The dictator, p.1
The Dictator, page 1
For Anastasia, with love
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AARON HAD CLEANED HIS FATHER’S TEETH last night. Karl wore dentures, something Aaron had not been aware of until his father temporarily moved into his apartment.
Aaron had believed his father’s teeth were naturally yellow, but yesterday morning, before his father positioned the dentures in his mouth, he’d glimpsed the horrendous collapse of his father’s face as if gravity were a fist, and he was reminded of how extraordinarily violent the universe was and how with even the minutest removal of our physical ramparts, we collapse into ourselves.
The sight so worried Aaron that he’d purchased dental scrubs at the drugstore and, after his father fell asleep, had brushed his father’s dentures over the bathroom sink. Holding the pink plastic gums in his rubber-gloved hands, Aaron could tell that despite his father’s recent neglect, the dentures were of high quality, the dentine stain just right, the teeth themselves expertly proportioned, or rather disproportioned, to mimic the teeth of men who might still have any loitering in their mouths. Once they were brushed, he’d dropped the dentures into a glass of fresh water, torn open a wax-paper pouch and deposited a tablet that scoured away plaque and other bacteria that Aaron forced himself not to contemplate. He felt compelled to clean the glass by hand before returning it to his father’s bedside table, because he didn’t want to contaminate his dishwasher.
The entire procedure had disgusted Aaron, but in the morning, when his father walked out of the bedroom with a set of clean teeth tucked into his mouth, oblivious as to who had cleaned them, he felt an odd measure of contentment.
“Breakfast?” Aaron asked.
“What do you want to eat?”
Regardless, Aaron slipped bread into the toaster.
It had been like this over the past few mornings, his father asking only for coffee and Aaron adding toast and jam and butter, but today was not like the other days. Today he was flying to London and leaving his father behind in the apartment. My apartment, Aaron reminded himself. Just days ago, Karl had left the stove on in his own place, triggering fire alarms that might have been dismissed as a regrettable incident by the condo board, if he hadn’t also been behind in his monthly fees. It would all have to be sorted out when Aaron returned home, a task he relished with the same enthusiasm as he did cleaning his father’s teeth, but in the meantime, he wasn’t going to rearrange his life for him.
Aaron threw some sausages into a frying pan, not the “fat white worms,” as his father disparagingly called English breakfast sausages, but real ones with pepper grinds that fired the tongue. He cracked some eggs, cooked them in the sausage fat and then served the whole concoction to his father, who was already seated at the table, waiting impatiently. For a man in his nineties, he still knew how to put it away.
“A last supper,” Karl said, observing the feast.
“We’re having breakfast,” said Aaron, frying himself an egg in a separate pan.
He toasted some more bread and sat down with his father. They ate in silence because there was nothing more to say, conversation having run out between them on the day his father had left him and his mother some forty years ago, and probably even before then. Karl kept his distance from everything, even his food, which he didn’t lean into but reached out for with his knife and fork, upon which he built and speared precise architectural constructions of egg, sausage and tomato, an orderly consumption that provoked an immense irritation in his son.
Aaron watched his father bite into the food with teeth that he’d cleaned and sterilized the night before. If only you knew how intimate things are between us, thought Aaron. If secrets were what brought families together, they’d have been the closest family in the world.
“What smells?” Petra asked, emerging from her bedroom while rubbing sleep out of her eyes.
Aaron found it remarkable that his daughter was up so early on a Sunday morning. His father was an early riser, but even his presence here, at just past seven, was unexpected. It was as if they’d woken up purposely to condemn him.
“Want some?” Aaron asked Petra, pointing to her grandfather’s sausages.
“I don’t think so.”
Petra had been a vegetarian, like Aaron, until she was fourteen, when he’d separated from her mother. She’d turned to eating meat after the divorce, as if to get back at him, but he was pleased there were still things she regarded as verboten.
“Morning, Grandpa.” Petra leaned over and planted a kiss on Karl’s cheek.
Notes of such honest, straightforward affection still startled Aaron, who had no recollection of even once giving or receiving such a kiss from his father. It made him feel like a stranger.
The two-bedroom apartment he’d rented after his divorce was meant to house only him and his daughter when she came for overnight visits. There’d been no thought of his father sleeping over, because up until a week ago, thoughts of any kind about him were few and far between. With Karl in the apartment, Aaron had slept on the couch when Petra came over.
“Can I make you some eggs?” he asked.
Petra eyed the packed suitcase beside the couch. “When are you going?” she asked, though she knew exactly when.
“In twenty minutes.”
Petra looked out the sliding glass doors; clouds, gun metal in colour, floated across the sky like decommissioned warships. Due to his father’s aged needs, the thermostat was kept at an altogether stifling eighty-four degrees. Even on the coolest nights, Aaron normally kept a window open, the late September air a soothing relief.
“I just want some coffee,” said his daughter.
Aaron disapproved, but he wasn’t about to put any bread in the toaster for her, as he’d done for his father. At sixteen, Petra would eat—or not eat—whatever she wanted. She’d consume meat, drink coffee, use white sugar, and generally reject just about everything her father stood for.
He poured her a cup. She drank it black, as if any dilution would make her less adult, but as he handed it to her, she reached for the box of individually paper-wrapped sugar cubes Karl had brought with him to the apartment and dropped two into her cup, just as her grandfather did. Aaron remembered as a child fetching the box for his father and was amazed to realize the cubes were still being manufactured. No matter how busy, Aaron had always done his best to cook his daughter fresh, healthy meals. She’d adopted vegetarianism with a vengeance, pinching her nose at the stink of meat and voicing offence at her mother’s poor moral development. It was an alliance between them, a sign of mutual approval that Aaron had failed to discourage. He’d wanted to be a good father. No, that wasn’t true. He’d wanted to be a great father. Unfortunately, he hadn’t foreseen how, by siding with his daughter, that might make him a poor husband. He never could get the balance right. He’d wanted something different than his own upbringing, and in the process, it seemed, he’d ushered in the very thing he had wished to avoid.
“You’re flying thousands of miles just so you can talk about global warming and the environment. Don’t you think that’s a bit hypocritical?”
Wary, Aaron stared down at his now empty plate. He would eat again on the plane, two meals before descending into Heathrow, and he would ask for orange juice with ice, a habit he indulged only while in the air. The plane, he’d already told himself, would leave with or without him, so staying home wouldn’t solve anything. He could have purchased carbon offsets—they were offered to him by the airline—but quite frankly, that felt like one more way of getting money out of him, like charging extra for checked luggage, and besides, he wasn’t a global warming activist. City hall had recently voted overwhelmingly to implement bike lanes in Toronto, and he was going to London not to give a speech or listen to one but to consult and learn what he could about the growing network being installed over there.
Several years back there’d been a push for congestion fees in the downtown core and Aaron had flown to London to see how their program was being administered, but after observing the number of Mercedes, Audis, Rolls-Royces and limos that blithely traversed central London, Aaron had reservations about imposing fees that only the rich could easily afford to pay.
Bike lanes seemed more democratic, healthy and properly coercive. Eliminating lines of cars in either direction affected all drivers equally, and the return of real estate to cyclists meant a better, greener city for all. Ordinarily he’d have expected Petra to agree, but as with vegetarianism, she’d shifted against him and for the same reason.
“You just want to force everyone to be on bikes, Dad.”
It annoyed him, the way Petra painted him as some petty dictator.
“I want everyone to have a choice,” he said.
“By making them do something else. This is Toronto, as in Canada. Who wants to ride a bike in January?”
In years past, he and Petra had pedalled through the city, as blithely indifferent to the sleet and cold as the luxury cars of central London were to the congestion fee. He could still see the autumn leaves thrown up in the wake of her training wheels, and, after he’d taken them off, the cutting line she sliced through a light layer of snow. Petra had never wanted to stop, even when the heavy snow came, and they would keep cycling, until her mother insisted it was time to store the bike for winter.
It wasn’t snow and cold that had stopped them riding together. And bike lanes weren’t going to rectify the situation. Driving cars had replaced her interest in riding bicycles. He and his ex-wife had farmed off the responsibility to a professional driving school. Hiring a trained instructor was in the best interest of his child and saved money on insurance, but try as he might to convince himself, Aaron knew he’d missed something essential.
The last time he’d been in the car with her while she was driving, he’d observed her new-found road skills as if they were a surprise, and he’d promised there and then that he would take her to her next driving test. Petra’s graduated licence only allowed her to operate a vehicle with an accompanying adult. The next test would, if she passed, permit her to drive without a licensed chaperone. It would be a big step toward adulthood. But instead of honouring his promise, here he was preparing to leave for London.
He’d forgotten to put the date in his calendar, perhaps under a false assurance that he would remember it, and it was as if some malevolent force had determined that such a short trip should overlap with his daughter’s test. Maybe he didn’t want her to grow up, to become fully independent of him, at least not now, when he wasn’t able to appreciate these finite moments. You were given only one chance to teach your child to ride a bike, or to drive a car, or, for that matter, to be a good father.
Aaron stood up from the table without clearing his plate, grabbed the two bed pillows off the couch and walked over to the closet. When he slept on the couch, he felt exposed.
“The nurse is going to be here in a few minutes,” he said, opening the closet door and pushing the pillows onto the top shelf. There were more pillows in the closet, plus bedsheets and bath towels, face cloths, bottles of shampoo, even a snorkelling mask—all pressed and jumbled in a way that indicated erupting chaos. At the bottom were piles of shoes belonging to Aaron and Petra that they had essentially rejected. He would have to clean this up.
Aaron went back to the couch, collected his suitcase and dropped it by the front door.
“I’ll wait for the nurse to get here. You can go,” Petra said.
“I’ll wait with you.”
His daughter and father had taken a strange liking to each other, based in no small part, he felt it fair to say, on their antipathy toward him. Aaron could admit that he was jealous of their relationship, petty though that might be.
“You don’t have to.”
And I don’t want to, thought Aaron. But of course he had to. He would wait, because that’s what a good son did, a responsible son.
The buzzer went off, and Aaron let in the nurse, a woman from Eastern Europe who announced herself with the speedy formality of someone trained to insinuate herself quickly among strangers.
“Good morning, Mr. Kaufmann,” she said, addressing not Aaron but Karl, who offered a shallow nod.
Aaron reached for his travel bags; it was late and he needed to get to the airport.
“I’ll see you when I get back,” he said to both.
He’d expected his father to show about as much interest in him as in the nurse, but the old man stood up from his chair. Unable to reciprocate, Aaron held onto his bag and failed to move toward him. Even his father’s friendly gestures came as distant missiles, launched from so far away that Aaron didn’t hear them coming. They were still awkward strangers, with no more understanding of each other than before they’d reluctantly begun sharing a roof. Several days can’t make up for lost decades, thought Aaron, and it was risky to think otherwise. He would sort all this out when he got back. His father would soon be moving into a proper nursing home. He’d get his room back, and his daughter. They had problems, but what parent of a teenage child didn’t?
“I’m sorry I’m missing your driving test,” he said to Petra, who joined him at the front door.
“You think that’s the problem, Dad?”
“I think it’s why you’re angry at me. And you have every right to be.”
“Don’t tell me what’s right, Dad. Not when you’re treating Grandpa like some dog you can just leave at the kennel.”
“He’s not in a kennel. He’s in my apartment. He has a nurse. And he has you.”
Aaron took a few steps back so that he was beyond the threshold of the apartment, beyond his father and daughter. Everything he did was wrong, was stupid, was hypocritical. She mocked him about the bike lanes, she ate meat and she spoke to him as if she were the wiser of the two. That he was a bad son confirmed, in her eyes, why he was a bad father. He’d made a promise to her; he was putting work over family. Yes, he’d messed up, but nothing like his own father, whom Petra stood up for. That too was a kind of betrayal, a decision to put one of them above the other.
For some reason, Grandpa’s past was not an issue. Growing up, she’d spent so little time with her grandfather that she could make him into whatever she wished him to be.
“I’ve got to go,” Aaron said.
“Off to save the world?” called out his father, just to be a bastard.
Off to get away from you, thought Aaron, but not before Petra had already shut the door on him.
THE DAMP ENGLISH air lacked the hint of winter harshness that was descending on Toronto. It was dark out. Flying eastward this morning, he’d sped away not only from his daughter and father but from the sun. Aaron kept the taxi window rolled down until they reached the highway leading into London.
Sealed inside, he phoned his daughter, who didn’t pick up. He called the nurse, who said everything was fine, and would he
Your dad has arrived and says hello
It sounded weak, even piteous, but he sent it anyway. Nothing he did or said would muster favour with her.
He’d booked into one of those hotels whose employees were as international as the clientele who stayed there. The woman at reception came from somewhere in Eastern Europe, and the man who offered to take his bags to the room came from somewhere farther east, Pakistan or India or Bangladesh. The British had voted to leave the European Union, and Aaron wondered what might happen to some of them, what might happen to London itself. Half the people living here came from somewhere else, and what was home would suddenly become a foreign place.
The room was stylishly bland, with a partial view over Hyde Park, which like the Atlantic Ocean he’d flown over just a few hours ago was a dark patch below. He readied himself for bed. Tomorrow he’d be touring various sites with local planners and politicians. A master plan for bike lanes was already in place, and construction of the first cycle super-highways had begun in south London, part of a growing network that would link central London with the outer boroughs. Soon the whole, great city of London would be connected, and Toronto too. He, Aaron, would be a part of this joining, and he felt good about that.
No, he wasn’t going to save the world, as his father had remarked disparagingly this morning, but that wasn’t Aaron’s goal. As a senior policy adviser for the provincial government of Ontario, he was just trying to make the world a little bit better. He wasn’t someone who could get elected, who knocked on doors and made promises that couldn’t be kept. He worked behind a desk and wrote position papers that could, if necessary, be disowned if they proved unpopular among those who had opened their doors.
That was the way the game was played, and Aaron felt he played it well. He was here in London, wasn’t he? As he drifted off to sleep, he imagined bike lanes threading through city streets, stitching up the world.
When Aaron woke up the next morning, he was surprised by the bright, almost Miditerranean light bursting through his window. The park below, so dark and mysterious the night before, was a brilliant sea of green. It flooded London like a high water mark of prosperity. Aaron dressed and went outside, forgoing breakfast at the hotel and picking up a coffee in one of the side streets. The man who served him was no more English than the woman who’d checked him in to his hotel last night. These people, citizens of Europe, would soon no longer be subjects of Great Britain. If he were a different sort of person, he’d have asked how they felt about it and what they intended to do. Did they feel they belonged here, or did they think of themselves as visitors? And what of Aaron, who held a Canadian passport with a fussy, overly complex emblem of lions, unicorns and, noticeable if one looked, a Union Jack. Aaron had no English heritage, but the country he was born in was a member of the Commonwealth and placed the Queen’s face on its money. She’d come for a visit when Aaron was a child, and the entire school had been brought out to greet her. They’d stood in front of the school fence, along a road with squat brick houses on the other side, the sort of houses his father might have built, and the Queen had passed in her motorcade, waving listlessly.
by David Layton have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes