Yesterday, Lona showed me a picture of her daughter, the second one, before she told me she couldn’t get wet for her boyfriend. We’d gone straight up without starting out at the bar with Lukhanyo, the bar-back, next to the slots, and I wanted to tell her that I didn’t ask, but she pressed my fingers against the side of her thigh, and before I could answer, the two of us got drowned by a siren wailing down from Claim Street. They’re shooting at more kids on that campus in Parktown, she said, before turning over to sleep, and while I sat next to her, I traced the small scab on her elbow with my front finger, picking at it a little, before she opened her legs and I waited for the siren to fade before we could start.
I go there once a week, now, and we always work it out the same way. Lona’s new; a few months on the job; and they keep her on the top floor with the premiums. That’s 22-year-olds from Mozambique and Swaziland, Bots and Zam; where she splits the blinds and tells me to undo my belt and drop my shoes next to the bin with the used rubbers and wipes. Lona tells me to turn off the light, too, and I do as she says, most times, but sometimes I’ll ask her if she wants me there and she’ll turn around, the covers hitching up against the crook of her waist, and a bruise brushing up from the small of her back up to her neck. I don’t even know you, I imagine her thinking, during those times, and I’ll start to feel a fever touching me at the base of my neck, but other times she won’t turn and I’ll feel her dry hands pulling on the loose skin between my legs, a way of bringing me back, I tell myself.
Once a week, after shedding half a grand on Lona at the club, I’ll get in touch with my father on the line. I’m edgy, Thembi used to say, and I’d tell her how Pa used to get me that way since I was young. He’d heave me up on his shoulders in our hallway, eBhisho, until my stomach would churn, the acid catching at the back of my throat from fear. I figure it’s the only reason we still get on – I act like he’s still got his old size and Pa believes he could push his palms through a wall. He likes to make claims, my father, harkening us back to things past and things shared, he apportions us blame, and places me here and himself there, before marking the events that lead to his collapse. I’ll let him, most times, but sometimes I’ll ask him how things were before Ma, just to set him off, and we’ll go through the seventies – his bachelor years in the hotel lobbies of Umthatha – with me acting like I can’t hear how deep he’s sunk into his nip, or that I wouldn’t find him scattered the same way the following day. Do you remember when we found her in the garage after the ‘rover crashed? It was ’02, back in the old house, and we had just the mattresses at the back behind the Nissan.
I don’t, I tell him.
It isn’t unusual for us to fall silent over the line. Pa’s my last living relation, and we used to have him set up in a home in Port Alfred after his collapse, where it was the house policy for long distance clients to keep up with calls. I used try and negotiate them off it.
He’s not really sick.
There’d be silence on the line. We prefer to preserve a contented atmosphere.
Is that realistic?
He’s your father.
I know he’s my father, I’d sigh.
Eventually, when I lost my first job at the ISP in Victory Park, we had to cut Pa’s insurance down and move him out to a small two room close enough to a lake.
Clean air, he told me, meant he didn’t have to keep up with old friends.
Fair enough, I said, but I knew by then the calls were a habit for him.
On weekdays, I do the admin support for a campus network in town, where we’re set up as an FET, a squat block with its windows lined opposite the soccer pitch at Ellis Park. It isn’t hard. We split the duties down the middle, myself and Colin, and take turns on the maintenance jobs, before we do our rounds at the computer labs with the first-years. Most of the time, we manage to tell ourselves that work is fine. We even have a sign. This department has not yet been outsourced, but you may want to refer to management for confirmation.
We’d met at some party, Thembi and I, the house warming of a distant acquaintance, a French-Canadian post-grad we’d both later discard without much thought. There were American students at the digs, pink and sweaty from excursions into the neighbouring townships, drawling give-me-fives in the living room and dressed in the robes of ancient pillages, spilling pink potato chip crumbs on the wooden floors under the high ceilings; and I guess celebrating Halloween there. I found Thembi in the kitchen, replacing a hidden bottle of Jameson in a cabinet below the basin; she was slender, with a fatigue vest, faded jeans.
You always steal from your hosts?
Only the wealthy ones, she said.
Well, you’re in luck, then, I told her, and pointed at my chest.
I don’t know. You don’t look like this word I just used.
I’m in disguise.
I watched her get on the cluttered counter, nurse the drink in both hands.
You from outreach?
Well, here, she said, tossing me a t-shirt with a solar logo on it. It was hers, I figured.
Is that the move, though, these days?
Looking for kegs to crash at community outreach.
No, I know the guy, I said, and hooked a thumb over my shoulder.
Right, she said. James. Of course you do.
I grinned to show that I’d been caught. Then I reached behind her, got a glass and rinsed it; after Thembi poured us both a shot and stirred the ice in with her finger, I told her I’d seen her before.
On the way to work, today, we passed a taxi overturned in a ditch next to Empire Road. It was caused by a cell phone, our driver said, and some of us took photos of it as he drove past. I leaned my head back against the window after the wreckage had receded, and watched the road as we came to a stop at the following intersection, near Constitution Hill, where a line of men and women in red berets were holding up placards, chanting a protest song, and blocking our line of traffic from gaining passage through the crossing. From the cracked backseat, I remembered how this morning, on street lights across the city, the headlines from the dailies had reported the EFF’s call to return the ownership of the stock exchange to its workers. The march had started in Newtown and was set to end in Sandton, and up front, our driver drew down his window and hooted, whistling in support as he banged out a rhythm from the side of his door. The men and women laughed and began to separate in turn, and when I looked back again, they seemed to have grown into an even bigger mass. I closed my eyes, then, and remembered how my father had once tried to explain the stock exchange to me; in those days, Pa had been an economics lecturer at a Technikon in East London, and we’d both been sitting on the living room floor with a stack of his grading when the stocks had come up on TV.
He called me, yesterday.
It’s about your mother, he said. Call me back.
I deleted the message and called Lona, but there was no answer. I called Pa back, but there was no answer there, too. Then I reached into my pants, but felt limp in my palm.
I texted Lona.
Nothing is as beautiful as the hood between your legs, I said.
Then I thought about it.
Not even you, I told her.
Later, it took me over an hour to fall asleep, and when I woke up, I found a please call me from her number. I’d never got a response from Lona, before, or anyone I’d ever met at the clubs.
I walk into work late and find Colin with his legs crossed over our counter, watching the TV we took from one of the staff common rooms for indefinite repairs.
How are things on the outsource front? I ask him.
He uncrosses his legs. No labour brokers at the gate, sir.
Hear, hear, I tell him.
Then I walk into our kitchen, rinse out a mug and scoop out Ricoffy and Cremora. I make it sweet, and waiting for it to cool down, open Lona’s message and call her back. The phone rings once before the call is declined, but I wait and get a text message from her a moment later. Meet me at the McDonald’s down from the club, she says.
I write to her that I will.
Then I sit down next to Colin and point at the TV.
He shrugs. I left it on anything but the news.
I look at the screen again, a beach scene blurred behind a veil of static, and think of how much Thembi used to like to travel towards the end. We’d part over the course of her different destinations, but before then, I remember how she told me she lost a phone in Zimbabwe once, close to the border, and how she couldn’t drink the tap water in Thailand, and how in Zambia, she’d taken so badly to a course of Malanil, that she couldn’t pet the cheetahs for all the time she spent over the sink in a lodge in Lusaka. The art was something to see, though, she’d added to me over the line.
I stretch my arms, now, and finish the coffee.
Who’s got lab, today? I ask Colin.
You’re on, he says, before leaning forward to turn off the TV.
I leave the IT room and make my way down the lino in the corridor.
I don’t always mention it, but you should see our students. Twice as many of them arrive for registration towards the end of Feb, and by the time we start on our second semester, they’ve been culled down in half; most of it from fees; the other cases from grades. It’s tempting to think of them as survivors, on certain days, braving the corridors of Ellis Park in Chuck Taylors and tank tops, but most of the time, I can’t help but think of them as pushing towards something rumoured. I stop at Mrs. Mokoena’s office and knock twice on the chipped door; I can hear her talking on the line before she pauses to invite me in.
Dumela, mme, le kae? I say at the door.
I’m fine, she says, and as usual, I watch her hand wave me towards the key cabinet, where I find the double set we use for the labs.
On my way out, again, I hear her calling for me.
Placing a palm over the receiver, Mrs. Mokoena looks at me and smiles. Tell me, she says. Isn’t it enough to be late once a day? You’ve had those students waiting for ten minutes in the corridor next to Mr. Dukisa’s class. You know he doesn’t like to be disturbed.
I scratch my head. I thought they’d changed the schedule.
You thought they’d changed the schedule, she says. Just go, will you.
I go and find half of them on the floor in the next block, leaning against the wall of the computer lab, their backpacks set between their legs, and their faces fixed on their phones. I tell them to get up. Then I look at my watch and join them on the wall.
If you start getting here any earlier, I say, I’ll be out of a job.
They laugh, and as they do that, I open the door to set them up for their tutorial class. It’s one of the introduction sets from Mr. Longela – they start a new chapter of Matlab the following month – and they get through the 45 minute exercise in half an hour. We spend the rest of the time watching the clock.
Teacher, did you hear two students were hospitalized from Parktown?
Yes. Not even rubber bullets. They’re shooting to kill us, now.
I nod, thinking of Lona, again, and open a browser and direct it to Google. Ever since the start of the protests, Lona’s filled her head with the plight of the students, and I’ve even come close to telling her of how I grew up in Bhisho during the year of the massacre; how I came to lose my mother to another version of this.
My head hurts. It says here they torched a bus, I tell them.
Yes, they did. The students need to be heard, now. This is a matter of free education and ending financial segregation. We cannot back down from colonial administrators.
This comes from Philani, an engineering student in a black track top, the zip left undone to reveal a yellow SASCO shirt. The ribbing on the sides of his sweater looks bright in the light, almost bleached, and his hair is shaved close to his skull and trimmed.
I nod at him and get up from my desk.
Right, I say. It’s time to pack up and log off.
Then I take another look at their scores.
You all did well, today, I say, but they can’t hear me over the sound of their packing; after they’ve cleared out, I lock up and get back to Mrs. Mokoena, before finding Colin asleep. I look at the TV and it’s back on, again, full of static, and set on the news.
I get in touch with Pa after work, and he lets the phone ring once before he picks it up, sounding out of breath, and I brace myself outside a spaza shop in Kew. Inside my line of view, the Joburg traffic is turned up, jammed at the crossing near Wynberg.
You took your time, he says.
I tried you last night; what’s wrong with your breathing?
You sound like you’re losing air.
I was out gardening.
You were out gardening?
I listen to him laugh for a while. Yes. Madala does the garden in the yard next door and I asked him over and then I gave him a hand. I gave him two hands.
It’s past six, I start to say, but decide against it. You told me I should call you back.
We need to talk.
I heard that much.
I’m thinking of a trip.
I cup my brow in my palm and choose each word. Where to?
To my son, he says. The City of Gold.
I breathe for a while. Fine. Let me arrange you a ticket.
I’ve already bought a Greyhound, he says. I arrive tomorrow.
Then Pa takes a moment to clear his throat. How are you?
I’m fine, I tell him. I have to go.
I take a taxi to Bree, before I connect to Hillbrow at the rank, and then I ride until the bus stop on Edith Cavell, and walk up Pretoria Street, where I find the McDonald’s at the corner of Claim. I look inside and find Lona sitting at a table towards the back, nursing a fountain soda and a copy of The Star. I use my hand to clear the crumbs from the seat in front of her.
You South Africans used to be lucky, she says, but look at this, now.
I look and see students standing in front of riot police in Soshanguve; sometime last week; and place a palm over her fingers, feeling surprised when she doesn’t flinch.
I sigh. They were promised even more than we were, I tell her.
It’s easy to see that.
That’s what we all say. Do you want to eat before we go upstairs?
I can eat, she says, but can you?
No one knows me, here, I tell her, but even if they did.
I come back with a tray holding a pair of cheeseburgers and two cartons of fries. Placing them on the table, I refill Lona’s fountain Coke from mine.
You look good in the light, I tell her.
Well, you don’t; what happened to your tooth?
I smile. It got knocked against a beer bottle. You’ve never seen it before?
Of course I’ve seen it before. Does no one ever play with you?
I laugh at that. Not that I can remember, I say.
Later, I take my hand and push it between her cheeks like I used to with Thembi and she pushes it away; we carry on, twisting over each other as the dawn blushes her cracked window a pink shade, and we go at it twice before I get up to drop the plastic in the bin next to her door. I get back in the covers with her as the morning traffic begins to hum, and closing my eyes, I think of how the two of us could be trapped inside the hull of a giant machine, but Lona’s body feels warm against my own, and I decide to listen to her breathe.
I need your help, she says, and still lying in bed, I don’t say anything back. Lowering the covers, Lona lifts her arm and shows me the bruise on its underside. I got this in the car accident, she tells me, but I didn’t tell you how it happened.
How did it happen?
I was drinking in Mbabane.
I listen for more.
My parents are in Joburg, this weekend, she says, and I want to see my daughter.
Then I think about what Lona tells me next for a while.
I’ll do it, I tell her.
I arrive at Park Station on time, but Pa’s bus is delayed, having broken down on the national road outside Kokstad. I go back to the parking lot, absorb the morning sun, and rest my head over my forearms. Then I get up to find him again, which I do, next to the escalators.
I help him with his suitcase.
These roads, he says. This country won’t run out of ways to kill us.
I laugh to set the two of us at ease. You’re safe, at least, I say.
That’s why you go with Greyhound, he tells me.
That’s why you go with Greyhound, I echo him.
Out in the parking lot, I take out my cell phone and call for a taxi; after the Uber arrives, I help pack Pa’s baggage into the boot. My father takes the back seat and I sit up front, on the passenger side, so I can direct the driver towards the shortest route. Then we drive out onto Rissik and merge into Victoria towards Parktown.
I’ll start us off at the mall for something to eat, I say.
I hope it’s affordable. I know you people like to spend.
We join Oxford and head out towards Rosebank before Pa tells me he doesn’t understand why I don’t have a car. You’re definitely smart enough for it.
I shrug. I’m working on affording the instalments, I say.
Do you remember when you scored 139 for that IQ test?
I thought it meant my life would be different, I tell him, but I don’t really like computers. Then I wait for him to answer, but Pa only leans back in his seat.
We drive past Killarney, going through Riviera, and when we come to a stop at an intersection with an armless man holding up a sign with his chin, I look out of the window and where we are reminds me of an old colleague I used to have.
Chantel used to wear shaded glasses; she had a sharp chin and always shared her pack of Rothmans with the rest of us on the team. We were colleagues at MWEB, the second largest internet service provider in the country, and our offices were stationed in Victory Park, between Randburg and Parkhurst. Even though we’d been hired as customer service reps – most of us were latched onto tech support through inbound calls – our duties were extended to include sales, that summer, in order to facilitate the roll out of the country’s first uncapped ADSL service. It was during this time that Chantel and I were teamed together and scheduled on the same route close to town.
We’d park our van at the start of each block, check the log for the houses that needed tech support, and we’d cover those first before we knocked on the doors of the rest, asking if they were interested in upgrading to the company’s latest broadband package.
We’d get through them quick, most times. Chantel and I had both done well at A+ in college, and she had a way with the people who came from these neighbourhoods, too – Illovo, Parktown North, Riviera – that made them open their doors long enough for us to sell.
We had a lot of downtime as a result. We’d park the van under a tree, share cigarettes and listen to the countdown on Y. Chantel thought she’d be rich from what we’d gone to school for, and I used to tell her that I thought she was thinking of a different time.
It went on like this for most of the summer of oh ten, until one day, after I’d gone down on Chantel inside the van, we serviced the router of a client in Illovo who waited for us to drive off before she called our offices in Victory Park, lodging a complaint with client services that she’d picked up the smell of marijuana.
The two of us were called in, having already decided that I would shoulder it for the sake of her son, and after my dismissal, Chantel gave me a contact number linked to her sister, who worked for a mobile clinic initiative in town, where they were looking to install a network for stock taking and keeping records for their returning patients.
I joined Chantel’s sister Catherine the following week, and on my first day on the job, we took the clinic out to the corner of Commissioner and Polly, the first stop in a series of brothels that were getting HIV treatment in preparation for the World Cup. In the bus, during her break, I told Catherine about the first man I’d ever seen suffer from the illness it lead to. I was a child in Bhisho, I told her, and I’d seen the father of a friend of mine fade in a shed at the back of a tavern in ‘92. We headed up to Royal Park, after that, starting off at the Hillbrow Inn, before we parked outside The Summit, which was how I started going to the club, years before I would come across the Lona I know now, whom I’d find late one Wednesday evening, dancing on the floor without a top on under a blue strobe.
Our driver banks into Tyrwhitt Avenue and comes to a stop before the boom gates that lead into the parking bays at Rosebank Mall. I get out and help Pa with his suitcase. Then we walk past the Woolies store and settle ourselves under a sunshade at Café Europa, next to the craft market with its curios, and opposite the Mimmos Eatalian, where two businessmen sit in front of a chicken finger platter, taking sips from draughts of craft beer.
You don’t like computers, Pa says. I always told your mother she was spoiling you with those videogames, but she broke her back for them. Now you don’t like computers.
I know it’s different, he says. You were clever. You needed the stimulation.
I order an espresso from the waiter; Pa asks for a tea and gets honey to sweeten it. We sip on the drinks when they arrive, and I look out towards the lawn with the artificial grass.
You made time for me, he says.
I take a sip from the espresso. Then the two of us watch as two girls walk past the cafe, dressed in high-waisted jeans and black, printed tank tops.
You used to have a girlfriend, he says.
I blow on the coffee before I finish it. Then I leave both my hands in the sunlight.
Ma never liked her, I tell him.
Your mother always wanted happiness for people. It wasn’t realistic.
We spent some time apart, me and Ma. Thembi was someone who understood that.
We both didn’t understand our parents, I tell him, and in the end, when she said the two of us were too similar in our unhappiness, it was hard for me to disagree.
I look at him and Pa traces his finger along the rim of an ashtray on the table.
I could never talk to my father, either, he says. I suspect it could be this country.
I lean back on my seat as a black jeep approaches the rear end of the mall, close to the FNB ATMs, and I hear “Face Down” by White Lung coming out from its speakers.
I’ve moved from Port Alfred, Pa says.
I look up.
It’s true. I’ve gone home to eDutywa.
The old plot was abandoned and growing weeds, he tells me, and I used my retirement on it. I feel it’s the best decision I’ve made in the last ten years.
Pa looks at me, then, and smiles. I’ll be herding goats like my father, now, he says, and that makes the two of us laugh. We cause the table to rock until our waiter arrives to take our orders, and after lunch, when the taxi arrives and we pack his suitcase inside the boot, Pa tells me changing our focus doesn’t have to mean we’re forgetting. Then my father pauses again, and before he closes the backseat door, he tells me he doesn’t think it’s possible to.
I install him in my flat in Kew, take his suitcase to my bedroom, and sit him down on the couch in front of a soccer game in second half.
No, I want to read, he tells me, and I turn off the TV.
I walk to the kitchen and fill up a glass with ice before he calls me back to the living room. I close the tap, and when I walk to him, I find Pa holding up an old photo of himself; he has an afro in the picture, and his moustache is thick and glistening.
This is what I looked like when I met your mother, he says.
I nod and take a sip from the water.
I was working as a sales rep, back then, before going back to school.
I know, I tell him.
Your mother was a beauty, Pa says, and packs the photo away.
I take a seat next to him and turn the TV back on, pressing the volume down to mute the match. You never stayed with us at the house on Rharhabe Road, I say. It was her, Nana, and myself. I remember meeting you for the first time. That doesn’t seem right as a memory.
It was a different time. We were living in an occupied country.
There were things you could’ve protected me from.
Pa sighs. It broke families, this place, and you could say it still does.
We watch the flickering green of the soccer pitch, the ball leaping between players.
Well, I’m glad you came back, I tell him.
I’m glad, too, he says. You, your mother and I had a good ten years before her health problems started. You know, I had no idea, and sometimes, I think even she forgot.
The only thing I remember about that year is trying to fail Afrikaans and seeing a dying man at Ma Thano’s, I tell him. I remember Ma working, too. I remember how she’d been promoted at her job and how she wanted to get me to a better school.
Pa smiles before he lets his face drop again. It’s what made it all so surprising, he says. That she would do what she did on top of everything else.
I tell him that I know.
There was something remarkable in her, he says. Then he turns to look at me and tells me he’s certain it’s something I have, too.
I smile enough to make him turn back, and then I switch off the TV.
Later, after he tells me he’s tired, I set Pa up in the bedroom and take my laptop back to the lounge. There, I open my browser and look at my history tab: Roxy Reynolds, Ms Goddess, Harley Dean, Cassidy Clay, Jasmine Jae, Teanna Trump, Shazia Sahari, Sabrina Taylor, Maya Hills, Jazmine Cashmere, Valentina Nappi, Franceska Jaimes, Noemilk, Mya G, Leah Jaye, Sahara Knight, Marquetta Jewel, Loona Luxx, Ashlyn Brooke, Sophia Knight, Diamond Legacy, Penelope Cum, Giselle Mona, Lela Star, Sara Jay, Susana Caliente.
The list goes on, and I remember how I couldn’t stop touching myself the morning we got up to bury my mother. It had started in a moment of inattention, I guessed, a disbelief that reached towards the force of habit – aiming to fend off that morning’s facts – but the act solidified into a respite that felt like putting her death on hold. I couldn’t tell whether or not it was the act or the anticipation – the rush of blood that changed the feeling of nausea into light-headedness – but after a while, the only thing that gave more relief than arousal or coming was sharing them with someone else.
Ma had died fifteen years after sustaining a bullet wound at the Bisho Massacre in ‘92, when eighty-thousand protestors, led by the ANC and aiming to dissolve the last remaining Bantustan in the country, had been gunned down by the Ciskei Defence Force, killing twenty-eight and injuring over two-hundred in place.
I hadn’t known about it on the day it happened; Ma was gone for a fortnight, that month, and my grandmother, Nana, and I got help from our neighbour, Sis’ Khethiwe, before my father arrived with his bags a week after Ma’s return. We moved towns after that, but Ma never told us that the wound had given her complications that would last her the rest of her life, and even ten years later, when she crashed the Land Rover – complaining of a momentary loss of consciousness – my father and I, who’d found her sitting alone on a mattress inside the garage next to our double cab Nissan, had been none the wiser.
I rummage for my passport in the cabinet below the TV. Then I sit down at the coffee table and write a note for Pa, which I take back to my room and tape onto the door for him to find. I watch him on the bed; he’s fallen asleep sitting upright against the wall, the book he was reading – The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle – split in half and sliding down his thighs. I place it on the bedside with a bookmark. Then I close the door and make it out of the apartment to the parking lot, where the air feels warm and moist on my skin.
I call a taxi to Hillbrow, and on the way there, the driver asks me how life’s been for me in the city. I turn the question back on him and look out of the window, again, watching as the orange lights glow against the darkened skyline below the Vodacom tower.
It’s about money, big man, he says, and I grunt in agreement.
I’m saving up for my own car, he tells me. These white people have everything, you see, and all we can do is work, no?
I nod, and we go silent for a while before the cab drops me off at the corner of Van der Merwe. I take out a hundred for the doorman and see Lukhanyo, the bar-back, next to the entrance after I’ve been patted down. I walk over to him.
Long time, he says, and I nod.
I ask him if he’s still working the slots.
No, mfowethu, I gave that up. You can’t make money that way.
The bass thumps against the walls around us, and the blue and pink strobes cut tapered beams through the dark. Lukhanyo lifts his forefinger and rubs it under his nostrils.
I shake my head, saying no, and ask him if that’s what he’s doing, now.
Ja, I sell a little here and there, but nothing to the girls.
I nod. You have to be careful.
You know me, he says, and I tell him that I do.
Then I point a finger towards the ceiling.
I haven’t seen her come down today, boss, but she should be up there.
We shake hands and I walk towards the lift, where two girls eye me from inside the elevator car, and I smile back without taking on their offer. The two of them walk past me, then, into the club, and I make my way up to Lona on the top floor; when I knock on the chipped panel, she tells me it’s open and that I should lock the door behind me. I find her sitting up in bed, smoking a Dunhill Light and scrolling through her phone.
Yesterday, when Lona told me her parent’s conditions for letting her see her daughter, I didn’t think much of the hour of pretence it would take from me.
Now I sit on the edge of the bed, take out my passport, and flip through the pages in front of her, asking if her parents will believe her fiancé’s papers.
Lona laughs, and later, when I can feel her sweat cooling down on my skin, she asks me if I don’t ever want to see the other girls, downstairs, or even the dancing.
I tell her not more than anyone else.
Maybe that means something, then, from what you’ve told me about yourself.
I think about what she means by that for a long time.
Then I tell her that maybe it does.