room the scene closely resembled the tableau Hanna stumbled into the previous day with Ilse Ikonen sitting on the couch, poised regally like she had never left and had no need to offer acts of contrition.
Hanna tried to squirm free from Peter’s grasp and he finally relented when calmly, quietly, Anna said, “Let go of my sister.” Peter held a natural distrust of twins. It wasn’t normal, he thought, for there to be two people who were so identical. He also harbored no small amount of jealousy for the relationship twins shared. While he was not a bright man, Peter was smart enough to know he would never be as close to his wife as he wanted.
The Twins stood before their father, their mother, their husbands. They stood in the house where they had grown up filled with broken people and broken things. Anna thought, “This is the last time we will ever stand in this room,” and Hanna suddenly felt like she could breathe again. She tried to say something but she couldn’t find her voice. Her throat was dry and hollow. The Twins looked at their parents and thought about everything they had ever wanted to say to two people so ill suited for doing right by their children.
“I’m sorry to intrude,” Ilse said, her voice tight, her words clipped. She crossed her legs and fidgeted with a big diamond ring on her left hand. “I wanted to see how you girls and The Boys were doing, perhaps explain myself.”
Anna shook her head. “Explanations aren’t necessary,” she said. “Your leaving is a long time gone.”
Hanna removed her wedding ring and dropped it on the coffee table. Peter sneered and said, “Whatever,” and Hanna rolled her eyes.
The Twins stood before their father, their mother, their husbands. They sucked in a great mass of air, threw their shoulders back. They had rehearsed this moment more than once but then they realized that with all the time and wrongs gone by, there was nothing worth saying.
How Hanna, Laura, Anna, Logan and the baby got away
They piled into Laura’s truck, their belongings packed tightly into a small trailer hitched to the back. They sat perfectly still, held their breaths, looked straight ahead.
|Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest.|
Annalemma Magazine is a literary and arts journal printed biannually and updated weekly online. Founded in 2007 with the expressed mission of engaging as many people as possible in the life-changing experience of telling good stories, Annalemma’s print issues are a lavish celebration of colorful artwork and photography that accompany short stories and essays from writers of all ages, nationalities, disciplines and echelons of the publishing world.