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Men and Cars (1)
by Adrian Chamberlain

Part one of three.

There is a commonly held notion that human life has structure. Of course it does, in the scientific sense. We’re all aware of such things as DNA and blood cells. It is curious, though, that many people—men especially—speak of abstractions such as “security” and “the future” as though they were tangible things akin to laptop computers or loaves of bread.

Ted sometimes wondered whether if, until now, he’d lofted through life in a phantasmic bubble. He was a man who’d made dutiful plans, who’d pencilled in important meetings on his calendar and kept appointments for regular haircuts. Now he was adrift.

Four months ago, his wife had assembled his breakfast: sweet Columbian coffee, scrambled eggs thick with Tuscan spice. She then looked at him. As he glanced up over a forkful of egg, she announced after 16 years of marriage she would be leaving him. While his wife spoke, Ted, still grasping a forkful of quivering egg, gazed at a fleck of brown-red lipstick on her teeth.

His wife drove off that very day. Explanations and recriminations would sift down later via the telephone; complaints of neglect, emotional coldness, his ability to take her for granted, his inability to understand her.

The age-old grievances.

Perhaps, as his wife was speaking, other women were saying the same things to other husbands all over the world. As the warm receiver vibrated in his hand, Ted imagined a global lament—a collective moan rising through the hemisphere. Many years ago, she had encircled his neck with warm white arms and whispered words of love into his ear. Now it seemed this woman must be speaking of someone else.

Absorbing such a litany of woe was not easy. The accusations of his wife—soon to be Ted’s ex-wife—were frequently accompanied with tears, even though she rarely cried in the normal course of affairs. Each statement was dispatched with a firm and dispassionate resolve, as though his failings over 16 years of marriage had been carefully considered and calibrated like samples in a medical laboratory. There was no answering her, although it is true Ted had no answers to offer. She explained theirs was a marriage of convenience artificially propped up by calendars and household routine.

What Ted struggled with was not the meaning of his wife’s words. He did not contest the content. He even found himself nodding agreeably along at times, although he wondered why they had not talked sooner (could disaster have been avoided?). His difficulty was the almost Herculean effort required in paying full attention; surely a requisite for true comprehension. The surprise announcement-“Ted, I’m leaving you”-had blindsided him with a kind of mechanical violence akin to that experienced by the hapless victim of a freeway accident; a psychic sideswipe both abrupt and surreal. His new situation (single man, no children) seemed an unfathomable daydream. He harboured an urge to hide away, to shake his head and inspect new wounds felt so deeply he expected to see purple bruises or welling blood.

The departure was permanent, of course. Ted knew this even before his wife made the pronouncement some time later. He’d realised it one evening upon looking at her side of the closet, empty save for three coathangers. They were wooden coathangers of the sort his father used to use. Ted decided he would have do something, to take charge, although at the moment the pathway Seemed uncertain.

It was a late summer morning and the sun shone glassy and hard from a sky impossibly blue, like a tinted postcard. Ted surveyed the classified ads. He needed a new car. Of late he had been riding the bus to work—an unfamiliar and tedious undertaking. He found riding on buses unsatisfactory. He disliked being around strangers so early in the morning; disliked it when they tried to engage him in conversation.

There was an ad for an Alfa Romeo convertible. Ted did not consider himself a sportscar man. His Subaru, now his wife’s Subaru, was a stationwagon. Yet after a moment’s hesitation he phoned up. On the line Ted felt slightly silly as he realized he had no immediate way of viewing the automobile short of taking a taxi. When the man said he would drive it over to his house, no problem, Ted wondered whether he was having trouble selling it.

At the crunch of gravel he looked out the window. The sportscar was red and sat crouched in his driveway like a gleaming thug. As Ted pulled on a windbreaker and shut his front door, he began to feel foolish once more. He smiled at a fat man in a basecall cap who, with some difficulty, extracted himself from behind the steering wheel. The man explained he was selling the car for a friend. Ted found the detail worrying. He was in the habit of taking his Subaru station wagon religiously to the dealership for tune-ups. The seller grinned, revealing teeth that were large and discoloured like mushrooms. He wore a T-shirt with words on the front: “Big Time Happy” in red letters. In Ted’s opinion such attire was ill-advised attire for anyone out of high school.

“We’ve been driving this little car all summer. A good runner. No problems,” said the car seller, rapping the taut canvas of the convertible top with his fingers. Tap, tap. Ted made an effort to hear what the man was saying, to follow his patter. What did Big Time Happy mean? To his dismay he found he’d become inexplicably nervous; his heart fluttered like a small bird’s. One of the man’s front teeth was so badly atrophied, it was the colour of a dead leaf. The observation intruded into Ted’s thoughts, clouding the waters. Before he knew it—dreamlike as a Chagall painting—he was shaking the man’s dry hand, pretending to be matter-of-fact about the purchase. Things had moved too quickly, certainly; Ted had that vaguely nightmarish sensation of having drunkenly misplaced something valuable. Still, he needed a car.

It was agreed the transaction hinged on a mechanical inspection. The seller suggested the car be inspected by an acquaintance of his, an Italian who’d already worked on it. He then revealed new information—the vehicle had required a new head casket just a few weeks ago. Ted fretted over this and about the connection between the car seller and the Italian. Was it too late to renege on the deal? But the sportscar, on the brink of becoming his, now seemed terribly desirable and the thought of possessing it pushed away the niggling worry. He imagined his fingers encircling the wooden steering wheel.

The man in the Big Time Happy T-shirt looked at Ted, who for some seconds had fallen silent. The man’s expression shifted slightly and Ted, noticing this, said quickly, “OK then. OK. Let’s take it to the mechanic.”

The Italian car mechanic’s workplace was reassuring. It was just a two-door home garage, but the steel tools were arranged on the wall with soldierly precision and the cement floor was almost free of oil stains. It smelled pungent: gasoliney and autumnal. The mechanic, whose name was Aldo, had milky-blue eyes and black hair. Even when he smiled, which was seldom, his downwards slanted eyebrows were melancholy like those of a pitiable Catholic saint. He shook hands with Ted but his eyes lingered on the car. For 30 minutes Aldo peered and prodded under the hood. Finally he looked up and mopped his face with a handkerchief that was white and immaculate.
“This one.” he said, sadly, “is a good one.”

Adrian Chamberlain plays keyboard, writes for the Times Colonist. You want some of this?


* * *

Part one of three.

Part two of three.

Part three of three.


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