The body shop across the street shuts down at six. The chorus of pounding mallets and whirring drills ends and the garage doors come down. Then men in work boots walk to their own cars, start them up and drive away. When the men have left, I carry a bourbon and a folding chair out onto my building’s fire escape. I open the chair and angle it toward the shop. Then I sit and wait.

The sun is still shining brightly this evening. The breeze carries the heat that rises from the asphalt. I sip my drink, glancing every minute or so at the glass and aluminum door of the body shop’s office, listening for the jingle of its chimes. The ritual feels like one I’ve had my entire adult life, but it started just three weeks ago, when I first saw the remote-controlled dune buggy and the Mexican kid who controls it.

I shouldn’t say he’s Mexican. He’s Latino, but I don’t know where he’s from. And I shouldn’t call him a kid. He’s younger than I am, but he’s a man and he works like one. In three weeks, he hasn’t missed a day at the shop.

He emerges from the office when everyone else is gone, carrying the radio control and cradling the car and his wadded up coveralls against his chest. When he has locked the door, he drops the coveralls and sets the car down gently, touching all four wheels to the ground at once. The car is all tires and batteries and engine. Plastic-coated wires bow out where a chassis should be.

The kid pulls the antenna on the remote to its full height and grasps the plastic box with both hands. Then he sets the car in motion. He slaloms around oil stains and drives it through dips in the asphalt, getting some air on the way up. The car is extremely fast but, even in the tight confines of the parking lot, the kid never loses control of it.

After the drills, he sends the buggy into the bike lane on Milwaukee Avenue and waits. Then, when a real car drives by, the kid sends the buggy out after it. The little car matches the two-ton car’s thirty-miles-an-hour for half a block, then breaks off and returns to the shop, bouncing over cracks in the sidewalk. The routine gives the kid’s car an anima — it seems to be chasing away the real car. But what gives the car any spirit, any motion at all, is the kid himself. He is the one chasing the cars.

He really fucks with cabs. He sends the buggy out ahead, so the cab driver can see it, then steers it directly into the cab’s path. If the nervous driver slows down or stops, the kid circles the buggy for a frontal attack. At this point the cabbie usually speeds off, driving into the opposite lane to create a little more space between his cab and the kid’s drone. Then the kid calls the buggy back with his thumbs.

The exhibition only lasts about fifteen minutes — the evening light seems unchanged when the kid wraps up the car and the remote in his coveralls and carries them toward the bus stop at Chicago Avenue. Maybe the car’s batteries run low. Maybe the kid gets his fill or scares himself into quitting. I watch his face for clues, but the antics that thrill me don’t seem to affect him at all. He seems deadly serious about the whole thing. Maybe he races RC cars. Maybe he sends the prize money home or saves it up to buy a real car. It must bother him that he works all day at a body shop with guys who come and go in their own cars while he takes the bus. But I don’t know. I’ve been watching this show for three weeks and I still don’t know anything about the guy putting it on.

Tonight, just before seven, the kid hasn’t come out yet. Is he off sick? Did a cab dispatcher call the body shop and get the kid fired? What if he went out the back door and forgot to lock the front? If somebody were to show up tomorrow and find the door unlocked, he’d be fired, for sure.

I stare at the glass door for a few minutes, thinking I might catch a glimpse of him. But I don’t see anyone. The place looks and feels abandoned.

Without really deciding to, I get up and walk inside my apartment. I pull my loosely tied gym shoes over my bare feet and walk out my front door, pulling it closed behind me. I scamper down the stairs, push one glass door open, then another, and step out onto the sidewalk. I wait for a car to pass, then hustle across Milwaukee.

I worry that the kid will come out just as I reach the door, but he doesn’t. I peer through the door and find no one. Then I pull the handle. The door is locked.

I’m relieved, but the locked door only eliminates one cause for the kid’s dismissal. It doesn’t tell me anything about the kid. Where is he tonight? Will he be back tomorrow?

I head for home. I walk to the body shop’s driveway and stand where it meets the street. A hatchback passes. A pickup passes. Then a cab passes and I take off after it. The passenger, a man, stares out the back windshield as I sprint down the bike lane, losing ground with every step. After half a block, I give up. I watch the cab disappear behind the rise of an overpass. Then I cross back to my side of Milwaukee, sweating and smiling.

Maria Venegas
Interview with Dinaw Mengestu