from Cars on Fire
People always said heat waves weren’t what they used to be. Every morning the humidity crawled in from the swampy gardens, seeping through the mosquito nets and into the mattress. The bedroom’s discomfort would ignite and he’d have to put it out with the hose from the house next door. Just before waking, his dreams would turn vivid and continue whatever had happened the night before. This-guy—symptom, loner, trudger—thinks mornings are strange, out of place.
As he descends the stairs, he’s met with the occupations his father used to threaten him with, like a line-up of ghosts: this-beggar reading tarot cards on a bench in the square; this-numbskull selling water bottles on the corner of Atlantic and Nostrand; this-busybody reading a book, sprawled out on the sidewalk, covered with that blanket that this-guy, this animal, stepped on yesterday as he made his way home from work on East 11th; this-guy falling, feeling the city’s pavement under his back; dirty streets scorching in the sun.
The concrete boils. He sees it in the celestial wakes that rise up from the asphalt and the smell emanating from the pee-puddles trailed by the garbage trucks as they cut across the city with their sculptural workers on board. The sidewalks are vaguely sticky. The block-dwellers now occupy their front steps. Some have brought out chairs and fan themselves with the pages of half-read newspapers. Others water the plants to refresh them, and even the moss that reaches like a jungle up through the fence and the red brick walls. He closes the gate behind him, a heavy backpack slung over his shoulder. He seems to be hearing his father’s recriminations, his practical voice. This-guy—dog, gringo, milksop—can’t bear it.
The street is silent for a moment before the cicadas chime in again; they’ve been complaining for months now. The interjected rip-rip sound of the broom was only an interlude: a bus, the beeps of construction trucks in reverse as they drill into wet ears and houses with renovated façades and wealthier inhabitants. Meanwhile, the shouts of people seeking shade beneath the elms, bare feet, shorts clinging to ass-cracks, pants hanging from hips, sleeveless t’s, muscled chests abandoning their shirts atop their bicycle seats, clothes translucent with sweat, thick braided hair gathered as far away from their bodies as possible, which cook in the sun. No one is spared.
This-guy—demented, transcendental—opens the car door and slams into the dense smell of old things. He is forced to lower the windows and confirm, circling the car, that nothing has come loose during the night. Not a single piece, right, Dad? The once-gleaming leather seats, now looking more like armadillo scales, start to air out. And as soon as he can bear touching his bare legs to the grayish surface, he starts the ignition, hiding his face. Shame sweeps through him a little. Maybe no one would notice, huh, Dad? The smell of gasoline fills the car. He grunts. Almost a miracle that the car starts at all, said the mechanic who’d fixed the dent just after he bought the car directly from its twenty-sixth owner, the one who offered to repair the mark, mend the o around the inverted y decorating the chassis, remove the brown stickiness slicked across it, replace the lost tire, the missing wood panels, paint over the scratches keyed onto it (who knows where or in what neighborhood) by some passer-by who’d glanced at the ’79 Mercedes and seen a millionaire to be despised. Who’d seen a proud family man, a father like his own, with children and purchases filling the trunk where this-guy, reneging on his father’s designs, now keeps a blanket and an orange traffic cone in case he gets stuck somewhere. This mirror, this metal. What had happened with the car had also happened with the father: reneging on the son’s designs, he had departed forever in a car like this car, perhaps the very same. Both car and father, then, had left him with a vague memory of a snazzy suburb in a city booming with the automotive industry. Just watch out. Tomorrow it might be you.
He focuses on the maneuver. It takes half an hour just to move it to the other side of the road. He doesn’t look at anyone, although he notes their presence on the stoops and sidewalks. A blue tide surges from the hot exhaust pipe and it makes children cough, old men curse, and youths cover their mouths in the attic of the house next door. This-guy—violent, crease-browed—pretends he doesn’t hear them; he’s dedicating his own internal insults to the father he barely knew. Right?
It’s going to explode. Outside the car’s grimy windows, he confirms, the world looks even hazier and more toxic. Doan yu theenk? He struggled to fix his eyes on the origin of the hoarse, forced voice. A body seated on the stoop of the house next door. One of its eyes obscured by hair, the other half-closed and streaked with makeup melted in the heat. I don’t think so. The colors reappear along the road. The woman sitting on the stoop, the notebook-neighbor, wipes the sweat from her hand on the piece of pant-leg hanging from her thigh and tucks her piled-up books under her arm when she gets to her feet and climbs the stairs. Her fingers are stained with ink. Have you taken it to the shop? Cars aren’t supposed to give off blue smoke, she coughs. Who, beneath this heavy sun, could possibly know more about cars than this-guy—foppish, pinched. His father, perhaps.
At a table in the library, he rereads a novel about an urban project that transforms a dilapidated industrial city into a model city occupied by artists. According to the narrator’s plan, each artist would be assigned a bedroom and studio in the old buildings, refurbished with a rich state’s cash, as befitting their experience and résumé. Artists would come to this model city wearing only the clothes on their backs and would be provided with everything else, and likewise would be obliged to construct everything else. In their role, which would fall somewhere between creation and unemployment, the artists would receive paltry salaries until they managed to establish themselves. He’s flooded with laughter as he reads. A real man is a working man, right, Dad? He makes a note on his computer: after the successive failures of automotive industry, the US can be interpreted as model of failed hyper-industrialization, with an income equality typical of poor countries. A country that belongs to two worlds, both colonial and imperial. Does the novel suggest that there’s something respectable about being unemployed? He stops typing at the memory of a termination letter, an empty job, a suburban garage with no car in it.
When he gets home, various neighbors are chatting from their front porches, calling over their gates. Asked about his writing, this-guy offers a vague answer, determined to obscure his doubts as to whether two years of solitary interpretative work on Detroit’s automotive industry could make any sense to anyone other than himself. They inform him that the neighbor is also writing her doctoral dissertation. Then, gesturing across the street, they mention that the couple who recently moved into #1454 are writers, too, and swimming in money. They look at the dark façade, suddenly more ornate under the construction tarps than anyone had ever seen. The neighborhood is, then, the model city. Isn’t it? Its small quarters and floor-divisions serve only to lodge the pencil-artists who need nothing more than a desk and a window. This-guy—corrosive, vegetal—gives a final glance at the moving van before saying goodbye and going in.
He peers attentively into the screen. Perhaps the true protagonists of Lelouch’s 1966 film Un homme et une femme are not in fact the characters played by Anouk Aimée and Jean-Louis Trintignant, but rather the car, its speed, the rain. They’re damaged souls. A Formula 1 driver races along French highways and into the arms of the woman he’s been romancing. Both are recently widowed. Her husband had worked as a stunt double and was killed filming a car sequence; his wife, increasingly distressed every time he took the wheel, had committed suicide. Condemned to repeat their trauma, much of the film involves the racecar driver traversing the distance and a harsh atmosphere evolving between him and his new love. Death inhabits the past; death approaches with its foot on the gas. The racecar driver, however, reaches his destination in his supercar—the latest model Alfa Romeo—that will plunge off a cliff at the toss of a stone.
At night, this lost soul, this animal in heat, dreams he is carrying on a conversation with his neighbor in which she argues that writing a dissertation could become a method of automatic writing, as practiced by the surrealists and other artists obsessed with the subconscious, if it could access the part of the subconscious that retains empty forms over and over again. In the dream, the neighbor explains her theory by sketching a brain with blue pen. This-guy feels the pressure against his temples. Instead of unleashing the imagination, her hoarse voice continues, you enter a place full of lugares comunes. The drawing is now a turban heaped with flowers, pineapples, other fruits, the one Carmen Miranda wore in the movie about Rio de Janeiro, or about Havana, or about anyplace with dark skin, red lips, a flat belly, and a Latin accent, like the neighbor’s. The dream features young women who have been trained to say, in English, Americans always say my hat is high.
He wakes with a headache. When he sees the neighbor eating a banana, this-guy—small, drowsy with heat and insomnia—thinks of her strong accent. In Detroit it was cars; in Brazil, bananas and women. Don’t you think something interesting could be written about this? Gud moarning. That evening, she would write a chapter about the guy who would speak to her in a distant dream. Carmen Miranda was catapulted to fame in a dress characteristic of northern Brazil. Her physique was convenient: fair skin, almond-shaped eyes, perfect smile; the perfect banana da terra. The lady with the tutti frutti hat. Despite her millions, Carmen Miranda tried to escape the stereotype. But, as usual, the pact wasn’t quite so easily broken. World War Two suppressed the national appetite for exoticism, replacing this business with the white-skinned arms trade.
He pauses beside the window of the rattletrap. This-guy—docile, eternal son—keeps his eyes on the ground. The battered bumper. The yellow paint like a wayside shrine from another era. The blue blankets disheveled in the trunk, expelling a smell of forest and pasture. This shit’s gonna explode. The hot coffee searing his tongue, but not as hot as his neighbor’s attic, where she swims in books and movies. Earbuds always in her ears. A little notebook where she writes things down.
The conversation gets off to a vague start. This-guy—very quiet in the corner—fucking hates cars. He’s going to put this personal anecdote in the first pages of the introduction. He was born the same year Saddam Hussein received the keys to the city of Detroit. His father worked in one of the offices on the outskirts. He earned good money until he fell prey to a mass layoff. The house in the suburbs started to come apart at the seams with a despondent father inside it. Don’t you believe me? His voice is a thin thread. This-guy barely remembers him except for the ’79 car he bought in hopes of it being the one that once belonged to his father, repairing it in hopes of repairing his memory of his father. This-guy—stereotypical, automatic—would write the best academic article.
The fountain-pen-resting-on-the-marble-table-neighbor, the coffee-cup-neighbor, tells him she’s writing about people who travel by plane. One woman, pen in hand, took a flight to keep from disappearing like the people in her novels. A few years before, she’d shattered a champagne glass in her hands after feeling humiliated by an award she hadn’t received: it had been promised to her; it was, as they say, cooking. But she was never much of a cook, you know? Then she’d fired a gun she always carried around in one of her patent leather purses, a gun with a crystal handle that she fixed on an old boyfriend she hadn’t seen in a decade. She came to Nu Yoark in 1944, this Bombal woman. She changed her hairstyle and avoided looking at herself in the mirror because it called her Luisa and it called her María. She only allowed people to take photos of her in places where she’d already located a small glass within her field of vision; it contained, according to her, a small dram of her health. She picked up a pen and got married. What else could she do with that exquisite education and the absent mother she bore like a transparent, ghostly body? Maybe in California, or here in New York, her pen could set the limits she’d so struggled to describe, constantly repeating the word Luisa, the word María from afar. She could even marry a count who would give her a noble daughter; she could even write a screenplay that the count would sell. But in the end she just went back to Chile, without a pen and with various broken glasses.
This-guy—scrawny, foul-smelling—and the coffee-cup-carrying-neighbor now make their way toward the art gallery. As a teenager, this-guy, this piece of garbage, spent lots of time with his friends in abandoned suburban houses, spray-painting and sometimes destroying them with machetes and fists, music and beer. His drawings always depicted car parts, just like the Peruvian artist who had part of a car in half his studio. When this-guy tells the coffee-cup-neighbor and the car-parts-artist that he writes about the automotive industry and unions in Detroit, the paintings-man tells him that his agent had bought an entire neighborhood there. To found an artist’s residency. Every house cost him a dollar and he pays the property tax in artworks.
This-guy—singular, enchained—walks around the gallery, observing the pieces on the shelves. It’s as if he were looking through his father’s eyes. This-guy zipping up his pants in the bathroom, brushing a hand across his face in the mirror, brown socks. Taking out the trash, a line of black garbage bags accumulating on the sidewalk in front of identical houses painted different colors. Doing the numbers with a five-dollar calculator, his fingers laced in his black curls, sweaty and slick. Sitting on the subway with half a cheek turned outward, about to get up at any moment. Dialing an always-busy phone number and eventually leaving a hesitant message. Later, scraping shit from a shoe, wondering what the fuck he’s doing at 11 p.m. when the neighbors greet him with a shoe covered in shit. Spying on the neighbor on the stairs of the house next door from his own window, imagining her: the neighbor squeezing toothpaste onto a toothbrush, the neighbor walking down the street, the neighbor stopping in front of a stained glass window, sitting down after pulling out several boxes of books. This-guy drinking coffee in the middle of summer, reading on the subway, in the house of the neighbor who has no family in this country. And this-guy, who does he think he is?
At nearly a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, the metal seems alive. And so this good-for-nothing leaves it stranded in the middle of the road again. The rolled-down windows and uttered insults make him lower his eyes. His white muscles try to move it a few centimeters toward the sidewalk. Isn’t that better, Dad? The men who linger in the street every day, the men this popinjay doesn’t so much as wave at, stare at him from a distance without altering their day’s affairs, their impalpable commerce. The strength of such arms would move this car like a feather. Library body, he hears like a whisper. It was bound to happen. The tow truck guy sits for several minutes in the driver’s seat, texting, despite the horns blasting on both sides of Dean Street. This-guy—chicken-skin—is getting anxious, tormented by the pages he’s stopped writing. Maybe it’s time to sell it. The sentence hits him with a drop of acrid sweat. The hoarse voice reads his mind. The neighbor appears with her short-shorts, skinny legs, belly bared, damp shirt, bag on her shoulder, an expression somewhere between irony and concern. It was bound to happen.
They watch the operation in silence. In Chile, we could get in with him or go in your car. They stop a green cab. This-guy opens the door for her and immediately regrets it a little, is a little ashamed of such chivalry. Don’t you think? The neighbor watches him count his bills and warily chews her gum. Her gaze shifts as she maybe wonders why she offered to come along and whether she can still get out before things get weird. This-guy—foggy, firm—tells her he can’t sell it, no one would buy it anymore. It was never expensive, he clarifies at the jobless neighbor’s incredulous look. Typical. Look at this-guy. In Detroit, buying a German car was read as an act of defiance. This model has electric windows, a sliding roof, air-conditioning, interlayered windshields, a collapsible steering column, central locking, an electric mirror on the driver’s side, automatic transmission.
This-guy—who doesn’t take his eyes from the driver in front of him—talks incessantly the entire way, unsure whether the sweaty-skinned neighbor is listening. The inverted-y turbo diesel model appeared in 1979, a novelty for this kind of family car. Its six-cylinder 0M167 engine has a 125-horsepower capacity, like this one, exceeding 320 kilometers per hour on test drives. The model, which can accommodate a stroller, was designed for suburban life and fantasies of far-off travel. At 179 centimeters wide and 149 centimeters high, it leaves a lot of space for its seven possible passengers. The roof rack measures a little over one square meter. The body is steel and the fuel tank is located above the rear axle. Its design ensures the very highest safety standards, right, Dad? It absorbs shocks and enables maximum visibility in all directions. It saves the lives of young bourgeois families, offering a soft-close mechanism with child-proofable pin locks on the doors and panoramic windows. The broad bumpers, embellished with elastic material and wide rubber edges, complete the design. The glory of days past. So what was your father like?
The heat falls onto them and sears their skin. The notebook-neighbor shields herself with a copy of El Especialito that she’d pulled from the newspaper dispenser on the corner. Looking out onto the street, she lets the flitting heat-stunned bugs alight on her arms. Even smashing them would be too much work. This-guy—he who seeks the remnants of his manliness—thinks as he closes his wallet that he should probably shoo them away, shouldn’t he, Dad? What are the chances of a man forever shattered by a father’s absence? This-guy thinks of Roberta, who was traveling around Denmark the last time they spoke. I didn’t know we’d come all the way to Jersey City. The neighbor’s forced, almost sleepy voice seeps out of the old radio that was the humidity itself. This is Kennedy Boulevard. This transplanted underdevelopment that our families flaunt. Conspicuous, incongruous. This-guy—dazed—moves his jaw from side to side as he always does when he doesn’t know what to say. They walk from the bus to the ferry and lick red and blue popsicles, like the flags of France, Texas, and Chile, with the little choo-choo-train chugging along in the poetry of Lourdes Casal, transformed into una revolucionaria on Kennedy Boulevard. Since she was a distinguished diplomat and intellectual, no one dared to say lesbian. Ensconced at home or at the office, some swore on their loved ones’ graves that they’d met the boyfriend who’d broken her heart and left her this way: sort of masculine, devoted to the life of the mind. She came here as a Cuban, a rosary around her neck. She came here black. The Yuneited Esteits, the need to become a revolution. I carry this marginality, immune to all turning back.
At the entrance to the public library, this-guy—he of the millenary void—has lost all desire to write. He sits and promptly falls asleep. When he opens his eyes, the keyboard has marked its squares into his cheek, so crisply inserted that it hurts to pull away. Through the window he sees Kowalski’s tight pants, the ones he’s been dreaming of these past few nights. The small body is surrounded by snow, getting into a white car, and this-guy, who knows nothing, realizes it’s November. According to the photos he’s pulled from various abandoned boxes, his father looked nothing like Barry Newman. His father looked taller, and only in one photograph was he wearing such tight pants. Vanishing Point came to theaters in 1971. His father must have been in Los Angeles, bound for Detroit, or maybe even in Mexico City. It meant something, didn’t it, Dad, that the film was showing in theaters while his own slender body and prominent nose were getting into a car and driving around the US, as he’d previously done in who knows what border town of a country divided in the ’90s. It must have seemed like quite an adventure, right? Watching TV and staring at the screens of wherever you were from.
On a beat-up VHS, this-guy—invertebrate, practically Iberian—watches the movie again. Kowalski’s trip from Colorado to California in record time, sleepless and hyped up on speed, is intercut with various flashbacks informing us that he is a Vietnam veteran, an ex-cop discharged for reporting his partner’s perpetration of sexual abuse, an ex-motorcycle racer, an ex-Formula 1 driver no one remembers, and the lover of an ethereal woman who is no longer there. The melancholy, ethical, suicidal masculinity of Kowalski, who has no first name, never sleeps. The women are all one woman or they’re the sweet sun on the horizon, the fantasy of death. The lonely man in the desert. With his car. On fire.
In the first scene of Vanishing Point, the white Dodge Challenger—Challenger could easily be the character’s first name, come to think of it; the father’s—hurtles down the highway at top speed, such that man and car simultaneously embody Renaissance and Futurist ideals. The final scene repeats this to the death. The consciousness of an evaporating country.
The final collision could also be interpreted as the purest, simplest form of propaganda. During the years prior to the film’s premiere, numerous complaints were filed regarding faulty car-manufacturing at the Ford and General Motors plants in Detroit, including the most popular and exclusive models. Sales dropped by 93%. The fact that an expert driver like Kowalski crashes of his own volition into earthly bulldozers shifts blame from the industry, engulfed by confrontations with unions and popular movements, to the client—creating, in the process, the fantasy of heroism that outlives anyone who dies at the wheel.
I’d check the crash reports if I were you. When this-guy tells the whole story to the neighbor, who is buying a cup of coffee at the corner deli, she tells him that the screenplay was written by Guillermo Cabrera Infante. There can’t be too many cars like that one. Can there? This-guy, who doesn’t know exactly who that is, mumbles something about the screenplay. The neighbor, not taking this-guy—strapped, fetishistic, calculating—very seriously, smiling slightly on the third floor of a house with a mattress on the ground, hands him a copy of Tres Tristes Tigres and tells him that the screenplay is archived at a nearby university.
And what you write is suddenly real. The ink-stain-on-the-face-neighbor closes her fingerless gloves around a steaming cup of coffee and glances up, sheathed in a black wool hat, to the thirty-fourth floor. The thing is that writing can never be automatic enough, because the writer always has to come back, pick up the pen, get hold of a body to print things onto. She looks at him steadily. So I can’t have been the one who said that in your dream. Pero qué sucede if you don’t have a body when you come back, she said to the guy who was a family man in last night’s dream.
The full-bag-of-books-neighbor is standing on Mercer St. before her writing day at the library. Ana Mendieta left her country in a fish tank. She was put there when she was twelve years old. From the other side, she saw her father, the one who kept the guns, the one who went to jail, saying goodbye to her. She kissed the Miami ground when she got off the plane, as she’d seen a priest do before 1959. She turned from a messiah into a child in a refugee camp, a house in Iowa, an orphanage. From family to family, her strong Cuban accent was perceived as a mark of inferiority. She used her body as a transformative entity; so, too, the language she shared with her mother and her mama. Her body left landmarks in galleries, in pits she dug in fields, in museums in Britain, Rome, Berlin. On city streets, in the voices of New York, in photographs, in tracts of land outside Havana, was a silhouette of Ana Mendieta’s body. A silhouette was left when she fell from the thirty-fourth floor, naked, as in her performances. ¿Un cuerpo que escribe su futuro? There’s always an open plaque on the floor.
The back-pain-neighbor sneezes and covers the viscous liquid that jumps from her nose. She stays in position, tissue at her face, as if counting the seconds it took Mendieta to hit the ground. Lo que debe haber sido. This-guy knows she’s murmuring in her most intimate language, the one she speaks deepest inside herself. It sounds to this-guy like a lament for who knows what. Walking, taking little sips from her coffee, the neighbor tells him that she’s looking for work. This-guy—he of the raised eyebrow—doesn’t understand what this has to do with the Cuban artist’s suicide. What happens in the model city isn’t a real job, right, Dad? Sometimes people who catch sight of him on the street think he does something feminine, like keep a diary. When they part ways, he sees it’s snowing and realizes he never asked her where the jobs she’s looking for are found.
The street is lit by burgeonings of snow. It falls from the trees; it falls from the rooftops; it falls, like this-guy’s gaze on the third floor. The notebook-neighbor now has a suitcase she takes out for a walk several times that month. He doesn’t see her for days. The frigid mattress, the solitary nights—they intersect with the stripped tree branches tossed by wind like a falling, falling angel. At night, looking out the window from the corner of his eye, his drowsy eye, this-guy—mute, blank—confuses the snow with people walking down the middle of the road. Bodies are unrecognizable under coats, parkas, hats, boots, gloves, balaclavas. The snow illuminates the street; there are shadows where there didn’t used to be. Less light. They file along after the last big snowfall as if on a movie set, orderly, one a night, while this-guy shovels snow around three in the morning without a single light on. One night he sees a big man with a child in his arms. They’re wearing the same garments; they’re the same person on different planes. The next night he sees two people walking side by side, a man and a woman. Every so often the woman slips, moving awkwardly in a way he recognizes at once. Roberta. Holding the hand of another man whose face he doesn’t see. He doesn’t stop, just tells her it’s unwise to walk across the layer of snow that sifts between them. When he wakes, he sees that the storm has passed and the snow has heaped up on cars, in the streets. The night allows him to make out a single silhouette, a slight body dragging along a suitcase. He of the shovel-in-hand hurries to help, but he hears a car engine behind him, a shuddering accelerator. When he turns around, this-guy, blinded by the light, wakes up.
“Cars on Fire” is told, careeningly, from the third-person perspective of an unnamed English-speaking, US-American male narrator (referred to only as “this-guy”). This-guy lives in New York and has three primary obsessions: 1) Detroit, the city of his birth, the subject of a novel-in progress, and the place where his father abandoned his family; 2) his ’79 Mercedes, which is the same model of the car his father abandoned him in; and 3) his neighbor, an unnamed, Spanish-speaking, Chilean female Ph.D. student, with whom this-guy shares scattered conversations and interactions throughout the story and the several seasons of the calendar year it covers—and whom he otherwise spies on and pines for in the aftermath of an uncertain separation from his girlfriend. Even before translation, the story is essentially and profoundly bilingual: Mónica Ríos chronicles, in Spanish, the perspective of her monolingual English-speaking narrator, who observes and overhears his neighbor go about her daily life in a language he cannot understand—and who becomes, obliquely and provocatively, a co-narrator of the story itself. My primary challenge as a translator was the question of how to recreate this refracted bilingualism in the other direction. In Spanish, Ríos scatters the text with English-language words and phrases, and she has occasionally used Oulipian techniques to sow her rich, erratic, sometimes marvelously spiky syntax with unexpected adjectival combinations and descriptions that can border on surreal. In these ways, among others, Ríos transforms a structurally simple narrative—a love story, ultimately, that progresses through the seasons of a year in New York City—into a set of vertiginous, kaleidoscopic ruminations on language, culture, relationships, intimacy, loneliness, and loss. The version of the text published in Anomaly is a long excerpt from the full ~7000-word story.