Non-Fiction by Chloe Rose Stuart-Ulin
When I was younger my father and I would take apart car engines. Run experiments in the basement up North. Make fun of everything because we could always agree on what we didn’t like. Now I come home from the West Coast for a couple of weeks over Christmas, a few days in the summer. Now there’s no time to get the grease-stains out of my new clothes, and the house up North is too isolated for short visits. We meet in a sports-bar in Montreal and talk over two pints of beer.
“This is how hydro-powered turbines work,” my father says. He turns his paper placemat over and pulls out a pen. A circle first, then a smaller one inside. He draws lines radiating out from its center. There was no prelude to this change in topic, at least none that my father said aloud. “Have we gone over this before?”
“Probably,” I say, “when we went to Hoover Dam.”
“That’s right! You were nine. No, ten. Were you ten?” He grins. This is a running joke, but not really. He doesn’t remember the age and neither do I. “So here you have magnetic fields running across the tube.” He indicates the lines, dotting the page with loose ink. He likes the slow-drying pens that his law firm buys; has saved them from being cut from the budget multiple times so that he can continue to steal them.
I perk up. I like magnets; they’re mysterious and powerful. “Why magnetic fields?”
He sees that I’m enjoying this, and my enthusiasm makes him talk faster, louder. “Wait, wait, I’m getting to that! The water pushes the turbines around and around, breaking the magnetic fields with each pass.” He describes the motion on the page, adding circle after sloppy circle until the diagram is ruined.
“And each time a field is interrupted, it generates electricity.”
“Yeah! Cool, eh?”
“But, how does that make any sense? Why does that work?”
He looks up at the TV behind my head, momentarily – frustratingly – distracted at this crucial moment. “Nobody knows,” he says, returning to me with wide eyes. This is the punch line to most of our discussions. If my father can’t at least guess at the answer to my question (unsatisfactory, and rare), than nobody can.
We sip at our beers.
I’m tempted to move the conversation to a more personal topic. We haven’t spoken candidly in over a year; there’s not much you can communicate over the phone in ten-minute segments. I want to ask about his new apartment, his job, his cats (our cats), his debts, the woman he’s seeing. So many basic questions that I’m not sure where to begin, and I’m hesitant to start in with small talk. Hydro-powered dams are far less relevant to our lives, but they’re what we’re comfortable talking about.
Our waitress approaches. I can see a radar in her brain for pauses in conversation. “How we doing over here?”
My father looks to me. Oddly, now, it’s my call on whether or not we’re going to be responsible adults. “The pitchers are really cheap here,” I say, prompting a smile from both my father and our waitress. She jots down our order and leaves. My dad’s eyes are back on the television and his diagram has a few additional rings on it, unintended ones from the sweat off his beer glass. I move his pint onto a coaster and flip his placemat around to face me.
“Should it worry me that I usually just assume you’re right about everything?” My question comes out smoothly. I had a second to think it over.
“Probably. I make most of it up.”
“Can I keep that pen?”
My dad makes a big show of returning it to his breast pocket. “Nope.”
Thirty ads and one hockey game later, I’m gulping down the rest of my beer as he counts out some change. “I have to use the bathroom,” he says. “You ready to head out?”
I nod and he slides out of our booth. While he’s gone I fold up the placemat diagram and stuff it into my purse.
When I was little I would smell something strong on my dad’s breath sometimes, and I would assume it was alcohol. My sister was the one who told me the truth, later, and only when I asked why her new apartment smelled so familiar.
My father lights up a joint outside the bar and drags on it for a while. He passes it to me but I wave it off.
“Didn’t you move to BC?” he jokes.
I shrug. “There are other drugs I enjoy more.”
“Hmm. You’re careful, right?”
My sister was the one who gave me my first taste of weed. She hated that I knew Dad smoked, but had no qualms teaching me how to roll and light up for the first time. I must have smoked two whole joints by myself that night, in my sister’s grubby Montreal apartment. Fifteen minutes was all it took for monkeys to come crashing through my brain with cymbals and drums, and over the ruckus I called my father and begged him to pick me up. No questions asked, he agreed.
My father loves telling that story; how we hugged for a long time in the parking lot without saying anything. “It’s the best hug you’ve ever given me,” he says. And, a little ashamed, I know it’s true.
We climb into my father’s car and it occurs to me that we’ve just been drinking. I feel a moment’s hesitation; caught between blind trust and the growing pile of proof that my dad is only human.
I feel like asking is somehow against the rules, but I can’t help it. “You’re careful, right?”
He thinks about it for a second, and it’s the pause that I find comforting. “Don’t worry about me yet,” is all he says.