Bruno Scaparelli's newest customer didn't ask how much the driving lessons would cost. She told him about the car she’d totaled fifteen years ago, the bicycle she rode around town and the six cars in the barn, none of which had automatic transmission, so she couldn't drive them, even if she still had a license.
Six cars, he thought, who owns six cars?
He assured her she would be able to drive stick shift safely and pass the driver’s test, guaranteed.
“I’ve heard you’re very simpatico,” she said. “When can we start?”
Mrs. Roualt lived in the hills west of town, just beyond one of the new starter mansion suburbs, in a restored old farm house with a wide porch wrapping around four sides and a view of vineyards.
She was waiting for him on a porch rocker, a slender woman, taller than Bruno and older, he guessed, with long graying hair and a pleasant face, girlish despite deep wrinkles around the eyes.
He shook her hand firmly and got straight to business. “Mrs. Roualt, I’m gonna make this as easy for you as I can. It’s important you’re comfortable behind the wheel.”
“I’ll be more comfortable if you call me Isabella. May I call you Bruno?”
He nodded absently and pointed at his car, a four-door Saturn. “If you’re ready for lesson one, Isabella, please get in the driver’s seat.”
She eyed the car uneasily.
“The only thing that frightens me is traffic. Do I have to drive on the Interstate?”
He smiled. “That lesson’s optional.”
Bruno started with the basics, showing her how to shift and then having her practice for several minutes with the engine off.
After one difficult moment—she stepped on the gas instead of the brake and the car lurched into reverse—Isabella began weeping uncontrollably. He fished out the box of tissues he kept on the back seat. Most of his customers were widowed.
“Go ahead and let it out,” he comforted.
Before the second lesson, Isabella led Bruno around the back of the house to the barn and pressed a button that opened a hanging door and turned on the light. Bruno whistled. Inside, six vintage cars gleamed, in mint condition. He recognized some but not all. The T-bird and Studebaker were unmistakable. Was that a Rolls or a Bentley? He removed the baseball cap he always wore in summer, as if he had entered a church. Isabella was watching him carefully and he put the cap back on.
“They’re b-beautiful,” he stammered.
She explained she planned to sell all but one. Perhaps he could help her? She had no idea what they were worth. A portion of the sale would be donated to the American Heart Association in memory of her husband.
“I want the cars to go to people who really care for them.”
“Believe me, no one’s gonna put out the bucks who doesn’t care. I’d be happy to drive any one of ‘em, once in my life.”
“Oh we’ll drive all of them!” Isabella explained with sudden excitement.
“Okay, so now I’m happy.”
“Are you?” She gave him a sharp look. “You’d like to own one, I think.”
He shrugged. “It won’t fit the budget.”
“Maybe we can work something out? You sell four of them. Choose one for yourself and pay, say, a fourth of what it’s worth. Make payments when you can. Or a fifth, whatever you can afford.”
“That’s very tempting.” Bruno’s forehead creased. “But I still got to put my kid through college.”
“I’d give you a car outright in exchange for selling the others,” Isabella went on. “But Adrian would be horrified.”
“Adrian Roualt?” Bruno frowned.
“Did you know him?”
“No. I’ve heard of him, I think.”
“Nothing bad, I hope.”
He regarded her thoughtfully. “Nothing bad. It’s a name I’ve seen somewhere.”
“Maybe in the Argus Courier,” she said proudly. “Adrian got written up several times after he developed those suburbs. He was very active in the Chamber. Are you in the Chamber, Bruno?”
“I never joined. They keep pestering me, though.”
Bruno didn’t take the local paper. Native to Hoboken, he still read the New York Times every Sunday. And he’d not actually seen the name in full before, Adrian Roualt. It was “Adrian” or “Adrian R” or “A.R.” written dozens of times in his ex-wife’s journal, which, suspecting her infidelity, he’d covertly read. He’d never wanted to know who A.R. was. How could he compete with a man who drove a Bentley? He remembered that entry in particular. “A.R. picked me up in a silver Bentley.” He’d imagined a tall, elegant man in an expensive suit with thick silver hair to match the car, a man entirely unlike himself. Bruno was short, stocky and balding, and his wardrobe came from K-Mart.
Four years had passed since he’d confronted Jillian and it still rankled to remember. She’d left him, even though A.R. had moved on to someone else. Apparently he collected women as well as cars. “He made me realize what I’m missing” was her explanation. What was that supposed to mean? He’d been devoted to her.
Briefly he considered ratting Adrian out. But the man was dead, why open the wound? Besides, he’d made it a rule not to got emotionally involved with customers, especially the ones he liked. He liked Isabella. She was a funny woman, smart and plucky. He might wind up driving the damn Bentley. Wouldn’t that be a kick. It’d be worth stretching the budget to see Jillian’s jaw drop when he picked up his son for the weekend. He imagined his kid’s reaction. Tony, not yet 14, was practicing for his training license. He’d stick to him like Velcro to get his hands on the wheel of a car like that.
One by one they steered the grand old cars out of the barn and into the quiet streets of the nearby suburb. They were gorgeous machines, perfectly tuned. The ’49 Jaguar Saloon cruised like a stately ship; that sporty ’50 Studebaker turned on a dime. The oldest in the collection, a ’28 Chevrolet National with a wooden frame and polished oak steering wheel, was strictly a Sunday driver. Bruno was torn between the classic lines of a dark green ’50 deSoto and the sleek ’54 Thunderbird coupe, aquamarine with black top.
When he got into the silver Bentley (’52), his mind went blank. He felt nothing. The past is past, he told himself.
He watched Isabella negotiate gears and turns. It was difficult for her at first, so different from the Saturn, but he’d trained her well. She wore a simple cotton dress and her long, salt and pepper hair was tied up in a knot. Her face was radiant. Perhaps she was thinking about Adrian. At the next stop sign she turned to him and smiled sweetly. “Isn’t this absolutely wonderful?” she breathed.
Finally it was the Bentley she drove to the DMV for her driving test, with Bruno as passenger. He was confident she’d pass the first time, but she returned from the exam crestfallen.
“I flunked parallel parking,” she said. “It was horrible.”
“Aw, that’s too bad, but don’t let it get you down, okay? You’re getting right back behind the wheel.”
“No, I can’t.”
“You gotta. C’mon, I know you can.”
They got in the car, Isabella behind the wheel. She slumped in the seat.
“Who was the examiner?” he asked.
“Rogers! That frigging asshole lard bucket,” he exploded. “Pardon my French. He’s pissed he don’t own this car. You’re gonna whop his fat ass next time, or my name ain’t Scaparelli.” Bruno thumped on the dashboard for emphasis.
Isabella sat up straight and turned the key. “I’m gonna whop that friggin’ asshole’s fat ass,” she declared and carefully eased the car backwards. “Or my name ain’t Roualt.”
Bruno roared. “You’ll be fine,” he said.
“What would I do without you, Bruno?” She gave him a swift sidelong glance, eyes large with delight.
Something long dormant stirred in Bruno then, surprising him. He understood at once the futility of exploring this feeling. She’d think he was after her money. She was ten years older, better educated. And she was still grieving her husband, the man who’d ruined Bruno’s life.
Isabella passed the driver’s test on her second attempt and Bruno brokered the sale of four of the cars. She kept the Bentley. He decided to buy the Thunderbird at a fifth of its value and pay for it in installments over two years. Even so it would be a hardship. But this was a dream car, a gift to himself, because he figured it was time he gave himself something he desired. He had never owned anything truly beautiful before. It would be different from looking at someone else’s classic car during parades or in a museum. He felt a weird affinity with the departed Adrian, except his own must be a purer pleasure, being solitary and hard won.
If he couldn’t have the girl, he’d have the car.
He was thinking about that wild girl who taught him to drive twenty-five years ago somewhere between Hoboken and Tombstone, Arizona. Alice Potowsky. He didn’t even have a driver’s license. His girlfriend had the car and he was following the girl and he didn’t know squat about cars. Her ’59 Chevy Biscayne, rusted out underneath with holes in the floorboard, got them as far as Tombstone, before the transmission dropped and they stuck out their thumbs and landed carless and carefree in the Haight-Ashbury. Alice dumped him, too, he recalled sadly, but couldn’t remember why.
After that, his life focused around cars. He drove a cab for years in San Francisco. And then airport shuttles and wine country limos. He met Jillian at a car show. One thing led to another, he opened a driving school in a small town in the North Bay, and now he couldn’t drive down the main street without a former student waving at him.
“It’s my kar-ma,” he used to say, until Jillian began to mock him.
“Karma, my ass,” she’d retort. “You don’t even own a decent car.”
But how else could he explain his imminent possession of his ex-wife’s lover’s Thunderbird coupe?
Bruno was happiest when he was with Isabella. The rest of the time, he was aware, more often than not, of a persistent and familiar bittersweet ache, which he’d not thought possible ever again. This was a kind of happiness, too.
When she called to invite him to dinner at a new riverfront restaurant, he couldn’t help but hope for a heartbeat or two that something more was on offer.
“We need to celebrate,” she said. “I’ll drive the Thunderbird over to your place and you can take me home after dinner.”
Bruno put on his favorite Hawaiian shirt, a cream colored sports jacket and khaki pants. Picked out a tie, put it on, took it off. He patted the sparse hairs at the side of his head, brushed off his panama. Should he give her some memento, aside from the cheesy certificate all his students received upon completion of the course? He rushed out to the florist in the plaza and bought a gardenia with a pin and a comical graduation card.
The doorbell rang and Bruno hurried to the front entrance of his apartment building. Isabella looked elegant in a black and silver dress with matching jacket. She wore a string of pearls. Now he wished he’d kept the tie on.
“I made it through my first rush hour alone,” she said, handing him the key. “But I’d as soon sit back and be driven, if you don’t mind. Hey, I like your hat.”
He presented her with the gardenia and took her arm.
People turned to stare at the Thunderbird and maybe wonder who was in it. Unbelievable that it would soon be his. Tony said it was a “babe magnet.” But if the lady seated next to him didn’t care to be his, was it just an expensive toy?
It was a balmy summer evening and the windows were rolled down. They were paused at a red light downtown when he heard his name called and turned his head slowly, as if in a dream.
Jillian was in the pedestrian crosswalk a few feet from the car, her mouth still open in a long, questioning “O.”
“You coming or you going?” he asked mildly.
She blinked, too stunned to respond.
The light changed, she jumped back and he let out the clutch and waved good-bye.
“Someone you know?” Isabella seemed amused.
“The ex,” he said with a wild grin.
They dined on a patio over looking the river. He’d never seen a menu like this. The prices were astronomical.
“Shall we start with cocktails?” she asked. “I’d like a glass or two of wine, but should you drink and drive? Adrian always did.” She rolled her eyes. “He was lucky. Never got caught.”
“I’m not a heavy drinker,” Bruno replied. “What do you recommend?”
She ordered a bottle of Cabernet Franc and a couple of starter plates.
“You been keeping busy?” Bruno asked.
She’d been trying to write a story for her grandchildren and working in her garden.
“I have some very fine, very large zucchinis to share,” she smiled.
“I’ll pass on that. What’s the story about?”
“Six classic cars and the tall tales they tell each other while waiting to be driven.”
A good thing that Bentley don’t talk, he thought.
“It’s a terrific idea,” he encouraged her.
“Adrian never knew I let the grandchildren play in the cars.”
“Everyone has their secrets.”
She smiled and raised her glass. “To our successful ventures and your new car.”
“To your new life,” he responded. “The driving life. May it be adventurous as well as safe.”
“That’s lovely, Bruno.”
She extracted from her purse a vehicle title transfer and passed it to him along with a pen. Her eyes shone.
He turned it over, squinted, got out his reading glasses. The sale price was one hundred dollars.
“Isabella!” he protested. “You can’t do this.”
“I can do whatever I please. Isn’t that amazing?”
“It’s not right,” he said uneasily.
“It is too. You sold four cars. The Thunderbird is your 20 percent.”
“I have to pay for the car. Otherwise, I don’t really own it, see.”
She didn’t see. “This is a barter. You’ve paid with your labor and, I might add, your many kindnesses.”
She was staring him down with her pale blue eyes.
If I let her give me the car, he thought, I’m even less her equal. I’ll never have a chance with her. But I don’t stand a chance anyway.
“Think of Tony’s college fund,” she said. “Just sign on the line.”
“Thank you, Isabella. I really am grateful.” He signed the form. “Tony’s grateful, too. Not on account of the college fund. He wants to drive the T-bird.”
“You owe me a Ben.”
He passed her five twenties. “I’m making a donation to the heart fund,” he promised.
“Don’t feel you have to.”
He was suddenly tongue-tied and concentrated on the small plate of crab cakes.
“Very delicious,” he managed.
She looked at him anxiously. “I hope I’ve not embarrassed you?”
“I want you to know my son was worried you were running a scam till I told him how much you got me for the cars. You’re like a guardian angel. Honestly, you deserve that car and more.”
Bruno flushed. He lifted his glass. “Salute! E buon appetito, signora. A tutta cuanda.”
“Bruno! Can you teach me Italian, too?”
“Nah, that’s all I know how to say.
She laughed and told him she planned to study Italian in the fall. It was her dream to live in a Tuscan hill village.
“You could take lessons, too. We could practice with each other.”
“Sure, why not? You been to Italy?”
“Adrian took me ten years ago,” she said dreamily. “It was like a second honeymoon, those two weeks together. We were totally happy there. You know, he was under a lot of pressure and often irritable. He worked night and day.”
“He didn’t deserve you,” Bruno said shortly.
“What? Why would you say that?”
Bruno shrugged and looked out over the river.
“What are you getting at?” she persisted.
“Nothing. Forget I said anything.”
A silence fell between them. Finally Isabella said coolly, “He never gave me cause to doubt him.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” he lied.
“We had a good marriage.” Her voice trembled a little.
“I’m sorry I upset you,” he said.
“Bruno, if there’s something you want to say, please just say it.” She hesitated. “I don’t pay attention to gossip, but you’re not the type to gossip.”
She was giving him that look again, her attention focused on his face, lips parted slightly.
“You’re right,” he said. “So I’m not repeating any gossip.”
That could have been the end of the story, except that Bruno signed up for beginning Italian conversation at the community college, which he’d intended to do for years, anyhow.
Isabella greeted him warmly when he took the seat next to hers.
“I’m so glad to see you here, signor.”
“You inspired me, signora. I’m getting back to my roots.”
“I don’t know about you, my mind is like a sieve.”
“You mentioned practicing together,” he reminded her.
After class they met whenever mutually convenient at a nearby café to go over lessons. The Bentley and Thunderbird, parked side by side in the lot, attracted curious by-passers. Sometimes former students of Bruno’s would come into the café and smile and wave. And once, a woman Isabella knew spotted them.
“I’m in for it now,” she sighed. “She’s the very wellspring of gossip.”
“What’s to gossip about? You’re having a cup of joe with Signor Scaparelli, who is not the town Cassanova, you might have noticed.”
Isabella giggled. “I suppose you’re not.
She didn’t have a clue how he felt about her and he intended to keep it that way. He knew romance wasn’t in the cards. If he thought about moonlight and roses, caresses and kisses, he’d stop himself, ashamed. You don’t do that to a friend, he cautioned himself.
Jillian was convinced something was going down, he knew from her sly innuendos, but he wouldn’t take the bait. She can think what she wants, he gloated.
It was mid-November and Bruno was wearing the panama. She’d told him he looked dapper in it.
“Why do bald men always wear hats?” Isabella asked.
“To keep their heads warm.”
“I’ve never seen you without one. We met in summer.”
He doffed the hat.
“You have a fine looking head,” she remarked.
“Aw, you say that to all the baldies.”
“Only the good looking ones.”
He put the hat back on. “I’ll think it over,” he said, pleased. “You’re awfully chipper today.”
Her voice dropped almost to a whisper. “It’s a façade. I’m fighting off depression.”
“What’s going on?”
“The holidays are looming.”
“Ah, the horridays. You’ll get through it, slugger.”
“Yeah, I will. But, you know.”
“Yeah, it’s your first one solo. Except your family’ll be with you, right?”
“It won’t be the same without Adrian. He always puts on the Santa suit. Put it on,” she corrected herself. “When he bought it, it was way too big and had to be stuffed and then he grew into it.” She smiled, misty-eyed. “Where’s your box of tissues, Bruno?”
“I have a clean handkerchief, signora.”
“Like a magician,” she sniffled into the hankie.
He didn’t meet her again for coffee until after the Thanksgiving break. They pulled into the parking lot at the same time. Isabella emerged from the Bentley looking regal, though she wore an old gray cardigan and knit jumper. It was the way she carried her head. She trailed one hand over the warm hood of the car, caressing it.
“I’ve grown quite attached to that car,” she told Bruno as they walked toward the café. “I’m a different person when I drive it. I think it empowers me somehow. What about you? In the Thunderbird?”
Bruno considered. “I look at it and it’s still hard to believe it’s mine. But when I’m behind the wheel? Yeah, something’s different. I feel, well, young again. Care free. I can almost feel my hair blowing in the wind.”
Isabella laughed. “I bet that’s why Adrian bought it.”
“I think I bought it for my kid,” he said dryly. “He needs the babe magnet.”
Over coffee, she asked, “Is it really a babe magnet?” She was smiling, but he thought a shadow crossed her face.
“Nah,” he said. “Or maybe I’m not paying attention. Maybe there’s babes stacked up on the trunk. Did you happen to notice?”
“Now there’s a picture,” she said. “So, what does your ex think of it?”
“Jillian? She’s flabbergasted. Come to think of it, she has been nicer to me lately.”
“Seriously, Bruno, I worry about you.”
“It’s none of my business, I know, but I think it’s time you let go of her. You’re an attractive man. Why aren’t you dating anyone?”
He looked at her, surprised. “I never give Jillian a thought.”
“That still begs the question,” she said.
“I kind of thought I was dating you,” he blurted out, then, seeing her face change, hastened to add, “That was a joke.”
She put a hand over her mouth.
“Signora?” He tried to say, in Italian, he hadn’t meant it, but she wasn’t buying it.
“Bruno, how stupid of me. I never meant to lead you on.”
“You never led me on. It was a totally stupid thing to say.”
She didn’t reply at once and Bruno’s heart dropped. Had he ruined everything?
“I’m sorry, I’m not open to anything but friendship,” she said finally, looking him in the eye.
“That’s all I want or expect,” he faltered.
“I’m flattered, but anything else is unthinkable now. It’s off the map.”
“I know,” he murmured. “And even if one day you thought, hey, good old Bruno, maybe something’s possible, believe me, it’d never work. You’d wind up dumping me, too.”
“What an awful thing to say.”
“It’s my fate.”
“I don’t believe that for one moment.” She pointed out the window toward the car. “You’re Mr. Babe Magnet now. Why did you choose that car?”
He looked at the Thunderbird. Was it only a car or was it his new life?
“You’re the teacher now,” he said.
“To friendship.” She lifted her cup and he, his.
“You can count on it, amiga. In the friendship department, I’m rock solid.”
“Oh Bruno,” she said quietly. “That ex-wife of yours? She didn’t deserve you.”