“Cars on Fire”

Mónica Ramón Ríos trans. by Robin Myers

June 29, 2020 
Mónica Ramón Ríos is a writer, editor, and scholar originally from Chile. Her books of fiction are Cars on Fire, Alias el Rucio, and Segundos. She contributes regularly to publications in Mexico, Chile, and the US, and her academic work focuses on the intersections of Latin American film and literature. In 2008, Ríos co-created the collective Sangría Editora, which publishes fictions, essays, scripts, plays, and agit prop. Robin Myers is a Mexico City-based poet and translator.

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 resume 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 stumbling, 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 piss-puddles trailed by the garbage trucks as they cut across the city with their sculpted 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 plants  to refresh them, and also 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-shirts, muscled chests abandoning their shirts atop their bicycle seats, clothes translucent with sweat, thick, braided hair gathered as far away as possible from their bodies, 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 a little. A shiver of shame glints through him. 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 and the missing wood panels, paint over the scratches keyed onto it (who knows where or in what neighborhood) by some passerby 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, creasebrowed—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 its 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 cut-  off denim taut against her thigh and tucks her piledup 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 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 the automotive industry, the U.S. can be interpreted as a 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 noticed. 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 super-sports car— the latest model Alfa Romeo—that will plunge off a cliff at the toss of a stone.

At night, this-guy, 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 any place 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 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 very best academic paper.

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, they were cooking it up. 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 taxes 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 and his shoe is plastered 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-guy, 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 sunroof, 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 OM167 engine has a 125-horsepower capacity, like this one, exceeding 32O 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, if not, 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 shaved ices, 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 went back 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 of the library, 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 U.S., as he’d previously done in who knows what border town of a communist country later divided in the ’9Os. 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 deli on the corner of their block, 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 she’s talking about, mumbles something about the screenplay. The neighbor, not taking this- guy—strapped, fetishistic, calculating—very seriously, smiling slightly in her third-floor apartment, the attic of a house with a mattress on the floor, 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 another steaming cup of coffee and glances up, sheathed in a black wool hat, at the thirty-fourth floor of the building on Mercer Street. 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 the surface. 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 says to this-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 pope 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 unlaid stone in the ground.

The back-pain-neighbor sneezes and covers the viscous liquid that her nose expels. 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 located.

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, casting shadows where there used to be none. 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, like 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.

This-guy—ricocheting about his life—opens the door. He’s suddenly met with the smell of spring. He’s handed a package addressed to a woman who lives in the house next door, but he doesn’t recognize the name. It’s heavy and he doesn’t know what to do with it. He looks skyward and decides it isn’t yet time to plant flowers, or is it?, but give this-guy any excuse to spend time outside, in the fresh air, without waiting for Roberta to call. This-guy, snuffling, cleans his flowerpot stand and Gary’s from the second floor. The inky-fingered neighbor leans against the gate and speaks in Spanish with the neighbor from #1433. This-guy—he of the sidelong glance—thinks they’re talking about him and he becomes that-guy, he of the clumsy body. The coffee-cup neighbor waves at him and gestures toward the street, her lips pursed like a duck beak. It’s the car that belongs to the new people who recently moved in next to the husky-voiced neighbor—duplex doors, thin walls. They’re getting out of a Mercedes 3OO Coupe that’s the same color as his, sort of a creamy coffee color, and certainly the same model year as the car that  belongs to the guy looking  for his father. They keep it in perfect condition and without the ridiculous rear that distinguishes his own. Hi there. The Spanish-speaking women have fallen silent. Pretty weird, huh, Dad? Two nearly identical cars have ended up end-to-end right in front of the neighbor’s house. We got you covered.

Do you know them? The voice emerges from the unsteady body climbing the stairs. They look out from the neighbor’s attic window. The dissertation-neighbor opens the three windows that the sunlight and a faint heat come through. She hasn’t let go of the plastic flowerpot holder. Weird, isn’t it? This-guy’s voice—dirt-stained—comes out of him from somewhere else, because he knows that the image will slip into his dreams tonight. I don’t know them. Right, Dad? How many cars like that one came in through the eastern border in ’79? They sift in the soil a little at a time, carefully settling the wildflower seeds in place. This-guy knows that the red-pencil-neighbor could do this by herself, but he already spends  so many hours of the day writing alone that this-guy—he who assesses with a clinical eye—sees the jumbled books as a symbol of the mental chaos that inhabits his room, like hers. Unemployment starts to strain through the cracks of the model city.

From the armchair where he observes this undertaking and listens to the morbid bolero, he reaches out a hand through the living room until he can touch the neighbor’s bare thigh. He hesitates for a moment when he sees his own fingernails caked with dirt and grime, but those things only matter in dreams, right, Dad? As his hand finds its way, he imagines an entire life with her, the book-discarded-on-the-windowsill-neighbor: this-guy waking in a bed like her bed, this-guy leaving a house like hers in the morning, looking out a window like hers, walking down the stairs in another house, almost hers, kissing the naked air from below as if the above were his. A hand on his shoulder shakes him awake. This jolt, this earth. Hoarsely, she introduces him to the people standing before him. So forever out of place—the place of the unemployed, he seems to hear his father say—that he feels he should go.

Misfortune stops inside the car. This-guy—stranger to himself— presses on the gas as he starts to hear the neighbor’s throaty voice on the phone, and this body starts to miss her nearness. At some point the things they’re writing about bump into each other. 1896: they interrupt  each other. The same year of the first film screenings in the whole world, the same year when the first horseless carriage embarks down the street. No, 1920, sometime around then. Not long before, the Ford automobile plant had settled in on the outskirts of Santiago. Sales weren’t good. The U.S. ambassador, seated in the cold, neoclassical office he’d decorated baroquely, lest he forget where he came from, met with some local businessmen to foment the projection of American films. The public, the people, sensed something that made them grit their teeth. Now bearing sums of money allocated for trips to the city-that-never-sleeps, the businessmen left, slightly drunk, to find the car that would take them from the park to the ministry. Availing himself of the recently installed telephone lines, the ambassador informed some city, some office, and some ear full of hair gel that the deciding thumb had shifted upward. In  the ensuing years, American films flooded theaters, their elegant halls newly fumigated to get rid of the fleas—a plague of them had inundated the southern city that very year. Soon, the very same people who had gone to work that morning at the Ford plant would buy cocktails at the movie theater bar, dressed in the same short-hemmed suits as the actors moving around onscreen. They’d drive cars like the high-heels-and-slitskirt car  and clog traffic along the alamedas. The twenty-first century: the advent  of horror.

This-guy—disoriented, slightly aroused by the brush of the hoarse voice—decides not to hear the final comment, as he’s learned by now to identify certain minor provocations from the pencil-and-empty-wallet neighbor. He looks for a parking spot and decides to stop waiting for Roberta.

Misfortune accelerates inside the car. This-guy works to keep her on  the line. Henry Ford was the only American to garner a favorable mention in Mein Kampf. It would seem that the dictator’s admiration for the businessman earned him Nazi Germany’s highest honors: a prize measured in money, parties, women, a gold plaque, and a role overseeing the provision of the productive model through which Hitler would practice his genocide.

There’s a silence on the line, as if a wall had suddenly gone up between this-guy and the fountain-pen-neighbor. He hesitates in the street.

When he rings the bell, he doesn’t yet know that he’s attending a goodbye party. This-guy—adamantine, cruel—has visualized a full, intimate evening. By then, he feels the lack of nothing more acutely than the presence of the inky-fingered neighbor. When he goes up, however,  lots of people are there. He loses count before greeting anyone. Alcohol stalks him. How many are there, Dad? Suddenly the room empties out and leaves only five, who sit down to eat. The flowers they’d planted together have blossomed. The red spreads through the house and into the neighbor’s springy dress. This-guy—he of the unstormy desire—notes that she’s cut her hair, painted her nails, and seems happier than ever before. She clearly has, too, a close relationship with every one of the other three men who face him at the table, speaking English with heavy and occasionally incomprehensible accents. The first seems curiously at home there: her kisses hound him. The second exudes an excessive familiarity with the neighbor, a rapport possible only with someone you live with. The third has a tactile relationship with the neighbor: their fingers are tenderly laced together. He addresses this-guy—he of the closed mouth, he who looks inward—and asks about his work. He imagines, through his father’s eyes, what he might say: a population graphic illustrating the growth of Detroit, twenty-five times its size in under twenty years, photographs of the Ford Co. assembly line, the city’s majestically abandoned buildings.  The trouble began just a few years after the boom. In the 193Os, the crisis prompted mass lay-offs and plummeting salaries forced immigrants and citizens to see their lives from a new perspective. This abandonment, this road. The industry recovered by manufacturing tanks and war vehicles. Malcolm X was among the hundreds, thousands, working in the factories. Union leaders were crushed, beaten, spit at, burned, and fired. In the late ’5Os, Detroit’s population dropped by 25%. The downtown area, which had once represented the long-dreamed empire, was desolate. Around it were hundreds of unemployed people, poor people, beggars. Motor City, Murder City.

He could explain so many other things, too. Right, Dad? 1971, the job at Chrysler; 1973, the oil crisis; 1979, debt; 1982, a letter of dismissal; 1984, an empty garage. Instead of that, with the coffee-smell wafting in from the kitchen, the radio thrums “Motor City is Burning.”

Birdsong invades his room through the open window. A bird has perched on a cable within his field of vision. He watches it warble. It has  an extraordinary vocal range, imitating, with notable precision, the calls of the thrush, the robin, the hen harrier, and several others whose names he doesn’t know. He  wonders whether the bird sings with a particular intention, or if it’s rehearsing, or if it’s maybe enjoying the very act of imitation, using the patios between the houses and buildings as a sounding board.

In a state of neither wakefulness nor sleep, he assesses the kilometers separating his body from the foot of the bed, which seems to move like an oceanic horizon as he crosses from one shore to the other uncertain one. In response to this thought, the sweat accumulated on his neck, inner thighs, and armpits becomes a sea. He floats and sinks.

He walks the eleven blocks to where he’d parked his car the night before. He opens the door, places his heavy backpack inside, and inspects  it twice, making sure everything is as he left it. He starts the engine, revs it hard, and feels a new vibration underfoot, something superimposed over the layer of loose metal. He turns it off and starts it up again, pressing on the accelerator with all his strength. A slight scent of gas seeps into the  car, as if the heat from the subsoil were about to transform it into fire. He guides it along, slowly, among the other vehicles seeking out a parking space at that hour, hoping to avoid a fine from the garbage truck. It’s unusual for him to find a spot right in front of his house, right beside the new neighbors’ identical vehicle. They greet him coldly as they settle their sleepy daughter into her seat. Only then does he see two enormous red suitcases and two small ones, each sporting a gaudy luggage tag, on the inky-fingered neighbor’s front steps. The name on the tag is the same as the one on the package he received months ago and kept without knowing exactly who it was for. He’s startled to realize that its owner was his neighbor coming down the stairs. They’d never asked each other’s names. How did they address each other, then? No need, they barely knew each other at all. The neighbor greets him as if for the first time. They shake hands like perfect strangers. He tells her he has a package for her, but the neighbor says it doesn’t matter anymore, that it must be the potting soil. That she doesn’t need it anymore because she’s moving out. She asks him to give her keys to the landlord, who hasn’t gotten back to her. Maybe he’s sleeping on the first floor. She’s moving. Where to?

In the car, on the way to the airport, this-guy—fractured soul, irreparable solitude—talks with the books-in-the-backpack neighbor. Like perfect strangers, estranged from each other, they talk about the nice weather in California, that she’ll be able to speak Spanish there with pretty much anyone, that she’ll probably forget her English altogether.  The writer, who looks out at the industrial landscapes of Ridgewood and Jamaica, tells him she’d learned English and Spanish almost simultaneously at a school where she was taught to think she belonged somewhere else. She now struggles to believe how she felt her lifelong ailments leaving her as soon as she reached this country—how she’d recognized herself, recognized her brother, so much like her, in the passer- by getting off the subway, in the clerk at the Verizon store, in the people leaving buildings on Wall Street, in the bodies drinking whiskey in  Bowery bars. In the list of surnames she sang, there were Spanish names, their creole deformations, their Arab heritage, but nothing to indicate any affiliation with the dwellers of Russian, Polish, or Czech neighborhoods she could walk through undetected. But some things can’t  be helped. A  last name with a diacritical mark. The color of her eyes. A certain intolerance to cold. Impossible to shake off el sur. At the same time, a  seed was growing. How could she identify so absolutely with people so quick to kill anyone else? Now she was on a new quest. Al ni aquí ni allá. To be from nowhere other than wherever this notebook and this pencil happened to be. Like the other women who got on a plane.

The hug with which this-guy—he of the achy ear—bids farewell to the unknown woman imprints itself into his body along with a sentence that punctures him persistently as he drives home: if only this obsession with one’s roots actually accomplished anything. The night before, Roberta had finally told him she was coming back, having found the archives full of nothing but empty boxes and folders of discarded papers. Her money was running out, too. Ro-ber-ta: that name was moving away from him, replaced by the body that this-guy—embittered, self-flagellating—has just left and which has become part of his own, although he doesn’t know how or why. The gas pedal falters and stops responding at a red light. The honking will start any moment now. He’s in the middle of Eastern  Parkway, in the lane designated for left-hand turns. The car won’t start. It just emits that strange vibration, stronger now, every time he turns the key in the ignition, and the pleasant smell of gasoline fills the air. This-guy, who knows more about his car than anyone, Dad, lifts the orange cone out of the trunk and sets it down about five feet away. The shouts and honks fall silent when he opens the hood. Blue smoke overtakes everything, boiling the battery, boiling the pipes and metal, dissolving the rubber of  the tires, melting the inside of the car. This-guy—he of the languid body and the living soul—crosses the street. From the corner of his eye, he sees that the open-doored car is engulfed in flames, and he leaves it behind at last.


“Cars on Fire” is excerpted from Cars on Fire: Stories by Mónica Ramón Ríos, translated by Robin Myers. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Open Letter Books. 

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