Veteris vestigia flammae
For many years, while I was living at home, an automobile could be for Father only a pipe dream, an Eldorado, a high-gloss lacquered mirage: his salary as an employee of the Municipal Cadaster was barely enough to pay for our rent and food, and yearly less than half the price of any car. Yet shortly after I left home and country, at twenty-three, to continue my studies in the North, I was informed by letter of his purchase of the least expensive model then available, a Renault Dauphine. How he had managed it, by what baroquely twisted method of payment, I did never precisely ascertain. In long installments, of course. And I suspected that the few thousand pesos Zeide left when he died, around that time, were used for money down, taxes, license plates, liability insurance, and other necessary expense
Father seldom wrote to me. Three letters in five years, as a matter of fact, after the announcement, referred to above, of the purchase of his Renault Dauphine. In the first of these letters, on the occasion of my having passed my Qualifying Exams in Nuclear Physics with honors, he dwelt at length on his car’s ailments, the vicissitudes of the brakes and the suspension system, and the failure of some engine mounts or rubber bushings which had brought the engine and the gear box to the verge of collapse, a catastrophe, thank God, narrowly averted. The letter ended, however, on a cheerful note: he had had something done to the cylinders – filed them, or brushed them – a grinding of valves and a shaving of heads I believe it was – something, in any case, that had increased the power of the engine to levels unexpected. The car was now “faster than a trombonist’s spittle,” to use his very words; faster, in fact, than the Gordini, which was the sportier, more expensive model of the same make. As for my exam, there was a reference to it in the postscript: “Keep up the good work,” signed: Dad.
About two years later I got my Ph.D., and having done some remarkable experiments with the new hadron collider, feeling (I guess in retrospect) that the times were propitious, life on the whole friendly and my future bright, within the fortnight I was married. Thus, with a single letter, Father was able to cover both events. Mother and he had drunk a whole bottle of champagne to celebrate the doubly memorable occasion; as for the news of the latest military coup, and the chit-chat about relatives and neighbors, “your mother, our official chronicler, will write about that: you know how I dislike small talk.”
The rest of the document, five pages in all, was devoted to his recent acquisition of a new automobile, a Rambler Classic. “An extraordinary, a truly formidable car,” were his words. In excruciating detail he described the vehicle and its minutest appointments, the various dealerships he had visited and what each salesman had said, how they had X-rayed and in how much they had appraised his old Renault Dauphine (which he had turned in as down payment for the new car), the service contract, the guarantee, the rates of interest adjustable for inflation. “Of course,” he concluded, “the monthly payments constitute a problem; but this car is well worth the sacrifice, believe me. If you could only see it, drive it, feel it!”
This letter irked me, I confess. I thought my degree, my high-energy experiments, and my marriage deserved somewhat more space. Also, partly because my mind was occupied with more exalted thoughts, hovering between conjugal love and rarefied science, partly too because in the United States cars were far more affordable than in my native land, and therefore less prodigiously treasured, and, finally, partly no doubt because of who knows what dark, unconscious feelings of jealousy on my part, I thought Father’s exclusive concern with cars was tasteless. I thought it was obsessive, bordering on the absurd, even on the imbecile, and I was deeply hurt by his apparent lack of interest in my brilliant possibilities.
Of course, I didn’t tell him that, but my reply must have been a little distant, and probably not enthusiastic enough about his new Rambler Classic, for I didn’t get anything from him for another two years. Until, that is, my daughter Phoebe was born.
“To celebrate the birth of my first grandchild” (thus began Father’s last letter) “I’ve traded in my old Rambler Classic for an amazing marvel: the new Rambler Ambassador.” There was no further mention of poor Phoebe, or of any other human being, for that matter. Only a long panegyric of the car and its Tornado Jet engine, six liters or so, totally new, more advanced, more powerful than the old one, etc., etc.
“The new monthly payments are going to hurt, no doubt, but anyway my old Classic needed new tires, new shocks, and re-upholstery of the front seat.” (So that was the reason behind the trade-in, and not, as he had claimed, the birth of my daughter). “When you come down, if you behave, if you are a really good son, and you ask please, pretty please, I’ll let you drive it a few blocks. You’ve never driven, I’m sure, anything like it before.”
I have quoted by heart, not too faithfully, I’m afraid. I haven’t saved this letter: I crumpled it and threw it in the trash as soon as I had finished reading it. But I do remember thinking: big deal. I remember thinking that had I wanted to, just on my Assistant Professor’s salary I could buy myself a Cadillac, a Lincoln or a Jaguar, and imagine where one of those would have left Father’s Rambler Ambassador. But I wasn’t interested in such things. My old Volkswagen interested me only as the usual means of conveying me from my apartment to my department and back, from home to my office at the University, that’s all.
A few months later Mother called me on the phone. Father had had an accident. Driving at night, back from some forlorn town where his cadastral or otherwise obscure activities had taken him, he had crashed his Rambler Ambassador against an unlit, slow-moving tractor. He would have to stay in bed motionless, in a full cast, for at least forty days.
That by itself was not enough to make me ask my chairman for a short leave of absence in order to visit my parents. The second call from Mother did it. Father wasn’t getting any better, apparently. He was still motionless in his full cast, and they were “kind of hard up.” Mother wouldn’t be more explicit on the phone, but when I tentatively asked did she think I should go, she replied: “I think so.”
The country was more dismally third world than I remembered, the people more provincial, and the potted geraniums on the front windowsill of our house wanner and fewer. The window itself, however, with the pale-blue shutters and the prim lace curtains, was exactly the same as in my memory: the window behind which Mother used to watch me play marbles or rag-ball soccer on the sidewalk with the neighborhood boys. I stood for a long while looking at that window, remembering my childhood, before I pressed the bell button.
They were, of course, very happy to see me, after such a long absence. Father was, as I expected, lying on his bed in his awesome white armor; not in the bedroom, though, his usual place, but in the living room, right by the front window: Mother had changed things around so that Father could amuse himself during the long and tedious hours of his confinement, propped on the pillows, watching the street. Actually, he reminded me not so much of a white knight as of a bagworm. He greeted me with: “What were you doing there, on the sidewalk, open mouthed, staring at my window before you rang, uh?”
As for Mother, no sooner the first kisses and pleasantries exchanged, she took me aside, to the kitchen, and informed me of the situation. It was, to put it mildly, desperate. Debts were monstrously piling up – the medical expenses, and worse still, the automotive repair expenses – the ever mounting inflation made a bad joke of any insurance policy. The car, which was still in the repair shop, had “sucked everything up, burned up every hope and consumed our last cent,” Mother said. There was no alternative: I had to pick the car at the shop (for Mother didn’t drive) and then convince Father to sell it and buy instead, later on, if need be, a much more economical model – a used Renault Dauphine, Mother suggested.
First things first, I decided, and the first thing obviously was to bring the car home. I asked Father for the necessary papers, which he took from a box by his bedside, and handing them to me, admonished me to make sure they had fixed the car well, and above all, to be very careful and drive it safely back, for, he said, he was planning to trade it for a brand-new juggernaut – something called a Torino, or a Milano, or a Stromboli: I don’t remember exactly.
It was before noon when I left and waved my hand, from the street, to Father at the window, but what with the backbreaking bus trip to the other side of town, the long wait at the shop, the many precautions before I started back, and the extreme prudence and slowness which I used driving home (for I had lost my practice with the mad, headlong onslaught those people call driving), it was late in the afternoon when I finally pulled over to the curb under the friendly shade of the acacias. I threw a glance at Father’s window. Now would come the most difficult part, I knew: persuading him to sell his four-wheeled treasure and be content with a cheaper, smaller car.
But on second thought: a car, what for? One thing this town could boast of was excellent public transportation: Father should do his travelling by bus. Oh, it wouldn’t be easy to persuade him: he was like a spoiled child, that much was clear, taking his dreams for reality, unable to assume responsibility. But wasn’t this precisely what I was here for, to assume responsibility? Yes, whether or not he let himself be persuaded, and no matter his objections, his wrangling and wriggling inside his hardened case, I, his son, had to take charge now, and do what was reasonable: it was my duty.
With that crystalized determination, I turned the ignition off. Immediately smoke appeared from under the dashboard, and the smell of burning cables. I rushed out, threw the hood open: the engine was on fire. I looked inside the car, found no extinguisher. I looked around, on the ground, the curb, the sidewalk: nothing to smother the flames under. They were higher now, reaching up to the open hood and raising blisters in the paint. In desperation, I ran up and down the street, screaming for help. No one answered my calls. Not a soul in the streets; the city seemed deserted.
This happened long ago, when I was still young, still strong. If on almost any day of the year you happen to visit Purview College (a short drive from New York City, up along the Hudson), you may think, you could say you have seen me, perhaps teaching a class, perhaps working with my colleagues in the Physics lab, or walking on the graveled alleyways of the cozy, brick-and-ivy campus. You could say it, and it would be true, but only in part. For although my voice has become weak and I can hardly run anymore, I’ve never left those empty streets of my childhood; I still run – I still drag myself – by night and by day, crying for help, around the smoldering chassis and the twisted frame.
R. Nirenberg is an editor of Offcourse