This Version is Slapstick

The driver goes—YOU NEED MORE CHANGE!

This Version is Slapstick

by Kirsti MacKenzie

Heard him coming before you seen him. Suitcase clattering up the sidewalk in a cloud of familiar curses. Met you in Montreal and like a stubborn old asshole he insisted on walking from the train station. August, mind you. We’re talking violent heat. Takes the stairs two at a time with the suitcase.

First thing he says is, “Where’s the can.”

When he’s flushed and washed he parks himself on the couch. Runs a gnarled hand over his head, flinging the sweat away.

Second thing he says is, “Why St. John’s.”

The Airbnb host left water bottles. You’re not ready for this conversation so you cross the room to open the fridge, a jolt of cold air. This is a whole life you’re changing. Didn’t ask permission, or advice. You wanted to do it alone, to test your resolve. Of all people, he should understand that, but you know he won’t. Wasn’t your idea to ask him along but Eric insisted. Said you shouldn’t travel alone and you’re gonna need support and he’s retired, isn’t he? Knew better but here you are.

You hand him a bottle. “Why not.”

“I don’t understand,” he says. “Like this. All of a sudden.”

“You don’t have to,” you say. “Be here or don’t.”

He sucks one cheek and bites down hard. Just as well. Too hot, too early in the trip. Your insides counting down like tick, tick, tick.

He holds his tongue all of one day about your driving. Impressive, considering. When you turned sixteen he hired some guy named Ron to teach you to drive. Because Ron, with his beaten red Cavalier and Guy Fieri goatee and toothpick chew, had patience. You remember that; Ron’s patience. You also remember the last time dad was a passenger. Eighteen, learning standard. Stalled three lights in rush hour traffic. Crying, screaming shitshow. Another call to Ron.

“Get aggressive,” he says. “It’s a freeway.”

“Do it yourself, then.” You signal left to pass a minivan. “Say when.”

“Can’t,” he mutters. “Forgot my license.”

You suck your cheek, bite down.

You make it to New Brunswick by sunset. Tiny beach town screaming WORLD’S LARGEST LOBSTER from sagging motels painted proud Acadian colours. You pull over and let the ocean lap your toes a while. Wipe sandy feet then shuffle into a seafood restaurant. The waitress leads you to a massive, gurgling tank piled high with shellfish.

“Take your pick,” she says, snapping her gum.

You point to a surly one on the top row and wait. He stoops, frowning. Plastic bib lolling from his shirt collar. His eyes flick between the tank and a cheerful cartoon lobster on the bib. Wet, panicked look.

“Sir?” asks the waitress.

He straightens abruptly. Jerks a thumb sideways like let her choose.

“No,” he says. “I don’t get a say.”

Later you make it a joke. Call it the Halifax Explosion. Been a hundred years, you’ll quip. People love reenactments. We should have charged admission. The punchline being that charging admission would have covered it—the bus fare.

You can’t remember why you took the bus downtown in the first place. But it goes like this. One minute you’re swilling pints while some pub band hacks Barrett’s Privateers. Next you’re howling at each other in the middle of Water Street.

Over bus change! goes your joke. Okay, boomer! Nobody carries cash anymore!

They’ll laugh because this version is slapstick. Scots-stubborn father and daughter locking horns like mountain goats. Tell it silly, like get a load of these assholes.

If you’re gonna be any good at this thing—the telling thing, the urge to spill your stupid guts—you’ve gotta learn to revise. Cut the part where you were coasting on credit cards, too broke to take the bus. Cut how he said you were stupid to quit your job and fuck off to Newfoundland. Cut how he said not to come running when you spill your stupid guts and fail. You make it a joke because it’s boring, suburban bullshit. Parents, children, an old story.

Anyways, goes your joke, we get on this fuckin’ bus, right? I’m just leaking snot. He’s fuming. Fires our fare into the meter, yapping ‘Jesus fuck, who doesn’t keep loonies in the dash,’ stomps to a seat—

And the driver yells SIR!

And he goes WHAT!

And the driver goes—get this—

The driver goes—YOU NEED MORE CHANGE!

You consider the options. Airport, maybe. Bus depot. The most attractive one is dumping him on a commercial fishing boat. But why bother, you figure, when he’s gutted you for free. Instead you drive the Cabot Trail in silence. The middle part gets hilly and you barrel down switchbacks with your foot half on the brakes. Furious, white-knuckled.

He clears his throat. “Sign said SLOW DOWN.”

He raps his knuckle at another: USE LOWER GEAR.

“Do you smell—,” he says. “Is that—”

You pull over and sure enough, the tires are smoking. Smell of burning rubber between you, acrid and unbearable. He bends to examine them, laying a hand on the tread.

“Gonna need new brakes,” he says.

“What the fuck do you know,” you snap. “It’s fine.”

You wait for the recoil. And if this were any other day—if you were not raw and gutted—it would come. But he sucks one cheek, bites down.

“Okay,” he says. “You’re right.”

When he rises, his knees crack. They’re giving out on him. He’s a runner, but he’s getting old. There’s a stream rushing beyond the road. Trees so thick overhead they blot out the sun. You both wander toward it, away from the burning smell. Wait it out. He bends to the stream to wash his hand, flinching when he straightens again.

“Marathons,” you say, after a spell.

He wipes his hand on his shorts. “Yeah.”

“How do you run them.”

You meant about his knees.

Instead he says, “Five miles at a time.”

One day this will be useful. Best advice anyone ever gave you about spilling your stupid guts. You won’t know for years. For now you let it hang unanswered, scorched as the air and the earth between you.

Before you make it to St. John’s, you go to Gros Morne. Board a boat tour for the Western Brook Pond, which is a fjord. Like all fjords, it is stupid beautiful. You don’t have words for it. Maybe one day, when you are broke but better at the telling thing.

“Gros Morne,” says the tour guide, “means the Great Sombre.”

The fjord was carved over billions of years. Glaciers and cliffs. Two stubborn forces wearing each other down. Waiting on the other to yield, or thaw.

Feels a little on the nose, you think.

“Look,” dad says, pointing at a family of black bears on the shore.

“Kids must be hard,” you say.

Wet look in his eyes again. Same as he had in front of that lobster tank.

“Sometimes you think you’ll do better,” he says. “Sometimes you don’t.”

You’re at the front of the boat and a friendly Newfie lady trips over tourist legs for pictures where you’re sat. Puts out her hand for your phone, offers to take one. Dad hesitates, then slings one arm stiffly over your shoulder. She snaps a couple, shakes her head.

“Jesus,” she says. “Look at you. The spit of each other.”

Kirsti MacKenzie has published in HAD, trampset, Identity Theory, and Rejection Letters. She studied creative writing at Humber College and Memorial University but learned the most from bathroom graffiti in dive bars. She lives in Ottawa and can be found perpetually on her bullshit @KeersteeMack.