Relativity

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There were three of us in the car – my dad, the fly, and me. We were headed into the city to celebrate my birthday. Not the fly. The fly was just hitchhiking. Or maybe he was a stowaway. I don’t know. I just know that he was along for the ride. Maybe it was a she. I don’t know how you tell.

It’s not actually my birthday. That was almost two weeks ago, but my dad’s been busy. He’s also busy as he backs the car out of the driveway. My dad pays attention to his driving. We’re driving in his car. Okay, I’m riding, and he’s driving. The fly’s not driving, either, but he’s not exactly riding. My dad likes to concentrate when on the local roads, so I don’t bother him so much. We’re headed into Seattle, which means we’re eventually going to get onto I-5. The Five is the big freeway that runs up and down the entire coast of America. The West Coast of America. I’ve seen the map. They’re building a big road that’ll connect us closer to it. They’re gonna call it the 405, but that’s a couple of years away.

Anyway, the fly, my dad, and I are headed into Seattle. We’re going to visit the Space Needle and some museums. “The Space Needle,” my dad says, “was built the year you were born, but didn’t officially open until 1962 for the Seattle World’s Fair.” Officially, I’m a year older than the Space Needle, so that means it’s just a kid, too. If what my dad says is right, then it’s almost ten, like me.

I’m not really almost ten. I’m just nine, but ten keeps getting closer every day, which means I’m heading towards ten, which is like almost being ten. I mean, time’s always moving forward, right? That way, I figure, I’m heading closer to ten and away from nine every single day. Not really, but ten’s got to be better than being nine.

Doesn’t matter because this is my day with my dad, which is really my mother’s idea. She says that my dad has to spend more time with me and my brothers, so she had this idea of a day with dad for your birthday. In this case, my birthday. The kid, which is me right now, gets to pick what to do. Sort of. I didn’t have to figure out what to do and research or anything like schoolwork. I got to pick from a list. On this year’s list was the Space Needle.

If you want to picture the Space Needle, which isn’t yet nine but will be soon (remember, it’s a little younger than me), you’ll need to stop thinking about a needle. It’s got a pointy top, but that’s on top of this giant flying saucer thing. There’s a walk-around up there, all the way around the saucer, not to mention a restaurant. From up there, you can see way over the water on one side, the Puget Sound, and the mountains on the other, including Mt. Rainier, which might be my favorite mountain. That’s subject to change, but at this moment, Mt. Rainier is definitely number one on my list, even if what they say about it possibly exploding one day and drenching us all in lava. That’s not the mountain’s fault. That’s our fault for being there when it happens. If it happens.

Like I said, it’s my birthday trip, so I got to decide where we’re going. I wanted to go to the World’s Fair fairgrounds (even if the World’s Fair was long gone) and ride up to the top of the Needle, which isn’t a needle but a saucer, and we go without my brothers or anybody else, except this fly, who wasn’t invited.

I don’t suppose I need to describe the fly to you. He’s a fly. Or she is, whatever. It’s got big bulby eyes that are kind of reddy-purply, clearish wings, and six legs with two up front that you sometimes see them rubbing like hands. This one rubs his hands, too. It’s almost as if it’s cleaning its hands for dinner, which doesn’t seem too sensible to me as flies spend way too much time crawling around what my mother likes to call dog dirt. She said she saw that on a sign once, and it made her laugh. That’s why she calls it that now. It’s better than calling it poop or that other word that got my cousin a beating that one time.

Either way, there’s no dog dirt here in the car for it to crawl around on, so it sits on the dashboard. That’s the thing. It doesn’t just sit there. It flies around sometimes. It doesn’t seem to be bothered by me watching it fly around either. I’d take a swing at it, but I’m horrible at that. Besides, if I kill it, I’ll end up with fly goo on my hands, not to mention feeling bad about killing it. My dad’s eyes and brain are on the road, so I don’t have much else to do but watch the fly.

The road down the hill is twisty and turny, so my dad also isn’t talking. I need to point out that I’m not sure how much talking we could do because most of my attention is on this fly. It (I’ve decided to stick with ‘it’ until I can figure out how to tell girl flies from boy flies) starts on the dashboard in front of me. It occurs to me that I ought to explain the car.

I’m sitting in the front in what my cousins call ‘shotgun.’ I don’t know why they call it shotgun, but that’s where I’m seated. I have the seatbelt pulled across my lap because my dad says I have to. The front seat is a big, long bench with a kind of dent in the middle for the shift. You can fit three of us kids up here if we squish in, but we don’t do that so much anymore since one of us fell out of the car going around the corner.

It wasn’t just one of us. It was me. The door wasn’t quite closed enough, and there weren’t seatbelts enough for everybody, so when my ma went around this corner, the door opened, and I fell out. I wasn’t hurt or nothing, but I was a little surprised. There wasn’t any fight to get to see who could sit up front today. Without my brothers, no one else got to fight over who got to sit up front. It was mine without argument.

If my mom is in the car, there’s also no argument. She sits in this seat, and me and my brothers would be crammed in the back. It doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t be fighting. We’d just be fighting over who wouldn’t get stuck in the middle. Now, if my ma were in this seat right this second, she’d be freaking out. She doesn’t like flies. I can’t say that I’m wild about them, but I wouldn’t flail about trying to scare one away or anything, screaming and stuff. Flies are fast, and I don’t think they really care about anything except not getting squished. Flies probably also think about eating. Maybe that’s why they rub their hands all the time, just thinking about their next meal.

This fly, however, mostly just sits there. It’s like it knows that I won’t try to kill it, so it can’t be bothered with flying about too much. Then, it does fly. We’re going down the mountain at a pretty fast pace. I don’t know the speed we’re driving because I can’t see the speedometer, but the limit sign says 35. If that’s what the limit sign says, then my dad is probably doing at least that or more because that’s what he does. “Speed plus ten,” my father always says. “After that, the cops are looking at you for a ticket.”

The fly, however, just lifts off the dashboard as if we weren’t racing down a hill at speed plus ten to get to a freeway that’ll take us to a city even faster than we’re going right now. It just flies around the car for a bit, and then, not finding any poop, or dog dirt, I suppose, it just lands on the dashboard again. There isn’t any other food for it to eat, either, so I guess it just gave up for a bit.

It all got me to thinking. I looked out the window. There was the side of the mountain right there with some bushes and weeds and stuff growing out of it. It was moving by pretty quickly, and I’ve watched things go by when I walk or run or ride my bike, so I know that we’re going pretty fast, even if I also know we’ll go even faster once we’re on I-5, the freeway. It makes me wonder. If we’re driving past everything so fast, why doesn’t the fly go flying back super fast after it lifts off from the dashboard? It ought to. Once it’s not touching anything on the car, I’m thinking, shouldn’t it be a stain on the back window?

I crack the window a little bit. The sound in the car changes. There’s a whipping noise, and I put my hand up to the opening. I can feel the air coming in. When I stick my fingers out a little bit, I can feel the cold wind whipping them. I’m about to open the window a little bit more when my dad interrupts me.

“Close the window,” he says. “You’re letting the heat out.” He doesn’t even look at me, but I obey.

I don’t know how the heat gets out a little crack, but if you’ve been around my dad long enough, you get to know which tones mean business and which don’t. That one meant business, not real bad business, but business you had to pay attention to.

Dad’s more focused on taking the car down the road to say anything else, so I go back to figuring out how the fly flies inside the car.

I put my hand up to the vent to feel the hot air coming out. There are three vents up front, one on his side, one on my side, and one in the middle. I put my hand up to the one on my side, near the door. The fly’s in between the vent on my side and the one in the middle, walking around a little when he’s not rubbing his hands and thinking about his next meal. The air from the vent is warm on my hand, but not too warm. My dad and I are both wearing our coats, so he’s not trying to boil us out or anything.

That’s one thing I can tell you about my dad. He doesn’t get too cold or anything. Ma says it’s because he was raised without central heating and doesn’t understand what it means to be cold. I should probably tell you what he looks like. He’s tall, I guess, but everybody seems tall. He’s taller than my mother, and he’s also taller than his dad, my grampa, Grampa Allard. Maybe that means I’ll be taller than him someday. His hair is kind of black and stringy. Now, normally I wouldn’t say anything about this, but he also doesn’t have a lot of hair on the top of his head. The hair he does have, he keeps long on one side and flings it over his head. My aunts and uncles make fun of him for this, but I don’t think it’s right to make fun of people for the way they look. I’m just telling you now, not to make fun, but to let you know what he looks like.

He wears glasses, like me. Mine are new, and I could go on and on about how I hate them and don’t really need them. I still have to wear them. I broke my first pair, but my mom couldn’t prove that I did it on purpose, which I did, so I didn’t get punished. I did get new glasses, not the ones I wanted but these ugly black-framed things. My dad wears wire framed glasses, which is what I wanted, but my mom said that I wasn’t ready for those. After my first pair got broke, she just said that that proved that, so I ended up with the same kind of frames as the first ones. I will be breaking them sometime soon, but I can’t use the same story as last time. That’d make me look guilty.

My dad also smokes Benson & Hedges, the ones in the dull gold pack. My mother smokes Winstons in the red and white pack. Either way, it’s disgusting. He doesn’t smoke with me in the car because he knows I don’t like it. He can be nice that way. He’ll light one up as soon as get out of the car, so he doesn’t completely stop smoking just because I ask.

He once told me that my mother smoked all the way through carrying me before I was born, and he used to tell her that I’d “come out with a cigarette in my mouth.” Then, he said, “Instead, you came out bitching about it.” He always laughs about that, but it’s true. I complain and complain and complain about the smoke, fat lot of good it does me.

I want to be clear here. I know that that word that began with a ‘b’ back there isn’t a word I’m supposed to be using, but I’m just trying to be accurate and everything. That’s what he said, so that’s why I’m writing it here.

If you were looking at my dad as he drives, you’d know it wasn’t a work day. He’s wearing a button-down white shirt, which is about the only kind of shirt he has, but he’s not wearing a tie. He’s wearing a jacket, but not a coat, or is it a coat he’s wearing and not a jacket? He’s not wearing a fancy coat for work with buttons that I’ve never seen him button. This coat has a zipper and is mostly for keeping out cold while the other is to make you look presentable in offices. My dad works in offices, so that’s why he usually wears that kind of coat.

The fly is wearing nothing, not that I can see anyway. It lifts up off the dashboard again and starts flying around the car. I follow it with my eyes, and then, I realize something. All of the air that’s inside the car is also moving down the road at speed plus ten. I could feel the outside air with my fingers when I stuck my fingers out the window. That air was moving past the car very quickly. Or, maybe, we were moving through it at speed plus ten. I guess that depends upon whether you think about it if you’re inside the car or outside the car.

Inside the car, we’re all moving together in a kind of little world enclosed by the windows, doors, and roof of the car. Inside our little world, the fly flies through the air that’s moving right along with us, almost as if it weren’t quite moving at all. If I opened all of the windows, which I wouldn’t do because I heard that sound in my dad’s voice, then the air from the outside would mix with the air from the inside and change how we were moving down the hill.

What it means is that as we’re driving down the hill, the car and all of its contents, including my dad, the fly, and me, as well as all of the air and everything else inside the car, are moving together without any regard to what’s going on outside. It’s like we’re in a different relationship to the world than the things outside the car.

Suddenly, I start talking. I can’t help it. I explain all of this to my father, the fly, the wind, the road, the relationship, and everything, without stopping. While I’m talking, the fly flies up, and my finger starts chasing him around as I explain that this shows what I’m talking about.

“When we’re in this car,” I say, finishing up, “we’re in a world that’s not part of the rest of the world, or not completely a part of it. We’re traveling in like a package that’s moving in… in… in…”

“A world relative to ours?” my dad offers.

“Yeah. Yeah! Everything in here is different relative to out there. We’ve taken air from up by home and are bringing it in this car somewhere else. While we’re doing that, we’ve got this different world in here that’s traveling at a different speed from everything else.”

“Yes,” he says. He’s smiling, almost chuckling. My dad’s a generally happy guy, but this feels different, almost like he’s trying not to laugh because he wants to laugh at me. He knows that I don’t make fun of his hair like everyone else does, including my mother, so I figure that he doesn’t want to make fun of me and is trying not to laugh at me.

“What?” I say.

“Nothing. It’s just…”

“What?”

“You’ve discovered the theory of relativity,” he says, and then laughs out loud. Hard.

I suddenly feel small. Stupid. Then, I think, he really sees me for a moment.

“Oh, no, I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing for you. Relativity is important. It’s an important thing to know, but most people don’t think about it like you just did. Hell, most people don’t even think about it at all.”

“What?” I say again, confused.

“I’ll explain it again.” And he did.

We never made it to the Space Needle that day. We went to a bookstore where he bought me a book about this guy named Einstein. He explained it to me the best way he could. Later, we’d end up at the library with books spread all over a table. After, we went to dinner. We got pizza and talked about all the things we read about.

It was my best birthday present ever.

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