The rain was coming down hard now and the wipers seemed to glide across like a meticulous figure skater; nowhere in particular, over and over with the same task. The bottle of Coke was flat, lying amongst the crumpled pie packets and a sandwich box from the petrol station. There was no real course for me to get nibbling on salads and whole foods.
There was a job to be done.
I drove past a bottle store a few kays back but I reminded myself that the boss wouldn’t take it, it was in the contract. Not that anybody would find out if I had a beer. I drive alone on these missions and every day I make sure I neglect the pang of sipping some sense-numbing foam. Also, it won’t help. The radio was crackling, trying to decipher the barren veldt that lay ahead of me, no sign of human anything, no sign of farm life or township flocks. Just the cold land that was being drenched in a late Highveld shower, the sky darkening with some flashes on the hazy horizon. The radio crackled into gospel. I pictured a large black woman dancing around in her house of God – like in those American films. I think it was in the South. Church looked nice then. I never really liked worship songs. I preferred Ozzy and Zeppelin but this was nice. The wipers danced with her belly chorus as the rain quietened to a harsh drizzle. I turned it off. This image was too soothing and I became aware once again. I am imagined her on the couch at home, cuddling me under our red blanket. It washes away.
There was a job to be done.
Where are the people? Who owns this land?
“Government…” I mumbled, sipping on some flat Coke and hoping a rest stop would pop up soon. That meant people. That meant contact. I couldn’t interact because I had a job to do. Leaning over I fiddled in the consol for smokes but I had finished them a while ago and if anyone knew I smoked while driving, that would be the end of me. Through the haze of the skater, a blue board said I had eight minutes before I could stop at the Star City. Somewhere I couldn’t pronounce but it did not matter. The radio crackled again even though I thought it was off. There was a bored DJ that was chatting about the president and the UN and all the other complications, the rising petrol price.
Sometimes, you just need to drive in the haze to get away.
“I guess the world gets worse as we live,” said the DJ. I turned it off and made sure it stayed off. I pictured the DJ saying those words over and over again. He’d finish his shift, get into his pricey car and take off to an expensive lunch. It was always like that. The manicured moaned about the prices while the man on the street is happy to have a little change for some bread and milk, a commune to stay in for the night or a week job fixing manicured people’s gutters. I drove a truck.
Seven minutes. My eyes felt itchy and I would kill for caffeine. My body was slumped forward over my wheel. I could hear my wife’s voice in my head. Sit up straight, Michael. Your back is going to be so crooked one day and I’m going to say ‘I told you so’. Well, she won’t be able to. She liked her boss too much and he liked her lingerie. Another reason I’d like to kick back with a bottle. It’s far too easy. When she told me she didn’t love me anymore, I kept quiet, not really knowing what to say. She sobbed in my lap, I rubbed her neck but stared ahead, seeing nothing in particular. Life kicks you in the balls sometimes. That time, Life had me lying o the floor while it repeatedly beat the shit out of me. She moved out the next day. She took our parrot Juju, too. I had no one.
There was a job to do.
I’ve decided to run away from home. What’s the point of living, right? The Mayans say I’ve only got two months to live. I think I’ve royally fucked myself up so I think I’ll just run away from everything. The rest stop is somewhere that nobody can find on a map. It’s quiet here. The rain outside is pounding the stop’s roof. A symphony.
The waitress is pretty. I used to be pretty. I don’t really read the menu.
“Just a cheese sandwich?”
She nods and leaves me be.
I almost judge her for being a waitress in a hick town in the middle of nowhere. Then I envy her. There’s a hopelessness when the Earth pours. The body reacts, the minds reacts and you contemplate life and all its simple intrusions, hate and pettiness. Two months.
Pretty puts a Coke in front of me and smiles politely.
“On the house…”
I look down and see the gas bubbles rise. The glass is frosted cold.
I don’t know what else to say. Courtesy is limited to towns that have one rest stop and a post office. I remember my mom leaving me an envelope with some cash in last week. I was excited. I wanted to tell her about my school dance coming up. Would we go dress shopping? Who did she think I should take?
There wasn’t any shopping or frivolous gossip. I was hoping like a child on Christmas Eve. The expectation of my mom coming through was dead. When she was seven months on the right track, I figured Life was giving us a second chance.
The envelope was tattered. Maybe it was Mom’s old ones in her study desk.
Inside there was one hundred rand and a short letter. Her handwriting was messy .
She was out.
Here’s money for food.
She wouldn’t say where she was going. Perhaps my imagination was in overdrive but I could smell her desperation to drink herself to death. I could smell the vodka. I could smell the seven-month sting of counterfeit emotion. She said she didn’t know when she’d be back. She told me to find Aunt Grace if I needed anything. I pocketed the money. I wasn’t proud. There was an itch. There was a spiraling, dull pain in my chest. I waited for Mom for a week. No word. Aunt Grace could not be contacted.
No dress shopping.
So I ran. It happens to everyone, doesn’t it? When I was 7 I remember fighting with Mom and Gran. They wouldn’t let me go to an older girl’s sleepover. That’s when Mom was fine and Gran was still around. They disagreed often but seemed to team up against this. I remember crying, writing a letter and packing a plastic bag with some clothes, my toothbrush, my diary and whatever I had in my purse. I was angry. I got as far as the local bowling green and decided I missed them.
This was a little different. In the crux of my current home life, why shouldn’t I run? I’ve stayed on the path. I’ve hoped and dreamed. For what?
“Your sandwich.” It looked horrific. Oil and dust. I kept my eyes away from Pretty. She seemed to wait for me to look up so she can say something nice to the girl who wants to expire without anyone knowing or caring. She left.
I picked at my food and tried to work out how much it would cost. R18. The crunchy chips on the side would bring me through the day. I looked around me. The stop was no much bigger than a café. There was an old man in the corner, reading a bright newspaper sipping on coffee and occasionally looking out the window at the rain. Amusement. Not far away from me was a middle-aged man dressed quite impeccably. He was having a coffee and some burger. He was staring at Pretty. Or nothing. He looked particularly bored. There was also a couple not far to my left who looked like they needed others. Her face was soaked in a flatness sharing a hopeless lunch. The man was scrolling through his phone, frowning, smiling and looking up now and again at his tedious lover. I heard him mumble something about the rain and she nodded.
I finished the oily chips. The sandwich was crumbling on its own. I pushed my plate away and Pretty, on cue, came to fetch it.
“Just full now, thanks.” I looked into my lap so the conversation wouldn’t dawdle along. Her lips produced a courteous smile.
“The bread isn’t good here.” It was the man who was looking at Pretty earlier. He was wiping his mouth with a serviette and smiled at me, then looked away embarrassed.
I didn’t respond. I liked it this way. A place where no one knew me, my past, my mind. But there was a necessary throb of curiosity about the man. Khaki pants, a crisp white shirt and anorak. His eyes were half-closed, half-open, his lids drooping every now and again as some jingle played.
“How’s the burger?” I asked. I don’t know why I seemed particularly interested in his lunch. He looked over, then looked at his half-eaten bun. He shrugged and smiled quietly.
“Not enough cheese…” He shrugged, pushing his plate away from his chest. He looked around and then eyed me again, trying to force a conversation.
“You from around here?”
I laughed , “No. Just a stop over.”
I didn’t know. It seemed to be a house between my thoughts. I didn’t really have a thought out plan or schedule. I just needed this. I needed a deadbeat diner in the middle of nowhere so I could fathom what life was all about. Unfortunately, the answer didn’t seem to be in oily chips and stale bread.
“I don’t know…”
He nodded and studied me, “I’m driving down. I have to deliver some packages. Job has to be done.”
Pretty came to fetch his plate and looked disappointed that he didn’t finish his food. He mumbled a thanks and dug out a booklet and small pencil from his jacket pocket. He hunched forward, his pencil scribbling notes or numbers. His brows knotted, too. It was a crossword or puzzle I guessed and I couldn’t think of anything sadder. The scribbling to pass the time, pass the mundane thrust of delivering packages in a stretch of road with detrimental diners.
He looked over at me staring and smiled again. “One puzzle before I go. There’s a job to do.” He scratched his chin with the pencil, deep in thought. He was serious about the puzzle like it was on his personal to-do list.
“To convert…to transform…” he mumbled loud enough for me to hear. He glanced up and looked ahead, looking for an answer on the clock that ticked too slowly. He scribbled a word but then erased, shaking his head. Pretty was looking at him, polishing a glass that looked sticky. I think she was trying to decipher the puzzle herself. I was sure she couldn’t manage drawing a stickman.
“Make the form different, recreate…”
“Change.” I said shyly.
He looked over and then scribbled it down on the puzzle. He looked happy.
“Change. To convert,” he smiled, “thanks…”
He dug into his pocket, took out some money and put it on the table so Pretty could see.
“Change,” he mumbled, sifting through some coins, “change or change – however you put it, we’re always looking for it, aren’t we?”
I wasn’t sure if that heightened exclamation was for me or Pretty. I nodded shyly and saw him get as much change from his pocket as he could. He smiled quietly to himself as if he had answered a question in his head. He left a piece of paper on the table and nodded a farewell.
“There’s change on the table.”
I got back into the truck. It stank of rain and pastries. Change. The windows were drying. Outside began to get musty and humid.
There was a job to do.
But, I didn’t feel as motivated to balance routine with routine and stop for a measly meal just so my body can have enough sustenance to keep me around. Routine.
I remember Nana told me a story of how she gave up her dreams of being a dancer just so she can move to England with Pop. Every day, they would walk 3km to the store to get milk and bread. Every Sunday they went to church and afterwards they’d have a feast. Routine. Nana, years later, would tell me their weekly schedule with a soft smile. She did love Pop. Pop loved her. But there was something missing. When the feast was laid out and the old rock n’ roll music blared on Sunday afternoons, Nan would feel guilty. Every time she wanted to sway. Every time she wanted to shift, twist and grab Pop’s arm. Every time she wanted to dance but she refused. Routine. What a sad human complacency.
I started the truck. There was a job to be done.
“Right off the N1, 150km to the next stop…” I looked around me, “Then straight on until the drop-off. 7 hours until bed.”
The truck rolled lazily off the turn-off.
I turned left.
Pretty dropped a piece of paper in front of me.
“He left change for me. And this for you.”
A torn piece of the puzzle with the word I gave him. Change.
I needed it.
The diner seemed to synchronize perfectly. The middle place where my head could be sorted. I thumbed each letter and each time it stuck in my heart as I left the room. There was a fucking job to be done.