“You know how when something really touches you . . .”
Here I feel welcome. A room of my own, spacious compared to where I lived, the compound cluttered with too many families and the two-room house too small for me and my kids. Here a bare expanse of walls and floor. And machines clocking my bodily functions and forcing the life spilling out back in. Not bad, all things considered.
Up until recently our biggest concern had been the drought. For years running the reservoir levels decreasing throughout the country from lack of rain and encroaching desert, forcing each person to take on the burden of rationing water even here in the city.
But we managed. I managed. The most important thing, I had a job and could provide for my family. I had not much else. The type of poverty one can manage. Even be proud of.
I was given to spending time with the Leather Lady every evening after work. We had long been firm friends, from the day my husband and I as newlyweds took up residence in the compound more than a decade earlier. Turning away from the compound, we would take a slow spin around the neighborhood, passing by many spots that were hot, dangerous. But we were safe since gangsters never do their dirt at home. Then too she dressed in a way that could not escape notice and that identified her to every beholder, always some combination of brown leather—pants and a top, or jumper, a skirt, and sandals that encircled her calves and shins with straps, even an ankle-length leather dress. Topped by a leather cowboy hat with small birds perched along the brim.
I was always surprised by the ease and swiftness of her movement. Life had thickened her and slowed her down, but she still maintained a plurality of youthful features. Her face entirely made up. Acrylic nails attached to her fingers like colorful beetles.
In the course of our walks she might smoke a cigarette or two, and she would speak to me about her day. (Now she made whatever she could from babysitting, cooking, sewing, running errands, and other odds and ends.) She never permitted her past to come up in conversation, and she wasn’t the type of older woman to know-it-all you, to advise and chastise. Rather, when you wanted her advice or her opinion, she was quick to say, “Oh, I don’t know. What do you think?”
The only time I ever heard her speak her mind was when the quarantine was announced. We started out on our nightly walk, masks fitted over our mouths. I asked her what I should do. She offered me a cigarette. Taking no chances, I declined. She accepted the risk. Took a few puffs. She was insistent that I remain at home during the quarantine. Once back at my house, we sat down on the stoop. The stars were out above us, light pasted to night. She was sweating, so removed her hat and used it to fan herself. For the first time I caught a glimpse of her hair, microbraids patterned into small squares, each braid drawn tightly to connect it to another.
We decided it would be best for me to spend the twenty-one days of the quarantine at the studio. Would eat, bathe, and sleep there. And while some would starve, I would continue to earn a wage, and be safe doing so. Of course, I would miss my children. That would be the worst of it. Still, all things considered . . . so, when the time came, I kissed them in turn then entrusted them into the Leather Lady’s care.
The job never stretched my faculties or talents, but having any job was no small thing in our country when work was drying up along with the water, leaving a desert of unemployment and a few sparse oases of hand-to-mouth hustling. I was one of the lucky ones.
Up until the time that my husband found out about my job, we were the happiest couple in the compound. To this day I’m not sure how he found out, but the night he confronted me I did not lie.
I’m not giving up my job, I said.
No? You’ll just continue to let the whole world see? he said.
I’m not giving up my job.
He let the subject drop. Conducting himself according to the laws of his making as a man, he stopped speaking to me. Affected disdain whenever I tried to talk to him about the subject and make peace. When his voice finally returned after a few weeks, he had packed up his few belongings and was threatening to leave.
Do it all on your own, he said, since you like your job that much.
But it required only a few words for the Leather Lady to coax him out of the house that night, to have him rather than me accompany her on her nightly walk. What would come of it? Much.
When he returned to the house, I could tell he was restored to his old self, even if his pride remained hurt.
A few weeks later, just as things were getting back to normal, he got killed on the job while making a delivery. His coworker was behind the wheel. My husband was always a careful driver so I still wonder if that change might have made a difference. I’m left with the knowledge that he and his coworker had to be pulled from under seven other vehicles piled up on top of theirs. Authorities said they’d never seen anything like it. Like magnets stuck together. Nothing good came out of it. (What could?) At least the policy provided enough money to give him a proper sending off, and enough food and drink for everyone who knew him to celebrate his memory.
My boss was astonished that I showed up for work the day after his funeral. But I am a practical woman. Without his paycheck, there could be no days off and there would be many double shifts.
I fitted the mask onto my face and snapped rubber gloves onto my hands, then left the compound, made my way to the long queue of dollar vans, ducked inside the one with the fewest people and paid my fare, then took a seat at the back, trying to make myself small, doing what I could to maintain distance from the other passengers. By then this habit of conducting myself like a leper had stuck, but soon there were too many bodies inside. Against regulations, the driver insisted on the van being full before he took off.
The ride took an hour. Once I exited the minivan, I started the long trek up the hill. Before I knew really what was happening, they came up strong behind me, two men. They wanted my purse, but I refused to relinquish it. They shoved and pushed me, and I punched and kicked. I would not make it easy for them. We tussled, fell to the ground, and started to roll down the hill, drawn down by gravity and the weighted anchor of my purse. Once again, I found myself prone on the ground where I’d exited the van. One gangster was quick to produce a knife even before he regained his feet. He slashed the straps of my purse, allowing his partner to snatch it from my hands.
Not the first time. And probably not the last. Gangsters are always looking for a jackpot. I could have lost my head completely. Instead, I fitted my mask back into place without a thought and continued back up the hill to the studio. The moment I stepped through the door, the other women (of comparable fortune, poor like myself, survivors, lucky to be working) saw the state I was in and came and stood excited around me. Set about setting me right. Washed away the dirt, cleaned my nicks and cuts, put some salve on my bruises. Someone even kneaded a quick massage. Helped. Considerably. I stretched a bit, trying to limber up, still sore, but this would have to do.
As soon as I logged on, a client punched in his request. I complied, performed a ring dance around the bed, my limbs moving without thinking. Trying to stretch the session out as long as I could. Then the first cough made my jaw drop like a cartoon character.
I couldn’t keep up with all the doctors were saying to me. Too much at once. Breathing like spacemen while an intern took notes, writing backward with her left hand, writing forward with her right.
The nurses flipped through the door with plenty of warm words. Blue-skinned, they swim about my room like dolphins, leaping above me to insert an IV or inject medicine. Then swim away.
My skin dry and ashy although pumped full of fluid, the memories pumped back in so they can circulate, my arms and legs filled, bloated. My chest rises like a parachute catching air then deflates, rises again.
The priest asked me if I had anything to get off my chest. And when I did not answer he pried my mouth open and put slips of paper on my tongue.
Once, I woke up in the middle of the night and still half-asleep called out for the Leather Lady. The stars outside my window answered back, rattling like tambourines. There would be no visitors.
And that was when I heard something pop, felt fluid spilling out of me and splashing through the floor, enough to replenishn this land.
March 11, 2020
Johannesburg, South Africa
From Fat Times and Other Stories by Jeffery Renard Allen. Used with permission of the publisher, Graywolf Press. Copyright © 2023 by Jeffery Renard Allen. “The Lucky Ones” was first published in Konch.
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