map Swimming Empty

by Gabrielle Bomgren

Published in Issue No. 19 ~ December, 1998

In a bathtub in the house at the end of Road 567 the brother is soaking in fifty liters of water. It smells of sauce made of ripe red lingonberries. The water is slightly pink. When the sun hits, the pink transforms into a color close to that of homemade Christmas tree ornaments.

Road 567 runs for a while along a border between two countries. The brother can’t remember which ones.

“So, brother, are you still and quiet, quiet and still, still?” Bruno says. He doesn’t have a tie on. It’s 1990. He is sitting on a padded toilet seat looking at a picture of a naked woman – Kerstin Sparks.

“I’m quiet, but not still.” The brother is using a foot file. His heels are thick with calluses.

“How would you describe a pussy?” Bruno says. The brother lifts his hand in disgust.

“That’s not the proper word for it,” he says.

“How would you describe the organ women use when they pee?”

“I would use words like throb, hood, red, juice, and of course vulva. If there weren’t any women present I would add the word functional.”

Kerstin Sparks drives a yellow Citroën. She lives in the brother’s house. Hans, Janet, Pelle, Maria, and Vivika live in the brother’s house as well. They all live in a collective, a commune, a cooperative. They haven’t decided yet which one of the three terms to use. They want the one with the least political connotation. They can’t agree on which one that is, but for now they all just call it the house. There are sixteen house rules. They eat breakfast together every Saturday morning. The brother wears embroidered leather slippers to enhance the special moment. They eat müslie and buttermilk, thickened with cornstarch by Bruno. Hans, Janet, and Pelle belong to each other. Pelle is the child. Hans and Janet are the parents. Maria and Vivika are sisters. Their parents call every Thursday night.




Kerstin Sparks says that the two brothers are the sons of wilderness and that they’ll never do anything worthwhile. “Of course we will. We already have. I’m a house-owner and Bruno is a driver of donated organs.”

Kerstin Sparks says, “Sure honey, sure.”

Bruno has driven a lung and a kidney so far in his career. He is still waiting for the big one. His Mazda 626 goes through inspections every month. The hospital pays for it. Bruno gets paid on commission. Seven thousand crowns per organ. The heart pays seventeen thousand. Bruno’s last delivery was in July so he’s broke. He owes his brother for two month’s rent. He tries to make up for it by filling his brother’s bathtub, retrieving his slippers from under the kitchen table, and driving him to the city library once a week. Bruno wears a pager. He is only on call three days out of the week, but wears the pager twenty-four hours a day. “You never know what can happen.” Bruno likes winter best of all the seasons.




Kerstin Sparks’ head is swimming empty from all the niceties the brother told her the day before. They were sitting on the porch, fully dressed. The snow was still on the ground. Cold and tightly wet.

“You hide your calves well.”

“You walk like Queen Sylvia.”

“You think like our mother.”

“You smell of shrimp soup with saffron in it.”

“Do you want to come to my room? I have something to show you,” Kerstin Sparks asks the brother. “It has to do with a book I’m reading.”

They walk up the stairs together. Kerstin Sparks’ room is on the top floor. She pays eight hundred crowns a month. She paid for a full year when she moved in. Her walls are decorated with scarves. They all have green in them. “One has to follow some kind of pattern in one’s life,” she says now and then. The brother has blond hair. It’s curly when it’s wet and wavy when it’s dry. He shaves every day, leaving sideburns. He is thirty-three years old. He holds one of his nipples when he falls asleep. Left or right. It doesn’t matter.

“I like green,” he says.

“Thank you. You’re the son of wilderness, of course you do.”

“What can I do for you?” the brother says.

“Do you ever use WhiteOut when you read a book?” Kerstin Sparks says. She hands him a book. The text is made into an incongruent pattern by white stripes of WhiteOut.

“Try to figure out which sound I don’t like.”

The brother looks at the text.

“I need time.”

“Sure, honey, sure. Take it to your room. Do whatever you need. Come back with the sound.”

So the brother goes to his room – the left wing of the 350-square-meter house. He calls his room the privileged sanctuary sealed off. It’s neat. He has a walk-in closet. His shoes are in an organizer made of thick fabric. Bruno says the brother fears disorder in all its forms. Kerstin Sparks’ book is in a different language. The brother starts to read. It feels black like salty liquorice. The brother can’t understand. He sees the white lines of white out and he thinks of Kerstin Sparks’ high breasts and hollow stomach. What else can I do? he thinks and decides to tell her the sound is foreign. And when she asks him to explain, he will tell her he doesn’t have time because Bruno has one of his organ gigs and that he has to go with him.


3. PAY RENT ON TIME (second Saturday of the month) IN CASH


The house faces a chestnut-tree orchard. The owner of the trees harvests the chestnuts when they are ripe. “No nuts leave my orchard green,” he says. Proud. That is his name, not his condition.

Proud is joining them for breakfast the morning after Kerstin Sparks gave the book to the brother. She is still anticipating an answer. Proud brought chestnut jam to put on toast. Bruno is squeezing oranges for juice. Maria is mixing müslie and Hans is almost setting the table. They will have it buffet style.

“The sound is foreign,” the brother says when Kerstin Sparks enters the room. Vivika and Maria – the sisters – giggle and look at each other, making their sign. Something they do. Their sign looks like a circle, like the o in okay. It’s made by joining the index finger with the thumb. They have a nickname for the brother. They call him The Spasm. Kerstin Sparks tastes the dry müslie and requests more raisins. She sits down next to the brother, takes out nail clippers, and starts to clip her toenails.

“We don’t do that in the kitchen,” Maria says.

“It’s not a house rule. How could I have known? I could have bitten my nails, for all I know. Nail clippers are civilized,” Kerstin Sparks says.

“It’s okay, Kerstin. I just say that what is is. So you know till next time,” Maria says. She emphasizes her words by making the sign of the circle again.

“It’s hard to know what is kosher when one is not a Jew,” the brother says.

“What do the Jews have to do with this?” Kerstin Sparks asks.

“Now, let’s forget about all this and have our breakfast,” Bruno says.


4. CLOSE THE DOOR TO BEDROOMS (a world of your own)


They all fill their bowls. The buttermilk is frighteningly white. Proud sprinkles cinnamon on top of his milk. He doesn’t want any müslie. They all taste Proud’s jam.

“Is it nutmeg I taste?” Maria asks.

“It could be. That or vanilla,” Vivika says. Proud doesn’t answer. He eats his milk with a spoon, of course. They all do. When Proud closes his mouth a white line of buttermilk seals his mouth shut.

“Have some more, dear neighbor of ours,” the brother says. Proud does. He has seconds, and thirds. “I eat till my ears starts to float. Extremely good buttermilk. What did you do to it?”

“Cornstarch.” Bruno says. Proud has another bowl.


5. DO YOUR CHORES (list on refrigerator)


Pelle eats as much as his mother. He insinuates himself next to her body. He drinks water instead of juice. He is full of questions, most the time about something that easily can be interpreted without the help of a child psychiatrist. Today he is full of whales.

“Is a whale a fish?”

“It swims, of course it’s a fish,” Hans says.

“Mom swims too. Is she a fish?” Pelle looks at Janet.

“I have legs. The whale doesn’t,” Janet says.

“Excuse me.” Proud knows. “Whales have legs too.”

“But have you ever seen a whale walk?” Bruno says.

“They would walk if they just lost weight,” Kerstin Sparks says.




“Well, I thank you for good food and exhilarating conversation. I have an appointment to tend to,” Proud says. Proud puts his bowl away.

“Come again,” Bruno says.

“Toward you, my dear ones, my feelings will never change. Having you as my neighbors fits the geometric order of progress I seek,” Proud answers.

“What language does he speak?” Pelle asks when Proud walks out the door.

“It’s called BS,” Vivika says.

“I’m his mother. Let me speak,” Janet says and is quiet. She puts on the baseball cap she’d brought to the table and starts to gather the dishes. Pelle is her helper. He stands on a chair by the sink. Pelle – a rinser of dishes. Vivika takes out a black garbage bag from the third drawer down, cuts two holes for Pelle’s arms, and wraps Pelle in it. He does his job well as long as he is protected. Kerstin Sparks is licking the jam knife, looking at the brother.

“Foreign, huh?” Kerstin Sparks says.

“Yes, foreign as in not native,” the brother answers, not knowing where to go next.

“What about your room? We can go there. You can explain and I can collect my book,” Kerstin Sparks says.


7. ANSWER THE PHONE PROPERLY (Ex: “The house, Bruno speaking)


In the brother’s room Kerstin Sparks asks for music. The brother puts a metal disk on his Regina music box from 1886. Its sound is antique, a Christmas song without a name.

“Isn’t it too early for this?” Kerstin Sparks says.

“It will be over soon. I bought this antique record player before I was a house-owner. I knew I one day would have a house to put it in.”

“What do you do?”

“I collect rent. That’s enough. A man doesn’t need to do anything. Why work when I’m a house-owner?”




Kerstin Sparks sings along with the music. Her voice is ineffective. The brother wants her to stop. She is sitting in the brother’s wing chair. It’s yellow, and the brother knows it matches her hair perfectly.

“I was thinking about changing my name to Anita Mann,” she says.

“Anita Mann,” he says aloud.

“I was thinking the other day that my parents have had too much to say in my life. They even gave me my name. It’s like they invented my history. I just wonder where I am in all this.”

“Kerstin Sparks is a great name.”

“I know. It’s a hard decision. I haven’t made up my mind yet. What do you think about Anita Mann?”

“It’s nice.”

“Is it the name of a woman who walks like Queen Sylvia and who hides her calves well?”

“It could be. You should really ask Bruno or Proud. I’m not good at stuff like this.” The brother sits by his desk to the left of the wing chair. Kerstin Sparks remains quiet while the brother looks over the page again. He reads aloud, substituting the whited-out word with still.

Kerstin Sparks taps her foot to the beat of the words. The brother’s voice is unleashing around her the desire for a new kind of orgasm. It should last longer, she thinks. More colors should be involved. It should have a different name. It should involve all feelings, except nausea. It’s the nausea I have to eliminate. Love has nothing to do with it, she thinks. The brother is done. Too fast.

“Do it again,” she says.

“I don’t have time. Bruno needs me,” the brother says. “I thank you for letting me borrow your book. Nowadays it often seems like writing is nothing at all, but it is. At least reading is. You are looking spiffy this morning.”

“This morning?” The brother’s phone rings. The brother picks it up halfway through the first ring. He says, Of course, but I have to brush my teeth first, and hangs up.

“Bruno is going for the big one. If you’ll excuse me.” The brother brushes his teeth while he puts on his Russian fur and takes off his slippers. He’s mostly sucking on his toothbrush.

“Sure, honey, sure,” Kerstin Sparks says and leaves.


9. NO PETS (negotiable)


The heart is going to the city of Falun. Road 567 is a start, but not long enough. At the hospital the nurse hands Bruno the box. It’s as small as a kidney box. She gives him the instructions and hands him five forms to sign. Before he leaves he has to meet the donor’s parents. He hands the box to the brother and walks over to the parents. Their name is Ina and Urban Göransson. They show Bruno a picture. Their son is eating spaghetti for the first time. He is sitting on the floor with tomato sauce and yellow noodles all over his naked body. Ina hugs Bruno and says, “It wasn’t your fault. We forgive you.” Bruno looks at the nurse, scared. She shrugs her shoulders and gives him the okay sign. Bruno knows this death isn’t his fault. The next one might be. It all depends on how fast he can drive – fast and safe. Before Bruno leaves the parents he shakes the father’s hand again. The father gives him the picture and says he wants Bruno to have it. They have the negative. “Put it on the dash board. This picture comes the closest to the picture of our son alive. He died as a seventeen-year-old boy, but he’ll always be our little baby.”


10. ATTEND HOUSE MEETINGS (sit in a circle)


“I didn’t know you had to meet the parents. No wonder they pay you well,” the brother says.

“I didn’t either. It’s just because it’s the big one. A kidney is just not enough.”

Kerstin Sparks and her yellow Citroën are outside the hospital.

“I decided to drive in front of you to test the road conditions. If you see me slide, slow down,” she says.

“You could die,” Bruno says.

“I’ll be okay.”

Bruno hugs her and says, “You’re the gutsiest woman I’ve ever met.”

“I’d like some of the money and the picture of me naked, if all goes well.”

“Sure, honey, sure,” Bruno says once.




Bruno directs his driving after the yellow lump of car ahead of him. It’s snowing. They have three hundred fifty kilometers to go. Kerstin Sparks listens to Barbra Streisand and Andy Gibb. Bruno and the brother are quiet. The brother holds the box. The picture of the boy is where the father wanted it. There is a green light on the side of the heart box. If it turns red the heart has lost its power. The road is narrow. Tall firs are moving in around the curves. Kerstin Sparks wears her glasses.

“This is swell of Kerstin Sparks, don’t you think? I don’t know how much help she is, but it sure is a good thought,” Bruno says.

“I like her, too. She’s a spunky piece of flesh,” the brother says. He’s keeping his eyes on the green light.

The recipient of the heart is a woman. She’s been waiting for a new heart for two years, almost. That’s all they know about her.

“If I were her I would make sure to get death insurance,” Bruno says.

“You mean life insurance.”

“No, death insurance pays for your funeral. You can even have it broadcast on TV if you pay the highest premium.”

“Who would want his funeral on TV?”

“I think it would be the ultimate funeral. Nobody would have to drive to the church. Instead everybody could sit in the living room. You could even pop popcorn if you wanted to.”

“Who would cry in his own living room?” the brother says.

“You don’t have to cry. Hire a crier instead. It’s an excellent idea. They do that in foreign countries.”




At the Texaco station fifty-one kilometers from their destination the light turns red. The brother asks Kerstin Sparks to come over to look at it. Bruno is inside. She tells the brother to start the car and turn up the heat. She sits down on the passenger side with the box on her lap. She tries to open it.

“You need a code to open it. Bruno is the only one who knows the code,” the brother says. Kerstin Sparks runs with the box under her coat to Bruno. He takes his coat off and puts the heart on it as if they were having a picnic. Kerstin Sparks opens her coat as a windshield. Her hair is covered with snow. Her lips are still red from twenty years of lipstick use.




Bruno looks at the heart through the glass box inside. It’s pounding along. The lamp is still red. Kerstin Sparks kisses two of her fingers and then touches the heart with the same.

“It will be all right. I know it.”

The last fifty-one kilometers are driven in twenty-two minutes. Kerstin Sparks and the brother trade places. Bruno wants somebody else to hold it. The brother listens to Barbra Streisand and Andy Gibb. Bruno and Kerstin Sparks are quiet.




Falun Hospital has three hundred two beds. The surgeon who is performing the heart surgery is originally from Iran. He is has done sixteen similar operations. Six are dead and ten still alive. He doesn’t eat anything sweet during the day of the operation. It is Bruno who hands the heart over.

“What have you done to it?” the nurse says and yells for the doctor.

“Blame the batteries. The box is dead, the heart still pounding. Hurry to get it up there and screw it in before it has had enough,” Bruno says.

The three of them sit in the cafeteria during the seven-hour operation. It’s in the middle of the night. Still twilight, somehow. Kerstin Sparks eats poached eggs and the brothers have blood pudding with catsup. There is one other person in the cafeteria. He’s a patient. Admitted for incurable insomnia and unwanted erections. He tells them right away. His dark hair is speckled with gray. The gray hair is sticking out, growing faster than the rest. He plays cards with the brothers. Kerstin Sparks is the scorekeeper. Bruno wins.




At five in the morning the nurse tells them the heart is in and alive. Kerstin Sparks calls the house.

“The house, Pelle speaking.”

“Pelle, what are you doing up at this early?”

“I puked.”

“Is anybody else there?”

“I puked in the bathroom, but I cleaned up after myself.”

“That’s good. Now, listen. Can you turn on all the lights in the house and when Proud comes over to ask what’s happening, tell him Bruno completed another one.”

“I will. Kerstin can I go in your yellow car when you get home?” Pelle says.

“Sure, honey, sure.”



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Gabrielle Bomgren received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Utah. She has been published in Inscape and in Strike a Prose. She lives in Salt Lake City but grew up in Gotenborg, Sweden. She teaches English as a second language.