I click off the phone and pull over, just before Jesus Loves You. I slump over the wheel, sobbing.
I fill up at the Blyde River fuel station, the same place I stopped at three days ago when I went to interview Andries, the excavator operator up at Mariepskop. The pungent odour of petrol is a jolt. It reminds me of my father, teaching me to drive, instructing me to pull up on the same side as the gas tank. Thereís only a bottle store here, the plant hire place and a kafee.
I ask after Upside-down Thomas whoíd filled my tank earlier in the week. The attendant shrugs. Iím relieved, just making small talk. Upside-down Thomas had told me he was studying Public Relations through correspondence. He asked me to give him a job, asked me to help him. Gee, I said feeling like a culprit. I wish I could. Jobs are hard to find.
Iíd printed the cheque with my fountain pen. Thomas had admired the pen, but it felt like an accusation. When I blew on the wet ink, he narrowed his eyes below his black and blue peak. I figured his studies were a fiction. He held my cheque, looking long and hard at my name, pulling on the paper, stroking it between his fingers.
Iíd said, Keep up the studies, Thomas. I hope you get lucky soon. On the job front, I added, blushing.
Iíll try my level best, heíd answered, licking his lips.
I buy bottled water at the kafee and walk back, swinging my packet, singing, happy to be going home. Iíd spent the week on assignments for the magazine, interviewing vehicle operators for the transport issue, talking to local business owners. Iíve missed my daughter.
There were monkeys, a hornbill, an eagle and lots of different buck. I saw the large holes dug by warthog undermining the electric fences and the spoor of big cats. I saw a snake that left no trail in the gravel, so that after it had gone I doubted Iíd seen it. It was hot at the campsite and the river had dried up. The tap water had tasted soapy.
I feel dehydrated, glad of the sparkling mineral water I like so much. I unscrew the lid, loving the hiss, anticipating the first sharp mouthful.
The garage owner in Kamogelo told me he used to have two excellent mechanics, but one just up and died. The one I interviewed didnít look too good either. He was thin with yellowed eyes and lesions on his skull. The mechanic has to train somebody new soon, but the problem with that, heíd said, is that the new guy is going to up and die on you too. Itís tricky.
The owner of the plant hire company rents out earth moving equipment to farmers building dams. He canít employ his men over weekends, canít keep his equipment operating enough hours in the month to pay off his bank loan. He has to let them go Saturdays, for funerals. Every week, another funeral. Theyíre croaking like frogs, heíd said. You know the end is near when they start sleeping every tea break and lunch hour, napping on the ground if thereís a 20 minute wait.
While Iím waiting for the cash slip, a man at the next pump greets me like he knows me. I donít remember him. Thomas? I ask, tentative. No, he says, Goodenough.
Good to see you, Goodenough, I say, confused. Perhaps I interviewed his colleague, the mechanic, or the forklift driver. Was he a friend of the excavator operator? I canít place him.
You go where?
Home, I say, Jozi, taking just a sip from the water bottle, but wanting to guzzle.
Joziís a big city, he says, watching my throat. I donít know anyone there.
Itís a big city, I say, dabbing my lips.
A man needs a friend in Jozi, he says, still staring at my throat. My knees turn to paste. Perhaps you give me your number, he says.
Perhaps I donít, I say, looking at the gravel that yields no footprints.
Per Contra Summer 2007