Long Pants Under a Hot Sun

A novel about Africa, drinking and the meaning of life

The Lesson

In this chapter, Dublin gets a lesson on how to drive a manual transmission.

In a French car. In West Africa. From two very intoxicated Norwegians.



 

The Lesson

When he got back to the patio, the two girls were gone, and David was dripping in a chair. Dozens of martini glasses mingled awkwardly on the table. The men and the half-empty glasses of gin formed a symbiotic relationship. They could not die without each other. The Norwegians were drinkers of subtraction martinis; with every sip, they edged listlessly towards the longest sleep. Dublin was still young. He could still put himself through hell without any consequences.

“Look,” Vegard was saying to David, “we’re not going to talk about any religious bullshit here. I’m on fucking vacation. No politics, no God shit. And nothing about Oslo. I’m not in Oslo. I’m in To-, uh, To-“

“Darktown. I know where we are. But we’re going to run out of money. We have to sell the car.”

“Are you crazy? That car is my car. How can we get home without a car?”

“We will take airplanes. Or we can go to South Africa to get your Land Rover. We’ll go to South Africa.”

Vegard put his head back into his arms. “I’m going to lose my job,” he grumbled through his arm castles.

“No, you won’t. We’ll go get the Land Rover. We need money. Your uncle will give you a job. We’ll go to the port and sell the car in one hour. Then we can go to the club and then South Africa.”

“OK. But today we must sleep. I can’t see a thing through all this gin.”

“Of course. Landlord will have to take us home.”

“Oh, I can’t drive a stick,” Dublin fumbled through his drunk tongue, his numb lips.

“Nonsense. We will teach you on the way. We leave now.”

David dropped a pocketful of cash on the table, set a glass of gin on top and saluted the women on the beach, well out of view. Vegard shot out of his chair and then stood stock still and angled, while Dublin watched his eyes glaze over. David was already walking away from them, and Dublin helped Vegard around the table and towards the car.

The car. The growling goose egg painted in a benign spectrum. I’ve always thought that if one of our fathers or mothers from hundreds of years ago could witness just a slight selection of our technology, they would swear up and down that it ran on magic. Like the microwave, an empty box that makes food hot in a minute or so, or the record player, which derives symphonies from a pin and a hardened, grooved slab of tar. The Peugeot 504, the cinq-cent-quatre, the tiger that swallowed a combustion engine, possibly breaking parts of it on the way down, was the pinnacle of magical machines. Starting the car is like doing a magic trick; it must be willed to start, as if the pistons and the human soul strive together to create a symbio-meta-kinetic convulsion that thrusts life into moving metal and tames it with pedals.

David was already at the car when the other two arrived; he was looking for the key and had turned out all his pockets in his short jean cutoffs. “I can’t find the fucking key, Landlord.”

“I’ve got it,” Vegard said as he walked right into the fender. He hadn’t even slowed down. The key dropped out of his hand as he fell backwards to the ground, letting loose a short whimper as he hit. Dublin helped him up, found the key and put everybody inside. He ducked under the frame of the car and sat in the driver’s seat, looking over the dials and running his hand over the smooth gear shift. David was up front with him and began giving him commands.

“Now put your put on the foot. Put your foot on the floor. On that pedal. No! The other one! Good. Turn the key, heavy! Good.” The car lurched forward three feet, and the engine jerked as it shut off. “No. Do it all over again, but don’t put your foot anywhere but on that fucking pedal. Don’t take it off.” David waved his left hand in the air, gesturing the instructions for operating a motor vehicle, while his other hand gently pushed around the glass of gin he’d brought with him. Sunlight broke brilliantly through his window. The shadows from the hotel’s palms glanced off the windshield.

“Good. Now you will make one pedal go up and make the other one go down. With your feet. Right down, left up. At the same time. The trick, which no one knows in this idiot world, is to do it very, very slow. Then you can feel what you’re fucking up and change it before you fuck it up. So do it slowly.” Dublin did it slowly while David tried to show him with his two hands how one pedal pushes in while the other one lifts up, one hand in a pedal shape, the other in a gin-holding shape. Dublin moved the car forward a couple of feet and then pressed on the brake. “OK. That was good to keep under the speed limit there. Now drive the car this time. Let’s go. Every time the engine gets angry, push in that pedal-” he waved his hand toward the floor under Dublin’s feet, “and move the stick into gear and go again. And when you stop, hold in that pedal I told you about. Now let’s go. Allons-y, Landlord.”

Dublin made his way to the edge of the parking lot in first gear, hard packed dirt and sweaty chrome cars inching away behind him. Traffic was light this far east of town, but Dublin waited to turn onto the highway much longer than he should have.

“Is it Wednesday yet? I think it is. I wish I had a calendar in the car, so I knew how long this was taking. Come, Landlord, conquer this car!” David crescendoed out his window. Dublin moved the car forward and to the left. He turned ninety degrees and began hatching a plot to upshift, but failed miserably for about twenty seconds. He held in the clutch the whole time. The car slowed to about five miles per hour. African drivers passed him on the left and the right as he alternately slammed and caressed the gearshift in the direction of second. He locked it into gear at last, smiled, and then frowned as the engine already growled at him. Again. As he tried for third, he looked to the coast and watched the palms sway around in place. As beautiful as they were, they would never drive an automatic, he thought. What an odd thought, he thought. I need to straighten out my mind and drink less, he thought. Ah, third. David squawked out his window at nothing, a scavenger without carrion.

 

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