by Stephen Jordan
During the afternoon in rural Java when people went inside for shade, I was reminded of snowstorms that drove people inside for warmth. The association may have been the absolute stillness. The people outside were intruders; they marred the perfection and were noticed.
One afternoon at my desk, I heard voices outside and went to the window. Five men pushed an old Peugeot into the compound below. They stopped the car under the trees; two men got in the car and fell asleep; the other three walked through the gates into the shimmering green heat.
From the second floor, I looked down on the old Peugeot and envied the two men sleeping through the day’s heat. I went back to my desk and tried writing a report about the fire at P.T. Rokok’s cigarette factory that had destroyed millions of dollars of tobacco inventory the company had pledged as collateral. The bank I worked for had extended loans secured on that collateral; I was sent to P.T. Rokok’s headquarters in Semerang, a medium-sized city in Central Java, to survey the damage and deal with the insurance companies.
The report could wait until the cool of the evening, so I went back to the window. A tropical storm was boiling off the Java Sea; a foreboding wind rustled the trees. Birds took flight; some found shelter under the eaves. The compound gate was closed. Windows slammed shut as the sky went shadowy. Outside lights came on; the barbed wire and broken glass on top of the walls glinted. The compound was battened down for the onslaught. I returned to my desk and dozed off thinking about that old Peugeot.
A thunder clap woke me. Overhead the crackling sky reeked of ozone; lightening and thunder were simultaneous. I went back to the window trying to clear my head and remembered my mother’s cobalt-blue Peugeot she named François, Le Marquis.
Initially scornful, then sullen, François was unsuited for American freeways; older, he became unpredictable. But my mother nursed him along for years citing his “je ne sais quoi.” After something expensive happened, I received a letter, “Le Marquis c’est fini.” François and the Peugeot in the compound were the same model and color. François—Mom had loved that car.
I shared an office temporarily with Jan van Berkelo, the Dutch insurance company’s representative. Jan joined me at the window and asked, “What’s so interesting?”
“That Peugeot. I feel sorry for it.”
“Really?” Jan said and turned back to the Peugeot, “I don’t know why anyone buys French cars. The French do a lot of things well—food, wine, movies. But cars, the French don’t know their asses from their bearings. Their engineering is contrary. With cars, everyone copies the Americans or the Germans. That’s a fact.” Jan was full of facts.
“My mother had a car like that one.”
The Peugeot outside was a study in blue: the roof was a variegated turquoise from years of tropical sun, the side panels were azure, and the original cobalt around the bumpers and wheel wells. I wondered about the twisted grill. Disillusionment? Contempt? The French are so difficult.
“Well, your mother couldn’t have known much about cars.”
“No, she didn’t. But she loved that Peugeot.”
Jan shrugged like a Frenchman, “I’m going into town for a couple of beers. Care to join me?”
“Thanks, but I’ve got a report to finish.”
At twilight, the two sleeping men had emerged from the car. Their three friends had returned with two bumper jacks; one was set up under the rear bumper, the other under the Peugeot’s front end. When the jacks were in place, an elderly gentleman strolled through the gates and began talking to the man who appeared to be in charge of the other four.
It became clear that the elderly gentleman owned the car and was dressed in a combination of western and Javanese clothes: sandals, sarong, a suit jacket, white shirt, dark tie, and a petji—the brimless black hat that Indonesian Muslim men often wear. The boss and the owner chatted for about twenty minutes while the four other men formed a deferential crescent behind them. The conversation ended; the owner nodded to the men and walked out of the compound.
The men divided themselves, two on each jack, while the boss stood aside. The boss counted, and the men worked the jacks in unison. They were asking for trouble.
I ran downstairs and tapped the boss on the shoulder. He jumped a little and turned to me. The men left the jacks and stood behind the boss. After cautious smiles, the boss and I introduced ourselves. His name was Sujipto; he did not introduce his men. I was speaking terrible Indonesian; in Indonesian even worse than mine, Sujipto explained that he and his crew spoke Javanese.
I explained that the jacks would not support the car and would slip or snap under the car’s weight. We were relying on pantomimes, and Sujipto’s plan became clear. He knew the jacks would not support the car’s entire weight for long, but rocks under the axles would. Sujipto pointed to the flat stones behind the car. Furthermore, he and his men had done this before.
We shrugged at each other and the men went back to the jacks. I couldn’t watch and went back to the office. Outside there was shouting; the jacks would work for a couple of seconds; more shouting; then nothing; then more shouting. Back at the window, I cringed.
The Peugeot was supported by the jacks and several rock piles. The end being raised was jacked up several inches, the jack was locked; the men put rocks on top of the pile almost to the car’s axles. The jack was reversed and the car settled onto the rocks. The jacks were bending; any second they would snap. But finally the front jack was reversed and the car settled onto the rocks with the all its tires off the ground. The men stood back while Sujipto passed out cigarettes.
After smoking, the men went back to work. Off went the tires. The trunk was emptied; two men went to work on the engine. The car’s four doors were opened and a man hoisted himself inside. Another man slithered under the car. A man climbed into the trunk and disappeared; later, he reappeared where the front seat had been. The exhaust system hit the ground with a rusty thud; the seats were placed in a conversational grouping under the trees. The gas tank bounced to the ground. The carburetor was wrapped in plastic sheeting. Paraffin lamps were lighted so they could work into the night.
When I left the office that evening, Sujipto and his men were having supper. Sujipto approached me. I said, “Bagus.” (Good in Indonesian.)
Sujipto made a fist with the thumb up and said, “Bagus sekali.” (Very good.) I offered him a cigarette; we smoked and admired the Peugeot perched on the rocks.
When I arrived early the next morning, Sujipto wasn’t there; two men were studying the carburetor while the other two snoozed on the car seats. The men in Sujipto’s crew were becoming distinct: one wore a knotted piece of blue batik over his head; another had a pot belly that his undershirt barely covered. Two of the men looked and dressed exactly alike and could have been twins. Heavy work seemed to start late in the day and continue into the evening.
I had finished my report and telexed it to my boss in Jakarta; Jan had telexed the details of his findings to the insurance underwriters in London and Amsterdam. The Dutch insurance company was cooperative, the British obstinate. Around sunset, Jan was yelling in Dutch over the bad telephone connection to someone at his company’s headquarters in Holland. Despite Jan’s yelling, I heard cheering outside and went to the window. Sujipto and his men were laughing and smoking. They smoked after triumphs.
The Peugeot’s rear end and drive shaft had been disconnected from the transmission and lay under the car. After cigarettes, they took out the transmission, manhandled it on to the back of a small truck along with the drive train and drove off.
I went down to take a look. The engine was still bolted to its mounts, but the engine head and crankcase had been removed. I squatted down and stared at the engine’s guts—connecting rods, crankshaft and bearings. Sujipto and his men had disassembled a French car in a dusty compound without so much as a manual or a modern set of wrenches.
Coming back into the building, I ran into Bambang Hartono, the chief accountant, who asked why I was so interested in the car. No one at P.T. Rokok paid the slightest attention. I told Bambang that Sujipto’s men were amazing to watch; unimpressed, Bambang told me that it was just a complete overhaul. I asked why the men used the company compound; he didn’t know and said that they had worked there for years under some arrangement with somebody. The Indonesian concept of private property is rather fluid.
After Bambang left, Jan joined me and said to the Peugeot, “Mon cher, you should have stayed in France.” To me, “Amazing, isn’t it? The cars from the ’30s and ’40s you see in Indonesia, especially the rural areas.” Jan smiled, “Look, I’m finished and am leaving tomorrow. Dinner is on me.”
Jan had done his part; and the Dutch insurance company had agreed to pay. But the British company was thinking of sending a man from Singapore to review the situation. I would stay in Semerang until the British insurers settled, one way or the other.
“Why are the British being so obstinate?” I asked on the way to the company car Jan and I used.
“They’re stalling,” Jan laughed, “They have to pay and they know it.”
Late the next morning walking Jan to the car that would take him to the airport, I looked for Sujipto who was taking a nap under the trees. The twins were studying the carburetor parts strewn across the plastic sheets. Not sharing a common language, the twins and I smiled meaningfully.
Jan went over to Peugeot and said, “They must have pulled the motor last night and carted it off to their shop.”
We shook hands goodbye, and Jan said, “Who knows, you may be stuck here long enough to see if they can put it back together.”
I laughed, “Oh, I doubt that.”
I was wrong; the British insurer continued stalling for a week. My boss in Jakarta had sent threatening telexes to the insurance company and the bank’s lawyers in Singapore and London. When I saw the twins late that afternoon, I realized that I had not seen Sujipto’s men since Jan had left. About an hour later, Sujipto and the other two men returned and began unloading their truck and assembling a block and tackle.
That evening when I looked out the window, the engine and transmission were back in the Peugeot, and Sujipto and the twins were putting the differential and drive shaft into place. They put on the tires and lowered the Peugeot by reversing the process that had raised it. When I left, the door panels, exhaust system, and floor boards had been reinstalled.
I went up to the car and said, “Sujipto, apa kabar?” (Sujipto, how goes it?)
“Kabar baik.” (Going fine.)
Talking as best we could, Sujipto told me the Peugeot was a complicated car; the evening’s work would be difficult: “listrick”—the car’s electrical system; “bensin”—gas, the fuel system and carburetor, and worst of all “djam”—time, the car’s timing. Sujipto and I had an easy ungrammatical rapport, and I understood that delivery would be the following afternoon. With a busy evening in front of him, Sujipto politely refused the cigarette I offered him. We wished each other “Salamat malam.” (Good night.)
The next morning I checked for telexes from my boss and the British insurance company—nothing. Then I heard the Peugeot as it started and backfired to a stop. Start, backfire, nothing. I forgot about the British and spent the morning watching Sujipto and his men. They were working feverishly and were having problems with the “djam.” Around noon, the Peugeot’s owner strolled through the compound gates. Sujipto and his men were apprehensive—shaky smiles, fluttering hands, shuffling feet.
Sujipto handed over the car keys and stood aside as the gentleman got in the car, adjusted the seats and mirrors, inserted the key, pumped the brakes, and turned the key. The battery had enough juice to start the engine. A little rough at first, the engine caught, then settled into a reedy hum. After more gas, the gentleman put the car in reverse, backed up, and shifted into first for a drive around the compound before leaving for a road test. Sujipto gave me a hopeful shrug and waited with his men.
When the Peugeot returned, the owner got out and paid Sujipto with several bundles of cash. While they were chatting, I studied the Peugeot; something was different; its demeanor had changed.
It was the grill. The broken parts had been removed; instead of the contorted smile, the car looked jaunty—an old boulevardier out for a stroll on a promising summer evening. Poor old François; I thought of how my mother had cared for him and wished she could have seen this Peugeot’s new lease on life, its “je ne sais quoi.”
When the owner left, Sujipto passed out cigarettes to his men who smoked with the quiet satisfaction of just-paid professionals. Sujipto came over and gave me a cigarette.
I patted his shoulder, “Sujipto, bagus.”
Sujipto gave me a thumbs-up, “Bagus sekali.”
From the office window, Bambang shouted and waved a telex at me. The British had agreed to pay. I would go home, back to Jakarta on the evening flight.