Cars That Burn
Everyone said that the heat was nowhere near as oppressive as previous years. Every morning, the humidity dragged itself in from the marshy gardens, through the mosquito nets and towards the mattress. The discomfort in the bedroom was like being on fire and had to be put out by a hose from the neighbour’s house. Just before he woke up, his dreams became livid again and the events that happened the night before returned to him. For this man – symptom, loner, wanderer–, the mornings are strange and out of place.
Whilst he was going down the stairs from his house, the jobs with which his father had threatened him went through his head like ghosts: this beggar reading tarot cards on a bench in the square; this oaf selling bottles of water on the corner of Atlantic con Nostrand; this toad reading a book, thrown upon the sidewalk, covered with that rag that this animal trod on yesterday when he returned from work along the East 11; this guy falling, feeling the pavements of the city under his back; dirty streets burning under the sun.
The concretes boiling. Glare coming off the pavements and the smell that comes from the puddles formed by the swill from the waste trucks that cross city with their rugged workers. The pavements are slightly sticky. The people of the square already occupy the steps of their houses. Some have brought seats outside and are fanning themselves with the pages of a half read newspaper. Others switch on the water to refresh the plants and the mosses, that spread like a jungle over the fences and red brick walls.
He closes the gate behind him, carrying his heavy rucksack on his back. He thinks he hears the recriminations of his father in that practical voice of his, this man – the dog, Gringo, Waster – he can’t get it up.
For a moment the street is silent and the cicadas that have not stopped their droning in months appear. The beat of the brush was only an interlude: the engine of the bus, the intermittent beeps of the construction lorries in reverse, drilling into wet ears and the houses that now renew their facades with wealthier inhabitants. Meanwhile, only the screams of the people who chase the shadow of the oak trees, bare legs, shorts stuck up their buttocks, trousers that hang from the hips, tank tops, muscular pecks that abandon their shirts on the seats of their bicycles, the clothing always see-through from sweat, leafy hair plaited and tied up as far from their body as possible, all cooking under the sun. Nobody can escape.
This man – demented, transcendental – opens the car door and is hit with the smells of must given off by old things. He is forced to roll down the windows and check, circling the car, that no other pieces have come loose over night. Not another thing, right, dad? The leather seats, that one time gleamed but now seemed scaly like an armadillo, are airing. And when he can stand to put his bare legs against that greyish surface, he starts the engine, ducking his head a little. Shame runs through him slightly. Maybe nobody would notice, would they dad? The car fills with the smell of gasoline. He growls. It’s a miracle that the car even started, he had been told by the mechanic who fixed the dent just after he had bought it from its 26th owner, the one who had offered to fix that logo, reconstructing the O around the inverted Y that decorated the chassis, removing the coffee-coloured adhesive, changing the missing tyre, the missing wooden panels, painting the various scratches it must have got somewhere in some neighbourhood where a passerby had seen a millionaire to hate in that ’79 Mercedes. Who saw a proud family man, a father like his own, with children and shopping that would fill the boot where this guy, portraying the designs of his father, just kept a blanket and an orange cone for when his car would break down. This mirror, this metal. The same thing that had happened to the car, had happened to his father, portraying the designs of his son, the father had abandoned ship forever in a car just like this one, and maybe it even was this one. Now this man had this from both of them, along with a distant memory of a glittering suburb in a city known for its motor trade. Just watch out, tomorrow it might be you.
He focuses on the manoeuvre. It takes half an hour just to move it to the other side of the street. He does not look at anyone, even though he can feel their presence on the steps and the sidewalks. A blue tide seeps out from the exhaust making the children cough, old men swear and the kids in the neighbours attic cover their mouths. This guy – aggressive, scowling – pretends not to hear; inside he simply dedicates the expletives to that father he hardly knew, right?
It’s going to explode. He notices that even outside the dirty car windows, the world is smokier and more toxic. Don’t you think? It took him a while to make out the origin of that hoarse, raspy voice. Someone is sitting on the house steps next to him. One of their eyes covered by hair and the other half-closed and smudged with make-up. I don’t think. The colours flooded back into the street. The woman sitting on the steps, the neighbour with her notebook wipes the sweat from her hands onto the scrap of the trouser leg hanging off her and puts her stack of books under her arm as she gets up and goes back up the steps. Her fingers stained with ink. Have you taken it to the mechanic? Cars don’t give off blue smoke, she coughs. Who, under that beating sun, could possibly know more about cars than this guy – overconfident, crushed now -, his father, perhaps?