Anatoly told us, “In the original Swedish book by Astrid Lindgren, Karlsson is a more selfish, more obnoxious version of Dr Seuss’ Cat in the Hat, a negative character. The translation into Russian was wildly successful; without changing the literal meaning of a single sentence, it changed Karlsson into a hero. The cartoon provided an iconic image for Karlsson, and added several of the greatest voice talents of the last century. Karlsson became symbolic of the so-called ‘internal emigres’ – members of various suppressed counterculture movements.”
“Where is Charlie?” I asked.
Lynne didn’t look up from her laptop. “Watching his stupid cartoons, I think,” she said.
“I’m going to work,” I said. “Night shift.”
“Bye,” she said.
She used to say, ‘Be careful.’
“Karlsson,” I said. “Is that your first or last name?”
The dome light strobed off his grinning face: red, blue, yellow. His eyes were wide open. He had a coverall on. No hat.
“Just Karlsson,” said the man. “Karlsson who lives on the roof.”
There was a propeller hanging off the back of his coverall, and a big red button sewn on the front. The button didn’t look like it belonged there. It looked like he’d sewed it on himself. The button, and the propeller, too.
“That’s not what your wife says,” I said. “She says your name is Arthur Quinn.”
“I have no wife,” said the man. “I live on the roof. Wives don’t live on roofs. If they knew how wonderful roofs are, they’d live there, too.”
“You don’t live here at all, any more,” I said. “On the roof, or under it. Your wife has a restraining order on you.”
The man shrugged. The propeller attached to the back of his coveralls bobbed up and down, one blade poking up above his head, two more swinging behind his elbows. “I have a friend in the house,” he said, “and he needs me. I am his bestest best friend in the world.”
“And,” I continued, “she has made allegations…”
His grin slipped momentarily, then returned. “That’s Frekken Bock. You should not believe anything she says. You know what she said once?”
“What?” I asked.
“She said,” the man paused and wiggled his eyebrows.
“Yes?” I said.
“She said she loved children,” the man whispered. His eyes were very wide. Dome light reflections ran all around the pupils.
“You’ll have to come with me,” I said. “To the precinct.”
The man nodded. “Can we go with lights and sirens? That would be the funnest thing in the world! And handcuffs—can I have handcuffs?”
He had to have handcuffs. Rules.
“Yes,” I said. “You can have handcuffs.”
“You, too?” said Sergeant Smith.
“You mean there is more than one?” I said.
Her chuckle sounded a bit forced. “These damn Karlssons are all over the place,” she said. “Damn loonies. Family court is swamped.”
“Where did they all came from?” I said.
“Google it,” she said. “Karl with a K, double-S, O, N. Look under ‘videos.’” She hung up.
I knew she had an old rotary phone in her office. Its steel bell kept on ringing after she slammed down the receiver. Of course, you could not hear it if she hung up on you. Watching her hang up on someone else—now, that was something.
Someone did a hell of a job dubbing into English a fifty-year-old Russian cartoon based on a Swedish children’s book. Karlsson, a kindly, fat, jolly fellow, lives, as advertised, on a roof, best—only—friend to Little Boy, only protector from the evil housekeeper Frekken Bock. Flies through the window with the help of a little propeller attached to his back. Which he turns on with a red button sewn on the front of his coveralls.
Oh, and it runs on raspberry jam.
Which, by an odd coincidence, is what one of my Karlssons would look like if he tried to fly off a roof of anything higher than a chicken coop.
The next Karlsson was portly, just like the one in the cartoon. He was also black.
“I like this game,” he said. “It’s like I’m in jail, and Frekken Bock is torturing me, but I am the world’s best, bravest, strongest, moderately well-fed hero, and I will win.”
He sounded just like the voice-over artist who dubbed Karlsson’s part in the cartoon.
His propeller had broken when he fell from his roof. Good thing his wife and daughter lived in a ranch house surrounded by a flower bed.
“Make him pay for the flowers,” yelled a voice from the house.
“Can we go with flashy lights and sirens?” the black Karlsson said.
“Handcuffs, too?” I asked.
His eyes lit up. “Can we do that?”
“We can do that,” I said.
I took Charlie to his pediatrician Wednesday. Dr Li usually had a lot of people in her office. This time they were all outside. So was Dr Li. She was on the roof. She wore a coverall with a propeller sewn on the back. And she held an open jar of raspberry jam between her knees. And a big spoon in her hand.
“Hey, Dad!” Charlie shouted. “Dr Li is a Karlsson now!”
“This is despicable,” said a woman near us, clutching a little girl. “We need a pediatrician, not a clown!”
“I like her better this way,” said the little girl.
“Nonsense!” said the woman. “I had all these important questions…”
“You wanted her to tell me that sweets are bad for me,” said the little girl. “And cartoons.” She grinned suddenly. “Hi, Dr Karlsson-on-the-roof!” she shouted.
“Hi there, Daisy!” Dr Li shouted from the roof.
“You are the best doctor!” the girl shouted again.
Dr Li heard her. “Bestest kind in the world!” she said, grinning around a spoonful of raspberry jam.
“Dr Karlsson?” said Charlie. “But what if I really need help?”
Dr Li shifted her weight, hung her feet off the roof. “See this doorbell?” she said.
“If you ring it once,” she said, “it means, ‘don’t come under any circumstances.’ Got it?”
Charlie nodded again.
“If you ring it twice, it means ‘come right away’, and I’ll fly to your rescue immediately. And if you ring it three times –“
“Yes?” said Charlie.
“If you ring it three times, it means, ‘I am so happy I have the bestest best friend in the world, Karlsson who lives on the roof!’” said Dr Li.
And Charlie ran to ring the bell three times, but he had to get in line first. All the children wanted to do it.
“Ridiculous,” said Lynne. “I had some serious concerns about Charlie’s behavior that I wanted to bring up with Dr Li, and now I can’t.” She had her face in her laptop. “You know what he said to me? He said he wished one of us would turn into Karlsson.”
“Maybe that’s what he needs,” I said.
“Go ahead, be Karlsson,” she said. “You can’t be any more useless.”
“You called me here to arrest me?” I said.
Sgt Smith shook her head. “Nah. Just to serve you with a restraining order.”
“What is Lynne alleging?” I said.
“Not much,” she said. “Bad influence.”
“I guess I still have a job,” I said. “You delivering the child support demand, too, Sergeant?”
“Not my job,” she said. “Emily.”
“Emily who?” I said.
“I’m Emily,” she said. “To my friends.”
“Your bestest best friends in the world?” I said. That didn’t come out right. Not like the Karlssons said it.
Emily quarter-smiled—half her mouth turned up, both eyes hooded. “Why don’t you go Karlsson yourself?” she said. “Charlie would like that.”
“Why don’t you?” I said.
“I don’t have a roof,” she said, “that I’d want to fall off of.”
Rain started then, drops clearing paths down the dusty outer panes of Emily’s windows, its patter filling the silence like someone else’s conversation. It wasn’t much, as reasons went for staying silent, but by a mutual consent it made a decent excuse.
I turned to Emily’s phone. “I better call Charlie,” I said, reaching for the receiver.
Her hand clamped down on mine. “Don’t bother,” she said. Her face was close, eyes wide, but not wide like a Karlsson’s eyes. She was looking past me, at the window. “Look,” she whispered.
I turned, and only if I raised my arm and put it over Emily’s shoulders could I turn far enough to see where she was looking, and there he was, propeller spinning and scattering the rain, eyes wide, huge grin, overall-clad, hovering just outside Emily’s window: Charlie. My Charlie. My Karlsson Charlie.
“How…” I whispered.
“Shut up,” Emily said. “Don’t say a word.”
Emily’s hand that had kept me from picking up her phone now slid up mine, caressed my chest, cupped my face. “Two rings mean, ‘come as quickly as you can,’” she said. “Let’s open the window–“
“No,” I said, and picked up her antique receiver. I slammed it down on the cradle; the bell rang loud and clear each time: Once. Twice. Three times.
‘I am so happy I have the bestest best friend in the world, Karlsson who lives on the roof!’
And through the rain, like hundreds of tiny helicopters, a swarm of Karlssons rose from their roofs and spun about Charlie, dancing in the spray, darting into clouds, buzzing vehicles and buildings, while from the twilit city church bells, door bells, wind chimes and even car horns rang out—too many to count, but if you paid attention, in threes, only in threes, only ever in threes.
And Emily and I, arms around each other, feet on the floor, found something nearly as good as flying. Something anyone can do, anyone at all.
Try kissing. Try laughing.
Now try doing both at once.
About the Author
Anatoly Belilovsky is a Russian-American author and translator of speculative fiction. He was born in a city that went through six or seven owners in the last century, all of whom used it to do a lot more than drive to church on Sundays; he is old enough to remember tanks rolling through it on their way to Czechoslovakia in 1968. After being traded to the US for a shipload of grain and a defector to be named later (see Wikipedia, Jackson-Vanik amendment), he learned English from Star Trek reruns and went on to become a paediatrician in an area of New York where English is only the fourth most commonly used language.
His original work appeared or will appear in the Unidentified Funny Objects anthology, Ideomancer, Nature Futures, Stupefying Stories, Immersion Book of Steampunk, Daily SF, Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk, and Genius Loci anthology, and has been podcast by Cast of Wonders, Tales of Old, and Toasted Cake; his translations from Russian have sold to F&SF, Year’s Best SF #32 (edited by Gardner Dozois,) Grimdark, and Kasma. He blogs about writing at loldoc.net.
About the Narrator
Eric Wagoner is the creator of The Grimm Lunch Break. A few times a week, over his lunch break, Eric records, edits, and publishes one of the original 250 fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and translated to English by Dr. Jack Zipes. You can find The Grimm Lunch Break here.