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Men and Cars (3)
by Adrian Chamberlain

It was raining. There was no overhead light in the Alfa, so Ted had to pull over to read his map by the yellow glow of the glove-box light. As he bent over, an icy trickle slid down the back on his neck. The canvas convertible top was leaky. What’s more, the engine’s purr had turned hoarse and unpleasantly throaty in the downpour.

At the door of a beige stucco house Ted was greeted by Aldo’s mother and father, who were short and finely wrinkled. “Welcome, welcome,” they said with thick accents, the father beckoning with stubby fat hands. The room was dark, tropically humid and smelled strongly of garlic. In the background Aldo hovered uneasily, making introductions. Ted was surprised to meet his wife—he’d assumed the solitary mechanic was unmarried. His wife clasped his hand with slim white fingers, silently gazing at him. Her hair was squished tight and high on her head, like a beehive, but not quite. Ted was pretty sure this sort of hairdo hadn’t been fashionable for at least 20 years.

In the living room, Aldo's children watched a Bugs Bunny cartoon on a television encased in a heavy, 1970s-style wooden cabinet. Ted had never seen these children before. The volume was terrifically loud, the kids didn’t so much as turn around. On top of the television was a porcelain Christ figure, wounds welling burgundy blood. A large wooden cross hung on the wall, and beside it, a framed picture. He peered at the print—a grim-faced man carried a haloed child on his back across a river. He was startled by a yank at his sleeve.

“Christopher del san!” said a grinning man.

“Sorry?” said Ted.

“Christopher del san! Christ bearer! Christ bearer!” he said, nodding enthusiastically and jabbing a finger at the picture.The man was in his 60s, with suspiciously black hair slicked back in the manner of a 1930s movie idol.

The TV blared. “What’s up, doc?” said Bugs Bunny, his voice elevated to a nasal shout. Aldo introduced the man, who turned out to be his uncle Lorenzo, the dancer.

“He’s telling you it’s Saint Christopher,” said Aldo in an irritated way, as though Ted had been arguing the opposite. Lorenzo jerked his head up and down once again.

“Christopher de san. He, ah, bear the solid of the world on his own body,” said the Italian dancer.

“The solid ...?” said Ted.

“The, ah, solid. He bear, you know.... the, uh, weight,” said Lorenzo, his face radiant upon finding the right English word.
Ted had no idea what Uncle Lozenzo was talking about. Trying to regain his composure, he took his tape-recorder from his briefcase, set it on the coffee table, and arranged Lorenzo and his wife around it. The familiar ritual calmed him.

“How long have you been dancing?” he asked. Lorenzo looked puzzled and turned to Aldo.

A lengthy discourse in Italian ensued, then Lorenzo replied, beaming: “A fifteen years.” Ted’s legs immediately felt weak, as though someone had sewn weights into the backs of his calves. Outside the rain thundered like a monsoon. Indoors the steamed-over windows perspired in rivulets. Ted noticed the couch was patterned with large ugly roses resembling brown cabbages; the odour of garlic was overpowering. He remembered how he’d felt as a small child, visiting the houses of his parents’ elderly friends that often smelled of mothballs and old cooking. The back cushion of the couch—the part where
heads might rest—was dark with oil.

The interview continued with Ted asking questions, hardly caring about the answers. Each query was directed to Aldo, who, after a long dialogue, dispensed a curt response in English. His translations seemed only tenuously connected to what had been asked; Ted imagined pieces of fluttering white string dancing in a sunlit sky.

“Is ballroom dancing especially popular in Italy then?” he asked.

Aldo, after a minute, replied, “Uh, for the Italians - for the Italian people, the cha-cha is like a social dance. It’s part of the street scene, like, you know, the drinking of cappucino after dark.”
“What do you do for a living?” asked Ted after regarding Aldo for a moment.

“He's a retired policeman,” said Aldo who, after further discussion, added, “but they don’t want you to put that in the newspaper.”

After 20 minutes, Ted declared the interview to be over. He flicked off his tape-recorder. He nodded at the beaming Lorenzo, who grinned like he’d just won a small but sweet lottery winfall. His sallow complexioned wife, Angelina, had said almost nothing. What initial enthusiasm she might have had for the interview had deflated to sulleness. Ted saw her hair was bleached orange-blonde, with big black roots. Deep lines framed her cheekbones. Her flesh seemed slack on his face, loose on her body. She was much older than he’d first imagined.

Aldo's mother came into the room, arms held up in a fleshy Y.
“Come now. It is time to eat.”

Ted realized, for the first time, that the table was set for a formal dinner. There was a lace tablecloth and crystal wine glasses. Aldo hadn’t said anything about this. He’d eaten hugely before coming here, wolfing down a double cheeseburger and fries at a fast food restaurant. As Ted was shown his place, his plate was heaped with steaming ravioli and red sauce. Aldo’s mother explained it was made from an age-old recipe concocted by his grandmother. He had not noticed her before, but sure enough, a tiny ancient woman in black—so wrinkled as to resemble one of those apple head dolls—now emerged from kitchen as though on cue. He smiled, nodded, and surveyed the feast before him.

He was not hungry at all.

The family chattered and ate, tearing off chunks from a white loaf. Over 20 minutes, Ted carefully swallowed a dozen squares of ravioli, sweating in the steaming dining room. He surreptitiously lifted his right leg—his trousers clung to his skin. Ted imagined his stomach as a pink sausage skin becoming stuffed tighter and tighter. On the television set, visible from the table, a Roadrunner cartoon was playing. The coyote plummeted off a cliff in a little blue car while holding an umbrella, became a pancake, then expanded like an accordion. Ted took a large swig of homemade wine and felt the tips of his ears glow red. Behind his eyes two pockets of headache pushed out.

Aldo's mother and father related the exploits of the children with pride. One had fallen off his bicycle and not cried a single tear. Another read well, devouring book after book. Aldo chipped in with the occasional remark, methodically chewing through his plate of ravioli. His wife said nothing, her beehived head inclined gravely. Ted wondered if he had offended her, but how? The kids ignored the adults, devouring bread, swigging purple Italian soda and swivelling their heads towards the TV set at the sound of explosions or the roadrunner’s puckering call. Meanwhile, Ted’s opinion on any number of subjects was solicited. Did he think the interview would make a good article? Did he enjoy his ravioli? Was he married? Did he think that Italian cars—the Alfa—were the best? Yes? Good man. Eat. Eat.

After an hour Ted felt about to burst. With great effort, he’d consumed half of the food on his plate. He tried to arrange his remaining ravioli squares to make it appear he’d eaten more. The red wine had surged to his cheeks and a dull roar now pounded in his ears. The humid cloak of steam and heavy garlic made his stomach curdle. Oh, to be outside in the cool rain! His heart began to beat quickly. It now seemed people were looking at him expectantly, curiously. Ted kept talking, hoping to say the right thing—anything—that would satisfy them.

He met Aldo's mournful eyes, and Lorenzo’s ingratiating grin. Even the grandmother, who’s spoken not a word of English, peered at him through ancient hooded lids, as though the dinner guest was scheduled to make announcement that would prove her salvation.

Throughout this, Ted found himself thinking of something else. Earlier that day, alone in his house, he had sorted through a cardboard box of papers in the basement. It contained old yellowed journal written by his father during the Second World War. He had served in India, stationed with a British battalion facing Japanese-occupied Burma. Ted had never seen the journal before.

In one entry, his father wrote of clambering up a hill one morning to get a view from above. Although early, it was already very hot, and the air smelled of the red Indian soil. At the top of the hill, Ted’s father found some abandoned trenches, newly dug. He was enjoying the view when he heard the muffled pop of a mortar. Before he knew it, bombs were exploding all around him. It was as though like the air was ripping into pieces. He flung himself into a trench and pressed himself to the earth until the bombs stopped.Then he crawled away, coated in red dust. A Japanese lookout had spotted him and initiated the mortar attack, believing British troops were moving in.

His father had never spoken of the war .Never.Ted wondered what it would feel like to be crawling through the hot trenches of a foreign country while strangers tried to steal your life. He imagined the dust on his skin and the sky-tearing shriek of mortars over his head.

He rose suddenly from the table. One of the soda water bottles teetered dangerously, then tipped over.

“I can’t....”

Everyone looked up at him, even the children. Purple soda glugged from a bottle.

“I’m sorry” said Ted. “It’s, you know... I’m just ... It’s so hot in here.”

He mumbled further words of apology that tumbled and fell as he squeezed around the backs of chairs, his face burning, his throat aching. He took his briefcase from the coffee-table and pulled open the front door. The voices and smells disappeared. The rain had stopped, and through the misty night air Ted could see swirls of white-hot stars. He got into his car and turned the key.

The traffic light was red. He failed to notice, though, and the Alfa Romeo didn’t slow. A pickup truck—sailed silently across his path. There was a tremendous metallic snap and then Ted—now fully awake, now unquestionably aware—watched thoughtfully as his front bumper spiralled silently through the dark winter sky. It was silver, he thought happily, just like the moon.

And then he stepped lightly out of his car.

We don't know. We are not sure. But look here. This could well be the best damn thing Adrian Chamberlain has ever written


Part three of three.

Part one of three.

Part two of three.


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