Johannesburg, apparently, has little patience for tourists. The airport bus has been suspended, and the visitors’ bureau informs Roger there’s no public transport. “Even if there was,” the woman behind the counter says, “you wouldn’t want to take it.” He’s advised to find himself a driver. “Take a card. You’ll need it,” the woman says.
Roger heads outside for a cab. The sky is overcast. His head is hot, his mind exhausted and exhilarated. He’s been looking forward to his adventure for weeks, has chosen South Africa over India, Japan and Thailand, not just because of the wild animals, but also because of its sense of living history: any country that could move from apartheid to one of the most progressive constitutions in the world in under two decades has to be admired. And yet a sense of foreboding gnaws at him. Something could really go wrong here. So many potential pitfalls: rampant violent crime, a host of insect-borne illnesses, not all of which can be combated by the antibiotic regimen his doctor has put him on. And then the minor detail of South Africa having one of the highest HIV rates in the world.
He’s reminded of this by numerous billboards on the ride to his hotel in posh Sandton, ads explicitly warning the populace to protect themselves. The air outside is pleasant and not too warm. When they hit Alexandra, a dilapidated shantytown that abuts Sandton, he sees boys getting haircuts in slapdash tents, women whose tattered blouses barely cover their breasts, all in plain sight of the plush green suburbs directly above.
The hotel isn’t plush, but it’s bright. The receptionists are gracious, although the answers they give to his sightseeing questions are shaky; no one’s pretending this is a tourist friendly town. He needs to check his email but the hotel’s internet service—a small room behind reception with one terminal—is down, so he treks to the nearby mall. There are no sidewalks, and no one else is walking but him. Around him he sees car dealerships, tall, manicured bushes, high walls and gates—gates everywhere.
Sandton Mall is sparkly and oppressive. The men sport Italian suits and the women oversized sunglasses. The stores are overpriced, sterile. And yet by the size of the crowds it’s clearly the place to be. He’s offended by the inexorable whiteness of the shoppers, still being served by black salespeople. Is there no intermingling? And then he remembers: he picked this neighborhood.
At the internet café, he logs onto Gaydar to retrieve his messages. He chatted up a dozen men before stepping foot in South Africa, secured phone numbers, wrote down pithy descriptions beside their names like “nice lips” or “huge cock” or “likes it rough.” But his prospects disappoint: mixed race Andre has a sister coming into town and suggests meeting the following day. The other Andre in his mailbox is also otherwise engaged. None of the others have responded, which is upsetting. He considers entering the chat room to scare up some action, but instead he researches bars. The two that look promising are both in Melville, several miles south.
Later that night, after showering and little rest, he descends to the lobby and asks the front desk to call him a cab. The receptionist—a lanky black boy named Thapalone—smiles and says he’ll be off duty in ten minutes and will drive Roger to Melville for 100 rand, as it’s on his way home.
In the car—a smudgy two-seater—Thapalone smokes and listens to talk radio which Roger assumes is in English even though he can barely make out the words. Thapalone talks about Times Square and the Knicks and Roger nods, pretending to recognize the names of the players. Roger opens his window and feels a timid breeze. In the distance rise the lonesome skyscrapers of downtown Joburg, the only tall buildings for miles. The streets are too still; it irritates him. Other than the occasional stray dog, he sees nothing but cars, trees, streetlights and walls, behind which must be the people. Very scared people.
They pull up on Melville’s main drag and he’s relieved to see signs of activity. As he’s getting out Thapalone invites him out to a party the next night in Braamfontein, promising lots of free booze and tasty young girls. Roger thanks him and says, Sure, see you tomorrow.
The first bar, Statement, is too small. The patrons remind Roger of frogs in a pond. He walks the long stretch downhill to OH! Bar—which is livelier, if thoroughly unoriginal. Gay bars the world over seem to doll up with the same narrow range of accessories—video jukeboxes, sassy drag queens, pumping house music, unisex bathrooms and mirrors everywhere—yet it’s precisely this familiarity that comforts him.
He orders a gin and tonic from the muscular goatee behind the bar and does his once around, landing on a stool by the railing opposite two go-go boys in Doc Martens and skimpy yellow Speedos. He surveys the possibilities, puzzled once again at how white the crowd is. Where are the black boys? Do they have their own bars? Though New York isn’t much different. He could usually count on one hand the black men at any given bar in Chelsea. When he asked his gay black friend about it, Marcus harrumphed.
“Lots of brothers on the down low,” Marcus told him. “And the ones who aren’t don’t care for Chelsea.”
“Because white boys are bitchy?”
“Not necessarily,” Marcus said. “Or rather, not just that.”
Roger didn’t follow up. The gay box seemed grotesquely small already. He couldn’t imagine compartmentalizing it any further, limiting himself to only gay Jews. Not that that would be a small box, in New York.
A short, brawny type with flirty eyes and a wide forehead glances restlessly at him. His tapered Oxford and dress pants peg him as a tourist in this sea of t-shirts and jeans. Roger glances back, blankly; he isn’t interested, but he’s eager to speak to somebody.
The man sidles up beside Roger. “So,” he says. “Where are the good places around here?”
Roger laughs. “I have no idea,” he says. “I got here this afternoon.”
“Me too,” the man says. “My bus from Mozambique broke down on the highway.”
Roger recognizes the accent. “You’re from Brazil,” he says.
“Ricardo,” the man says. “I live in Mozambique now.”
“Roger.” He shakes the man’s hand. “So how’d you get here if your bus broke down?”
“This Mozambiquan recognized the bus and stopped.” Ricardo’s eyes canvass the room. “He drove me here and helped me find a hotel.”
“Lucky,” Roger says. “You speak English really well.”
“My MBA is from Florida State.” Ricardo shrugs. “We need to find the action,” he says.
Roger laughs at how much better action sounds with a Brazilian accent.
While Ricardo fishes for information from some locals, Roger heads to the bathroom. On his way out he spots a pretty face checking him out in the mirror. Seashell smooth skin and dark hair and eyes, and the first black customer he’s seen all evening. Or at least half-black; Roger isn’t sure. The boy’s t-shirt reads “I’m the Life of the Party” in bold, shimmery sequins and his eyes say, follow me, which Roger does, down the spiral staircase to the dingy dance floor.
The boy sashays onto the floor and turns around, beckoning Roger with oscillating fingers. Roger smiles and negotiates the crowd. The boy releases an enthusiastic squeal and pulls at him, squeezing his ass. Within seconds, his tongue is down Roger’s throat. Roger is too caught up to resist, and is pretty sure he doesn’t want to, anyway. They’d be putting on a show, if the others cared, but they don’t. The boy grinds against him. He thrusts his hand up Roger’s shirt and works his moist fingers around his chest, nuzzling his head against Roger’s neck. Roger breathes in the sweet tartness of the boy’s citrus shampoo.
“I love hairy men,” the boy purrs.
Roger smiles, wondering if he’s old enough to be the boy’s father. “How convenient,” he says. “I like smooth guys.”
“I’m K___”, the boy says, but the music is loud and Roger isn’t sure if it’s Kinlana or Kinlabi or something else.
“Roger,” Roger says. The boy makes happy noises. He chews on Roger’s upper lip, massages Roger’s cock through his pants.
“American Roger,” K says, exaggerating every r. He backs up against Roger’s body, wraps one hand behind Roger’s neck while running the other down his thigh. The theatricality seems excessive, but Roger gives in to the moment. He wonders if there’s someone for whom this ritual is being performed.
The song dissolves into another. K fans himself and sighs. “Come,” he says, taking hold of Roger’s hand. Roger follows up the stairs, to a back room beyond the bathrooms, one which is terrifically dark and almost empty, with convenient nooks and velvet couches that huddle in corners. The boy takes him to a couch. They feel each other up.
“You’re sexy,” the boy says.
“So you live here?” Roger says, the first and only question of importance to him.
“Of course. I’m real hard for you. See?”
He guides Roger’s hand to his cock, which is indeed hard, and large.
“Let’s go to my hotel,” Roger says.
“Are you a businessman?” K asks. “Imports and exports?”
“No. I’m on holiday,” Roger says. “Are you in university?”
“My first year,” K says. “I’m 19.”
The number should appall him. But Roger isn’t any less turned on.
“Why don’t we go back to my hotel?” Roger suggests, again.
“I can’t,” K says. “My friends are waiting for me.”
“So tell them you’ve met someone.”
“They’re waiting in my car.”
Roger’s eyes narrow. “Why?”
“They’re sleeping. They’re straight. Gay clubs bore them.”
“So why don’t they go to a straight club?”
“Because I have the car,” K says, as he reaches for Roger’s fly. Roger tenses, but doesn’t resist. K wriggles down and Roger closes his eyes. He feels a warm moistness on his cock, hears a soft pop, smells the sharp musk of sweat that’s not his own. My first African experience, he thinks. But then he shudders: it’s all happening too quickly. The boy is so aggressive. What if he’s on drugs, or has herpes? Roger remembers the billboards on the drive from the airport. He hears a humming in his ear, the drone of nearby conversation. His neck trembles, his lungs seize up. He pulls K’s head from his crotch and tells him to stop. K glances up, confused.
“What’s wrong?” he asks, twisting a few wisps of Roger’s chest hairs between index finger and thumb.
Roger bites his lower lip, investigates the boy’s gaze—his eyelashes are fluttering, but otherwise K’s expression is hard to decipher. Roger wonders if he’s supposed to say something back. Something funny, or affirming, or sexy.
“Nothing.” He forces a smile. “It was great.” The words limp out of his mouth.
“I bet,” K says. “I really should go. My friends are waiting.”
The boy pops to his feet, brushes invisible dust off his shirt, runs his middle fingers across his eyebrows, back into his hairline.
“Wait. What?” Roger says. “I mean, I’m sorry. Tell me more about you. Are you really South African?”
K laughs. He bites a hangnail off his thumb, flicks it at Roger. “Does it matter?”
“I don’t know,” Roger says. The boy’s indifference, the brusque nature of their exchange, unsettles him. “I guess not.”
“I’m your first memory. Maybe your best in this town,” K says, and then he laughs, and tosses his head back. Suddenly Roger wants him to stay—suddenly he worries that the boy may be right. But he doesn’t get the chance to plead his case. K turns and glides out of view.
Back in the main room Roger is relieved to spot Ricardo talking to an older man with bushy sideburns.
“Tonight, this is it,” Ricardo says. “The action.”
“Where are you staying?” Roger asks. “What neighborhood.”
“I don’t remember,” Ricardo says. “Something with an S.”
“Sandton? Me too,” Roger says. “Do you want to share a cab back?”
“First I’m going to hit on that guy there,” Ricardo says, pointing to a beefy blonde holding up the wall across from them. “He looks Croatian. I’ll either leave with him or with you.”
Roger smiles. “I’ll be by the bar.”
At the bar the goatee refreshes his G&T. Roger feels dizzy, a recipe two parts elation, two parts jet lag, one part what-the-fuck-just-happened. Why did he stop the boy? It’s not like he wasn’t turned on. It’s not like he hasn’t had more than his share of back room hook-ups, and the list of unknown-HIV-status men who’ve given him head could fill several pages. If it was just a gut feeling, then maybe it was a stupid feeling. Perhaps worse than stupid.
He knocks back the rest of his drink and pushes the questions out of his mind. Instead he thinks about plans. He should visit a museum, do a city tour. He should experience something unique and cultural. But he is tired, so tired. And he has no idea how he’ll get back to the hotel. He has no driver, and the drivers in Johannesburg are more than drivers, they are gatekeepers. They tether him to safety.
Ricardo returns twenty minutes later, looking deflated. “Do you have a guy? My driver is asleep already.”
“You have a driver?” Roger asks.
“Long story,” Ricardo says. “Very helpful. Speaks Portuguese. He’s going to take me on a tour tomorrow.”
Roger asks the security guard to call a cab. While they wait, they have another drink, and the room, already spinning, speeds up. About thirty minutes later the guard tells them the cab has arrived. They exit and Roger spots the small vehicle by the curb, a car the size of a large turkey. A when-I-grow-up-I-want-to-be-a-car car.
“Welcome, welcome,” the driver says, opening the door for them.
“We’re going to Sandton,” Roger says.
“Yes, yes,” the driver says.
Once inside the driver turns to hand each of them a card. “Thalong is my name. Call me 24 hours. I take you wherever you need to go.”
“We’re making two stops,” Roger says.
“Yes, yes.” Thalong says, adjusting his mirror, Roger thinks, to appear more trustworthy. “Sandton.”
Roger opens the window. He wonders if his eyes are as glazed as the Brazilian’s.
“Good time party boys? You want to go to disco?” Thalong asks.
Ricardo sits up. “You know where the action is?”
Thalong laughs a long, throaty laugh. “Tomorrow night. I make special for you. Good time party disco.”
“Oh yeah? You know where the hot men are?”
Thalong clucks, shakes his head. “I’m not gay, bobo,” he says. “Some people they have problem with the gay but not me. Everybody is Thalong’s customer.”
“Good man,” Roger says.
Thalong laughs. He drives tentatively out of Melville. Ricardo slouches against the door, ready to pass out. Roger scans out the window and takes in the streets, the sparse storefronts, the peeling signage, the empty lots. The hum of the silence is deep and menacing, and the few people loitering about remind him of stones. He’s drunk, but apparently not drunk enough to fail to notice that something is wrong. They pass the same gas station three times. And then Thalong pulls onto the highway headed south. Green as he is, Roger knows that Sandton is north.
“I think you’re going the wrong way,” Roger says.
Thalong massages the back of his neck, looks at Roger in his rearview mirror. “Long day, man. I’ve been up 28 hours straight. My boss is short drivers. He tells me I can go to sleep or I can keep my job.”
“Sorry,” Roger says. His hands search the back of the seat for the safety belt. “So are you from Joburg?”
Thalong laughs. “No, man. I’m a tourist. Like you. I come here to make money but this isn’t my city. We’re all tourists in this town.”
Thalong gets off the highway at the next stop. He drives down narrow streets, past abandoned warehouses. Suddenly Roger feels himself sobering up, quickly. Was Thalong really lost? Roger pokes Ricardo awake. He needs someone to share in his horror, or else tell him to chill out.
“We’re lost,” Roger says.
“Don’t worry,” Thalong says. He pulls the car over at the next traffic light, beside three men leaning against a green Dodge Neon that has seen better days. “I’ll ask directions.”
When Thalong gets out of the car, Ricardo tunes back in. “Why did we stop?”
“He doesn’t know where he’s going,” Roger says. “Do you have a lot of cash on you?”
Ricardo kneads the sleep out of his eyes. “I need a bed, man.”
The night sky silvers, flirting with dawn. The men Thalong talks to wear bright coloured track suits. All of them seem preternaturally unfazed, like cows in pasture. Everyone is smoking. One of them laughs, and then Thalong says something quick, and suddenly everyone looks at Roger. Roger’s heart quickens. The others chuckle and say “hello” playfully, and Ricardo sings a drunk hello back. Then Thalong slips back into the car, and the others wave as they pull away. Roger curses himself. The sting of his own paranoia irritates him. Taxi drivers get lost. He’s read too many guide books, heard too many stories. He should know better.
For the rest of the ride Thalong drives more purposefully. Ricardo nods back to sleep, and Roger watches Johannesburg submit to a new day. When he sees the taut bushes, the ten foot walls, he knows they are nearing Sandton.
They drop Ricardo off first. “Come with me, tomorrow, on the tour,” Ricardo says, handing him the hotel’s phone number. “Around two. We’ll go to Mandela’s house.”
“Sure,” Roger says.
Thalong turns on the radio. He taps his fingers against the steering wheel and whistles. Roger wonders if he’s struggling to keep himself awake.
“Where you from, man?” Thalong asks.
“New York City,” Roger answers. He never answers the more generic “United States.” Not now, with W as President. Not two years into the phony Iraq War.
“New York, New York,” Thalong says, like every other cab driver in the world. “You like rap music? Biggie Smalls? Jay-Z?”
“I’m from Brooklyn,” Roger says. “Like them.”
“You from Brooklyn, bobo?” Thalong turns to look at him, his face lighting up and his teeth exposed, like Roger is a celebrity. “Brooklyn is the place, man.”
“It’s pretty cool.”
“I want to go to Brooklyn, man,” Thalong says. “Walk across your bridge and see the big statue.”
“You should visit,” Roger says, and then immediately regrets it.
Thalong nods, his smile almost a smirk. “Maybe one day.”
Around three the next day Ricardo pulls up to Roger’s hotel in the backseat of a natty beige Citroën station wagon. He looks refreshed and alert, all traces of a hangover absent. In the driver’s seat is a rotund, avuncular old man with thick gray hair wearing large sunglasses scotch-taped at the bridge. Beside him is a wisp of a boy, bony and silent, about eight years old but lacking the curiosity one expects in a young boy. Both of them sit silently.
“This is Mansoor,” Ricardo says. “And that’s his grandson, Nisim.”
Mansoor nods. Nisim fidgets with the door lock.
“So we have him for the whole day, for 300 rand,” Ricardo says. About forty dollars. “Do you want to see Soweto?”
Roger nods; it’s where you’re supposed to go when in Johannesburg. Ricardo and Mansoor speak to each other boisterously in Portuguese.
“Does he speak English?” Roger asks.
“A little,” Ricardo says. “He’s from Mozambique, but he’s lived here long enough you’d think he’d know more English.”
“What about the grandson?”
“It’s his daughter’s kid. She died of cancer a few years ago, and the father is working in some mine for the summer, so Mansoor is taking care of him.”
“But he speaks English.”
“You’d be surprised,” Ricardo says. “It’s a tight-knit community down here.”
The drive is slow. Roger wonders if it’s the car that refuses to go fast, or just Mansoor. He imagines the old man’s not taking any chances with his grandson in the passenger seat. Mansoor chats at length in Portuguese, which Ricardo sporadically translates into English.
“He’s going to pass by the downtown district, so you can see it,” Ricardo says. “But we’re not going to get out. And keep the windows closed, he says. He’ll point out the important buildings to us.”
“Is it really that bad?” Roger says.
“It’s a Sunday afternoon, so the offices are empty. Mansoor says the only people on the streets are looking for trouble.”
Roger adjusts to free himself of the vinyl sticking to his thighs. “I’m not used to this,” he says. “I mean, I’ve been to Rio, and it’s not exactly safe there either. But at least there are people. And you can walk around in the daytime, no problem. I’m just wondering how much of this is paranoia.”
Ricardo laughs. “Was it paranoia last night in the cab?” he asks, rubbing his chin. “But listen, who knows? In 1975, the Mozambique people rose up to claim their independence from the Portuguese. They gave them 24 hours to leave the country with no more than 22 kilos of personal items. Everything else—their houses, their TVs, their cars—had to stay. Of course the Portuguese had it good in Mozambique for many years, which means lots of empty mansions left behind. A ghost town for the natives, who went inside these homes and didn’t understand what they saw. They didn’t know what anything was—the kitchen appliances, the electronics. These people didn’t have refrigerators, or washing machines. So they stole the wood to make fire. They broke the windows to make pottery from the glass. They filled up the bathtubs with soil and grew tomato plants. Thirty years ago! Not ancient history. We were already alive.”
Roger shakes his head. “So I guess the whites here have it easy, then.”
“Not if you ask them.”
“But should we ask them? After apartheid?”
Ricardo’s eyebrows bunch together. “I don’t know.”
“At least this country seems to be moving in the right direction,” Roger says. “They’ve legalized gay marriage here.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. Men are killed for being gay in the townships, and sometimes they don’t even allow the bodies to be buried in a cemetery.”
Roger feels himself shudder. “These things take time.”
“Some prejudices cannot be broken,” Ricardo says.
“But they’re getting there,” Roger says. He hears, as the words leave his lips, how emphatic they sound, how defensive. “They’ll get there. One day.”
Downtown is deserted. None of the buildings impress, and Roger wonders if Mansoor is only here because he believes this is what tourists want to see. Afterwards they drive to Soweto. The day is bright and cool. The city stretches long and flat; there’s something dead about the way it stretches, Roger thinks.
The traffic starts to slow and Roger spots several tour buses up ahead. The township sprawls around them, mind-boggling in its vastness. Houses extend towards the horizon in all directions. At first they seem like tenement villages, rough and grimy, but soon these fade into sturdier, modest homes, of brick and stucco. Out his window Roger sees two large water towers covered with murals of colourful, cartoon-like scenes of black people engaged in Progress. Trains, cars, pretty homes and prettier schoolchildren, smiling faces rushing to work, all spiraling around a central bubble framing what appears to be a black Madonna and Child.
Nisim fidgets with the radio until Mansoor gently takes his hand off the dial. Mansoor lifts a cigarette from his pack, raises it in the air and looks back at both of them. Roger and Ricardo nod. Mansoor begins telling a story.
“He says four million people live here, just in Soweto,” Ricardo says.
“Fucking hell,” Roger says.
“He calls it the Johannesburg Zoo. When he takes tourists here he calls it ‘going on safari.’”
“Wow.” Roger turns to look at Mansoor, who is popping a cracker into Nisim’s mouth. He watches the boy chew eagerly. Both the man and the boy are brown-skinned, likely Muslim given their names. “Not too fond of black people, is he?”
“It’s just a joke,” Ricardo says. “It’s not all bad, though. He says the neighborhoods are different. There’s a middle class and an upper class here, too.”
They park the car in a ditch underneath an amarula tree. Roger looks around. Lots of dead grass and weeds, laundry left out to dry, children on rickety bikes. They walk down a few dusty roads towards Mandela’s childhood home, a nondescript brick one-story filled with mementos and knick-knacks and tons of pictures of Mandela with celebrities and dignitaries. Honourary degrees and other accolades take up the remaining space on the walls.
Outside the home is a cluster of souvenir stands, where most of the buses are parked. Six people descend from their bus, plump middle-aged Europeans, all sun-screened, all Bermuda-shorted. The tables are littered with masks, colourful jewelry boxes, South African flags, salad tongs, tall, thin statues of pregnant women, hosts of giraffes and rhinos, busts of Mandela. Roger scans through the mix. Other than a few batiks, he finds the whole lot uninspiring. Still, he needs gifts to bring back home, and batiks are light and can be rolled up.
The souvenir peddler, a man with sunken eyes and a grave smile, pulls out samples for Roger to mull over. While Roger sifts through them Nisim approaches, leaving Ricardo and Mansoor by a nearby bench.
“I’ll give you special price,” the man says, without enthusiasm. Nisims picks up a wooden giraffe and is turning it in his hands.
“How much for five?” Roger asks, pulling out pieces he likes.
“Buy four get one free.” The peddler reaches across the table and takes the giraffe from Nisim’s hands. Nisim looks up, confused. “Hhayibo, little one,” the man says, returning the giraffe to the table. “Careful.”
“How about two free?” Roger asks. He looks over his shoulder, sees Mansoor and Ricardo smoking, lost in conversation. Nisim takes one of the colorful boxes off the table. The peddler looks at Roger, then back at the boy, and shakes his head. Roger smiles at Nisim uneasily, wondering if he should say something. He studies the boy’s eyes, so absorbed by the box’s clasp. He wonders what Nisim is thinking. A boy who should be in school, who lost his mother at such a young age, who likely can barely understand, much less converse, with the peddler. Perhaps he’ll buy the boy that box.
“All five for three hundred rand,” the peddler says, grabbing the pieces from Roger and beginning to wrap them, as if the decision’s been made.
“One second,” Roger says. The man’s rashness irks him.
The peddler frowns and tosses aside the batiks. “I gave you a good price,” he says, looking scorned. When the man turns back to Nisim, Roger can tell his anger is real. He jerks the box out of the boy’s hand and Nisim, surprised by the man’s force, lets go. The box falls and shatters.
“Eish! Boy! I told you not to touch.” The peddler jostles to the front of his table, his eyes wide with fury, thrusting his face into Roger’s. “Why do you let your boy break my things?”
“He’s not my boy,” Roger says, stepping back.
“Then who is responsible for him,” the peddler says.
A few of the other salespeople shake their heads. The other tourists fan out to tables farther away. The peddler starts shouting in a native tongue: Umfana Omubi. Hamba. Nisim is frozen in place. Only when Mansoor and Ricardo come over does he move to stand behind his grandfather.
“What’s the problem?” Ricardo asks the peddler.
“The boy broke the box. Someone has to pay.” The peddler points down at the shards littering the ground.
Mansoor crouches beside Nisim and speaks to him gently. Ricardo puts on a friendly smile, but the peddler isn’t having it; he shouts and gestures to the others around him, looking indignant. Ricardo exchanges words with Mansoor. Roger can’t understand anything. His head is sweating.
“Oi, Roger.” Ricardo looks at him flatly. “Did you see? Nisim says the man grabbed the box.”
Roger shakes his head. Mansoor and Nisim gape at him, dense stares that bore into him. He wonders if it’s wise to take a side, to escalate things.
“Two hundred fifty rand.” The peddler holds his two hands out in front of him, one with two fingers up, the other with all five. “You will pay me, please.”
“I’ll pay for it.” The words spill out of Roger’s mouth. “I should have been watching him.”
Ricardo’s face twists with disgust. “What are you talking about, man?” He turns to the peddler. “Listen, my friend, that box isn’t worth fifty rand. And we aren’t going to pay because you broke it.”
“I broke nothing, man.” The peddler’s nostrils expand and his eyes bead. “The boy broke it. You must watch your children. They can’t go around and break things or else you pay.”
“Roger.” Ricardo says. “Did Nisim break the box?”
“It was no one’s fault,” Roger says. “It fell.”
“But he grabbed the box,” Ricardo says, pointing to the peddler. “Yes?”
Roger shrugs his shoulders and out comes a thin, nervous laugh. “It’s all right. I can pay for it.” But before he can reach inside his pocket Mansoor grabs his hand, squeezes Roger’s palm with both of his own, squeezing it like a faith healer squeezes the legs of a lame man before commanding him to walk. “No one pays,” he says. The first English words Roger has heard from his mouth.
Four other peddlers have joined their circle. Three fold their arms across their chests, and two are mumbling. Roger can’t make out a single word, and isn’t sure he wants to. Their looks unnerve him. They are peering into his soul and find it lacking. He wants to get out of there, before they get angrier, before they pounce.
“Arrivederci,” Ricardo tells the peddler. “Have a nice day, man.”
“You are not going to pay?” The peddler throws up his hands and spits on the ground.
“No,” Ricardo says. “Not one rand.”
“You are raising the boy in a bad way,” the peddler says.
“I’m not his father,” Ricardo says.
“Then who are you then?”
“It’s not your business,” Ricardo says.
“You are together,” the peddler says, his face practically glowing with the revelation. “The two of you. Gay people.”
Roger feels his insides collapse. He is both afraid and ashamed of his fear. He thrusts his hand into his pocket and pulls out a bill. “Here’s 100 rand,” Roger says. “More than enough.”
The peddler stares at the note. “Why do you come to Africa?” he asks. “To give us diseases?”
“Enough, Njani,” another of the peddler says. “You are scaring our customers.”
Roger stretches the note taut, holds it up to the man’s face. “Are you taking the money or am I putting it back in my pocket?”
“Put it away,” the man says. “I don’t need your dirty money.”
Roger smiles. “Have a fantastic afternoon,” he says. Ricardo, Mansoor and Nisim have already walked away, past the buses. As he scurries to join them Roger tries to contain his emotions. He is angry. More than angry. He is disgusted, indignant. The clouds in the sky feel heavier, cloudier. Colours—on clothes, on buildings, on buses—which had seemed bright and cheerful now seem garish and aggressive. The air feels stale, the whole area reeking of cheap sentiment and despair.
Mansoor holds tight onto Nisim’s hand and mumbles under his breath, words which Roger knows are curses, racist curses. Nisim looks pensive and glum. Roger wonders if he understands what just happened. He wonders how Mansoor will explain it to him.
“Oi, let’s check out the memorial,” Ricardo says.
Roger shudders. “Shouldn’t we get out of here?”
“Are you kidding? This is the safest place in town. Their livelihood depends on tourists.”
“You still want to visit, after what happened.”
Ricardo laughs. “The man grabbed the box, didn’t he?”
“He did,” Roger says. “And then Nisim let go.”
Ricardo shakes his head. “That jerk. Come on.”
The nearby children’s uprising memorial consists of three tiers of shallow ponds that ascend to a memorial block carved in burgundy marble. Stones litter the ponds, some sunk to the bottom, others breaking the surface and forming abstract patterns. Beyond the memorial rise several free-standing slate brick walls. Roger approaches the block to read the inscription: “In Memory of Hector Peterson and all other young heroes and heroines of our struggle who laid down their lives for freedom, peace and democracy.”
“1976,” Roger says. “A year after Mozambique.”
“Right,” Ricardo says. “It took twenty more here.”
“I can’t even imagine,” Roger says. He looks around, sees Mansoor squatting beside his grandson, pointing to an inscription by the pond, telling him something. Something important, from the look on his face.
“Mansoor likes it here,” Ricardo says. “He left Mozambique back in ‘75 too. He wasn’t rich or a diplomat or anything, but he just didn’t think he’d be safe there anymore. So he came to South Africa and then the uprisings started and he thought he’d have to leave another country, but then those didn’t succeed, so he stayed and raised his family here. Funny story, right?”
Roger winces before checking himself. “So essentially he’s happy the uprising failed and apartheid lasted longer.”
Ricardo laughs. “You’re funny. I think he’s just happy he didn’t have to move again.”
“The world is strange,” Roger says.
“Yes,” Ricardo says. “You’d prefer things make sense. Americans are like that.”
Roger stares at Ricardo. “Aha. I see. Americans. And the rest of the world?”
Ricardo laughs. “You want me to speak for the rest of the world? Listen, Roger, if it makes you happy, go back and give that asshole 100 rand. Or buy a few batiks. I’m sure he’ll gladly sell them to you. But you can’t buy them all. Or maybe you can buy them all, or even organize a fundraiser for a batik collective, or sponsor a child to go to Batik University, and of course you should do all of those things, but not because the world is going to make any more sense.”
He laughs again, reaches up and gives Roger’s shoulder a friendly squeeze. Roger forces a smile back. A friendly ribbing, no harm done. It would be childish to get upset about it, and yet he is.
Walking back towards the car, Ricardo suggests a bite and Mansoor holds a napkin against Ricardo’s back, drawing a path to a nearby restaurant for lunch. “There are swings nearby,” Ricardo says, when Roger asks why Mansoor won’t be joining them. “We’ll meet back at the car in an hour.”
They are the only white people at the restaurant, and Roger’s first thought is that it’s a good sign, because the food is likely to be what the locals really eat. His second thought is, this is a tourist trap—not a single one of these places are really authentic. And his third thought is, what if it isn’t safe? What if the peddler is after them? And his last thought is, what if my digestive system can’t handle strange ingredients, will the Doxycycline be enough to kill any suspicious bacteria?
“You need a beer,” Ricardo says.
“At least two, actually,” Roger says.
The Brazilian starts cracking peanuts between his teeth and smirking, likely imagining the action he hopes to get later that night. Roger sighs. He’s tired of being the good-intentioned sad sack New Yorker, forever second guessing himself.
A young, ravishing girl with a red bandanna holding back her hair approaches to take their order. She wears the credulous stare of a newborn kitten, and when she chuckles, which she does with every question he asks, her cheeks push up against her nose. In a few minutes she returns and puts down his order in front of him, and as she does so she blushes and says, in a thick English, Impala stew. I hope you like it. Roger is struck by the bounce in her eyes, how modest, almost embarrassed, she is to put the plate down in front of him. He senses a certain anxiety in her expression, and it surprises him—that she actually seems to care, that she’s worried he might not like it. And somehow, this anxiety touches him. He wants to eat the entire plate now. He wants to lick it clean and lift it up, ask for seconds. He wants to see her smile back at him.
“Oi, Roger.” Ricardo snaps his fingers. “What’s with the stupid grin?”
Roger lifts his beer, attempts to chug it down. “Just looking forward to my safari next week,” he says. “So I can see what an impala looks like when it’s alive.”
Eric Sasson’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in BLOOM, Liquid Imagination, The Nashville Review, Alligator Juniper, Trans, The Ledge, MARY magazine and The 2nd Hand, among others. His story collection, Margins of Tolerance, is the recipient of the 2011 Tartt Award and is forthcoming from Livingston Press in May 2012. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. www.ericsassonnow.com