THE RED CAR

Text: Rafael Caunedo
Illustrations: Michele Marconi

Juanchu, 16 years old; head resting on the car window; earphones with the music very loud; cell phone in sweaty hand; graze lost on the diffuse grey of the asphalt. The broken lines of the highway flicker before his eyes. They bewilder him. He doesn’t seem to be thinking about anything.

But it just seems that way.

In reality he’s thinking how pathetic it is that everyone is passing them. His father and his damn obsession about driving slowly. For Juanchu, not to break the speed limit is to drive slowly. Very slowly. He counts the cars that pass them. When he reaches twenty, he’s tired. He changes songs; he’s incapable of listening to one completely. Impatience gets the better of him and he jumps to another. The songs are as slow as his father.

His mother turns around to tell him something. He doesn’t hear her. He doesn’t want to hear her, but when he sees her gesture of displeasure he pulls out the earphones. She asks him if he wants to have a snack. Juanchu shakes his head. Having a snack is for children.

He looks at his father’s head. Ever since his company was downsized he has been losing hair. He’s lucky he didn’t lose his job. By a hair. Juanchu smiles at his play on words. He looks at his chequered shirt, the same one as always. How long has it been since his father bought some clothes? Juanchu leans over his father’s shoulder to look at the speedometer.

Good God. He sighs and lets himself fall back in the seat like some dead weight. He changes the song. A long-distance coach passes them and Juanchu exchanges a pointless glance with one of the passengers, someone like himself. His father says he drives this way to use less petrol and be safer. Come on, dad, give me a break. He’s tired of these lessons in courtesy and good behaviour. Now he even goes to work on a bicycle. On a bike! One of those that the city hall rents. To save money. Juanchu doesn’t understand saving. If I have it, I spend it.

He looks at the clock on the dashboard. It can’t be. Is it broken or what? He thinks they’re going to be late arriving at the village. Deep down, he doesn’t care. He hates the village. He’s bored in his grandparent’s house. Without Wi-Fi, the world stinks.

Suddenly a red car, a good one, passes them at full speed. It sounds like a rocket taking off. Juanchu stretches his neck and leans over his father’s shoulders. He wants to know what car it is. He makes wagers with himself. But he doesn’t care what brand it is, it’s a whacking great car, period. He watches as it disappears along the highway in seconds. In nothing. He lapses back into his catatonic state, this time imagining that he is the person at the controls of that racing car. He closes his eyes and imagines himself with his hands on the wheel, his arms leaning out the open window, the music full blast and a blonde in the co-pilot’s seat. No, better a brunette. No, blonde. A hot little number.

He looks at the time again. Another song. The lines on the highway. His father’s bald spot…

Suddenly a red car, a good one, overtakes them at full speed. It sounds like a rocket taking off.

And then it happened.

Two black lines on the asphalt, parallel, cross the highway in the direction of the hard shoulder. The guard rail has disappeared. There’s smoke and a burning smell. Juanchu feels the car braking. Now what’s going on? He takes out the earphones and asks. Nobody answers. The car stops and his father puts on a reflective safety vest. His mother tells him to be careful. Juanchu sees his father through the window: the chequered shirt outside his trousers, the button on his pants unbuttoned, that incipient belly, the tacky vest. He turns and sees him through the back window. He clumsily jumps off the asphalt and disappears behind a small embankment. The tic-tac of the warning lights is the only sound in the car. Other vehicles stop up ahead and more drivers get out and run. Juanchu thinks; he finally thinks about something. Mum, I’m getting out to see. By the time his mother tries to prevent him from doing this, he’s already outside.

Five men standing, all wearing vests and chequered shirts and bald. A red car face down. Incomprehensibly, the engine is still running with a comatose groan. Black smoke is coming from between the wheels that point to the sky. There is a small flame that little by little gets bigger. The men keep a safe distance while they call the emergency services on their cell phones. Fear that it might explode. His father is one of them. Juanchu reaches him and stands beside him. He looks and is quiet. A young man is unconscious inside the car, held by the safety belt. Blood trickles from his forehead. Beside him is a blonde. No, brunette. Or is she blonde? A hot little number. She groans, groggy.

It can explode any minute, says one of them, any one. And just then, Juanchu sees his father take off his vest and, without thinking about it, go to the car and push himself through the window. It’s hard. He’s clumsy. He drags himself. Only his legs can be seen. Juanchu wants to shout at him to get out of there. He doesn’t. He looks at the flames. Suddenly the engine stops. The father comes out short of breath, throws the keys on the ground, and seems to be looking for something. With his hands forming a bowl he scoops up some sand and gravel and throws it on the flame. It goes out after the fourth try. Black smoke and silence.

The men look at him. Then they come closer and embrace him. They congratulate him. They know that they didn’t dare to do it and that makes them inferior beings. Then they kneel down next to the car to calm the injured. Juanchu’s father stands there with a blank stare trying to comprehend what he has just done. He turns. His son looks at him and comes up to him. He embraces him. Don’t tell your mother, he asks him.

In the distance the sound of sirens.

They travel the rest of the way to the village in silence. Juanchu rides behind, thinking. He’s been thinking for a good while now. The earphones on the seat. Frightened. He looks at the speedometer at how fast they’re going, then looks at his father’s eyes in the rear-view mirror. They look at each other and smile. Juanchu puts his hand on his father’s shoulder, on the chequered shirt full of earth, mud and oil. When we get home I’ll buy him a new one.

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