Chapter One

 

GOOD FRIDAY

 

A bad sign, my grandmother would have muttered, looking heavenward. She would not have had to say another thing and Beauty, nodding, would have taken off her apron and her starched doek covering her peppercorn curls and headed out the back door into the African night with its sick moon. The Cape veldt was different at night, alive with the wild smell of fynbos; a thing with its own heartbeat, its own snorts and threats. Children were called in from its heat at dusk, long before the earth cooled and its worn paths began to vibrate with the invisible steps of the ancestors and the menacing Tokoloshe, long before the moon would rise over the kopjes in the east. But under a bad moon, no one went in the veldt—not even the ancestral spirits. Only a sangoma, a witch doctor, whose magic her old white madam had come to rely on. Beauty Masinama, grounded in the tradition of the Ndebele nation, knew all about lunar tidings. My grandmother, a woman whose superstitions grew up in the crack between her Christian faith and the lore of her Scottish ancestry, knew about them too.

Today’s conversation takes place between author Isla Morley (whose debut novel, COME SUNDAY, was a finalist for the Commonwealth Prize) and the naggy old lady who sits in Isla’s head doing crosswords and fussing with her pantyhose (and who doesn’t care what fancy-schmanzy award the book was nominated for). Naggy Old Lady (NOL) gets to say out loud and in public the stuff that’s usually confined to the dark spaces of her host’s mind.

They say the captain always goes down with the ship. But what about the crew…are all those on board bound to this same fate?

From Friday to Sunday a group of us had been holding an extended birthday celebration for a friend in Clarens, a small mountain town in the Free State, South Africa. Sunday morning found me and Pieter sitting at a picnic table outside of the hostel drinking coffee, writing poetry and surveying the wanton destruction of the previous night’s party in which anything flammable and not bolted down had found its way into the bonfire. I reflected upon how the word party may be the most inclusive verb in the English language. It can be used to denote anything from the most benign revelry to something like an orgy with Latvian immigrants all wearing Viking hats.

I had indeed partied last night. Suffice it to say that my overindulgence led to a drunken bellicosity that left me with few allies by morning. Luckily, Pieter had himself consumed heroically, raised his own hell, and passed out early enough to miss my tirades, making him my companion of choice by default. Our friends in this life are not as often those we seek out as those we find ourselves backed into a corner with.

He was one of those South Africans who don’t often speak English. This is not to say such people are lacking in ability, but rather their Afrikaans heritage monopolizes their cultural identity. He worked for Radio Pretoria, a bastion of Apartheid politics. Read: completely racist. I’d found in South Africa that racism was the elephant in the room like booze is for a recovering alcoholic. I often felt while talking to certain people that they were one transition away from a racial tirade. Pieter was one such person. While nothing racist had yet come out of his mouth I felt certain he was one in the way that at home I’m positive the guy buying Busch Light beer has at least two vehicles in his driveway that don’t run.

A rule of thumb while traveling abroad is to stay out of local politics. Of course, this is not to say that one doesn’t notice certain things. De jure South Africa is 15 years removed from Apartheid. De facto South Africa is one where a black government has failed to deliver the promises of an equal society to all but a few, where one in three people live on $2 a day, where whites drive around in cars and live behind gated properties while blacks live in cramped shantytowns without electricity and beg for work on the side of the road, where a large number of blacks, while not locked up during curfew, are desperate enough to kill you in cold blood for a few bucks and a cell phone. In accordance with that traveler’s dictum I steered clear of any polemic on racism. Yet I couldn’t deny that in modern South Africa, equality is still a dream of the future.

At about ten a.m. the rest of the group turned their bleary eyes on the outside world. Their base pleasantries to Pieter and me may have been due to hangovers but I could sense hesitation to approach our poetry jam. By now we’d moved past coffee and onto beer, which seemed the only logical conclusion in response to the past three days. We would keep this train rolling at the risk of abrupt sobriety derailing us. Pieter and I had singled ourselves out as an odd couple united by disgrace and a love of poetry. At least, I assumed he was producing flowing verse on the beauty of nature. After all he was writing in Afrikaans and very well could have been commenting on the Negro’s inferior cranial capacity.

The morning slogged on in a fashion typical of post-revelry. We all went for lunch as a final token of celebration. Over greasy fare and several more beers it was decided that I would catch a ride back to Pretoria with Pieter, who lived close to where I was staying. After eating we returned to our quarters to gather our things before departing. From somewhere on the property somebody played a song entitled, “Kaptein, Span die Seile” (Captain, span the sails) which in South African vernacular would be described as “zeph.” (think white trash). The song is at best a ballad, at worst an assault on music as we know it, but goddamn if it isn’t catchy. I parroted the chorus several times and it stuck. It was an appropriate verse to sing while loading my things into the back of Pieter’s white Mercedes. I serenaded him with it as he made the final preparations, which seemed to please him. He was my Captain, and his stout build and roomy, powerful German auto offered a degree of security.

While saying goodbye to the others they expressed concern over his level of intoxication. I had a brief thought as myself as Ishmael, a wanderer lured in by the mad Ahab promising adventure and reward while really only pursuing his own monomaniacal goals. However, those fears were overshadowed by my rule of thumb that people who drink heavily and drive superior machines are trustworthy. “Kaptein, span die seile!” I announced as a vote of confidence. The eight cylinders roared to life and we were off.

The road out of Clarens was one of expansive views of sky, plains and mountains. Upon rounding a corner and seeing a particularly fine view we pulled over to write poetry. Even though we’d spent most of the morning together we hadn’t spoken much to each other. It wasn’t awkward because I knew he was shy about his English and I also felt a silent camaraderie with him which came from a common purpose. We were two men in adoration of nature and poetry. While we were stopped he pulled a bottle of whisky out of the trunk.

“Help yourself,” he invited.

Well,” I figured, “better to be drunk with him than to sit here sober.” This became especially true as he revealed a propensity for driving at high speeds. All at once he gunned the car up to 200 km/hr and passed several cars like they were standing still.

“Fuck I love this vehicle,” he proclaimed. “I hope you like a bit of speed.” It was not a question but an ultimatum. I assured him we were on the same page.

“Yes Kaptein!” I said. “Fuck yes! Span die seile!”

He chortled, but there was a hint of madness in his voice.

The needle passed 200 km/hr, 210, 220. He steered with one hand while the other passed the whisky bottle to his mouth. The cars in the oncoming lane flashed their lights. 230, 240. He veered back to the left, cutting off a truck and the approaching line of cars whizzed by a bit too close for comfort.

“So, do they have guys like me in America?” he asked.

What, drunken, racist madmen?” I thought. “Yes, lots of them,” I replied. He seemed disappointed.

“And what about this kind of scenery?” he said.

“Sure, out West,” I said, “but not in the Northeast, where I’m from.” The whisky had loosened our tongues and we conversed amiably to a backdrop of stunning scenery.

We stopped again for a poem and a piss. In one massive chug he finished the whisky and threw the bottle into the bushes with a grunt. He then produced another from the trunk. I was all for a little booze to pass the tedium of a long drive, but this was bordering on excessive. As we pulled away he ran through the gears and reached 250 km/hr in about ten seconds, nearly running into the back of a car before swerving around it and then back in front. I gripped the edges of my seat and again thought of Ahab. I recalled the last scene of Moby Dick where he is caught by his own harpoon and pulled down into icy depths by the whale. Only now, a member of the crew was entangled with him. I realized with horror that the White Whale was the Mercedes. We were being dragged inevitably to our deaths on the back of the powerful beast. I thought perhaps I should demand he slow down and gain some control, but I didn’t want to provoke him. I wondered what my role was in the story. Was I Ishmael, the thoughtful, reflective but non-confrontational survivor or Starbuck, the one who sternly objects to the Captain’s madness but ends up perishing?

The smaller country highway gave way to the N1, the main vein which runs the length of South Africa from Cape Town in the south to Messina on the Zimbabwean border. The White Whale held the road expertly despite Ahab’s loose grip. This automobile was meant for top speed on an open road, which was one of the few points of consolation. As we merged onto the N1 there was a police road block pulling people over at random.

“Oh shit,” said Pieter. “I can’t afford to be pulled over. This vehicle isn’t registered.”

Never mind the fact that you’re totally shitfaced,” I thought. I was, in my own way, unregistered as well. My tourist visa had long ago expired. I wondered what the penalty was for being an illegal alien accomplice to a drunken man with an unregistered vehicle. Perhaps if I turned on the Captain they’d show leniency. Yes…mutiny was my only option…

We made it through the blockade and both of us sighed with relief. To celebrate, Pieter took a long swig off of the bottle.

“Your car really isn’t registered?” I asked, probing for an explanation.

“No. I took the case to court last year and won. I don’t support the government. It’s my right not to give my money to them,” he said.

I took “don’t support the government” to mean “hate the blacks.”

I pressed ahead tentatively. “So, what political party do you support?” I asked

“Ach!” he exclaimed with disgust. “It’s all a bunch of bullshit. Majority rule. It’s a pity. The blacks have fucked this country up.” As he said this he grew agitated and the White Whale drifted a bit into the next lane.

“A fucking pity,” he said and punched the dashboard lightly, further drifting into the adjacent lane.

Here it comes,” I thought. “Change the subject. Obviously he can’t drive and focus on his hate for the black man at the same time.”

I switched the conversation to chauvinistic small talk. The thought of degrading women seemed to ease his mind….for now. Still, the specter of a racist outburst and a total descent into madness hung about the car. The White Whale had yet to submerge and take us to our deaths, but I didn’t know how long we could stay above the surface.

The White Whale barreled down the center lane, the Mercedes emblem looking like a periscope to guide the way. Up ahead in the road was a flash of something yellow.

“I’m fucked now!” said Pieter.

In a moment the grim reality dawned on me as well. The yellow was the vest of a traffic cop. We were being pulled over. Surely this was the end of the line. There was no way the driver of this speeding, unregistered vehicle didn’t reek of booze. I clumsily shoved the empty bottles under the seat and tried to look casual. The cop approached the window and said something in Afrikaans. I could make out “180” which I knew must be our speed. The limit was 120. I made eye contact with the officer, trying my best to not look like an illegal American. The men carried on in Afrikaans and I imagined it sounded something like this:

Officer: License and registration, please

Pieter: Well, actually, this vehicle is unregistered.

Officer: Oh, so you mean to tell me that in addition to smelling like a distillery and driving well over the speed limit this vehicle is illegally on the road?

Pieter: Come on, give me a break, just this once, please, I beg you.

Officer: When you’re blatantly breaking three laws? Are you serious?

Pieter: Yes, well, it’s my right because you goddamn blacks ruined this country.

Officer: Well, you deserve it because you treated us like dogs for so many years. You’re in my country now, honky.

Pieter: (begins to write down something) What’s your name? I’m going to report you to your owner. Mdelgaba…is that with one clicks or two?

Officer: Smart guy, huh? We’ll see how clever you are when I haul your ass into the station and hand this car over to my friends for scrap.

Pieter: You black son of a bitch.

Officer: Cheers, whitey. Have a nice day.

Did that really just happen? Are we really just driving away scot-free?

“Did you see what I’ve just done there?” Pieter said, laughing.

“What the hell did you say to him?” I asked in disbelief.

“I told him I’m a freelance reporter and that I’m going to write a favorable story about him and his department in the newspaper. Did you see me take his details down? He actually believed me!”

This man is a legend,” I thought. “He’s some sort of mad, twisted, drunken, smooth-talking genius.”  I congratulated him and acknowledged that the incident was too close for comfort. I was tempted to heap praise upon him before realizing it was his fault for getting us into the mess in the first place. Or was it? I was beginning to lose the ability to make sense of things. I felt a strong allegiance to this man for some reason. Perhaps I’d been locked inside the car for too long, or, was his madness rubbing off on me? Was I becoming no more than Ahab’s protégé? Laughing, I took a gulp off of the bottle and encouraged the Kaptein to give her some gas.

It was nearly 6:00 which meant darkness was firmly established on the mid-June evening. I hoped the cover of darkness would provide safe passage but also realized it could bring out the worst in a man. We were less than an hour from home and things had settled down considerably after we’d avoided the grips of law enforcement. The White Whale moved at a steady 150 while Ahab quietly took sips from the bottle. Perhaps the close call had put some sense into him.

Along the side of the road bushfires burned. When I asked Pieter about them he answered, “The bloody blacks. They want to destroy everything the white man has built.” I couldn’t connect the dots between burning grass and his racial explanation. But it was clear I’d reignited the Captain’s madness.

“My friend, I tell you, this country was fuck all before the white man came here. There were no roads, no hospitals, no government, nothing. We turned this into a proper civilized country. Before us it was a country of savages and they want it to be that way again. I tell you, Apartheid worked. A lot of people didn’t like it but at least there was progress. This country was growing. Now, it’s turning into nothing again. I tell you, these bloody blacks are savages, the way they burn things down, kill people for fuck all.”

If there was somebody to tell, “I told you so,” then would have been the time to say it. The racial tirade that I’d sensed simmering all afternoon had been unleashed.

“Have you ever been the victim of such things?” I asked him

“Yes. I’ve had a knife held to my throat. I’ve been jumped and beaten. People I knew were brutally murdered on farms. I tell you, it’s horrible. They’re butchers. Trust me. This isn’t your country, you don’t understand. Peace is not possible with these people. They’re animals.”

What could I say in response? Surely there was no changing this man’s mind. We drove along in silence, the fires burning brightly in the night.

Somewhere on the edges of Johannesburg we exited the N1 and turned onto another highway which led northeast to Pretoria. As we did a “whump whump: sound began. It was the unmistakable sound of a flat tire. We pulled over to check and confirmed that the back left tire was totally deflated. Cars whizzed by on the highway dangerously close. Pieter got the jack out and we set to lifting up the car. This proved difficult because where we had stopped was on an awkward pitch. Each time I got the car up the jack slipped out. Pieter put the car into neutral and tried to ease back to a flatter spot but the entire section of road was uneven. We’d been at it for over thirty minutes and our tempers were growing short. Just then a taxi van pulled up behind us and a man with a big smile jumped out.

“Is this a hijacking?” asked Pieter, raising his arms.

The man laughed. “No my friend. I’m here to help you,” he said. He pulled a beefy hydraulic jack from the back of the van and helped us raise the car. It held steady and we were able to swap the flat for the spare. We both thanked him profusely.

“My friend,” said Pieter, “I’m in your debt. This is a symbol of a new South Africa, white and black working together.”

The taxi driver smiled and said, “Of course. How could I not? We must help each other.”  We shook his hand and he pulled away with a friendly toot of the horn.

Back inside the car I felt certain the uncanny timing of a black man stopping to help two white guys right after the driver had insulted the entire African race was beyond mentionable irony. However, I felt as if I had to say something. “You know, despite all of the terrible things you hear about white on black crime in South Africa I haven’t had anything even close to dangerous happen to me since I’ve been here. If anything, I’ve found the guys to be really friendly and helpful. Like that taxi driver. No white people stopped to help us and they’re the majority of people on the road.” I waited for a change of heart, an admission of overreaction. Instead, all I got was:

“One in a thousand of the kaffirs are actually fucking human. I tell you, in almost every break in, every home murder, it’s the maid, the gardener, somebody you trust, who’s helped you raise your family or business, they’re the ones that fuck you over. They may not kill you or rob you themselves, but they’ll let the criminals in.”

I thought again of Pieter as Ahab, of the mad captain’s pursuit of the White Whale and what it actually stood for. The captain of the Pequod was driven by rage and revenge. His tale was a warning against the madness and destruction inherent to believing in something too much. Melville wrote:

The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; — Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

I understood the symbolism properly now. The Mercedes was not the White Whale. Pieter’s White Whale was the black man. In that race of people he’d found a singular object to direct his rage. To him, they were the cause of all of life’s ills. Only the restoration of Apartheid or an equally oppressive system would allow him to feel at peace.

The Mercedes pulled up outside of my gate. As I said goodbye to Pieter I realized that he was a hero of the Shakespearian mold: bold and charismatic yet possessing the tragic flaw of hatred. I was very fond of the man and could even understand his racism. It was the essence of the banality of evil. Who’s to say I wouldn’t feel the same if I or my family or friends had been the target of violent crime? Had I never made a racist joke or reflected upon the vast dissimilarities between people of different skin color and culture? I had many times. Did that make me a racist too? The difference perhaps between being a racist and not isn’t the preference of one race over another. Cultural misunderstandings are natural and should be expected. The truth lies in the acknowledgement that, despite differences, equality and unity are possible. A racist is a totalitarian. Their world is bipolar, hateful and cruel. An Ahabian view on race, or anything for that matter, leads to tragedy, destruction and death.

The conclusion of our saga was like an alternate ending to Melville’s classic in which Ahab survives the fate of his own mad hatred and is given another chance to pursue reason. And, like the original Moby Dick, there was another survivor. As my feet touched down on solid ground I at last knew my role in the tale. Call me Ishmael.

 


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As we loaf near midnight in our first bed in Mexico City, Louisa’s kiss cooling on my lips, the red scrolled metal of the bed frame screeching like so many rodents each time we move to scratch, drink, caress, I hear through the skinny walls the laughter of the nighttime desk crew. It’s not a laughter I’m used to, not one I’d typically hear from the many nighttime desk crews I’ve encountered on my many car-bound U.S. crossings. It’s not a laughter that gels with the Motel 6s and sub-Motel 6s that have borne witness to much of my sleep.

This room has no TV, but has beautiful wooden nightstands. Over mine, the sole wall decoration hangs—a calendar boasting Diciembre, the Virgen de Guadalupe looking down upon the meager squares, doing their best (and failing) to represent our days here, her eyes deflating as gold rays shoot from behind her like the kitschiest sun in the galaxy. She must know what it takes to laugh like this. She must have the ability to describe it in a way that doesn’t point from a distance and exoticize. But I don’t. I am an otherer. And this laughter is other, and exotic as hell. It’s as simple as a pink balloon. This laughter is the toddler joy of dragging one’s fingers over balloon skin, eliciting from the thin rubber, that dribbling, speed-bump frictive joy. Simple as a light-stick. A set of iridescent jacks.

I try to commune with it, stick my tongue between my lips and blow. I haven’t done this in years, and the vibration is exhilarating. Louisa looks up from her book, Obama’s “Dreams from My Father,” and smacks me on the shoulder. This is the first time my South African wife is traveling as a U.S. citizen, a status we jointly pursued throughout seven years of marriage and thousands of dollars and now, here, in this cheap, ornate, cavernous Hotel Rioja just off the main Zócalo square in the Centro Histórico, each laugh-echo from the courtyard serves as our payoff.

Beneath the orange and green wool blanket, she brings her knees to her chest and asks, “Are you spitting at me?”

How do I begin to answer this? I’m exhausted from traveling all day, too exhausted to sleep. How to I go about telling Louisa of my stupid attempt to commune with this new laughter? That spitting like a toddler at a teacher is my only touchstone. The only way I know how…

“I’m must be tired,” I say, and I’m happy I do because she leans in and kisses me warm again. Behind us, on the wall, the Virgen doubtlessly gives us her garish blessing. Louisa goes back to Barack, I go back to jotting a few innocuous lines into my notebook, cracking, with a low hiss the can of Leon Cervesa Negra I picked up for about thirty cents at the convenience store on Avenida Cinco de Mayo. The beer is lukewarm, tinny and just what the doctor ordered. To be sure, it’s my only hope for sleep. Soon, the laughter dissipates, but the construction of Hotel Rioja amplifies the most meager of actions. I can hear the old hunched desk clerk click his pen open three floors beneath us. Our room is on the indoor courtyard; if we dared step from our cracked wooden door, we could peer over the railing down to the nucleus of the place, meditate on the smooth bald head of the desk clerk whose small coughs sound in this place like the roars of Armageddon. The traffic outside could be under our bed.

Louisa and I need this—our first time overseas after spending a year in Chicago nursing my mother back from cancer, a year confronting the demons of my childhood bedroom, a room I hadn’t regularly slept in for fourteen years; a room bearing the obsessions of my youth, a past I only thought I had moved beyond; a room far more forbidding than any Motel 6; a room that signified, in it’s Alyssa Milano-circa-Who’s the Boss pin-ups and autographed pictures of Walter Payton, the loss of our marital sanctuary.

We need this. A room with walls that lets Mexico in, that allow our remembered lives, remembered selves to seep through its pores, where we can collect them into this bed, this can of beer, these quiet swallows between kisses. Above us, another couple, having found sleep, snore a telenovela through our ceiling.