by Shannon Coghlan Reiss
Dad’s impending retirement had worried me for years. “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” my brother Bobby asked. I figured he’d sit around drinking beer and watching television all day. Work keeps people alive. Everyone knew that. Recently, my friends’ parents started retiring, and one by one, they got sick.
Dad worked in the same factory since he was sixteen. When I was a kid, he was out of the house every morning before I woke up. When I got home from school, he was in the yard watering his tomatoes or trimming the hedges or organizing the shed. “Homework?” he’d ask me. But he wouldn’t mention it again until after dinner, after I’d helped him roll up the hose and move the garbage cans and sweep the patio.
“The man fought in Vietnam,” said my other brother Timmy.
I didn’t doubt Dad’s abilities. He was strong, a former professional boxer with a hell of a golf swing. He gave good advice. Don’t burn your bridges. Don’t curse. Don’t keep anything in your wallet you wouldn’t want the world to see. Don’t eat yellow snow. But he was starting to show his age. He took the elevator now, walked with a limp. Lately, he looked past me, his eyes glassed over, when I asked about his retirement accounts, social security, health insurance.
“Dad,” I had to bring him back into the present. “This is important.”
In the meantime, my two brothers took such pride in their collective lack of urgency that they defended Dad’s imminent freedom even in the face of proof to the otherwise. For instance, the year after Mom died, Dad admitted to spending his entire Christmas vacation camped on the couch watching college football. Bobby took over the landscaping when Dad complained of leg cramps, and Timmy came by every Friday night to make sure Dad had enough food and beer in the refrigerator to get him through the weekend. Did these two enablers honestly think Dad would find something to keep him productively occupied once he ditched the time card?
“Dad coached baseball for twenty years,” said Bobby. “He can do that again.”
Dad planned to retire on January One. He said it was his way of screwing the government, although I had no idea what he meant by that. A few months before his Big Day, I stopped by the house and asked if he wanted me to plan a Retirement Party. “No,” he said. “I’m an old man. I don’t need a bunch of folk making a fuss for doing nothing special. Everyone works, and God willing, everyone retires. We don’t earn celebrations for doing the things we’re supposed to do. Save the world from nuclear annihilation? Hey, order the best champagne. I fiddled with wires and dials and fuses for fifty years, Sue.”
I tried to see his point. I spent my lunch breaks performing Google searches such as “Things to Do After You Retire” and “Symptoms of Early Onset Alzheimers” and “What is the typical lifespan of a man who retires at sixty-five and has already lost his wife?”
On January One, I called Dad to congratulate him. “How does it feel?” I asked. He laughed. “Well, it feels great, Sue. The boys will be here for dinner tomorrow night. Why don’t you join them? That is, if you’re not working.”
“Funny, Dad,” I responded. But I did have a late meeting scheduled and two looming deadlines, and I couldn’t think of the last time I left the office before dark.
By the time I arrived at Dad’s, both Timmy’s and Bobby’s pick-ups were already parked out front. Dad’s wasn’t, however. I found my brothers sitting at the kitchen table with bottles of beer in their hands.
“Where’s the man of the hour?” I asked.
Bobby took a swig and replied, “Don’t know.” I stared at him and then looked at Timmy, who shrugged his shoulders.
“Are you kidding me?” I asked.
“The dude’s in the prime of his life, Susan. It’s Friday night. Give it a rest,” said Timmy.
“Exactly,” echoed Bobby. “You should take a page from his book and find something fun to do. Do you ever have a date, for crying out loud?”
I crossed my arms. “It doesn’t exactly look like you two had anything better planned for tonight.” To that, they raised their beer bottles and smirked like their night was already off to a better start than mine.
“That’s Dad’s beer,” I said. Then I left.
The next day, I called Dad’s house every hour on the hour starting at nine o’clock. I let the phone ring exactly twenty-five times before I hung up. By three o’clock, I mumbled things like “Why didn’t we get this man a cell phone?” and “Who doesn’t have voicemail these days?” before I admitted there could be an emergency. I needed to act responsibly, because God knows, my brothers weren’t jumping out of their skin to do anything.
On January seventh, the police found Dad’s car in short term parking at Philly International. It had been there five days. Later, they supplied credit card receipts from Miami, Florida. I was sure Dad had never been to Miami, and didn’t have friends in Miami, and had no good reason to visit Miami. The following Tuesday, my brothers and I were in Miami.
Our best lead was a $3,400 charge from Fearless Fred’s Boar Hunting Extravaganza in the Everglades. We made an appointment and rented a car and showed up on Fearless Fred’s doorstep with photographs of Dad.
“Yep,” said Fred. “I seen him.”
“Was he OK?” I asked.
“Of course he was OK,” said Timmy. “Jesus, Susan. The man’s having a good time, can’t you see that?” I shot Timmy a look, and he closed his eyes.
“Our father is missing,” I said to Fred.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” replied Fred. “You got nothin’ to worry ‘bout. I ain’t seen a man with aim like your Pa’s since I was in Vietnam myself. Biggest hog I seen in years charged your old man last week, and your Pa ain’t budged a muscle. Shot him dead between the eyes. Fearless. Just like my brochure says.”
“I’d like to try that,” said Bobby. “I have $3,400.”
“Nah,” said Fred. “Ain’t that much. I’ll charge ya $250 for a half day. Got a trip going out in one hour.”
“But Dad has a credit card receipt for $3,400,” I said.
“Right he does. That’s cause he took my gun. Left the pig, but took my gun.” I observed my brothers, who had their noses buried in a brochure. “But I’ll tell ya this,” continued Fred. “Your Pa was talkin bout South America. Said he took a job in Columbia and this was a stoppin off point. I reckon he ain’t in Florida no more.”
“Says here I can shoot gators too, is that right?” asked Bobby.
I snatched the brochure out of his hands and said, “What the fuck.” He crinkled his nose at me, and I kicked him on the shin. Later that afternoon, the Miami Police confirmed Fearless Fred’s was the last charge on Dad’s card. He had gone rogue.
I made a call to Dad’s oldest Army buddy, and seven days later, the boys and I were in Bogotá, Colombia with Chuck Williams from Dallas. Chuck rented a car at the airport and drove us to a swanky hotel and greeted the concierge with a firm handshake and a pat on the back. “Amigo!” he hollered. “How are the grandkids?”
“Geniuses,” the concierge replied. “You are looking for Mr. McConnell?”
“I thought he might stop here,” said Chuck.
A bellhop took our bags, and the concierge led us to a white Volkswagen van. After we were buckled into our seats, the driver turned around and said, “Forty-five minutes, Mr. Williams. Just over that hill.” I looked in the direction he pointed, at a mountain covered with rain forest and shrouded in thick, grey clouds.
I nudged Timmy, who was sitting next to me. He shrugged his shoulders. “Seriously?” I whispered. “Are you letting this happen?”
“No need to worry, Susan,” said Chuck. “Your father is quite resourceful.”
Three hours later, we arrived at a clay house with a terra cotta roof at the end of a rocky road on the other side of the mountain. Bobby, Timmy, Chuck, and the driver simultaneously jumped out of the van, unzipped their jeans, and pissed in the dirt next to the driveway. As they were finishing up, Dad walked out the front door with his hands on his hips.
“Well,” he said. “Look who it is.”
“Damn,” said Chuck. “You look good, Robert. Are you sure you’re old enough to retire?’
Dad laughed, and the two men embraced. “Who said I retired?” he finally replied. Then Dad looked at me and sighed. “You found me, eh?”
I stomped my left foot and then my right foot, and a cloud of dust swallowed my Nikes. “Dad!” I said. “Do you have any idea how worried we’ve been? You can’t run off like that. Where are we?” As I scanned my new environment, I noticed for the first time that my brothers looked slightly concerned. I took advantage of this observation by adding, “Even the boys dropped everything to find you, Dad. You nearly killed us with this.”
Dad looked at the sky and then nodded and waved his hand in front of the door. “Please,” he said. “Come inside. Use the bathroom.” He looked at my brothers. “Wash your hands.”
Dad’s accommodations were comfortably upscale. The main room contained a fireplace and a large wooden table with two long benches on a purple tiled floor. Three French doors opened to a large veranda at the rear of the house. A small bedroom was tucked into the left corner, and on the other side of the bedroom was a massive bathroom, complete with double sink, rain shower, and bidet. I inspected the medicine cabinet before I peed and found a bottle of aspirin, a bottle of men’s silver multivitamins, and a bottle of bright red nail polish.
When I finished rooting through Dad’s cabinets, I went back into the main room where the men sat at the wooden table drinking bottles of cerveza. I stood next to the fireplace with my feet shoulder length apart and said, “Dad. Please tell us, right now, what you are doing here.”
My brothers put down their beers and stared at him like he was predicting this year’s Super Bowl winner. I tapped my foot.
“Coffee,” Dad finally said. “It turns out you were right, Sue. Work keeps me alive. I was bored to death during the holidays. Thinking of all the free time I’d have after January One, you can imagine, I certainly didn’t want to waste my years watching grass grow and letting these two numbskulls” – he pointed toward my brothers – “keep the fridge stocked and the bushes square.”
I looked at the boys, who were both hunched over the table with their mouths hanging open like scolded children.
“Few years back, bunch of my platoon-mates got together and started this coffee co-op. It’s not easy. Lots of paperwork and you better have decent management skills, because those field workers have plenty of demands. I thought I’d be good at a job like this, and it turns out, I enjoy it.”
“Dad,” I said.
“Wait, Sue. The weather is nice. My friends visit. Seniorita down the lane brings me lemonade every afternoon and rotisserie chicken on Sundays. I’m learning Spanish.”
“I need to sit down,” I said. Bobby moved over on the bench.
Suddenly, Timmy stood up and said, “This is insane. Get your shit and we’re going home, Dad. You can’t walk away from your life. From your family.” We all stared at Timmy until he finally said, “Bobby!”
So Bobby stood up too and continued, “You know I support you, Dad, but Tim’s right. You can’t retire and sell coffee in South fucking America.”
“Export coffee,” Dad corrected him. “Don’t curse.”
“Coffee and whatever else they hide in those shipments. Drugs. Weapons.”
“Contraband,” Timmy added.
“Thank you, Tim,” said Bobby. “Come to your senses, Dad. We’re taking you home. Susan, tell him.”
Everyone looked at me and I looked at Dad. I remembered the time he took me to work when I was twelve because Mom was sick and the boys had football. I felt special when the guys in the factory called out my name and said, “Your father talks about you all the time.” He brought me into his office and I saw family photographs on his bulletin board. I sat there all day with my homework spread out on a drafting table, while various men wearing overalls and boots and blue shirts like Dad’s came and went, requested help on the floor, asked for instructions. At five o’clock, an older man came into Dad’s office. “Quittin’ time,” he said. Then he turned to me. “You have some father, kid. Smartest guy here. When he got drafted, that was a bad day for us. We hung his tool belt on the hook right there” – he pointed behind me – “and told him it would still be there when he got back from the war.”
Bobby, who was standing beside me at the table in Dad’s comfortably upscale Colombian accommodations, poked me in the shoulder. “Susan,” he said. “Talk some sense into him.”
I smiled at Dad. “He looks OK to me,” I said. “You OK, Dad?”
Dad smiled back at me. “Come on,” he said. “Let me show you around the farm.”
Shannon Coghlan Reiss is a writer and communications specialist from Philadelphia. She received her BA in English and Masters in Leadership Development while building her career in marketing, communications, and publishing. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is now working on a collection of short stories while studying literature in Paris. She is the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, James Coghlan, drafted when he was nineteen.