Read The Chain of Chance Online

Authors: Stanislaw Lem

The Chain of Chance (3 page)

After merging with the traffic, I found I now had other thoughts to occupy me. The whole thing had the appearance of a quiet epileptic fit,
un petit mal.
Such attacks were not uncommon, even without convulsions. She might have felt the first symptoms coming on, decided to stop the car, then once inside the pavilion suddenly fainted. That would explain the blank stare and that insectlike movement of the fingers as she went to scratch the neck of her blouse. Then again, there was always the possibility of a simulation. I couldn’t recall having seen her Opel along the way, but then I hadn’t been that observant; besides, there was no telling how many Opels I’d come across with the same white finish and rectangular lines. I went over every detail in my mind, re-examining each as if through a magnifying glass. A shop like that must have had at least two if not three attendants on duty. Had they all gone out for a drink at the same time? Strange. Though nowadays even that was possible. Maybe they’d ducked out to a café, knowing that no customer would drop in at the pavilion at that time of day. And the girl must have thought it better to have the attack there, rather than at the station, where she had no intention of creating a scene for the benefit of those fellows in the Supercortemaggiori overalls. That all seemed logical enough, maybe even a bit too logical. She was traveling alone. Now what person in her condition would risk traveling alone? Even if she’d pulled out of it, I wouldn’t have let her get behind the wheel again; I’d have advised her to leave the Opel parked where it was and to climb into my car. Anyone in my shoes would have done the same. That’s exactly what I would have done if I had been just a tourist.

The heat was beginning to get to me. I should have stayed behind and let myself fall into the trap—assuming it
was
a trap. That’s what I was here for, damn it! The more convinced I became that her fainting spell had been real, the less sure I was of it. And not only where her fainting spell was concerned. People just don’t leave a shopping pavilion unattended like that, not when it’s nearly the size of a department store. At least there should have been a cashier behind the register. But even the cashier’s desk had been empty. True, the inside of the store was clearly visible from the little café that stood facing it across the ditches. But who could have guessed that I would be going in there? No one. Anyway, it wasn’t I they were after—unless I was singled out as an anonymous victim. If so, then whose victim? Unless they were all in on it together—the attendants, the cashier, the girl. But that struck me as being too far-fetched. A pure coincidence, then. So we were back where we’d started. Adams had driven all the way to Rome without incident. Alone, too. But what about the others? Suddenly I remembered the golf club in the Opel. Good Lord, those were the same kind of clubs that…

I was determined to get a firm grip on myself, even if I’d already made a fool of myself. Like a bad but stubborn actor, I went back to playing the role I’d flubbed so miserably. At the next gas station I asked for an inner tube without getting out of the car. A handsome, dark-haired man inspected my tires. “You’re driving tubeless, sir.” But I was adamant. While I paid for the tube, I kept one eye on the highway so I wouldn’t miss the Chrysler. Not a sign of it. Fourteen kilometers down the road I replaced one of the good tires with the spare. I did it because Adams had made a tire change. As I crouched down beside the jack, the heat finally caught up with me. The jack needed oiling and squeaked. Overhead the sky was rent by the screeching roar of invisible jets, reminding me of the barrage of ship artillery covering the Normandy bridgehead. What made me think of that now? Later I had made another trip to Europe, this time as an official showpiece, as one of the crew from the Mars mission—though, as a backup pilot, only a second-rate, make-believe one. In those days Europe had shown me its more flattering side, whereas only now was I getting to know it if not better then at least more informally: the pissy back streets of Naples, the gruesome-looking prostitutes, even the hotel still boasting of its starlets but inwardly decayed and infested with street hustlers; the porno house, which once upon a time would have been unthinkable alongside such a shrine. But maybe it was the other way around. Maybe there was some truth to the rumor that Europe was rotting from above, from the top.

The metal paneling and tool kit were blazing hot. I cleaned my hands with some cleansing cream, wiped them dry with Kleenex, then climbed back into the car. At the last station I’d bought a bottle of Schweppes, but it took me a while to open it, because I couldn’t lay my hands on the pocketknife with the bottle opener. As I swallowed the bitter liquid I thought of Randy, who was listening to me drink while driving along somewhere on the highway. The headrest was scorching hot from the sun’s rays, and the back of my neck felt baked to a crisp. A metallic sheen lay shimmering on the asphalt near the horizon like a pool of water. Was that thunder in the distance? Sure enough, a thunderstorm. Most likely it was thundering that time the jets had roared across the sky, and the constant drone of the highway had drowned out the storm’s fainter rumblings. Now everything was drowned out by the thunder, which cracked through the yellow-gold clouds till a pall of strident yellow hung over the mountains.

Some road signs announced the approach of Frosinone. Sweat was trickling down my back as if someone were running a feather between my shoulder blades. The storm, displaying all the theatricality of the Italians, rumbled menacingly without shedding a drop of rain, while gray tufts of cloud drifted across the landscape like an autumnal haze. Once, as I was starting around a winding curve, I could see where a long diagonal column was trying to pull a cloud down to the road. The sound of the first heavy drops splattering on the windshield was a welcome relief. Suddenly I was caught in a furious downpour.

By this time my windshield had become a battlefield. I waited a while before turning on the wipers. When the last of the insect debris had been washed away, I switched off the wipers and pulled over to the shoulder of the road, where I was supposed to stay parked for a full hour. The rain came in sheets and pounded on the roof, and the passing cars left blurry streaks of iridescent drops and billowing sprays of water in their tracks, while I just sat back and relaxed. Soon the water came trickling through the side vent onto my knee. I lit a cigarette, cupping it with my palm to keep it dry. The menthol left a bad taste in my mouth. A silver-colored Chrysler drove by, but the windshield was so flooded with water I couldn’t be sure it was the right one. The sky was turning darker. First came the lightning, then peals of thunder cracking like sheet metal that was being ripped apart. To pass the time I counted the seconds between a bolt of lightning and a clap of thunder. The highway rumbled and roared; nothing could silence it. The hands on my watch showed it was past seven: it was time. I got out reluctantly. At first the cold rain shower was uncomfortable, but after a while it felt invigorating. All the time I pretended to be fixing the windshield wipers, I kept glancing out onto the road. No one seemed to take any notice of me; not one patrol car came my way. Soaked to my skin, I got back into the car and drove off.

Even though the storm was starting to ease up, it was getting darker by the moment. Past Frosinone the rain let up completely, the road was drier, and the puddles lying on either side of the road gave off a low white steam that mingled with the headlight beams. Finally, as if the land were eager to show itself in a new light just before nightfall, the sun came out from behind the clouds. With everything cast in an eerie pink glow, I drove the car into the parking lot of a Pavesi restaurant arching above the highway. After unsticking my shirt from my body to make the sensors less noticeable, I went upstairs. I hadn’t noticed the Chrysler in the lot. Upstairs, people were babbling away in ten different languages and eating without so much as a glance at the cars shooting by down below like bowling balls. At some point, though I couldn’t say exactly when, a sudden calm came over me, and I gave up worrying. It was as if the incident with the girl had taken place years ago. I relaxed over a couple of cups of coffee and a glass of Schweppes with lemon, and might have gone on relaxing if it hadn’t dawned on me that the building was made of reinforced concrete: the interference might have made them lose track of my heartbeat. When you’re transmitting between Houston and the moon, you don’t have to worry about such problems. On my way out I washed my hands and face in the rest room, smoothed my hair in front of the mirror with a look of self-annoyance, then drove off again.

I still had some time to kill, so I drove as though the horse knew the way and all I had to do was to let up on the reins. I neither wandered in my thoughts nor passed the time daydreaming, but just switched off and pretended I wasn’t there—“the vegetable life,” I used to call it. Still, I must have been somewhat alert, because I managed to stop the car right on schedule. It was a good place to park, situated just below the summit of a gentle rise where the highway knifed through the top of the ridge like a perfect geometric incision. Through this slitlike opening I could see all the way to the horizon, where, with resolute energy, the asphalt strip cut straight across the next sloping hump. The one closest to me looked like a sighting notch, the one farthest like a rifle bead. Before cleaning the windshield I first had to open the trunk, because I’d already used up the last of the Kleenex. I touched the suitcase’s soft bottom, where the weapon was resting peacefully. As though by some unconscious design, practically all the headlights went on at the same time. I scanned the broad expanse below. The route to Naples was streaked with patches of white that turned progressively redder as one approached Rome, where the road was now a bed of glowing coals. At the bottom of the grade, drivers were having to use their brakes, transforming that particular stretch into a vibrant strip of shimmering red—a pretty example of a stationary wave. If the road had been three times as wide, it could have been a road in Texas or Montana. Though standing only a few steps away from the edge of the road, I felt so alone I was overcome by a serene calm. People need grass every bit as much as goats do, and no one knows that better than the goats. As soon as I heard a helicopter churning through the invisible sky, I tossed my cigarette away and got into the car, whose warm interior still preserved traces of the afternoon heat.

Stark neon lights beyond the hills announced the approach of Rome. I still had some driving ahead of me, because my instructions were to circle the city first. The growing darkness obscured the faces of the people in the other cars, and the things piled high on the roofs took on weird and mysterious shapes. Everything was assuming a grave and impersonal aspect, full of hidden implications, as if matters of an extremely urgent nature were waiting at the road’s end. Every backup astronaut has to be a little bit of a bastard, because something in him is always waiting for the regulars to slip up, and if not, then he’s a stupid ass. I had to make another stop. The coffee in combination with the Plimasine, Schweppes, and ice water did the trick. I left the side of the road on foot and was struck by the surroundings. Not only the traffic but time along with it seemed to fade. Standing with my back to the highway, and despite the exhaust fumes, I could make out the scent of flowers in the gently fluttering breeze. What would I have done now if I were thirty? No sense brooding over such questions; better to button your fly and get behind the wheel again. The ignition key slipped between my fingers, and I fumbled around in the dark for it between the pedals, not wanting to switch on the interior light. As I drove along, I felt neither drowsy nor alert, neither edgy nor relaxed, but somehow strange, vulnerable, even a little astonished. The light from the lampposts streamed through the front windshield, turning my hands on the steering wheel white, then gradually retreated to the back of the car. Billboards came and went like phantoms, the concrete road joints drummed softly underneath. Now to the right, to pick up the city bypass that would bring me out onto the same northern route Adams had used to enter the city. He no longer meant anything to me now. He was just one case out of eleven. It was just a fluke that I’d inherited his things. Randy had insisted on it, and he was right: if you’re going to do a job, then do it properly. The fact that I was using a dead man’s shirts and luggage didn’t faze me in the slightest, and if it was a little hard going at first, then it was only because these things belonged to a stranger, not because their owner was dead. While driving down a lonely and deserted stretch, I kept feeling that something was missing. The windows were rolled down, and the breeze brought the smell of flowers in bloom. Luckily the grasses had already retired for the night. Not once did I have the sniffles. They could talk all they liked about psychology; in the end it was the hay fever that had been the deciding factor. Of that I was sure, even though they’d tried to make me believe otherwise. What they’d said made sense, I suppose, because since when does grass grow on Mars? Besides, being allergic to dust is not a defect. Even so, somewhere in my files, in the space reserved for comments, they must have written the word “allergic”—in other words, defective. Because of that diagnosis I became a backup astronaut—a pencil sharpened with the best possible instruments so that in the end it couldn’t be used to make a single dot. A backup Christopher Columbus, as it were.

I was being blinded now by a steady stream of oncoming traffic; I tried closing one eye and then the other. Had I taken the wrong route? I couldn’t find a single exit. A mood of apathy came over me: I had no choice but to keep driving through the night. A towering billboard sign lit at an angle read
ROMA TIBERINA
. So I was headed in the right direction, after all. The closer I got to the downtown area, the more congested were the lights and traffic. Luckily all the hotels on my itinerary were located close to one another. At each of them I was greeted by the same gesture of outstretched hands—“The season! No vacancy!”—forcing me to get behind the wheel again. At the last hotel there was a vacancy, but I asked for a quiet room in one of the side wings. The porter gave me an inquisitive look; I shook my head with regret and walked back to the car.

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