On the road to Chiavenna, Alison, who’d been watching the Alps from the back seat through a small child’s handprint on the window, had to put her hand flat against the glass when Lazzero threw the ancient Fiat 500 into the roundabout. Next to her, Martina, also bare legged, leaned toward the center of the car, toward her. Their brown and olive thighs were warm, touching now. Martina balanced a present on her lap, its pale scalloped ribbon jumping in the wind. In the front seat, Norman, Alison’s boyfriend, interrupted his own staccato stream of vacation Italian to grip the car’s A-pillar. The tires, slashed right, said nothing. They took the second exit and continued on, Lazzero shifting up without taking his foot off the gas by the sound of it.
“Mi chiedo seci sarà una torta?” said Norman over the car. Alison rolled her eyes in the direction of the alps tracking along the side of the car again. She knew what he was doing even if their hosts didn’t. Norman was trying to sound like a character in a Hemingway story.
Lazzero adjusted his mirrored sunglasses. In them, momentarily, the road didn’t go to Chiavenna.
“I think yes,” said Martina, shifting her bottom. Her cotton dress hiked an inch up her thigh showing more of a tattoo, a tree shedding paisley leaves toward her inner thigh, carved on its trunk the initials CNX. Alison knew from the lake that she had another. She’d seen it as soon as Martina pulled a sleeveless Joy Division shirt over her head and ran down to where the water met the pebbles, Il seminatore lavora per la padronanza girando la ruota running up her well-tanned side in dark black script. A petrol station passed at their left. Alison looked up at the sign. A six-legged dog breathed fire in the direction he’d come. He stood on a golden bar, what Alison imagined was a shorn field of wheat.
“Well…grazie mille per l’invito di nuovo. Thank you, kindly,” said Norman, leaning back to catch Martina’s eye. His people were from the Midwest and he often employed their simple charm when it was most likely to make him stand out in the room. They were on the way to Giulia’s birthday. Giulia, a sculptress and waitress from Milan, was a friend of Martina’s. She has made thirty years, said Martina. The party was being hosted at Giulia’s father’s small cabin in the mountains. Alison knew Norman and she were invited along only to secure Martina’s father’s B&B, where they’d been staying for three nights, a good review on the booking site. Alison had read the tea leaves: a threadbare towel here, a loose faucet handle there. Money was short. At breakfast, Alison used as little Nutella as possible.
“Preeego,” sang Martina, brushing away a few stray hairs whipping her face. A lot of air was moving through the car now. Alison smiled, wondered if Martina knew how many greys she had on the back of her head before her eyes moved on to a stand of cypresses on the hill. She didn’t know why, but she thought of the word cimitero.
The sun, arcing across the sky, made time on her living face. Strada Statale 36 continued to snake under them. Within the confines of Alison’s window, black and white kites flashed between trees or lit out into the nearly cloudless sky. Norman patted the outside of the door bump-bump.
“What’s this?” he said, pointing to a cardboard card slipped into a hazy plastic sleeve on the windshield. The card had a wheel printed with military time at the outer edge and could spin on a tiny brass grommet like a revolver’s cylinder. Norman saw some of the numbers backwards in the coming sunshine.
“Disco orario,” said Lazzero to the windshield.
“What’s it for?” said Norman, trying to figure out what to do with his hands in his lap.
“Is for parking,” said Lazzero, almost cutting himself off to spit out the window.
“Wheel. Of. Fortune,” said Norman as he spun the cardboard wheel a full rotation backward.
The town had given way to sagging two-story stucco homes the color of buttermilk. Many had olive trees in the yard. Recognizing them, Norman’s heart swelled with pride. Yes, sir. I’m a long way from Montana.
“Hanno già raccolto le olive?” said Norman. Behind his sunglasses, Lazzero shifted his eyes toward some goats grazing next to the road. Martina touched Norman’s shoulder when Lazzero didn’t answer.
“Please—in English. I want practice my English. Ok?” she said, around the hair pin in her mouth. She was gathering the hair on the back of her head. She suddenly wanted it off her neck.
“Oh,” said Norman, running the flat of his hand over his rumpled seersucker shorts. He thought of how the veins stood out on the backs of Martina’s hands. The letters S A T O R tattooed inexpertly, one below each fingernail. They were a woman’s hands. He’d pictured her as he made love to Alison their first night in Italy.
“Sure. Uh,” he pretended to have difficulty switching back to English. “Have they picked the olives this year?”
“The trees have not received olives yet,” said Martina, pinning back her hair. She popped the steel clasp on her purse searching for another pin. Alison knew this was just the sort of thing Norman would write down in his red Moleskine notebook if he hadn’t left it back at the B&B. When they were leaving for the mountains, she saw it there on the traveler-scarred credenza and let him walk out without it.
They motored on. Alison’s bored Westchesterite eyes tracked the Fiume Mera to their left. The previous day she’d filled a plastic water bottle at the frothing Fiumelatte in Lierna and had since felt deeply connected to Italian rivers. Drink. Pray. Love, she thought unoriginally, as she picked at the window gasket. In Thailand the royals leave out bowls of milk for the cobra, Norman had said. All at once she unstuck her thigh from the ribbed vinyl seat and decided to sweat—to stop blotting her upper lip with the chocolate-smeared napkin she’d found in her pocket from the gelato place on their first night. For Norman and Alison, the charm of the tiny Italian car had gone. It had lasted, perhaps, only as long as it would’ve taken someone to upload a photo of them lounging comfortably inside it without a seatbelt, proof positive that Americans could live outside the bell jar. Alison knew her father would’ve said it sounded like a lawnmower. Her mother would have simply called it a deathtrap. Lazzero shifted into fourth; the motor whined, the valves castanets. The road carried them up. A fieldstone house stucco-ed up to its waist on a blind corner streaked by. Alison looked out and saw the tops of chestnut trees below the road. Discreetly, she craned her neck so she could get a look at the speedometer. The needle was up above 120—all the way to the right—when the front of the car dove forward under hard braking. Alison used her forearm to brace herself against the back of Lazzero’s seat. The tiny wheels screeched to a stop.
“Che palle!” Lazzero spat. “Cazzo.” He threw his hand out the window. A red logging truck groaned out of a side road obscured by a tall pine. In the space of a moment, it blocked their travel. They could see the four, braided steel binder cables cinched down on the logs. Disgusted, Lazzero slapped the car out of gear. Cigar puffs grumbled from its drinking straw tail pipe. Without air moving through the car, it stank of sweat and cigarettes. When the truck was almost completely across the road, it pivoted like an elbow on its reach and pulled a long trailer loaded with twenty or more mature trees out in front of them. They heard the splashing sound of the air brakes—once—twice. The truck grumbled back fifteen feet. Splsh. Up twelve feet. Splsh. Back nine. In neutral with no wind, they baked in the car. Lazzero saw the driver and his dirty wine slouch hat through the truck’s open window cranking the huge steering wheel left and then his body jerked and the truck crept forward, its round halogen headlights arcing around toward the double yellow line on the road. The truck started up the road now. Over their own breathing they heard its turbo whistle it forward as the driver changed the three gears it took to approach speed. Black smoke poured from the truck’s stacks. Alison, looking between Lazzero and Norman, thought she saw the logs shift. The blonde sawn ends, some catching the light, stared back dead. Martina clicked her pierced tongue.
“It’s ok,” Martina said. “We have time.” Lazzero sighed and pressed the gas with a worn sneaker. The Fiat surged forward mechanically They followed, one mid-sized American car length behind the logging truck.
“We can count the rings,” said Norman pointing at the logs and drawing circles within circles in the blistered air. Martina harrumphed politely, but Norman didn’t hear. Lazzero began to nose the car over the yellow line to see around the log truck when a black Mercedes van flashed into existence in the oncoming lane. Lazzero swerved back into his lane. Norman touched his nose. Alison hadn’t exhaled yet.
“So,” said Martina, turning to Alison. “I never ask you. You are Indian?”
“Yes,” said Alison, exhaling. “Well, my parents are.”
“You are…Hindu?” said Martina. “I am,” said Alison.
“I believe in reincarnation,” said Martina.
“Yeah?” said Alison, trying hard not to look amused.
“Yes,” said Martina, “very much,” as if something important had passed between them in the hot car.
“I wonder how many violins are on that truck?” said Norman.
“Violenza?” asked Martina. Norman rested his head against his shoulder and worked an imaginary bow over his collar bone.
“Ah,” said Martina. “Many. Many.”
“Was denkst du meinem spielen?” said Norman back to Alison although he knew she knew no German.
“Hey. Do you have any of that chocolate left?” said Alison. She touched her forehead lightly with the pads of four fingers. They felt wet. Norman felt the parka rolled in his lap. There was half a Toblerone in the front pocket.
“Sorry. No more,” he said.
Alison looked back out the window. There was a small muddy lake. About seven meters out, a single olive tree grew. Brown water lapped at its trunk. A few minutes later, they crossed a bridge over the Fiume Mera. Below, shallow water dashed itself white on stones, and above that, the weathered gold onion dome of a church stood out against the Alps to the east. Ahead, the lumber truck slowed as they passed through a business district. Lazzero also geared down. A puttycolored apartment house rose to their right. Outside on the porches, only two of the striped awnings were rolled out against the day. The top apartment closest to the road had a box that poured pinkwhite petunias over the iron railing. After the apartment house, a small grocery with a large picture of four cows in the window. Below them, the words Cose buone fatte con il nostro latte. A colorless Vespa accelerated by on the right and disappeared next to the lumber truck which had crept up to another roundabout. A light blue Volkswagen beetle arced in front of it followed by two men in fluorescent jackets on touring motorcycles. The lumber truck clattered, revved up, then clattered.
“I don’t think he can fit. What’s he going to do now?” said Norman. As he said it, the truck revved and rolled into the roundabout with relative ease. Lazzero squeaked the rear wheels, and followed close behind. The lumber truck, with the Fiat in tow, took the second exit toward Passo Spluga. There was a cafe on the corner. The sign in yellow read Povero Diavolo. On the patio ember-orange chairs and tables without umbrellas stood out in the sun. The narrow streets pressed in on them. The truck echoed off the old stucco. They were close enough to smell the logs in the car now. At arm’s length: potted rosemary and an old woman in a head scarf on a raindirty stoop. Upstairs, her husband drowsing behind the closed green shutters. A young Roma man straddling a three-wheeled bicycle paused to watch them from the mouth of a cobblestone side street. The truck pulsed. Alison watched the black smoke gather near the orange tile roofs. They started moving again. In third gear they saw a healthy vineyard on a postage stamp of land next to another crumbling home. About a kilometer up, some goats stood around a rusted steel shack built on a stone jutting from the yard which was deep and terraced up the side of the hill. Outside the town, the grade changed; the road felt more Alpine. Norman could hear the car struggling. He wondered how many times larger his old Dodge Powerwagon’s motor was than this toy’s. He wondered, too, what Lazzero, thin in his soccer jersey, would do if one of the boys back home, after tipping a bottle of Bud to his lips, asked him if he had a fucking problem. Norman then wondered if New York City, alone with its standing army of forty thousand police officers, could take over Italy. Lazzero nosed the car out into the oncoming lane again. A Japanese motorcycle screamed by. Lazzero’s right hand pulled the steering wheel down toward his crotch, clicked his tongue. Three more cars, seemingly interlinked, passed in a rapid succession of vibrating metal. Norman tried not to imagine a head-on collision in this seatbeltless go-cart. All at once, he hated Lazzero.
“Maybe we should just pull over and get a coffee,” said Norman.
“Per favore fai stare zitto questo tizio?” said Lazzero, holding his hand up near his face, appearing to menace himself. “Sono stanco di essere gentile.”
It was too fast for Norman.
“Non comportarti come un animale,” said Martina, glaring at Lazzero’s back.
Norman, if he thought about it, had learned to hate Europe, with its lazy career waiters, econoboxes, and pestilential fountains. Europe was sliding into ruin, he thought. It was lipstick over a Roman girl’s cold sore, the kiss on a riot cop’s plexi face-shield. Il bacio della morte.
“What do you think, Al?” said Norman, trying to speak with his eyes over his shoulder.
“I’m fine,” said Alison. She knew he was trying to protect them, but she didn’t care any longer, had stopped wondering back in Santorini whether there was a wedding ring in his cheap Samsonite suitcase. There was something glamorous about dying in a car in Italy, she felt, a romantic kind of immortality that she knew she would never be able to achieve outside it. But here, her stomach felt queasy and her head swam in the thin mountain air. All at once, she tired of even this passive goal. Perhaps she could just go to sleep here, in the back of this hot car, and never wake up in Chappaqua again.
After they rounded a long bend, the sun shining behind a stand of old poplar trees, the road straightened out and in the distance they could see a caul of clouds on high mountains the color of lilacs and milk. Lazzero geared down, buzzed behind the logging truck in third gear. He took his foot off the gas and allowed the road to open up between them, so he could see around the truck. He’s going to go for it, thought Norman. The thought finally arrived: This guy is going to kill us all. But the oncoming lane was clear. As Lazzero began to open the throttle to pass, a controlled metallic snort sounded next to them and, all together, they turned their heads left to see a pearl white BMW station wagon effortlessly slide by them. The license plate was Swiss and it was only alongside the logging truck for a mere moment before its right indicator blipped twice and it was in front of the truck. Following the adrenaline, a line of cars hissed by steadily in the oncoming lane.
“Vaffanculo!” said Lazzero, smacking the steering wheel. With his other hand, he adjusted his testicles. Alison, eyes fluttering, came to.
“What did you get Guilia?” she said, surprised she spoke. Alison indicated the present on Martina’s lap with something like a smile.
“Oh,” said Martina. “Is a scarf—” She paused to address Lazzero’s back. “Come si dice ‘infinito?’ Lazzero shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t know how to say—infinito scarf,” said Martina. “Is silk, is nice.”
“Yes, that sounds nice,” said Alison. Martina had begun to dread the noise her thigh would make as it separated from the American girl’s. Americans all have a vernix on them, she thought. Like a child. So young. Nonno’s house, even, is older than their country. Then, in its bath of blood, her mind chided itself. No—we’re all like old bronze statues in a piazza: gold where we’re touched. Martina looked out at the truck load of logs that nearly filled the windshield. Perché guardi il bruscolo che è nell’occhio del tuo fratello, mentre non ti accorgi della trave che è nell’occhio tuo?
The road had climbed. To the west a green vista seemed to hold the sun in every bough and blade. A stone church’s steeple rose out of a field; on its eastern side a clock face. Just out of view of the church, a lull in green that was a small mountain house’s peaked roof. Next to it, a tiny farmer and his bull ploughed a brown square. Above him, a dark fur of pines just before the snow took over all but the jutting peaks of the Alps beyond. Alison touched the window. She turned her head in time to see an older Peugeot switch off its head lamps as it emerged from the tunnel ahead. The tunnel easily took the logging truck. A second later it took them. Inside the sound changed. There was a vibration. When Lazzero switched on the head lamps, the tunnel appeared, chipped out, raw, parts of it glossed dark by running water. The car was awake again. They looked at the cut ends of the logs one last time. Lazzero accelerated and took them alongside the truck.
J.V. Hilger’s work has appeared in Stone Canoe and Thrice Fiction. He lives in New York City and is currently at work on a novel.