Read The Chain of Chance Online

Authors: Stanislaw Lem

The Chain of Chance (2 page)

That was the extent of my farewell. A porter carried out my bags, and I followed him into the stubborn heat. A Hertz rental car was waiting, with two wheels rolled up onto the curb. A Hornet, black as a hearse. I stopped the porter just in time from loading my luggage into the trunk, where I had a hunch the transmitter was stored, and sent him on his way with a tip. Climbing into the car was like climbing into an oven. I immediately broke out in a sweat and reached into
pocket for the gloves. Unnecessary, since the steering wheel was upholstered with leather. The trunk turned out to be empty—so where could they have put the amplifier? It was lying on the floorboard on the passenger’s side, hidden underneath a magazine that was spread out in such a way that a naked blonde on the cover lay staring up at me passively, with her moist and shiny tongue hanging out. I made no sound, but something inside me quietly groaned as I began merging with the heavy traffic. A solid line from one light to the next. Even though I’d slept enough, I felt moody and on edge, first grouchy and then a little giddy. That’s what I got for eating all that damned spaghetti, which I normally couldn’t stand. It was always the same: the greater the danger, the more weight I’d put on. At the next intersection I turned on the blower, which immediately began bubbling with exhaust fumes. I switched it off. Cars were lined up bumper to bumper, Italian style. A detour. In both mirrors nothing but car roofs and automobile hoods,
la potente benzina italiana
stank of carbon monoxide, and I was stalled behind a bus, trapped in its smelly exhaust fumes. Some kids, all wearing the same green caps, sat gawking at me through the rear window. My stomach felt like a lump of dough, my head was on fire, and stuck to my heart was a sensor that caught on my suspenders every time I turned the wheel. I broke open a package of Kleenex and stuck a few tissues on top of the steering column. My nose was starting to tickle the way it always did before a storm. I sneezed once, twice, and soon was so busy sneezing I lost track of ever having left Naples, now fading in the azure coastal sky. I was cruising along the Strada del Sole now. Traffic was pretty light for the rush hour, but it was as if I’d never taken the Plimasine: my eyes were tingling and my nose was running, though my mouth was dry. I could have used some coffee, though I’d already drunk two cappuccinos back at the hotel, but the first coffee break wasn’t till Magdalena.
The Herald
wasn’t on the stands again because of some strike or other. While I was boxed in between some smoking Fiats and a Mercedes, I turned on the radio. It was a news broadcast, though most of it was lost on me. Some demonstrators had set fire to a building. One of the security guards was interviewed. The feminist underground promised more demonstrations in the future; then a woman, speaking in a deep alto, read a proclamation by the terrorists condemning the Pope, followed by various voices of the press…

A women’s underground. Nothing took one by surprise any more. People had lost all capacity to be surprised. What were they fighting against, anyhow? The tyranny of men? I didn’t feel like a tyrant, any more than others did. Woe to the playboys! What were they planning to do to them? Would they wind up kidnapping the clergy, too? I shut off the radio as if slamming shut a garbage chute.

To have been in Naples and not seen Vesuvius—it was almost unforgivable of me. All the more so since I’d always been amiably disposed toward volcanoes. Half a century ago my father used to tell me bedtime stories about them. I’m turning into an old man, I thought, and was as stunned by this last thought as if I’d said I was on the verge of becoming a cow. Volcanoes were something solid, something that inspired trust. The earth erupts, lava spills, houses collapse. Everything looks so marvelous and simple to a five-year-old. I was sure you could reach the center of the earth by climbing down a crater, though my father had disputed that. Too bad he died when he did; he’d have been so proud of me. You don’t have time to contemplate the terrifying silence of those infinite expanses when you’re listening to the marvelous sound of the couplers as they moor the space vehicle to the module. Granted, my career had been a short one, and all because I’d proved myself unworthy of Mars. He’d have taken the news a lot harder than I did. What the hell—would you rather have had him die right after your first flight, so he could have closed his eyes still believing in you? Now, was that cynical or just plain petty of me? Better keep your eyes on the road.

As I was squeezing in behind a psychedelic-painted Lancia, I glanced in the mirror. Not a sign of the Hertz-rented Chrysler. Something had flashed back in the vicinity of Marianelli, but I couldn’t be sure, because the other car had dropped out of sight again. On me alone did this short and monotonous highway, now teeming with an energetic mob on wheels, bestow the privilege of its secret, a secret that had uncannily eluded the police of both the old and new worlds combined. I alone had in my car trunk an air mattress, a surfboard, and a badminton racket intended not for sport and recreation but for inviting a treacherous blow from out of the unknown, I tried to get a little worked up, but the whole affair had ceased to be an adventure, had lost its charm. My thoughts were no longer on the mystery of the deadly conspiracy, only on whether it was time for another Plimasine to stop my constantly runny nose. I didn’t care any more where the Chrysler was; besides, the transmitter had a hundred-mile range. My grandmother once had had a pair of bloomers on the attic line matching the color of that Lancia.

At six-twenty I began stepping on the gas. For a while I stayed behind a Volkswagen with a pair of sheep’s eyes painted on the back that kept staring at me in tender reproach. The car is an amplifier of the personality. Later I cut in behind a fellow countryman from Arizona with a bumper sticker that read:
In front and in back of me were cars piled high with outboards, water skis, golf bags, fishing gear, paddle boards, and bundles in all shapes and colors including orange and raspberry-red: Europe was doing its damnedest to “have a nice day.” I held up my right hand and then my left one, as I’d done so many times in the past, and examined my outstretched fingers. Not one of them was shaking. They say that’s the first sign. But who’s to say for sure? No one can claim to be an authority in such matters. If I held my breath for a whole minute, Randy would certainly panic. What a half-assed idea!

A viaduct. The air made a flapping noise along the concrete uprights. I stole a glance at the scenery, a marvelous panorama of desolate green stretching all the way to the mountains that framed the horizon. A Ferrari as flat as a bedbug chased me out of the fast lane, and I broke out in another fit of sneezing that sounded more like swearing. My windshield was dotted with the remains of flies, my pant legs were sticking to my calves, and the glare from the wipers was killing my eyes. As I went to blow my nose, the package of Kleenex slipped down into the gap between the front seats and made a rustling noise. Who can describe that still-life spectacle that takes place in orbit? Just when you think you’ve got everything tied, secured, magnetized, and taped down with adhesive, the real show begins—that whirling swarm of felt-tip pencils, eyeglasses, and the loose ends of cables writhing about in space like lizards. Worst of all were the crumbs, hunting for crumbs with a vacuum cleaner…

Or dandruff. The hidden background of mankind’s cosmic steps was usually passed over in silence. Only children would dare to ask how you pee on the moon.

The mountains loomed up brown and sturdy, serene and somehow familiar. One of earth’s more scenic spots. When the road later changed direction, the sun started shifting around the car’s interior in a rectangular pattern, reminding me of the silent and majestic rotation of light inside the cabin. Day lurking within night, the one merging with the other as before the creation of the world, and then man’s dream of flying becomes a reality, and the body’s confusion, its dismay when the impossible becomes possible…

Although I’d attended a number of lectures on motion sickness, I had my own thoughts on the subject. Motion sickness was no ordinary attack of nausea, but a panic of the intestines and the spleen; though not usually conspicuous, they protested. Their bewilderment evoked only pity in me. All the time we were enjoying the cosmos, it was making them sick. They couldn’t take it from the start. When we insisted on dragging them there, they revolted, though training obviously helped. But even if a bear can be taught to ride a bicycle, that doesn’t mean he’s cut out for it. The whole thing was ridiculous. We kept at it till the cerebral congestion and hardening of the intestines went away, but that was only postponing the inevitable: sooner or later we had to come back down. After landing on earth we had to put up with the excruciating pressure, the painful ordeal of having to unbend our knees and backs, and the sensation of having our heads spin around like bullets. I was fully aware of the effects, because I’d often seen athletically trained men made so uncomfortable by their inability to move that they would have to be lowered into tubs where they could be momentarily freed of bodily weight. Damned if I know what made me think it’d be any different with me.

According to that bearded psychologist, my own case was not exceptional. But even after you regained your sense of gravity, the experience of orbital weightlessness would come back to haunt you as a kind of nostalgia. We’re not meant for the cosmos, and for that very reason we’ll never give up,

A flashing red signal traveled straight to my foot, short-circuiting my brain. My tires made a crunching sound as they rolled over something like spilled rice, only bigger, like hailstones, which turned out to be glass. Traffic was slowing down to a crawl; the right lane was blocked off with traffic cones. I tried to get a glimpse beyond the line-up of cars and caught sight of a yellow helicopter in the process of making a slow landing in a field, the dust swirling under its fuselage like flour. On the ground lay two metal hulks, their hoods up and their front ends rammed into each other. But why so far off the road? And why were there no people around? Again the sound of glass crunching under tires as we drove at a snail’s pace past a line of policemen waving us on with the words “Faster, faster!” Police helmets, ambulances, stretchers, an overturned car with one wheel still spinning and its directional signal still blinking… The highway was under a cloud of smoke. From burning asphalt? More likely gasoline. Cars began switching back to the right lane, and breathing became easier as soon as traffic started picking up speed. A death toll of forty had been predicted. Soon an elevated restaurant came into view. Next door the sparks of a welder’s torch lit up the dark interior of the car repair shops located inside the sprawling
area di servizio.
Judging by my odometer, Cassino was the next exit. At the first bend in the road, my nose suddenly stopped tickling: the Plimasine had finally worked its way through the spaghetti.

Another curve. At one point I had the chilling sensation of being stared at from below, as if someone were lying on his back and watching my every move from underneath the car seat. The sun had fallen on the magazine cover featuring the blonde with the tongue on display. Without taking my eyes from the road I leaned forward and flipped the magazine over. For an astronaut you lead a pretty rich inner life—I was told by the psychologist after the Rorschach test. I couldn’t remember which of us had started up the conversation, he or I. There were two kinds of anxiety, he claimed—one high, the other low, the first coming from the imagination, the second straight from the guts. Was he serious, or was he just trying to console me by implying I was too sensitive?

A hazy, washed-out film was all that was left of the clouds. Gradually a gas station drew near. I was just slowing down when some crazy old sport, his long hair blowing in the wind, raced ahead of me with a lot of racket and show in a broken-down Votan. I branched off toward the pumps, and while the tank was being filled I finished the rest of the Thermos, with its yellowish-brown residue of sugar at the bottom. No one bothered to wipe off the oil and blood spots on the window. After pulling up next to a construction site, I climbed out of the driver’s seat and stretched my bones. Not far from where I was parked stood the glass-walled shopping pavilion where Adams had stopped to buy a deck of cards, imitation of Italian tarot cards dating from the eighteenth or nineteenth century. The station was in the process of being expanded; a mound of white, unlaid gravel stood surrounding a trench that had been dug out for a new gas pump. A glass door parted and I went inside the shop, which turned out to be deserted. Was it siesta time, I wondered? No, it was too late in the day for that. I wandered in and out of stacks of gaudy boxes and artificial fruit. A white escalator going to the second floor started moving whenever I came near it but stopped the moment I walked away. I saw a profile of myself on the television monitor installed near the front windows. The black-and-white picture flickered in the sunlight and made me look paler than usual. Not a clerk in sight. The shelves were piled high with cheap souvenirs and stacks of postcards all of the same variety. I reached into my pocket for some change. While looking around for a clerk, I heard the crunching of gravel under tires. A white Opel skidded to a halt, and out stepped a blonde in a pair of jeans who made her way around the ditches and into the shop. Though my back was turned, I could see her on the television monitor. She was standing perfectly still, only a dozen or so steps in back of me. From the counter I picked up a facsimile of an ancient woodcut showing a smoking Vesuvius towering above the bay. On the same counter were some cards featuring reproductions of Pompeian frescoes of the sort that would have shocked our fathers. The blonde took a few steps toward me as if trying to make up her mind whether I was a salesclerk. The escalator began moving without a sound, but the tiny figure in pants kept her distance.

I turned around and started for the exit. So far nothing out of the ordinary. She had a childlike face, a blank expression in the eyes, a delicate little mouth. Only once did I slow down while passing her; it was when she fixed me with those gaping eyes of hers, at the same time scratching the neck of her blouse with her fingernail; then she keeled over backward without uttering a sound or batting an eyelash. I was so unprepared for this reaction that before I could lunge toward her she slumped to the floor. Unable to catch her, I managed only to break her fall by grabbing hold of her bare arms as if helping her stretch out on her back of her own free will. She lay there, stiff as a doll. Anyone looking in from the outside would have thought I was kneeling beside an overturned dummy, several of which stood in the windows on either side of me, dressed in Neapolitan costumes. I grabbed her wrist; her pulse was weak but steady. Her teeth were partly showing, and the whites of her eyes were visible as if she were sleeping on her back with her eyelids half open. Less than a hundred meters away, cars were pulling up to the pumps, then wheeling around again and rejoining the steady stream of traffic roaring along the del Sole. Only two cars were parked out in front—mine and the girl’s. Slowly I got up and gazed down at the figure stretched out on the floor. Her forearm, the one whose slender wrist I had just let go of, swung limply to one side; as it pulled the rest of the arm along with it and exposed the light-blond hairs lining her armpit, I noticed two tiny marks resembling scratches or a miniature tattoo. I had seen similar marks once before, on concentration-camp prisoners—runic signs of the SS. But these looked more like an ordinary birthmark. I had the urge to kneel down again but checked the impulse and headed for the exit instead. As if to emphasize the fact that the scene was over, the escalator suddenly came to a stop. On my way out I threw a final backward glance. A bunch of brightly colored balloons stood in the way, but I could still see her prostrate body on the far television screen. The picture jiggled, but I could have sworn it was she who moved. I waited two or three seconds more, but nothing happened. The glass door obligingly let me pass; I jumped across the mounds, climbed into the Hornet, and backed up so I could make out the Opel’s license plate. It was a German plate. A golf club was sticking up out of a motley pile of junk crammed into the back seat.

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