The Lancia

I wrote this piece of fiction for SCAD’s District Quarterly, which is a student run literary journal that comes out every quarter. The issue’s theme was nostalgia, and is available on District Quarterly’s website. It’s about an old man reliving a moment from his long gone racing career.

            He’s an old man now and his thick white hair, the dark spots on his skin and the creaking he feels in his knees and hips are always there to remind him of the years gone by.  As he settles into his armchair his knees make sure to register their displeasure before the overstuffed leather pulls him in and massages at the arthritic joints.

            On the TV a single channel plays. It’s number 142, and that’s all he knows about it, and all that he really cares to know. The name isn’t important, just what’s on it.


            Yes, most of it’s from the last fifteen years or so, well past his glory days, but he doesn’t care anymore. It’s all just white noise to him now.

            His eyes droop, and then flutter as the sharp cracks and shrieks from engines blend with announcers’ voices to form an uneven tempo. The murmur of speech sends the lids drooping down, while a quick burst of noise from a car or the snapping of crashing metal sends them struggling back up. By the time they open it doesn’t matter since the moment’s passed and so has his interest. The eyelids fall like a heavy curtain that quickly and completely blocks everything out.

            The engines get softer. The voices recede. Gray and black shapes dance in front of his eyes, enticing him to sleep. He relaxes and lets his fingers stretch out as sleep slowly starts to spread throughout his body.

            The TV’s not even a murmur now. Its noises are on the same level as static where the brain can only tune it out.

            But even at the edge of unconsciousness he hears it.

            One, two…three.

            It’s incredibly soft. In fact his ears can’t even make out the sound. But the pattern is what some part of his brain catches.

            One, two…three.

            The gray and black shapes stop dancing. He tries to pull back from unconsciousness, but it’s not going to give up without a fight. His eyes won’t open. They only flutter, letting in small jets of light.

            One, two…three.

            His ears are back, though. He can tell that it’s a car backfiring. Two quick bursts of noise like a trumpet duet as a car slows, followed by a pause, and then the last final blat of the turbo dumping everything into the exhaust as it slows.

            It reminds him of a tuba.

            He hadn’t heard that in forty years, and there was only one car that made him think that.

            As if they were on springs, his eyes snap open. On the screen a red, white, and green wedge shorter than any man flies past the camera. It’s a shape he recognizes instantly from the bug-eyed headlights and the massive tires that take up almost the entire car. On the side is “37,” set in a round white circle, that’s just visible before the car streaks down the dirt road.

            It’s his car. His old Lancia Stratos.

            Deep in his memory the name pops the lock. 1976. Northern Italy. Dirt roads spiraling up mountains.

            He’s storming the mountain with his navigator. Rocks ping off the body and rain down the side of the mountain as the Lancia slides through the corners of the switchbacks. For every corner that he has to slow down for there’s always a steep, but straight, stretch of road that’s another rung up the mountainside. He buries his foot in the throttle every time, scraping his thin shoes against bare metal as he works the clutch. Even now his foot itches as though hard leather, not soft cloth, were pressing against it.

            The TV makes it look slow, but it wasn’t. He remembers how it felt.

            In every turn he’s thrown against the side of the racing seat. The thick plastic digs into his ribs to keep him upright. Centrifugal force tears at him and does its best to pull him out the door, but the seat keeps him still. His side prickles as remembered pain needles his ribs.

            They’re almost to the crest of the mountain. The navigator, it was Alonso, wasn’t it? Or was it Michael? They both sounded the same, and they both pointed at the map as if he could read it. A white glove shoots out, almost punching the windshield, gesturing at the road, shouting for him to slow down.

            White hair bobs as he nods. It’s Alonso. He always worried that they’d fly off into space.

            He snorts and buries the pedal. The Lancia leaps forward, propelled by a cacophony of turbo whines and controlled explosions. It sounds––feels––like the Apocalypse itself is going to slingshot the car off the edge of the world. It presses him back into the hard seat and forces him tighten his grip on the wheel. He’s fighting the road now as the Lancia charges for the mountain crest.

Every bump makes itself known and bump and dip’s effect goes through the tires, the seat and into his spine. The front wheels careen off the same rocks and bumps, which the steering telegraphs into his arms. All of it meets right at his tired neck to jostle the heavy helmet and blur his vision. Still, he keeps his foot down.

            The crest approaches, and the Lancia rockets over it. All four wheels leave the ground and the bottom drops out of his chest, which sends a quick flash of panic through him. Gravity’s stopped playing by the rules it seems. Fighting for breath, he still works the steering wheel, but it’s pointless. The car noses down toward the road. The angle looks too steep, and he wonders if Alonso was right. 

            On the TV it doesn’t look good, and it felt much worse. 

            Gravity violently reasserts itself. The front hits first, with the suspension crashing against the car so hard that it sounds like a sledgehammer hitting concrete. Inertia shoves him upward, trying desperately to throw out of the seat. His head cracks against the roof with the helmet taking the worst. After the race they’ll find a dent in the roof and a split in the helmet.

            The wheel almost spins out of his hands as the Lancia’s rear wheels hit the ground, gain traction, and shoot it forward. The engine shrieks, the turbo whines, and Alonso starts shouting. It sounds something like, “turn.”

            They’re approaching a 90 degree left-hand turn that only a train could take this fast. Beyond the edge is empty space followed by a long drop down.

            He spins the wheel, gripping it so tightly that his knuckles ache. His feet start the complicated dance of declutch, brake, throttle, brake, clutch, throttle that a tap dancer could never hope to keep up with. He downshifts and sends the engine into a new stratosphere of shrieking nose punctuated by the unburned gas exploding as the turbo dumped everything into the exhaust.

            Again, he thinks of the tuba.

            The Lancia swings around like a lead weight on a string. The front end plants itself, letting the back arc out. It looks smooth, but the wheel fights his one hand, trying desperately to right itself and send the entire car off the mountain.            

            In his chair, he sees it all slow down and stretch out far longer than it could possibly have taken. He remembers the feel of the car sliding across the dirt, with all the small bumps rattling his hands. An acrid stench fills his nose. It’s the brakes; the smell of hot asbestos mixing with the sharp scent of unburned gasoline. Through the soft leather, he can almost feel the back right tire scrabble on the road’s uneven edge as it fights for grip.

            There’s a pause, one felt in his fingertips and feet as engine and tires came to a decision. This was the moment, he remembers, where he thought it would all end.

            But it never does.

            The tires throw out rocks and clods of dirt that thud against the bumper,

            He sighs, even if he doesn’t remember doing it. On the screen the Lancia shoots down the road, taking every corner at speed with the rear always kicking out in a controlled drift.

            His hands ache.

            The spotted skin is stretched across the tendons of his fingers. He’s trying to hold a turn he hasn’t made in forty years while his other hand is trying to curl around the gearshift. His feet still twitch, searching for brakes and throttle.

            He forces himself to relax, and the tendons slowly recede back into the folds of his skin like a switchblade folded back into its handle. With his eyes fixed on the TV he can still feel the car pitching under him, as he tells himself that the blood pressure pills are what’s making his eyes water.


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