The Emissary

After moving abroad nearly fifteen years ago, Jonathan had spent only a few days with his older brother Ben each year during Christmas at their mother’s house in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. Ben’s self-invitation to visit him in Stavanger, Norway, where he had lived for the last two years, had come out of the blue two weeks earlier and Jonathan suspected it had something to do with their deceased father’s lawsuit against Philip Morris. Ben was treating himself to a European highlights vacation now that his divorce was finalized, taking a three day detour from his A-list destinations ostensibly to “catch up,” as he put it. Jonathan half-hoped his brother’s flight would be delayed.

Ben now lived alone in a condo in Swarthmore, not far from their mother with whom he had brunch each Sunday at the Blue Tulip where the staff remembered their father Harold fondly. For the last eighteen years, Ben had managed moderate-sized retirement portfolios, making a long drive each work day away from Swarthmore to his office in Trenton, New Jersey.  Ben had a loyal clientele and a good reputation, but his professional accomplishments never risked taking any light away from Harold, Chief of Surgery at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. The same was true of Ben’s personal life. He had kept his long-dissolving marriage as minimally disruptive to the rest of his family as possible.

Walking into the arrivals area, Ben looked like a displaced, baggy-eyed I-95 commuter. He still had compact shoulders and thick sandy hair but was softer in the middle, and he looked tired beyond any lingering jet lag.  “I just want to spend some time with you,” smiled Ben, as they pulled away from the airport. “I’m not expecting a guided tour.”

“Well, I can still show you around a bit,” said Jonathan. Maybe he should have invited Ben to stay at his apartment rather than at the Radisson Blu downtown, but his place was so small, and he worried that his neurotic Chihuahua Tink would pester him.

“Everything looks power washed,” remarked Ben on the short ride back into the city.  “The roads are so clean. I guess that’s where those taxes go.”

And to universal health care and excellent, essentially free universities, and viable unemployment insurance and so much else, thought Jonathan. But he wouldn’t be goaded so soon into a defense of what Ben called “the socialist republic of Norway,” as he had during Jonathan’s last visit to Swarthmore.

The weather for the following day in Stavanger was forecasted to be windy and wet, so Jonathan suggested a hike before the rain set in. After Ben checked in to the Radisson, they drove away from the city center, passing by industrial parks full of tech start-ups and over low hills in the direction of Sandnes.

Ben told his brother about his brief stay in London where he had taken a docent tour of a Captain Cook exhibit at the British Museum: “I’d rather spend two hours at one exhibit than rush around trying to see everything, which of course can’t be done.”  Then Ben recounted his afternoon just reading and walking in Amsterdam’s peaceful Flevopark, away from the crowded city center. “No tourists go there,” he observed conclusively, admiring his own ability to escape the beaten path. “I hardly heard any English at all.” Ben also had a lot to say about the wonderful apple cake he savored in a café near the park. Despite Ben’s reminiscences, Jonathan was left with the feeling that his brother wasn’t actually enjoying himself on his European tour, just accumulating experiences to report to others and keeping himself diverted in the wake of his divorce.

The brothers descended into one of the new miles-long, deep tunnels that cut under the fjords, passing by a neon-lit section of wall that alternated between green and purple, designed to keep drivers alert. In the deepest part of the tunnel sat a roundabout striped with blue and white lights, which made it look like a futuristic pinball bumper. Jonathan was certain that his brother had never seen a roundabout in a tunnel, but for the moment he seemed more interested in his phone than in this world-class engineering achievement. The crumbling bridges, dingy tunnels and endless lines of orange traffic cones around Philly he passed each work day had become so entrenched in Ben’s consciousness that this clean, calm stretch of Norwegian subterranean road only slid along the periphery of his attention. Jonathan believed this is what happened when you stayed put for a long time in one place: Your repeated routes, your burrowing memories, your banter and fixations left no room for anything new to change or broaden your focus. But it wasn’t just about how many addresses you had in your life. Some of Jonathan’s colleagues had never lived anywhere other than Stavanger, and yet they were genuinely curious and open. It seemed at times to Jonathan that his family and their friends believed that the availability of twenty-four hour supermarkets, drive-thru Starbucks, and other environmentally damaging seductions would inevitably deter any sane American citizen from the idea of living outside of the US permanently. Jonathan conceded that he sometimes caricatured American life and values; but he also felt that if he was being reductive, his family was to blame for it.

“So Dad’s case is finally on the docket again,” said Ben, putting down his phone as they emerged from the tunnel.

Here we go, thought Jonathan. The emissary.

Harold’s lawsuit against Philip Morris had begun more than ten years earlier. The tobacco corporation bluffed, deposed and objected, attempting to drag out the case as long as possible, hoping the plaintiff would die, which would lower the amount of any settlement.  But as his surgical career receded behind him, and his emphysema worsened, Harold had found renewed vitality, determination, and significance in his lawsuit against the tobacco company. He was even featured in the New York Times: “Chief of Surgery’s Second Act as Anti-Tobacco Crusader.” Ben had cut the article out of the paper and had it framed for him.

“Look,” said Ben, turning to Jonathan, “Mom wanted you to know that we absolutely need you. You’re the crucial witness.”

Who was this we? “I’ll do a written deposition, Ben. I’m willing to do that. But that’s all.” He’d actually given a deposition three years earlier when it seemed certain the case was going to trial but then was delayed once again.  A spray tanned tobacco lawyer tried to discredit Jonathan’s testimony by insinuating that his globally mobile life was ethically sketchy. It was a crasser version of an argument implied by his own family for years: He had turned his back on them by moving overseas. Jonathan heard their unspoken questions: What kind of life is it to bounce around the globe? Doesn’t it get lonely? And what exactly is a “green consultant”?

The brothers now continued along a neat, twisting country highway passing by soggy sheep and green, rounded hills with a ridge of snowy mountains further off. Jonathan pulled into a dirt parking lot by the side of the road.  The trail Jonathan chose for today was rocky but not steep, except for the last section, which required some scrambling. Jonathan, even with his shorter stride, pushed the pace on his five years’ older sibling, saying nothing about the impending scramble until the path cut up between two massive boulders looming in the fog. “It gets a little rougher here,” he called back to Ben who kept up with Jonathan as best as he could, but it was hard to disguise his heavy breathing or that he had scratched the heel of his hand after tripping over a tree root. Jonathan also felt a little guilty because the climb was probably hard on Ben’s back, a chronic condition resulting from his once overdeveloped tennis arm. When Ben was sixteen, their father sent him to the Welby Van Horn Tennis Academy where he mastered back scratching serve motions and punch volleys that seemed so mechanical and rigid to Jonathan. It was almost as if the Academy with its focus on repetitive, grueling drills and fundamentals was there to confirm Ben’s mere competence and diligence, that, like his brother, he would always fall short of his father’s accomplishments on and off the court.

The scrambling section required concentration, and so Jonathan and Ben didn’t say very much to each other before finally making it to the blustery overlook.  Jonathan zipped up his fleece jacket and looked out at the small islands dotting the cerulean Norwegian sea. On one of the closer islands, two small bright red houses perched on stilts above the rocks in the dissipating fog. Ben’s yellow windbreaker obviously wasn’t warm enough and his shoulders hunched forward in the wind. Did he even notice how beautiful it was here?

Ben walked over the edge of the overlook, took a few perfunctory photos, then came back to his brother. Jonathan handed him his water bottle and he took a sip.

“You’re the only person besides Mom who regularly saw Dad smoke,” he said, handing back the water bottle as if the rather exhausting hike up the mountain was just an unanticipated interruption in their conversation. “That’s why your being there matters so much.”

Jonathan didn’t like the idea that what made him “matter” was that he had witnessed his father doing exactly what he told his patients not to do.  When he was in junior high school, Jonathan’s reward for being a ballboy for Harold, the over-fifty club champion, was a helmet sundae at Dairy Queen that he ate while his father silently smoked another Marlboro at the edge of the parking lot. Like his brother, Jonathan would never rise to his father’s status, but he could be his accomplice.

“Mom can testify,” stated Jonathan flatly.

“The lawyers really want to avoid that, Jonathan. And you know how arrogant Mom can sound when she’s put on the defensive. And those Boyds’ outfits of hers don’t exactly help either. Not a very sympathetic image for the jury, right?”

Was Ben now trying to ingratiate himself by making fun of their mother? “She doesn’t need the money,” said Jonathan.

“That’s not exactly true; Mom and Dad had to pay a lot out of pocket for his treatments. But it’s not just about money. And you know that.”

Jonathan slowly let out a breath.

“It’s about tobacco companies that preyed on children, that got them hooked and shortened their lives,” Ben continued, his voice rising.  “And it is about something meaningful coming from Dad’s suffering.”

It seemed to Jonathan that Ben never missed a chance to draft off of their father’s prominence or to be patronizing. He certainly was not going to join Ben in this endless curating of his exceptionalism.  A written deposition was enough.

As they approached Stavanger for the second time today, Jonathan exhaled self-soothingly when Ben said he wanted to shower, rest, and make a few calls before dinner.

Jonathan had two more full days to get through with his brother. Tomorrow, if it was pouring, they could go to the Petroleum Museum. Jonathan had not yet been there himself. The fact that Stavanger contributed to the world’s dependence on fossil fuels wasn’t a point of pride for Jonathan, but he thought Ben might find it interesting. He felt bad that he and Ben had gone the whole day without saying anything about the divorce. Jonathan didn’t even know what the custody arrangements were for his six-year-old nephew. It had become second-nature for his family to turn toward their father–or now his memory–and away from each other. Maybe Ben would want to talk about it tomorrow.

As he watched his brother walk through the sliding glass doors into the lobby of the Radisson, Jonathan remembered how he and Ben had never even played singles together until when Ben was back visiting from Rutgers.  It was so odd: They were unable to keep a rally going for more than a few shots. Errant backhands rolled into far courts; lobs were lifted up by the swirling wind and sent over the fence. Their father was at the hospital probably saving someone’s life, but he also was somehow standing there watching them, shaking his head. Even though they played horribly, Jonathan felt closer to his brother on that day. It was as if they knew they were both doing badly for similar reasons.

Before driving back to the Radison for dinner, Jonathan took Tink for a walk around a silver pond just up the hill from his apartment. Tink tugged, twirled and gnawed on sticks, while well-behaved, preternaturally shiny Norwegian dogs drifted by in the other direction. When Jonathan and Tink had first arrived in Stavanger two years earlier, after over twenty-four hours of air travel, she was unrecognizable: untrusting, growling, often refusing to leave her cage.  Jonathan worried that he had made Tink completely crazy by putting her through so much over the years: cargo holds, quarantines, redundant vaccinations, sweltering tropical summers, frigid nordic winters.  Witnessing the accumulating impact of Tink’s itinerant life left Jonathan less certain about his own choices as time went on.

What would Ben think if Jonathan told him how most people his age in Stavanger had little time for new friends, how sometimes running errands filled the same space that being with other people should, that he sometimes still heard the sound of their father’s squeaking oxygen tank trolley when he couldn’t fall asleep at night?  He wondered if Ben heard it too.

Jonathan knew Ben deserved more of a response about testifying than flat refusal. Maybe he would, after all, go back to Philly, but for no longer than it would take to testify. Ben can keep running around for Dad, if that is what he feels he ought to do, thought Jonathan. He just didn’t want to be dragged back into things more than he absolutely needed to.


Dan Shiffman is a high school English teacher at the International School of Hamburg. His creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Literary Orphans, the Chariton Review, Abstract Magazine ,X-ray Literary Magazine and elsewhere. He also recently published College Bound: The Pursuit of Education in American-Jewish Literature (SUNY Press).