My eyes feel like two tightly-wound knotted ropes holding a ship to its harbor. A strange force swirls behind them, a dull beckoning holding my mind in a vegetative state. On the corner outside, across from the yeast factory, I stare into the mud, an open wound, which is filled with brown water, discarded tires and broken branches from the trees overhead. It has been raining all weekend, the downpour clearing the air of winter’s dust.
“Patrick, come they opening the gates.” Larry stands by the metal gate waving at me. These days Larry’s voice is my lighthouse: a human sound tethering me to a bare world.
My life has been this way ever since she took the kids and vanished six months ago. People said she was staying with her mother but I didn’t have the strength to confirm that. She was right to leave me: a drunk. But I was trying, working overtime at the factory and making an application for manager too. The manager position came with a raise and would allow me to rest my heavy bones between the softness of life’s thighs. But the bitch had other plans.
Melissa and I had not made love since Christmas, which was 9 months ago. It sort of crept up on us, this haze holding us in separate cocoons in bed together. There were brief moments in the night where our words would arrive at each other’s ears as if freed from the arguments littering those 9 months of our lives. When I spoke to her in bed about the kids’ school fees, her mother, about the first time we met, she would reply as if meeting me for the first time. There was a lightness in her voice in those moments, a playfulness that edged toward the erotic. But always, when the words were done with their magic, we lacked the drive to touch and break the hollow of our bodies.
So now the cupboards are empty, the drawers where her dish rags were neatly folded are bare and the fridge’s only job is to cool sleek bodies of beer that hold nothing but burps and shameful longings.
The shame smacks me in the face when I sit on the balcony drinking, watching the pubescent schoolgirls jump rope in Donnie’s yard. It’s wrong to feel such things, I know, but the steam that rises between one’s legs is blunt. It sees and wants, much like a pup who comes of age and mounts his mother in a rage. The pup doesn’t understand itself, its urges, their purpose.
I’ll never really do it. But I enjoy watching the girls’ limbs ascend into the air and come down hard on the earth; the firmness of their flesh pounded, like the skin of a drum, against the earth. Their untapped melodies are what I think keep me going, give me some excitement, in the humdrum of the yeast factory.
Larry and I are involved in the sterilization of the tanks where the yeast cells are grown and harvested. We steam the tanks so that the yeast cultures aren’t contaminated with other bacteria. Growing yeast is a complex process involving molasses, oxygen and the control of temperature and PH levels. Oddly enough when I started this job I found yeast fascinating. Placed in just the right conditions yeast can multiply and grow to exponential proportions. Much like people. Much like love.
“I think love is like yeast.” I sit down next to Larry on our lunch break. We’re sitting on the benches outside the factory when he flashes me a confused look.
“Bra, love isn’t like that. You of all people should know that.”
I told Larry about Melissa leaving. I told him how I tried to do everything to make her happy and provide, to be the husband she wanted me to be. But it was never enough for her. A part of me just wished she could look past my addiction and see me.
“Maybe there’s something extra about people and love then, something that scientists cannot calculate, something that will always baffle us.” I found myself staring at the wound in the earth across the street that was beginning to fill with more garbage. A cloud of flies vibrated above the filth, their buzzing mingling with the knives of heat beating down on us from above.
“You need to get laid my friend.” Larry laughs, taking out a cigarette and offering me one.
“I don’t smoke tobacco, Larry. You know that.” He withdraws the cigarette as I get up to leave, taking one last stare at the wound across the street from the factory. Management tried their hardest to stop the garbage from piling up in the ditch. They cleaned up the area countless of times and even placed a NO DUMPING sign there. But somehow, every day, there’d be a new congealed lump of filth beneath the sign. It seemed as if there were invisible miscreants in that ditch and we only saw the by-products of their lives.
Management suspected the rubbish came from Biko Squatter Camp and had planned to fence off the area in an effort to keep it clean. I knew such efforts wouldn’t work—shit has to go somewhere—and if it wasn’t dumped across the street it would be dumped elsewhere. That’s the nature of shit.
I grew up next to Biko Squatter Camp in a block of flats known as The Army Flats. It had gotten its name because the flats were built for coloured soldiers who went to fight in the Second World War. At least that’s what Pa told me.
“So how did we end up living here?” I asked Pa once over steaming plates of chicken biryani.
“Your great uncle was not the same when he came back from the war. They locked him up for a long time after he beat his wife up. Made her look like aunty June’s son. You know…the one with the funny eye that drools a lot. She took to the bottle after that and died soon after. That’s when his brother, your great grandfather, started living here.”
“They had no kids?”
“You ask a lot of questions, boy. Eat your food.”
I always asked too many questions. It seemed no one could ever ask enough questions. There’d always be more and more questions and never enough answers to go round.
Whenever I think about the Army Flats and Biko Squatter Camp my mind vomits up Joy. I met Joy because of the proximity of the Army Flats to Biko Squatter Camp. Back then she was thirteen and I was ten. She had stubby legs with short, black hair that didn’t need to be tied back with anything. But for some reason she insisted on tying her hair back, pulling together patches of it to give the impression that she was in fact a girl. It was hard to tell her apart from the rest of the boys, you see. Her face had a stone-like quality to it, with a wide jaw jutting out and curving round like rocks on a remote island. Her remoteness made her movements seem indecisive, like she was never sure exactly how to use her body. This is how I became her only friend. She was quiet and impressionable and I liked that mostly because I was entering that age where I reveled in the dominance of boyhood.
“Hey who’s that there?” Larry’s sipping gin and tonic on my balcony while I roll a joint in my lap. Kaizer Chiefs is playing Sundowns inside but neither of us is really watching. We prefer to sit in silence, watching the activities on the corner opposite the Army Flats. Every weekend all kinds of cars pull up in front of a face brick house. It’s a drug house— we all know that—but we also know that those dealers never did anything to us so why would we do anything to them? It’s funny, from what Larry and I have observed there’re five young guys who live in that house, neither of them older than twenty-eight. Each one drives a car and has different girls wrapped round his waist every weekend. Ain’t that the life?
“Hey you see that? Who’s that?” Larry asks again. He gets up to lean over the railing to get a better look. It’s Joy. Her high heels strike the pavement, stimulating a playful jiggle in her thighs. Her weave is oil-black and tied up in a sort of Asian-escort bun. When she walks past my flat in a red boob-tube and mini skirt the Imam in the Mosque four blocks down begins his evening call to prayer. I don’t understand the words the Imam chants into the sunset; but I feel a tugging in my chest, like his voice is drawing muddy water from a forgotten well in me.
“Joy what’s that?” I remember my ten-year-old self asking her one evening while we sat listening to the latest Usher song under the orange streetlights outside the Army Flats. I had noticed a dark stain on her blue dress that smelt funny. When she noticed what I was looking at she said, “I think I’m a woman now. Please don’t tell the other boys.”
When she said the word “woman” my insides churned and growled, like a boulder that was lodged in my body had found the leverage it needed to dislodge itself. She was a woman now and hearing her say it scared me.
Larry and I are watching Joy strut across the street when a fat man standing at the face brick house yells, “How much sweet cakes?”
Joy bends over, slow and menacing, for the man outside the face brick house, lifting her dress so he can see the color of her panties (which were a lacy black) then she shoots a middle finger in the air and sticks it to her ass.
Larry and I can’t help but laugh at the spectacle. Not long after she disappears into a black Volvo with tinted windows further up the road.
That night I don’t dream of Joy, but Melissa.
“Melissa, let me in please!” The door’s locked, my legs give out from under me, my ass hitting the hard stoep floor. “Lano…Tasha…kids…” I whisper, much louder than I mean to, pressing my eye to the keyhole to spy movement from behind the door. The scaffolding of my senses collapses and I feel a cesspool open up in my guts.
The door unlocks. Tasha’s tiny face is on the other side. In her left hand is a bucket that she places in front of me. “Vomit Pa.” She steps back in fear of what will raise its green-eyed face from my mouth. I heave into the bucket, my stomach wringing out the poison I spent all night pouring into it. When I look up, Tasha isn’t there. A slanting light from the kitchen cuts across my face as I make my way to the bedroom where Melissa is sleeping. But the bedroom door is locked.
After the stain appeared on Joy’s dress she acted differently. Her face softened, her thighs rounded and her skin shone. And then there was that magnificent, pungent scent of the ocean that wafted off her. We still sat under the orange streetlights listening to the latest RnB songs together, but something had changed. A column of air had slid itself between us, and I think we both knew that to cross it would reveal ourselves in ways we had not fully understood yet.
I remembered sitting wide-legged, my knees demarcating a space around me where Joy’s smell could not distract me, or so I hoped. She’d sit next to me, the nape of her neck cradling the orange orb of light from above. Everything about her then seemed designed to cradle: to hold and lift up something, anything. And when she stood up to leave—her body receding into Biko Squatter Camp—I feared that her remoteness had disappeared, rendering me a simple boy in the presence of her burgeoning body.
There wasn’t any garbage in the earthly wound anymore. I wasn’t sure if it was on account of the NO DUMPING SIGN or whether the people of Biko Squatter Camp just found a more convenient place to dump their shit. I realized that some signs were like that: their effects not really calculable in the present; while other signs were more immediate, even life-threatening.
One day Larry and I were slaving away in the factory when a creaking sound from the roof told me something wasn’t right with the ceiling. On this day, a mixture of metal and concrete freed itself and fell, threatening to crush Larry who was inspecting the yeast tanks underneath.
I rushed toward Larry, pushing him out the way of the falling ceiling and just about managing to get most of my body out the way before a slab of concrete landed on my right foot. The pain shrieked off the walls, and my body was thrust into an engulfing storm of high-pitched ringing. Everything became blurry, my body had found its shutdown lever, the weight of me slamming onto the floor.
When Joy’s body began to change like that, she was absent from school more often. But when she did come to school, all the boys fluttered around her, her scent bringing them to ecstatic attention. I had to admit I was jealous of the sudden attention she was getting from boys who hadn’t taken notice of her before. So I made my first attempt at making a woman mine.
“Will you be my girlfriend?” I asked Joy outside the girl’s bathroom as she painted a shade of purple on her fingernails. She smiled and touched my cheek, making me light-headed from the fumes of her nail polish.
“You don’t need a girlfriend, Patrick.”
“Yes I do.”
“How else am I going to break my virginity and become a man?” I could see her suppressing a giggle that tickled the back of her throat.
“You want to become a man?”
“Yes. Like my great uncle who went to war for this country.”
“Didn’t he come back all fucked up in the head?”
“That’s what being a man is about.”
“Being fucked up in the head?”
“No, fighting for what you love.”
“What if the thing you love doesn’t love you back?”
“Then you go insane, I think.” Joy paused, removing her hand from my cheek and pulling up her white socks to just below her knees.
“Do you love me, Patrick?”
I didn’t want to say it; I wanted her to feel it, to know it in her kneecaps. So I nodded, slow and deliberate, reaching out to grab her hand. But she withdrew it before I could touch her.
“Prove it.” She walked away, leaving me standing outside the girl’s bathroom, the sound of gushing toilets my only companions.
Larry’s staying over to look after me. My right foot is broken in several places, a white cask covering my foot. Word has gotten round about how I saved his life. Even some family relatives who I’ve never seen in months came to visit today.
“They must have seen the photograph in the Westside Chronicle.” Larry places a cup of green tea beside me along with my pain pills.
“What was the headline again?”
“Yeast Factory Hero.”
“You think I’m famous now?”
“Ja in your dreams.” We laugh, Larry’s hand lingering on my shoulder. He has said thank you to me many times already but in the weight of his touch I know that he still feels responsible for me.
Then, a hard knock on the door jolts us both.
“Who’s that?” We say in unison.
After Joy asked me to “prove” my love to her I started spending more time in the squatter camp, to help her with her new business. I remember Saturdays at Biko Squatter Camp were filled with sounds and smells of celebration. I never asked what people were celebrating though; afraid of the faces who’d scoff at the ridiculousness of the question. I would frequently sit outside Joy’s shack on a crate of beer watching a group of kids throw garbage at stray dogs. There was always a mixture of faces in the group of children: boys with bald heads and mocha-coloured skin; girls with frizzy hair who kept on yelling “Jou ma se poes” at each other and laughing hysterically.
“Kim, come here!” I called to one of the coloured girls I recognized from the Army Flats. Kim was around 6 or 7 at the time.
“Your mother doesn’t want you playing with these squatter camp children, my girl. Go home.”
“These are my friends, Patrick. Plus what are you doing here anyway?” She pointed at me, attaching her hand to her hip in a striking resemblance to the way I’d seen her mother do it. Kim’s mother was well-known on the flats for her hand-to-hip poses which usually meant that a fight was about to go down, usually between her and one of her boyfriends.
“I’m working, mind your business.”
“You mind your beeswax too then. What’s that sound? What’s going on in there?”
“I said mind your business. Or I’ll tell your mother you out here playing with these squatter camp kids.”
She rolled her eyes and joined the rest of the kids in their game with a stray dog. They were throwing black packets filled with rubbish at the dog, watching its teeth rip through the plastic. The commotion sprayed banana peels, condoms, diapers and cabbages everywhere. When the mongrel was tired, one of the bigger boys started poking it with a stick, coaxing it to growl and spit. Eventually the dog decided it had had enough and darted for the children: scattering them in multiple directions, their voices shrill with pleasure.
Moments later, Joy came out wearing denim shorts and a black, sleeveless shirt. An older man exited the shack behind her, slipping a handful of notes into my sweaty palm. Not too long after that, his white Corolla sped off, the sound of the Corolla’s tires grating the air.
“No trouble this time?” I asked.
“None.” She offered me a cigarette, lighting it for me. “Ever since you’ve been here they’ve been behaving.”
“Think when they see the baseball bat they know we mean business. I saved up and got this as well.” I pulled a switchblade out my pocket. Joy grinned at me, touching my cheek the way an autumn leaf would fall to the ground.
“Thank you for doing this.” She said.
“I told you… I love you.” I watched her eyes fall at her feet and make circles in the dirt.
“Oh wait. I forgot!”
“What is it?” I asked as she rushed inside, coming out with a disposable camera.
“I wanna have a photoshoot.”
“Here of all places?”
“Why not? Come on. It’ll be fun.”
I sighed and acceded to her, unable to block the light from the afternoon sun that ricocheted off her body.