Getting Dad

Oliver woke up from his slumber with a dry mouth and a distant headache. He hated flying. Aircraft were crammed and always uncomfortable. Even his business class seat had a hard spot that no doubt was going to give him a backache as well. It was his first time flying business class, which suited his six foot, three-inch frame rather well. However, he had taken too much of the alcohol offered by the flight attendant and he now had to suffer the consequences. Groggy, he fumbled with the seat controls and arrived at a more comfortable position, half-leaning, half-lying. He opened the window shade and was surprised to find that it was totally dark outside, with the exception of a few stars, maybe a planet, and bright orange-yellow clusters of light below some towns or villages, he supposed, who knew where.

“You should go get Dad,” his sister had told him. “You’re better at this kind of stuff than we are, and we have kids at home in their final year at school.” Or whatever her excuse was. In any event, Mom wanted him to go and that should be enough of a reason, no? His father, Johan, was dead, killed in some faraway land that few of Oliver’s friends would know how to find on a map. He had to look it up himself, again.

Dad’s body was at the morgue of some City by the Water . Nobody knew exactly what had happened. His mother, Charlotte, had received a phone call and then an official e-mail from Johan’s employer, Gavels and Ploughshares International, or GAPI, stating in formal language that it was with the utmost regret, our heartfelt condolences, most unfortunate incident, official investigation underway, our prayers are with you etc., etc. Well meant, but vague too, everybody agreed. The e-mail also asked for the next of kin to come and sign for his body and personal effects. The flight from Connecticut to the City by the Water was paid for—business class, of course.

Mom was terribly upset upon receiving the news. “I knew it, I knew it,” she cried every five minutes or so. “One day he was going to get killed. I asked him so many times not to go—what did he do, what happened to him—I knew it, I knew it.” Once she found a moment of composure she turned to the business at hand. “Do I need to go myself to get him, or could one of you do it?” she said, looking at Oliver and his sister and the in-laws, wiping a tear from her left cheek. They had all rushed to Mom’s home in shock, held her and then one another, offering help. Anything we can do, Mom. Really. Anything, Mom.

But all their faces showed hints that this should not include taking a week or so off from work to travel halfway around the world to come back with the corpse and clothes and shoes of our dead father. Oliver could see it coming.

“Perhaps you should go, Oliver. You’re good with paperwork and official stuff. We’ll stay here with Mom,” said his sister Louise. So there he was, flying over God knows where, looking for the bottle of water somewhere hidden in his seat.

Good with paperwork he was indeed. One of three bankers at the local suburban branch of the third biggest bank in the country, he enjoyed the order he could bring to peoples’ lives by helping them fill out the right forms in the right order. A mortgage, investment accounts, business or car loans—all easily achieved by responding to the prepared questions, page by page. It was the same with life, really. Do things in the right order, stick to the truth and you should be in good shape. He felt he was in good shape, physically and financially. He had gotten good grades at school. Weren’t exams just forms with a different label?

His wife, Mary, was a little messier. She was an elementary school arts and crafts teacher and seemed to be fond of a measure of chaos, wherever she went. She was back at their home, in their country of green grass, family homes, and two-car garages, looking after their two young kids. He considered himself happy. They had a good life and he thought he had done well asking her to marry him—another prepared question and easy answer: yes. Of course, they had the occasional argument, like the one they had just a few weeks ago about the color of paint to put on the walls in the spare room. She wanted some bright shade of violet, but he could not possibly imagine his parents, especially Dad, wanting to stay there, but that was all academic now. Oliver liked his life to follow a path he could anticipate, with no surprises—or at least as few as possible. In that sense he clearly did not take after his dad. Dad seemed to love to do things in a much less predictable way.

He had brought with him the clipping from a national newspaper that mentioned the incident that had caused Dad’s death. He lifted it from his breast pocket and read it again, for the tenth time: “Disarmament Specialist Killed in City by the Water.” The article was a collection of “yet to be confirmed facts” and speculation as to what might have happened. According to the article, Dad had been found by the side of the road with “multiple gunshot wounds to the chest,” assailants unknown, and no clear motive, although the article mentioned that Dad had been working to “take the guns away” from some rebel group that was hiding in the forest and had been guilty of awful crimes.

Well, it wasn’t really taking the guns. More like a voluntary surrender program with certain rewards, like goods and cash for anyone who brought in a gun, as Oliver understood it. Maybe some “local misunderstanding involving a rebel leader who named himself Captain Christmas” had led to the tragic incident, which seemed to have been planned in advance, not the “common opportunity robbery by local thugs.” Investigations were underway. Mom and Louise cried every time they read it and kept reading it nevertheless. Louise had taken a pair of scissors, and, without saying a word, cut it from the newspaper, folded it neatly, and given it to Oliver. It might help you over there, she said later at the airport, amid teary goodbyes, tapping his chest where the clipping was stashed away in his shirt pocket.

He found the bottle of water, which had slipped into the space between the seat and the plane’s cabin panels. He took a sip of water and then another. He rubbed his forehead and said to himself, almost out loud, what the fuck was he doing here, traveling across the ocean to a place he did not know to fetch a body of a man he did not know, either, to be honest? Sometimes it had felt that this dad was not his father, at least not in the way Oliver himself tried to be a father to his kids, always there, watching them grow up every day, driving them around to school, to play dates and doctor’s visits, putting them to bed in a playful routine, pretending to be an elephant, a lion, or some other animal.

His own dad had never been there. It was always Mom who did the driving and the talking and the soothing and the bedtime stories. Oliver remembered going with the whole family in the old station wagon to the airport, to pick up Dad from some long overseas mission. In the beginning, he used to look forward to those trips. Dad always brought candy and presents. Most of the presents were supposedly educational—something cultural from some faraway tribe, a carving with barely recognizable figures of people and animals, or a weird hat with embroidered symbols that Dad tried to explain to them. “This funny hat will keep evil spirits away,” or “the amulet will keep you dry if it rains.” Of course, the gifts never delivered on Dad’s promises, and ever since the class bully had made fun of Oliver, relentlessly, when he brought a wooden carving to school for show and tell, he left all the artifacts in a cardboard box in his closet, hidden under a pile of soccer shirts. The candy was always good, though.

It was never clear to Oliver what his Dad really did for a living. When asked at school, he always repeated what Mom told them. “My dad is helping the poor kids in the countries overseas,” Oliver used to say, with a face that he hoped showed some pride. But the reality was that he’d rather have his dad at home to help him with school projects or play soccer, like the other kids’ dads. But maybe he was simply not poor enough for Dad to care.

As a teenager, Oliver hated going to the airport to pick up Dad. It always got in the way of homework or something he had set up with his friends, or worse, potential girlfriends. So he got away with waiting at home, supposedly doing his homework. Dad’s arrival at home would be announced by the noise of suitcases bumping into doorways and stair rails, footsteps on the stairs, and then Dad’s head sticking through the doorway.

“Hey, Oliver. How are you, son? Give me a big hug!”

Oliver used to get up from his bed where he was faking studying, give his dad an awkwardly quick hug (he could smell the stale air of airplanes and the sweat on his shirt) and say that he would talk to him later. He had some homework to finish first. This suited Dad just fine. He was jetlagged most of the time and used to go straight to bed, with Mom, who would always emerge half an hour later with her hair wet, combed back, and in an off-center bun.

The cabin crew had sat down and strapped in, obeying the captain of the plane, who had just announced that landing was imminent. Oliver could see that for himself, looking through the window at the ever-closer green hills in the early daylight. The forest was dotted with patches of orange and yellow with red roads streaking through villages of clay huts and thatched roofs. He could see streaks of smoke where burning lines of fire were leaving the earth a messy charcoal gray. The plane banked left, leaving him nothing but sky and tall clouds to look at. Through the windows on the opposing side of the cabin he saw light reflecting off waves in water. The plane leveled, and as it descended buildings started to streak by, a bit too close for comfort, he thought. He gripped his armrest, trying to make it look casual, hoping that the pilots knew what they were doing. He was landing at the City by the Water, and he had no idea what was waiting for him.