Chapter 5: Vespa

Two days later Nancy came home with a break.

“I may have found a lead on a Vespa 50 for ninety thousand lire. Is that good?”

“It’s great, Mom! I still haven’t beaten one-fifty anywhere, and most places are raising prices. It’s really hot this year.”

“I think you only have a choice of light blue or yellow.”

“There are only the two colors. I wanted the light blue anyway.”

“Oh.” She took a pair of letters out of her briefcase. “Can you afford it yet?” Obviously, she was not checking on Joe’s account.

“At ninety, sure,” he said, grinning. “How soon can we set this up?”

“I’ll ask tomorrow. It involves buying one of the scooters in a lot being made for Sears Roebuck and shipped to Livorno. The shipping company people have combined an order of their own with the Sears buyer, and you can buy one of those.”

“How do we get it?”

“I’ll find out next week. Let’s get some supper. You’ve got two letters if your homework is finished.”


The rides in the rain seemed especially chilly for the rest of the week, but Joe was too excited to mind. He was bursting to tell the gang, but he wanted to surprise them after he bought the Vespa. He got five points off class participation in Math on Friday for day-dreaming, but nothing could spoil his mood.

Monday, Nancy came home with the details. The next day after school they drove to a warehouse on the edge of Trastevere, the neighborhood across the Tiber River from central Rome. The rain stopped as they turned off the Viale Trastevere and began looking at house numbers.

“Why didn’t you tell me it was the Mayflower line?” Joe asked as he recognized the marquee on the building. “Giosué is in my class.”

“I only had the address. Anyway, I didn’t work with Giosué’s dad on this deal.”

She parked the car. Joe leaped out and went to ring the doorbell. The portiere expected them and pointed them to an office at the opening of the courtyard inside. An Italian businessman met them at the door to the office. He was taller than average, slender and firm. His gray suit had been tailored from expensive fabrics and his longish, salt-and-pepper hair was carefully cut.

“Signor Barbera,” Nancy said in Italian, “a pleasure to see you again.” The businessman took her hand to his lips with a brief bow, then turned to Joe.

“I’ve heard much about you, Joe,” he said, with a firm handshake. He led them to a large room where dozens of cardboard boxes were stacked three high on pallets. One was already down on the ground.

Eccolo .” Here it is. “Check it out first.” Signor Barbera smiled as he handed a rigger’s knife to Joe. Joe’s felt his hands shaking as he carefully cut the edge of the box on three sides. The side of the box fell open like a drawbridge.

Inside was the most beautiful machine Joe had ever seen. The ones in showrooms had all at least been out in the air and rain, or test driven. This one smelled of preservative. The flawless finish gleamed. It would not last, he knew, but right now it was perfect, and he relished the moment.

“Enough, Joe,” his mother said, snapping the spell. She smiled. “You have to buy it first.”

“Let’s put some petrol in it, and make it start at least,” said Signor Barbera. He motioned to a warehouseman, who got a can from the shelf and a small bottle of motor oil. “You know how to make the miscela , young man?” asked Signor Barbera.

“Yes, sir, the Vespa 50 takes two percent. You set it at the gas pump or add a half-bottle to a full tank if doing it at home. I read the owner’s book at the dealership.”

“I think we have a love-struck boy here, Signora Mather. You see why we call the Vespa a ‘she’?”

Nancy nodded. Joe and the warehouseman rolled the Vespa out of the box. They put some gas mixed with motor oil in the Vespa. Joe checked it over carefully, put the hand-shift in neutral, set the choke and stepped on the foot crank twice to move fuel to the dry engine. Then he gave the crank a hard push while twisting the throttle hand grip and the scooter roared to life. White smoke filled the courtyard as the preservative burned off the engine and exhaust system. Joe put the choke in and let it idle for a minute before turning it off.

Va bene. OK,” he said. “How do I buy it?”

They all went to the office, while the warehouseman broke down the box and put the owner’s literature in the storage compartment of the Vespa. The warehouse supervisor in the office had the papers ready: title, road tax forms, registration forms, and a little booklet that looked like a driver’s license, but only proved that the road tax was paid.

Joe counted out the ninety-thousand lire and ten thousand more for the taxes and legal forms. They all signed several pieces of paper, and Joe folded his title and receipts into his coat pocket. The road tax book fit in his wallet.

“I’m going to be a nervous wreck all the way home now,” said his mother. “I’ll follow you.”

“Mom – ”

“OK. I’ll meet you there, just call if you have any trouble at all.”

“I’ll be there first, Mom, but only by a little. It’s a Vespa, after all.”

Nancy Mather sighed and patted his shoulder. Signor Barbera grinned as they watched her go to the car. Joe could tell by the way her head shook as she drove off that she was crying. Signor Barbera put his hand on Joe’s shoulder.

“It’s tough on the mothers when their giovanotti – their boys – become men. And from what I gather from your mother, Joe, you’ve been the man in the house for a long time. Still, these special times come only once.” He stepped back. “You sure you can drive this?”

“Yes, sir, but maybe I should practice a little in the alley here. You don’t have to stay now.”

“But I want to, Joe. I can still remember my first scooter, and I would not trade this for anything.”

“OK, then, here goes.” Joe kick-started the scooter, pulled out the clutch and twisted the hand grip to first gear. The power surprised him. The first time the scooter almost ran away from him and the second time he stalled it. Signor Barbera laughed as Joe got the flooded scooter going again.

“More guts than a moped, eh?”

“Yes, sir, but I’ll get the hang of it.”

Joe got the hang of it almost right away after that. He did some tight turns, practiced a few emergency stops, some downshifting and tail spinning.

“I think you got it, Joe,” said Signor Barbera. “Now you should go home.”

“I agree. Thank you, Signor Barbera.”

Niente . It’s nothing. Just be careful going home. Don’t go much faster than you normally do on your bicycle until you’ve been riding for at least a week or so. That way you’ll always be able to stop or get out of the way.”

“Thanks. Arrivederci.” Signor Barbera waved as Joe drove off in a cloud of white smoke. His heart was pounding as he checked the street and eased into the flow on Viale Trastevere, the principal throughfare. He avoided passing any cars at first and stopped at the first gas station to top off the tank. With a full tank of precisely-metered mixture, the warm engine stopped smoking about a block later.

Only the balance between clutch and throttle took getting used to, as he worked the gears up and down. The rest of the drive resembled bicycling. He knew where every slippery trolley track lay in the street, and how to recognize leaves or debris by their reflections on the cobblestones. At least it was not also pouring down rain.

By the time he crossed the bridge and headed upstream along the Tiber River, he was feeling more confident. The broad, one-way street helped the traffic flow more quickly and soon he was negotiating for space with everyone else. He kept his speed down, though, and only passed cars that were not moving at all. Even so, his mother was getting out of her car in the garage when Joe arrived. They walked upstairs together.

Nancy Mather was silent most of the evening.

“Does this really bother you, Mom?”

“Yes and no, son. Every once in a while, your growing up hits me, and this is one of those times. It happens to parents, and we can’t help it. It’s not a bad thing.”

“OK, Mom.” Joe pulled a book from his bag and started his homework.


Wednesday morning broke sunny and clear, though the weather forecast called for rain later in the week. The streets were dry, but Joe felt more like parading than speeding.

As he drove into the Alfa Romeo dealership, Joe’s heart pounded harder than when he raced his bicycle there. He did a little gunning in neutral as he spun to a stop behind Matt’s car. Cheering loudly, the guys spilled out of the bar to admire Joe’s new wheels. Everyone wanted to ride, but Joe only let Hans and Aldo try it in the parking lot.

“Really neat,” was Aldo’s judgment after a spin around the driveway. “It has more power than my moped.”

Joe glowed in the attention he got at school from the boarders and bus-riders that day. It died off by the end of the week. Matching the clutch and gears in his left hand with the brakes in his right hand and under his foot became second nature. His legs stayed dry behind the protective shields of the scooter, and riding out in the traffic lane, he no longer got drenched by passing cars going through puddles. Still, he always felt the quiver in his body every time he crossed trolley tracks or the broad white painted stripes of a cross-walk. The tracks may not grab his fat wheels now, but he still had only two of them. He was not taking the scooter for granted.


(to be continued)


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