by Pedro Mairal
(from the short story book titled "Hoy temprano", Clarín Aguilar, 2001)
(translation: Panorama Magazine)
(translation: Panorama Magazine)
We leave early. Dad has a reacently purchased maroon Peugeot 404. I climb up into the space next to the rear windshield and lie down lengthwise. I’m comfortable there. I like to be up against the back window since I can sleep. I’m always happy when we spend the week-end at the villa, because at the apartment in town, all I do all week es kick a tennis ball around the patio in the light well on top of the garage, a patio set between four very high party walls stained with soot from the incinerators. When I look up, the patio feels like it’s inside a chimney; when I yell, the noise barely rises and does not touch the square of sky. The trip to the villa takes me out of that well.
There is little traffic on the road, perhaps because it is Saturday, or perhaps because there are still not many cars in Buenos Aires. I bring along a Matchbox car, a jar for catching insects, as well as some crayons that I arrange by size and that I mustn’t leave in the sun because they will melt. No one seems to think it is dangerous for me to lie down next to the rear windshield. I like the protective corner formed by the rear window, next to the sporting goods store decal. Along the way, I look at the front ends of cars because they look like faces; the headlights are eyes, the feders are mustaches and the grills are mouths and teeth. Some cars have kind faces, others have evil ones. My brother and sister like me to ride up near the rear window since this leaves more room for them.
I don’t ride in the seat until further along the way, when it is too hot or later when I’ve grown a little and don’t fit in the rear window anymore. We drive down a long avenue. I don’t know if it’s because of the many stoplights, but we go slowly. After some years of use, the Peugeot is a little rickety; the exhaust pipe hangs loose and you have to shout to be heard; also, one of the rear doors sags and Mom tied it with string from Miguel’s kite.
The trip is really long, especially since the stoplights are not synchronyzed. We fight over the window; no one of us three wants to go in the middle. Along General Paz Avenue we take turns sticking our heads out the window while wearing Vicky’s goggles so the wind doesn’t make our eyes water. Mom and Dad don’t say anything, exept when we pass by the police, and then we have to sit up straight and be quiet. When we’ve moved on to the Renault 12, a bunch of Miguel`s figures of professional wrestlers flies out the window and Dad stops on the shoulder of the road to pick them up because Miguel is screaming like a maniac. I see two soldiers suddently approach, pointing their machine guns at us and saying that we are in a military zone. They ask Dad questions, pat him down for weapons, check his papers and make us go on, leaving the scattered figures behind, including the one signed by Martín Karadagián.
Dad looks for classical music on the radio and sometimes he manages to tune in the Sodre station. We are kicking each other in the back seat when suddently Dad turns up the volume and says, “Listen to this”, and we have to be quiet and stop in the middle of a judo hold to listen to part of an aria or an adagio. When cars come equipped with tape players, Mozart rules the trip to the villa. We watch the long road unfurl behind us as we see the pruned trees with white-painted trunks, and we listen to string quintets, symphonies, piano concertos and operas.
Vicky leads the revolt, using our favorite chant to drown out the sopranos singing the Wedding of Figaro or Don Giovanni: “We wanna eat, we wanna eat, dried blood and rotten meat…” But later Vicky begins to bring books on the trip and she reads them in silence, paying no attention to anyone. She gets angrier and angrier about having to come. In the end, she gets permission to stay in town on the weekends to go to the movies with her friends, who already go out with boys. Miguel and I are each guaranteed a window even if we invite a friend.
It seems like we will never arrive. There are long waits along the way while Mom buys garden furniture or plants, taking advantage of the fact that Dad stayed home to work. In the back seat, Miguel and I play at seeing who can hold his breath the longest. We take turns covering the opening of each other’s snorkel so no one can cheat. Or we impovise a game of paddleball with a wad of paper and a couple of swim fins. We wait so long that Tania begins to bark, because she can no longer stand being shut up in the back of the Falcon Rural we have after the Reanult. Mom reappears with plants or flowerpots or some piece of furniture that has to be tied to the roof, and we drive on.
Miguel invites along a succession of friends. I watch with astonishment and a perverse anxiety because I know that when we arrive, they will fall into the traps that Miguel always prepares: the dead rat in the guest’s rubber boots, the ghost in the shed, the fake killer pigs, the pit hidden by leaves and branches next to the row of palm trees visible from the house. Inside the car stuck in mid-morning traffic, I look at Miguel’s friends and I savor evil for the first time. I prefer the arrogant and conceited ones, because I know they will be even more humillated by the traps in wich, in a vague and sideways fashion, I help to make them fall.
When they finish the first stretch of the highway and start to charge tolls, traffic improves. Vicky travels on her own with friends who have cars. Dad rearly comes anymore. While Mom drives the rattletrap Rural, Miguel uses my drawing pad to scribble plans and invent schemes for spying on Vicky’s friends when they change clothes. Miguel begins to come less often, and I have the whole back seat to sleep in. Mom stops and wakes me up to put water in the radiator, wich leaks and overheats the engine. We buy a watermelon along the way.
There used to be just one or two street vendors at the train crossing gates; now there are aputees and disabled people begging and other people selling magazines, balls, pens, tools and dolls. People also ask for spare change or sell flowers and cans of soft drinks at the stoplights in the town we pass trough. Dad’s Ford Sierra is a company car that has power locks, and since Miguel was robbed not long ago, Mom makes me lock the doors and close the windows at the stoplights since she is afraid of the vendors. She says they press in on her, and besides, Duque might bite them. Later on, air conditioning gives us an excuse to travel with the windows closed. The car becomes a safty capsule with its own microclimate. Outside, there is more and more trash, more and more political graffiti. Inside, the music sounds cleanly in the new stereo and Mom patiently puts up with my tapes of Soda Stereo or The Police.
The car is faster and it always seems like we are just about to arrive, especially when I start to drive, since I step up the speed without Mom realizing it; she sits calmly in the passenger seat using the mirror to study her latest facelift, which has pulled the skin backward as if it was an effect of the acceleration. After Dad’s death, Mom prefers Miguel to drive; he has returned like the prodigal son because Vicky is living in Boston. The route fades as I drive the yellow Taurus belonging to Chino’s father. We close the windows, not because we’re afraid of being robbed, but so as no not dilute the marijuana smoke.
We listen to “Wild Horses” and there are moments that achieve an almost spiritual quality when the fast road slows into serenity across the vast, flat landscape. Later, I drive Gabriela’s mother’s car, which luckily rus on diesel, so the outings we take during the week to be alone for a while don’t cost too much. There is already talk of expropiation, but it is just a hint. Two more goverments will come and go. Gabriela wears short dresses that make me drive with one hand and caress her thighs with the other, running my hand slowly up from her knees. I leave the engine in high gear. Gabriela whispers in my ear to take it easy, we can wait until we arrive. The trip has never seemed so long. The villa is far away, out of reach.
Gabriela’s belly begins to swell and we travel together seeking a semblance of family life. We take the Volkswagen her brother lends us. Nowadays we use seat belts. We begin to fear for death –there are only a few more miles to go. The years race by even faster. There are many more cars on the road and more tolls. They are finishing the high way. We stop at a service station, and we argue. Gabriela cries in the bathroom. I have to ask her to come out. Afterwards, we buy a car seat for Violeta, and tiny and sleepy, she rides in the back seat, also wearing a seat belt. The three of us tied down.
I step on the gas because I want to make it in time for lunch. Gabriela says it dosen’t matter; we can stop at a McDonald`s. We argue. Gabriela sneers at me. I put on my dark glasses and accelerate. I use the trip to listen to demos of radio and jingles. I grip the steering wheel of the Escort. Almost there. Gabriela asks me to slow down, then she stops coming; she takes Violeta to her mother’s on the weekends. I drive by myself and listen to Mozart piano concertos on CDs with perfect sound. The engine of the 4x4 makes no noise. The highway is finished ande there are wire fences along the sides to prevent people from crossing.
I drive in the fast lane. I look at the speedometer: 100 miles an hour. Soon I will come to the exact spot. From the distance, I see the three palm trees and I wait until they line up. They come closer and I come closer, closer, until the first palm tree hides the other two and I say “here”. I feel like I’m shouting, but I’m actually speaking softly. I say it at the exact point where the house stood before the expropiation, before it was demolished and they built the highway over it.
For a millisecond, I feel like I’m inside the rooms, on the bed were Miguel and I played at pro wrestling. I pass by the graves of Tania and Duque among Mom’s plants; I pass through a damp metallic smell, through a taste of green plums tossed in the bottom of the pool for me to dive for later. I feel the fear of seeing the snake that emerged when we turned over a piece of metal. I feel the rainy night when we tried to aim a ball through the only broken pane of the window in order to force ourselves to search for it by flashlight among the toads and puddles.
Now there is only the incessant roar of cars passing over the ghost of the house. It is exactly twelve noon and the sun glitters on the asphalt. I am a divorced man, a publicist going for the first time to his brother’s house in a gated community, a man who doesn’t know how to stop and continues traveling in a car that left early this morning, a long time ago, when he was small enough to lie down in the back window.