Oil Man

Photo: © Nadia Belalia. All Rights Reserved.

We cruise along the concrete curve in the sky as faint voices on the radio report on another storm developing somewhere over the Atlantic, the rising temperatures roiling the skies into a fury that will batter the islands in its path before it makes landfall somewhere near us, just as it’s happened more and more often, over and over again, the reporter comments.

“Americans know nothing,” my dad mutters.

We attempt to merge onto 610 and the truck in my blind spot speeds up, a chug of diesel smoke growling out of its oversized exhaust. I lay into the horn, and my dad says, “Are you a moron? Don’t do that, the guy might have a shotgun and blast us.” I grip the steering wheel and slow down, merge in behind. We roll forward.

The report continues, statistics about the increase in extreme weather, our worsening storms, the rising costs to mitigate the damages that hurricanes are inflicting in record numbers, the death.

My dad laughs, bitter, says, “Global warming is nonsense.”

He is baiting me, and I know this—it has happened before and it will happen again. And yet, I can’t seem to help but be drawn into the tired, old argument.

“You don’t think humans have anything to do with climate change?”

I know his response already. He says, “Of course not. The Earth has gone through periods of heating and cooling long before humans were even around. Didn’t they teach you anything about how the Earth works in school?”

“You don’t think that all the carbon we’re shitting into the atmosphere has anything to do with it?”

“You think too small. You have to think on a geological scale, millions and millions of years.”

“So is the world warming or not?”

“Of course it is, the data shows that,” he says slowly, twisting his mouth into a self-satisfied grin, “but we have nothing to do with it.”

“Jesus, dad.”

We fall into an uneasy silence. I pass a minivan but slow to a stop—nothing but red brake lights ahead, another of the huge, inexplicable slowdowns that make up a Houstonian’s driving life. I want nothing more than to smash through to the highway shoulder and cruise past the gridlock. We have fifteen minutes to make it to Westbury to meet my niece for the first time, my brother’s first child, my father’s first granddaughter.

My brother was three when my father left for the States through a student exchange program after being blacklisted from university work for involvement in the Solidarity movement, leaving his wife and son behind in Warsaw until they could get the proper paperwork in order to join him across the ocean. He spent a full year as a student and a roofer in a sweltering Kansas summer and freezing winter before they were all reunited. My father finished his PhD and traded his job building houses for one at a huge, multinational oil conglomerate, where he would spend his days on a computer, analyzing seismic data and predicting where they could pierce the Earth with drills to suck out as much black blood as they possibly could.

As we inch along, I attempt a new approach.

“So what about Julia? What do you think about her future?”

“Her future?” my dad asks.

“You admit the Earth is warming and there’s nothing we can do about it, so that means you also have to accept all the predictions that scientists are saying. Flooding, food shortages, people all over the world becoming climate refugees.” My voice catches despite myself. “That’s the world Julia will grow up in.”

“Humans have an incredible knack for adapting. Those scientists will figure something out,” he says, craning his neck as if to look around the eighteen-wheeler in front of us.

“Those scientists have figured something out. And they say change has to happen now. Yesterday.”

“I don’t know about that,” he says.

“What don’t you know?” I ask loudly.

“I don’t know,” he says in an even voice, “and be a little nicer to your father. I won’t be around forever, you know.”

“God, dad, that’s not fair. I’m trying to have an argument, here, and you go and say something like that?”

He closes his eyes and raises his eyebrows, purses his lips, as if to say that’s just the way things are, and while I know it’s true, only getting truer with each passing day—grey spreading from his temples, bags building under his eyes—I can’t let him win, so I go to a place that I know will hurt him.

“You think I’m going to have kids? No way in hell. I don’t want to bring a little person into a world that doesn’t give a fuck, a world that’s only going to get worse.”

I can sense his discomfort. I revel in it before twisting the knife.

“And you have to know that you’re responsible. We all are, but you especially, Oil Man.”

I feel the blast of cold A/C against my hot face as the air between us changes.

“Oil Man,” he says quietly, as if to himself. “I’m a geologist, you moron. How do you think I paid for your car? How do you think I paid for your school, the house?”

I feel his eyes on me but can’t look over, feel the heat spread from my face down my neck. He draws a deep breath, as if to say something else, but closes his mouth, lets the air pass through his wiry-haired nostrils instead, and we fall back to silence.

All traffic merges to a single lane on the far left of the freeway, and we roll by the accident that caused the traffic jam, a car somehow flipped onto its top, another with a completely smashed front, a few pulled to the side with various scrapes and dents. Emergency vehicles of all sorts surround the scene, lights flashing. A blonde woman wearing jean shorts, a black tank top, flip flops, sits on the ground off to the side like a child, arms around bent knees, staring vacantly at a spot on the road. Little bits of plastic and glass and metal shrapnel strewn about, puddles of dark fluids shimmering purple and green in the bright daylight. My father’s brilliant work on display, I think to myself.

Past the scene we speed back up to sixty-five. My dad fumbles with the A/C as we approach our exit—he will not look at me. From the freeway to the feeder to the boulevard to the smaller neighborhood streets, then, finally, the house, mom’s car parked in the drive.

As I shift into park, he says, “You know, it was very difficult to come here without your mother and brother. It was a miracle we were able to get visas at all.”

I leave the car running, preparing myself for a lecture about how easy my life has been.

“We lived in our friend’s attic. It was hot as hell and so small. Your mama and I had to work every day. I was in the library all night working on my dissertation. Your brother got bullied at school.”

He sinks into the cloth seat, as if settling into the memory, a smile creeping onto his face.

“But we loved our lives. I remember your brother running with our friends’ kids in the field by the house completely naked. We were so stoned and could not stop laughing. Your mama said she almost peed herself.”

I let a gust of pent-up air out of my belly that I realize is a laugh.

“We were happy. I didn’t think I’d ever be happier.”

He opens the door and pulls himself out of the car and I switch the ignition off, step out, look at him over the roof, his image like a mirage, swaying in the radiating heat.

“But then you came along, our happy little accident, our little anchor baby,” he wipes his eyes, “and now Julia.”

As we walk up to the front door, I pat him on the shoulder, say, “I know, Dad. I know.”

We ring the doorbell and my mom answers, lets us in but immediately rushes up the stairs to go help with something or other, saying, “You’re both late,” over her shoulder, and we stand together in the entryway, two stories high with a gigantic chandelier looming over us, something that always struck me as odd but common in most of the suburban houses surrounding Houston. My dad stares at it, leans towards me, quietly says, “It’s fake, those aren’t real crystals,” wags his bushy eyebrows and smiles like it’s a little secret we can share, our entire argument seemingly forgotten, and I think back to our vacations when I was young, all the long hikes, my father explaining how ancient glaciers had formed the moraines and ridges we trekked on, picking up rocks and licking them, telling me they were limestone or sandstone or something else entirely that I can’t now remember.

My brother and his wife descend the stairs with Julia, the newest edition of our lineage. They hand her to me, a wrapped up, gently wriggling little thing. I hold her tightly, a deep fear of dropping her cold in my stomach as I look at her face, poking through the folds of the impossibly soft blanket. Her eyes shut tight, her skin a ruddy pink, a wisp of thin hair matted down to her soft skull, this brave little person who might never truly understand what it meant for her grandparents to cross an ocean, who one day will have to retreat from the coast where she grew up and find a life we can’t possibly begin to imagine, and I say, “She’s beautiful,” and mean it. I hand her over to my father and watch his smile grow wide, his eyes thicken with milky tears, and I find myself wondering how something so momentous to him would be viewed on a geological scale. But I keep my mouth shut and stow that tidbit away for our next drive together.

Timothy Wojcik has fiction forthcoming in december mag, and has published flash fiction in After The Pause. His poetry has been featured in Hobart, Caketrain Journal, Heavy Feather Review, Belleville Park Pages, and Front Porch Journal, among others, and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2015. He was a semi-finalist for the 2021 American Short Fiction’s Halifax Ranch Short Story Prize, the 2020 Driftwood Press Adrift Short Story Contest, and received an honorable mention in the 2020 Texas Observer Short Story Contest judged by Bryan Washington. He lives in Queens, NY, and is currently at work on his first novel.

Appears In

Issue 16

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