I conversed with Mr. Ferguson Hedley online, through his blog, for months before I met him in person. I came upon the blog one afternoon surfing the web and stopped because of his wild, crude illustrations. The more I have gotten used to them, however, I understand they are not wild and crude at all, but so precise as to look distorted. I had to get to work but wanted to be able to find the site again. I’m a cook—they call me chef—at a fairly decent restaurant with decent entertainment on weekends, nothing loud or obnoxious. I came out at the end of the night and asked the pianist if I could buy him a drink. I wanted to tell him how much I liked his playing, but once that was said, what more could I say about it? Still, we sat at a table in the bar area for an hour or so.
He wore a suit and had very dark eyes, black whiskers under his lip. It turned out he was a Christian. I hadn’t talked to one in a several years, so I asked a few questions.
“What about communion?” I asked. “I heard it’s like cannibalism, where you eat the flesh of Christ and drink his blood, which just keeps coming. Always more where that came from.”
He drank scotch. I’ve always admired men who drink scotch. He had a delicate way of sipping his drink. He asked me if I minded if he smoked, and I told him, “It’s your lungs.”
“The body of Christ is a very special thing,” he said. “When we take communion, we are the body of Christ, at least part of it. It’s something that happens in my mind and spirit. But there is more to it than that.”
“Oh, yeah?” I said.
He nodded and told me that we can’t see the body of Christ, because it’s no longer in the world. “When he died, he left us something better than his body. He left us his Holy Spirit, and communion is a way of saying we accept that. We want it. At least, that’s how it is for me. This Holy Spirit sustains us. It holds us up. It gives us our happiness and joy and sorrow. It means that life means something.”
“I never thought about that. Do you think about that when you play? Because I felt some very heavy stuff in the music tonight.”
“I don’t think about it. I like to be in it, but sometimes I forget about it for long periods of time, and then one day the music reminds me.”
“Wow,” I said. I mean, what else could I say? He was laying some heavy duty thought on me, and it was like the music. I liked listening to it and didn’t want it to stop. But, as this pianist said—his name was Connie, which surprised me as a name for a guy—all good things must end. I walked home thinking about what he’d said. Here’s what I thought about: first, Connie came to me as music. Then I sat down with him and we drank and talked together. Next, he was gone. I might never see him again, unless Roger booked him, which I would suggest he do.
It was like his body disappeared in smoke, or fog, or like he evaporated. But what he said stayed with me. I am not a church-goer at all, but I thought that’s what he meant about the Holy Spirit.
It was cool, and I wore just a light jacket, so I hunched my shoulders and put my hands in the pockets to keep a little warmer. I could see my breath. Then, here comes this light snow, with lots of space between the flakes and kind of blowy. By the time I got home I was half frozen, so I took a hot shower and got in my pajamas—a pair Sis sent from California, blue with little brown bears. It had been my birthday last week. I’m thirty-three but don’t mind that she still thinks of me as her kid brother. It’s nice, and the pee-jays are comfortable.
I propped pillows behind me, sat up in bed with my computer on my lap, and played a game or two of online Hearts. Everyone has a name they use, and mine happens to be Bang, or Crash. I alternate them if I do too poorly under one name, or someone calls me an idiot, like a few of the players do, to intimidate the others. I ignore them, but if it does get to me, I switch from Crash to Bang or visa-versa. Everyone played nice, and then I remembered the blog I’d found a little earlier. So much had happened since then: work, plus talking to the religious pianist. The way he smoked and put down the scotch, I almost wished I could do that too. I have a glass or two of red wine sometimes, and I don’t smoke, but he made it look good. Still, I didn’t want to get involved with that, since my father died of lung cancer.
My mother was somewhere in the house, probably sitting in the living room with her own bottle of white wine, watching television. She likes talk shows and the horror movies. She’s also very political and talks back to the newscasters all the time. She hates the president and everyone connected to him. She tells that to the television. I don’t need to hear it, but sometimes I sit with her and have a glass of red wine before bed. She tells me all about what’s going on, but to tell the God’s honest truth, I don’t really listen. I don’t care about the president or the people in Congress because they don’t have much to do with me.
I don’t mean that exactly, because, of course, they do. My mother says they do. But I just don’t care about them. They wear gray suits and ties and walk around giving their opinions about things that frankly are none of their business. Only the women get to wear colors, usually blue or red. The men have ties the same color. Once I saw a man with a yellow tie and started laughing. My mom asked me what was so funny, and I told her, and she began laughing too. A yellow tie! I mean if I wore a yellow tie to work? Then I remembered that the pianist had worn a thin, green tie. At work I wear white, a shirt-jacket and this chef hat, though I’m just a cook.
After I won a game of Hearts, I pulled up the blog site I’d saved and started reading about Ferguson’s friend, Agnar of the North, who usually lived in Amsterdam, though born and raised in Ulric, Norway. He often went back home to Ulric, Ferguson said, because they had a recurring problem with trolls. Evidently there are bad trolls and worse trolls, and Agnar had become actual friends with some of the merely bad ones. One problem for the countryside around Ulric was the trolls were not Christians, like the rest of these Norwegians. They did not have the same values, and every-once-in-a-while, the trolls killed one or two Christian folks. Now Agnar himself was not a Christian, which made it easier for him to understand their grievances. Ferguson explained that Agnar hailed from an older people who had many gods, and though the trolls had none, they had more sympathy with pagans, what the Christians called people like Agnar.
Agnar had killed a few trolls who wouldn’t let up, but he also spent many evenings in the hut of an old troll, talking into the night about their ways and the ways of the Christian folk. The way he killed a bad troll was he snuck up and hit them over the head with a hammer, big, like a sledge hammer. If the troll gave fight, Agnar never backed down, and it ended worse for the troll than if he’d just smashed him. Ferguson said Agnar had killed an even dozen trolls, over half of them in hand-to-hand combat, with hammers and knives and chains and such. One of them used a big, warty club. I read all about it, and then I wrote to Ferguson the first time, telling him how great his bog way, and how I wished I could meet Agnar.
In a couple of minutes, he wrote back. I never expected it, but he had been working on another of Agnar’s adventures, which would be posted in the next day or so, when he saw my note. He said that if I liked his stories, then Agnar would like me. He asked if I was Christian or pagan, and since I knew I wasn’t a Christian like the pianist, I thought I must be a pagan, though I don’t know about the gods they worship. He said they don’t worship them, they just are, though sometimes they call on them for help. If the god appreciates you, you might get a jolt of strength that gets you through a tough spot. He said that if I didn’t know about these gods, I could call on Agnar and he might help me through ESP. Extra sensory perception.
I told him, Good to know. It had been a kind of spiritual day for me. I hadn’t thought about God or gods much, though I’d been aware of them. I didn’t have a reason to try out this calling on Agnar, and I didn’t think it would be a good idea to try it without a reason, so I stored it away. That’s how I got to know Ferguson, through his blog. I wrote to him pretty often, and he wrote back, though not so quickly as the first time. He asked me to support the advertisers on his blog, since they kept him afloat. I ordered shirts and books and little statues, posters and such, as a way of helping. I had these all over my room, and I wore the shirts sometimes as well. It made me feel good, so I did it. I always mentioned where I heard of them, as Ferguson asked.
I discovered others there too, and we wrote to each other. A few of them said they had called on Agnar and it helped. I figured that was something good that came out of this, though I had no reason to call on Agnar. Then, this pianist showed up again. As I understood, the primary objective of the followers of Agnar was to protect good Christian folk, and here one showed up at the restaurant. My shift ended at one in the morning. When I opened the door, and looked out in the dark, snow came down at a slant. I closed the door and started to put on my gloves when I saw Connie coming toward me in his overcoat. I asked if I could buy him a drink before we had to go out in this weather.
“It’s not a fit night for man nor beast,” I told him, something my father used to say.
“Sure,” he said, and we went back inside. I got scotch for him and a glass of red wine for me, and we threw our coats on the back of the booth and settled in for a visit.
“What’s on your mind?” he asked me.
“I thought about what you said,” I told him. “About communion and the Holy Ghost?”
“And?” he said.
“I wanted to tell you, I get it.”
“You want to become a Christian?”
“Oh, no. I’ve got my own thing now.”
I leaned closer. There was no one around except closers counting cash and cleaning up. “I follow Agnar.”
“Have you heard of him?”
“Can’t say I have.” He lit a cigarette and sat back, his legs stretched on the bench. “Who is he?”
“A troll fighter. From Norway. Though he lives in Amsterdam most of the year. He goes back to his home, near Ulric, to protect good Christian folk.”
“Ah,” he said. I could tell this interested him.
“I just want you to know I’m here. In case you ever have trouble. You being a Christian, from what you said last time we talked.”
He nodded a while, watching me closely. “If I have trouble with trolls?”
“Exactly. Ferguson told me they show up in American towns and cities occasionally. He told me about one that showed up in Akron in 1912. Ragnar, father of Agnar, came here in those days to neutralize him.”
“How did he do that?”
“Well, normally it’s done with a hammer, unless the troll listens to reason.”
“Trolls can listen to reason?”
“Some of them. Agnar still visits some of the trolls near Ulric, to see how they’re doing. The winter there is long and hard. Sometimes they need help. He always brings along provisions, including brandy, which they like to drink.”
“I would imagine so,” Connie said. “Has he ever had to use a hammer on one of them?”
“No more than a dozen, by the last count.”
“And yet some are his friends?”
“Some of his best friends. They are glad to see him. Ferguson says he has reduced the death toll among Christians through regular visits. The trolls like him, because he’s a pagan, which they understand better.”
“Which gods does he have?”
“The regulars. Odin and Thor and Baldur and the rest.”
“I thought most of them were gone, killed one way or another, when Asgard burned.”
“That hasn’t happened yet, but it will sometime.”
“Ah, a prophecy?”
I nodded. “It will happen because it has always happened, the way that Ferguson explains it. It’s eternal, always in the same place. We’re in the present. This will happen in the future, but not in our time.”
“Whose time will it be?”
“Very interesting,” he said. “Are there other black followers of Agnar?”
“Well, if I ever have trouble with trolls, I will let you know. In the meantime, the snow is getting deeper as we speak. I must be on my way before it gets too much worse.”
We put on our coats and hats and gloves and headed out into the night. In the parking lot, I helped him clear the snow off his car. He started it and turned on the headlights so we could see what we were doing.”
“Where’s yours?” he asked.
“I walk.” I pointed to my boots. “Good snow gear is everything,” I said. “I leave shoes at the restaurant.”
“May I offer a ride?”
“No, thanks. I like walking. It clears my mind and lets me get started thinking.”
“You think a lot?”
“Hop in,” he said.
So, I did. We talked a little more, and when he stopped at my house he sat in front and smoked a cigarette. “It’s an older home, isn’t it?”
“About a hundred and twenty-five years. Built in the nineteenth century.”
“Nice,” he said. “You live alone?”
“My mother. It’s her house. I suppose it will be mine someday.”
“Now that I know where you live, I can contact you, in case I have any trouble.”
I took a worn card from my wallet and borrowed his pen to write my name and phone number on it. On the other side it gave the address of an establishment that gave dance lessons, which I once considered.
“You won’t need this?”
“I’ve got two left feet,” I said.
“Well, keep warm,” he told me, and then I got out and he drove away.
When I went inside, Mom was eating potato chips and onion dip, drinking white wine. I poked my head in from the foyer. “Hey, Mom,” I said.
“Hi, Alden,” she said. “How was work?”
“Fine,” I said. “What you watching?”
“Zombie flick,” she said. I could see them growling and gnawing on some guy’s head.
“Doesn’t look good for him.”
“Not at all,” she said. “Did I hear a car?”
“The Christian piano player gave me a ride.”
“That was nice of him.”
I hung my coat in the closet and stored my hat and gloves. “Snowing to beat the band,” I told her. “Not a fit night out for man nor beast.”
“Your father,” she said.
I went into the kitchen and took a look in the fridge. I hadn’t had time to eat earlier, so I tossed a piece of fried chicken and a handful of radishes on a plate and headed upstairs.
“’Night, Mom,” I called. “I love you.”
“Love you,” she said.
It’s a long way to the attic. You go up to the landing and the stairs twist around to the upstairs hall. You go through the attic door, up to the landing there, and finally to my room, a large space where I keep my bed and desk and such. Mom calls it my suite. I have a bathroom and a hot plate I never use. But it’s there. I sat at the desk, because I was eating, and turned on my computer to look at the latest adventure of Agnar.
After I read it, I wrote Ferguson, telling him about the episode with the Christian pianist. I had already told him what we talked about before. I told Ferguson that Connie had given me a ride home, and that I had given him my phone number in case he ever had any trouble.
“Good man,” said Ferguson. “These Christians are a fragile bunch. They need all the help we can give them.”
I finished dinner and took the plate downstairs to rinse and put in the dishwasher. By this time, Mom had gone to bed. I turned off the television and went back upstairs. After my shower I got in my pajamas and crawled into bed. When I turned off the light, I lay there a long time, going over in my mind about the pianist, and about Agnar and Ferguson.
Ferguson had told me one day we would meet, and I would meet Agnar, and together we would have adventures. When I asked when this would happen, he told me, “In the future, where we have always met. Where you and I and Agnar have always been together, in a land of ice and snow.” That is when I understood we had already met in the future, many years before the burning of Valhalla. I don’t remember when I fell asleep, but I know I did, because I saw him in a dream, with his long red beard, and Agnar, with snowy hair, an owl on his shoulder. Together, we three went into the countryside, to gaping caves and huts where we dined with families of trolls before their blazing hearths, in a time before Christendom.
Robert Pope has published a novel, Jack’s Universe, as well as a collection of stories, Private Acts, and many stories and personal essays in journals such as The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction International. He teaches at the University of Akron.