Fiction


Tuesday, November 30th, 2010


KENNEDY

by Emmanuel Sigauke


The entrance to Kubatana Beer Garden was dotted with scantily-dressed women and peanut vendors, a curious combination which made me shake my head as we entered the flood-lit bar.  Mukoma and Jakove, the regulars here, led the way, and turned every now and then to check if I was still following close behind. They acted as if they suspected that I would slip away, and I could not blame. This was the first time they had ever asked me to come with them to the bar. We were going to celebrate my upcoming trip to the United States. What I didn’t know was how they had planned the celebration. I knew we were not just going to sit and talk while drinking beer. That we could have done at home. I wanted to find out why they had asked me to come to the bar, what they had in store for me.
“Tonight you’ll see a side of me that will blow your mind away,” said Mukoma, who was leading the way.
           
“What your brother is saying is that he has something important to tell you,” said Jakove, Mukoma’s friend, whom I also called brother. The two’s friendship had been elevated to kinship since they had known each other for more than ten years, and Jakove came from a village not far from ours, so if one traced the two families’ histories closely, chances were that  we were related.  Jakove was the good kind of brother too, always ready to defend, elevate, explain, or even translate everything Mukoma said.
           
“He has something to show you too; so it’s, as they say, a show and tell night,” Jakove added, grabbing Mukoma’s hand to slow him down so I could keep up with them. I was having a hard time navigating my way through the crowd, and the cigarette smoke in the place was blinding and suffocating.  Besides I was not moulded for beer halls.
           
Shouting and staggering men waved at us. Mukoma and Jakove waved back and thumps-upped acquaintances scattered in the swaying crowd. Loud music competed with the loudest of voices. The noise and the smells were oppressive, but I walked along, willing to take it all in, to see how things went in a beer garden. We threaded our way through this crowd like celebrities.
           
After walking and stopping, walking and stopping, if we could call the slow bumping against and squeezing through dancing bodies walking, we reached a long table where, Mako, the man Mukoma called Sekuru because he was from our village too and had the same last name as our mother, sat with two women and another man.
           
The youngest of the women would be perfect for me tonight, if she was the reason Mukoma and Jakove had brought me here.  She noticed that I was looking at her
and said, “Sit here, honey!”
           
“Leave him alone. He is beyond your league,” said Mukoma, as he shook hands with the two men and patting
the women on the shoulders.
           
“Yes, way beyond her league,” said Jakove, who turned to me and said, “Don’t waste your time with these. Your future is waiting for you in America.”  He made me feel like I was making great progress in life. Of course, it was good for Mukoma and Jakove to think that way. As a recent Literature graduate, I seemed to them to be doing something substantial with my life, finally, which might explain why Jakove thought I was above the woman’s level, but I had since learned that with women, sometimes the word level lost its meaning. At this stage in my life, any woman was a queen.
           
She was attractive. Perhaps even beyond my league. I knew that she was a prostitute, which is why she was here in the first place, but I also thought that if the women who came here were considered prostitutes, which they were, the men they served, or who served them, were prostitutes too, which they were. I looked at her with interest, the rare smile I always gave when I wanted to make a statement. Hopefully, seduction was written all over my smile. Or desire, whichever came first. She even seemed to be returning the smile. Yes, she really was. There was something genuine about her smile, a smile of recognition, an affirmation that, perhaps, we were meant for each other. “Don’t waste you time on these,” echoed Jakove’s words, but I wanted to waste time on them, to experience them. And wasn’t this –the interaction with the women—why Mukoma and Jakove had brought me here?
           
As I was about to take the offer to sit next to her, Mukoma showed me an alternative spot, and gave me a look that clearly stated that this was not a negotiable matter; then he sat next to her and whispered something in her ear. She beamed and refocused on her martini. I sat next to Mako, who said something.

“Sorry...what?” I asked, leaning forward.

“Your brother is going to honor you tonight?” he shouted, sending jets of spit in my face.
           
“So I hear,” I responded, accepting his extended hand for a greeting.

“That’s good. Few men own up to...” He trailed off because Mukoma cast him a scalding glance. 

“Gentlemen, talk about something else,” Mukoma said. “Ask him about his trip, or something.” Then he turned to the young woman and said, “We can, you know, hook up later. After this thing I’m doing with my mupfana. Just make sure you stay fresh.”     
           
She said something inaudible, but it satisfied Mukoma, who turned to Mako and asked, “So what are we drinking?”
           
“Well, you brought us the big fish here,” Mako answered, winking at me. “What does he have for us?”
           
“Ask him. He has a mouth of his own,” said Mukoma, lighting a cigarette.
           
I took out my wallet and found two twenties lying close to five one-hundred U.S. dollar bills. I got rid of the Zimbabwean currency by giving it to Mako who clapped in gratitude, “Well done, son of my sister. They sure don’t call you Big Fish for nothing.”

“Big fish?” Mukoma asked.  “Don’t forget that I’m still the big fish, and will always be.”

“Hey, don’t mess things up for us now,” said Mako. “He just gave me these to prove it.” He waved the money in Mukoma’s face. Mukoma waved him away and concentrated on the woman. She was still sending signals to me though, so maybe Mukoma was trying to stretch the surprise.

Jakove leaned towards to me and whispered, “How much did you give Mako?” But Mako heard him and waved the money back in his face.

“You can’t empty your wallet on these drunkards,” said Jakove to me, and the Mako said, “Anyway, sekuru, get us something with that money.”

A round of Chibuku buckets was ordered. I was asked to join in the drinking, even after I indicated that I didn’t want to drink. The table argued that with an important journey ahead of me, I had to loosen up and drink the people’s beer.
           
“Alright then, I will do it for you gentlemen!” I received the pitcher from Mako and pulled hard at the beer.
           
The table clapped in admiration. No one here, not even Mukoma, had ever seen me drink. So they were witnessing what they thought was my first encounter with the beer pitcher. I drank some more, then the questions started coming.
           
“So, about this journey of yours, what can you tell us?” asked a man I had seen only once, who was Jakove’s work mate. 
           
“Well, just a journey, traveling on vacation,” I said, waiting for the brew to reach me again. 
           
“Traveling all the way there for a vacation? Who does that?” asked the man, his face wrinkled with what looked like disappointment.
           
“Just a vacation trip, yeah,” I said, receiving the pitcher from Jakove, and bringing it to my mouth in such a way that it blocked my view of the group. With my eyes on the frothy, dense liquid, I pulled and pulled until I was almost out of breath.
           
Mukoma said, “Take it easy on that thing.”
           
“Let him drink,” said Mako.
           
“Let the man drink in peace,” said the nameless man.
           
Jakove nodded. I drank some more, and Mukoma’s face relaxed and he said, “I  have told him to make money soon as he gets there.”
           
There was general consent around the table. Rapid nods and brightening eyes. Even the young woman nodded too, her face serious for the first time.
           
Mukoma continued, “Make money, make money, and make money. Do whatever work you find.”
           
“Yeah, that’s what this one…what’s his name…Robhi was Madhuveko, you know my lodger Madhuveko?” said Mako. “He has been in South African for two months and already works, they say.”
           
Mukoma shook his head. “We are talking about America here, sekuru.”
           
“Sorry. America, that’s right,” said Mako, focusing on the beer mug.
           
Mukoma cleared his throat. “As I was saying, by the time he returns, he should be okay. We should all be rich by then.”
           
“He will do well; he has an education,” said Jakove.
           
“All young men should be like him,” said the nameless man. “ Men, real men, with dreams.”
           
“But you are just visiting; that’s all?” asked Mako.     
“He can’t just visit. He would upset the ancestors if he just visits and comes back empty-handed like Jabulani waMabhena.”
           
“You know that one is retarded; even New Zealand could not stand him. But our man here, he’s smart,” said Jakove.
           
“He can always go to school when he gets there. I hear most of our young men make money bathing old women there.”  This was followed by general laughter, which I joined. Me a teacher, washing old what? I sat there looking at the progress of the beer mug from mouth to mouth.
           
“Why would he want to go to school again? He already has a degree, now it’s time to be rich,” Mukoma said, wiping the beer froth off his upper lips. He had passed the mug to Jakove, who practically buried his head in it.
           
“Young man, you better not waste that trip. If you do, I personally would deal with you, straighten your head.”
           
Mukoma cut in, “Okay now, enough about his trip. He is visiting—that’s all you need to know for now. What’s important today is what he is going to know.”
           
“Yes, talking of knowing, why don’t the three of us continue to our business so we can return on time, while the beer’s still fresh?” Jakove said.
           
Mukoma whispered to the young woman, who pursed her lips and brought them to meet his for a quick kiss. He fished out his wallet and pulled out a crisp bill, which he handed to her. She smiled, folded the money and inserted it in her bra. Lucky money, I said, my eyes struggling to leave the cleavage alone. The woman directed a twinkling eye to me and stuck out the tip of her tongue. I looked away and stood up to join Mukoma and Jakove.
           
Outside was quieter as all the market women and vendors were leaving. It was already after ten. I really needed to be in bed by eleven-thirty to get enough rest. This thing better be worth my time, I thought as we walked away from the beer hall. Mukoma led the way toward the older side of Glen View, a place popularly known as the Wedding Section because when it was established in 1979, it had been intended for newly-wed couples.  But when the country gained independence in 1980, the pursuit of equal opportunities for everyone brought a wave of house-seekers of all stripes. Yet the name stuck; even those who were not married could say, happily, they had a house in the Weddings Section. 
           
We walked past the terminus for city-bound buses, which was empty at this hour, except for a few homeless men who sat in clumps like anthills, past the emergency taxi rank, where several drivers were roasting corn. Business was slow at this time for them.  We crossed the notorious 40th Crescent, which was known for muggings. The lighting was poor there, and this was where Mukoma had once beaten Mai Lucy, one of his ex-wives. The poor lighting had helped because the fight had not attracted a large crowd of spectators. 
           
We walked down a moderately-lit street, going east. Some of the houses still had lights on, and in the few whose curtains were open, I could see people watching television or sitting in gesticulating groups. Looking through these windows, I was fascinated by the life in progress. On lucky days one could see fighting people, maybe a couple or two, doing this or that. I always wondered why they did not think to close those curtains when they were doing the nasty. But some houses did not have curtains, which was even more interesting. Maybe we were walking to a house without curtains, where we would sit and be seen from outside by those walking by, doing whatever Mukoma and Jakove had in store for me.
           
What did they want to show me? Had they found a woman for me, so I would be one of those people who married immediately before departing to ensure that they would not marry abroad? These two knew I had no girlfriend and that I seemed not to show signs that I was interested in one. So maybe they were trying to fix me up with a woman. That had to be the reason—a woman for the departing man. Or maybe we were on our way to a n’anga, someone to give me good luck charms and spiritual guidance before the journey. But if we were going to a n’anga, they could have told me so. Besides, I would have preferred one of those Apostolic or Zion prophets because they didn’t demand animal sacrifices. But, this didn’t seem like such a trip.  It had to be a woman.
           
We exited the street and entered a dark alleyway. Now this was getting interesting.
           
“And we are not lost?” I asked, immediately wishing I hadn’t asked, because I had sounded—well, funny, a bit drunk, or just out of place.
           
The two laughed and continued plowing along, as if what I had said was irrelevant, was not the point, was a spoiler of this surprise they had for me. This woman, she better be pretty. I walked faster and smiled at the prospect of cuddling with a woman in…what…ten, fifteen, twenty minutes? That would depend on how long the walk along the alleyway was going to be. We walked on, silent still.
           
After a while Mukoma said, “Get ready.”
           
“Do you think you are ready for this, sir?” asked Jakove, prodding me in the ribs with his fist.
           
“I just don’t know what it is. So, I don’t know,” I said.
           
“Just toughen up,” he said.
           
“I’ve to be tough?”
           
Mukoma slowed down, almost coming to a standstill. He turned and said, “I trained you to be tough and rough. Why is that even an issue?”
           
Before I was able to respond, Jakove chimed in, “Okay now, let’s hurry up. Do you know what time it is?”
           
So we walked on in silence. The alley became wider and sufficiently lit and I noticed we were walking in the back of houses. We were not going to steal anything, were we? Of course, why would the thought even get in my head? These weren’t war times any more, when I associated Mukoma with stealing things that belonged white people. Sneaking in the darkness, headed for the Rest Camp near Takavarasha to steel the roofing sheets that he would use to make water buckets….
           
“Two more houses,” said Mukoma. “Only two. I know you’ll handle it. Don’t you think he will, Jakove?”
           
“Would he be called a man if he couldn’t?” Jakove said.
           
They were taking me to a woman. I felt a stir between my legs. 
           
I had to say something, to show I was still relaxed and flexible. The beer was taking effect too, loosening up those mouth muscles that often favored to remain still in the presence of these two men. “What are you two up to?” I asked. “Because if you ask me, this walking through the dark, emerging from behind the backs of houses, this is getting interesting.”
           
They both just laughed and continued walking. Calling them “you two” was usually not part of my vocabulary. But they had never played games with me before either; I was used to them thinking that doing certain things with me was inappropriate, considering that Mukoma was just like my father, being eighteen years my senior.  He had told me many times never to follow his lead in matters of dealing with women. His first serious conversation with me about the issue was when he took a second wife from the city. He had told me to focus on books and to worry about bringing prosperity into our family.
           
“That’s your primary role in this family, and, as you can see, mine is to make sure the family name grows,” he had said. But I had finished at the university, a great achievement for our family. The fact that I was leaving the country for the United States was to him the first step to realizing his dream of prosperity. So, of course, he would want to take me to a woman as a way to celebrate.

We negotiated our way through a tomato garden, which was damp. “Careful not to fall,” whispered Jakove, who now led the way. We were behind a big house whose lights were off. We walked some more in the darkness, and then jumped over a short barbed-wire fence as we entered another compound.

 “We are here,” announced Mukoma, signaling us to stop.

We stood in front of a shack, which had just suddenly appeared. Inside, light blinked. “Watch for your heads,” said Mukoma, as he opened the door.

We crept into the shack where a woman sat, suckling a baby. There was nowhere to sit.

“Find somewhere you can fit yourselves,” the woman said, voice relaxed, eyes looking at the baby.

"Sit, gentlemen." Mukoma said, as he crouched on a spot near the woman, whose legs stretched in front of her.

 I found a clear spot between some dishes and sat. Jakove squatted near me. The woman torched me with her eyes, eyes so big and clear they seemed capable of swallowing you. I hope these men are not trying to fix me up with this woman, I thought, as I scanned the room, which had no bed. My eyes refocused on the baby and found their way to the full length of the woman’s outstretched, smooth legs, all the way to the bare feet whose tiny toes seemed to wave at me.
             
"This is the surprise, young man," Mukoma said, pointing at the baby.
"Oh," I said.  "The surprise?"

"Yes; he wanted to surprise you," Jakove said.

 "He did?" I asked. But I realized I couldn’t ask that question, so in the interest of toughness, I gave a brief laugh, said, “Of course, he did.”

 I rose to a squat and edged closer to where Mukoma sat. A smile of approval worked its way across his face.  "This is your responsibility," he said, still pointing at the baby, and the woman nodded and said, "What he is saying is—."

 "No, Melu; let me handle this. I'm his brother." 
   
"Fine then! “she said, eyes returning to my responsibility."   
 
"And what's that attitude, woman?"

 "Attitude? You're the one with an attitude."

 "Stop it, you two!” Jakove said.  
  
Mukoma sighed. "Ok. Look, young man. I already told you about my problems with your sister-in-law, the one here in the city. As you know, when a woman starts act ing up, a man does what..."   
 
“No one wants to hear about that whore now!” the woman exclaimed.

"Why don’t we just do what we came here for?" said Jakove, after which I shocked myself by saying, "Let’s hear about this here.”  My finger pointed at the baby, whose little arms were flailing.
           
Mukoma licked his lips and crawled closer to the mother and her baby. “What we have here,” he extended his arms to receive the baby who had been plucked off a stiff breast. “There we go,” he said, patting the baby. “Yesh, yesh.
How are you, shir?” He asked the baby, and looking at me, continued, “What we have here is the newest member of our family. He has no name yet, because we were waiting for you to name him, as long as you give the mother, your newest sister-in-law something.”
           
I pulled out my wallet. No Zimbabwean money left in it, but I discovered that in addition to the five Franklins, I also had a ten-dollar bill. I wouldn’t have wanted to part with it, but the woman, blouse still unbuttoned, was waiting. “This is all I have,” I said, handing her the bill. She held it against the light and, eyes widening, looked at me, at Mukoma, at Jakove, and then at the bill again, squinting.  She buttoned her blouse and smiled, checking the money one more time.
           
“This is fine,” she said. “Any amount is fine. This is actually very good.” Then she got to her knees and started clapping, “Your brother was right about you. Thank you so much, our provider.”
           
When the mother sat down again, Mukoma resumed, “Here is your brother’s son. A man has got to do what a man has got to do, but I am getting old. I am showing him to you so you can always remember.” He paused to watch my reaction, and satisfied by what he saw, continued, “I want you to remember, wherever you go, if you decide to stay in the US or continue to Canada, that you left a son here. Here is your son.” He held out the baby to me.
I received the baby with steady arms. He was so light it didn’t feel like there was a person in the wrapped thin blanket. As I was about to unwrap the cloth to verify the gender at least, my hand started shaking.
Jakove came to my rescue, “I wouldn’t worry about trying to make sense of anything yet. Take it all in slowly. For now, just name your son and explanations will come later.”

“Greet your son like a man!” said brother. “He is your blood.”
           
“Hey you, little one! You, shir! I-I.”
           
The woman laughed. “This is all too new for you, huh? You forget you have some brother here?” She patted Mukoma’s shoulders, who said, “Let him name his son.”
           
I balanced the baby in the crook of my right arm. I looked at his face and my skin crawled. My son? Of course, not my son, but Mukoma’s, once he turned forty-two, had begun to tell me that the future of his children was in my hands since he had given me a college education. Here in the city, he had a son and a daughter, aged seven and nine. In the rural areas, his senior—and real—wife had two daughters, aged five and nine. And now this?  A third wife? I mean, a word of warning, something in advance, would have prepared me better for this moment.
           
“Name your son, young man!” said Jakove, and Mukoma nodded his agreement.
           
“Kennedy.” I don’t know where this came from, but it did it. This was my first time naming a baby and saying that name and then looking at the baby as if he could recognize the name as his felt good. 
           
The men clapped rhythmically while the woman broke into ululation. I raised the baby to an upright position and right there, in the flash of a moment, I saw its vulnerability. I looked at him like I wanted to see a revelation. His stare was intense, as if his little dark eyes had seen me somewhere. The silence was broken by Mukoma, “Kennedy it is. An American name, indeed.”
           

“America!” shouted the mother.
I returned the baby to the mother, and for a moment my eyes locked into hers, and I realized we had not been formally introduced. Someone had to say something.
           

“Nice meeting you again,” I said.
           

“Thank you very much father of my child. Thank you for coming to see us.” She undid her blouse again and the baby clasped on. I averted my eyes and moved back. 
           
“So, I think that’s it then!” Mukoma spoke, stretching and yawning. “I will give him more information.”
           
The woman clapped her hands and thanked me again.
 We crawled out of the shack into the darkness of the alleyway. We walked in silence until we got to the main street.
           
Jakove was the first to speak: “That was easy. Mother and baby liked you.”
Mukoma said, “I didn’t know you would give that woman foreign currency. You couldn’t find regular money? Even I could use that kind of money.”
           
“Wait a minute now,” Jakove said, raisin his voice. “She’s already ‘that woman?’ Guys, let’s be serious.”
           

“The point is, Jakove… well… fine!” He paused, perhaps waiting for me to say
 something. I had nothing to say. So he continued, sounding relaxed, “But that was easy.
You handled it well.”

“Did you take a good look at that baby? He look just like you,” Jakove said.
“I am surprised you didn’t give him your name,” Mukoma said, and my heart beat faster, as the moment my eyes met the baby’s came back and flitted away.

“Kennedy is just fine,”  I said, as  I walked faster.

Mukoma, increasing his speed, caught up with me. “I know you have questions. They’ll all be answered before you depart. For now let’s hurry back to the bar and celebrate.”

I slowed down, but said nothing the rest of the way.  As we reached the beer hall, Mukoma said, “This doesn’t get to your sisters-in-law, not to the one here, not to the one in the village.  At least not yet.” He paused and looked at me.

“But you can ask me any questions.”
           
I had no questions. All I needed was to enter the bar and drink myself into a coma.

 

*****

Emmanuel Sigauke: is a Zimbabwean writer based in Sacramento. He teaches composition and creative writing at Cosumness River College, and is a member of the Sacramento Poetry Center Board, where he hosts poetry readings every second Monday. He also runs the blog Wealth of Ideas. Sigauke recently won the inaugural Artsinitiates/Lion Press Short Story Award.

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