Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg
I heard the announcement just as my taxi left me standing on the curb with my baggage. My flight would be delayed due to mechanical problems. Airlines never give you the specifics; only that you’re at their mercy, and it would be six hours before I could board my flight to JFK. Stuck in Johannesburg airport. Shit! I had to get back to Minneapolis by Friday and it was already Wednesday morning. I committed to a writing residency at Lincoln Middle School teaching eighth grade poetry and I’d begged for funding. Writing programs were never given a priority in the curriculum. Jerome, my husband, is always on my case about not making money with my writing. He said it should be considered a hobby. I tell him my writing is not a hobby and this part I haven’t told him yet; I’m not sure about making a baby with him or anyone else.
It wasn’t difficult to leave Jerome behind, for weeks we’d done nothing but argue and fight about children. When weren’t fighting he’d spend hours in his study; avoiding me in our four-bedroom house. We didn’t act like a married couple anymore. After being married for five years, the pressure was coming not only from him but both sides of the family. I didn’t feel the motherhood thing calling me, the ticking clock. I did feel the pressure for me to be a writer. I had graduated from my MFA program six years ago and I hadn’t published my novel yet. And I didn’t want to be just any kind of writer, I wanted to have my book read and endorsed by Oprah’s book club, be an interviewed guest on the Charlie Rose show, my short stories and essays published by The New Yorker, win prizes for outstanding literature, attend prestigious residencies writing my novels, short stories, essays and poetry. I wanted to be that kind of writer. In my mind, I knew accolades like those never came easily and I doubted my work as it languished in my computer files. But I had dreams.
When I left my husband at the Minneapolis airport he still pestered me about traveling alone to South Africa. “Do you really think it’s safe to go to Africa? What about Ebola?” I shrugged him off. “The hysteria has been over besides, Ebola does not exist in South Africa.” “How do you know this?” He said. “CNN.” I said. My college roommate had married a man from Johannesburg and had been inviting me for over eight years. Every Christmas card she’d write, “When are you coming, there’s no snow here, the weather is gorgeous and I know you’re freezing back in Minnesota!”
I needed to find a place to send the school a text message or email; I couldn’t mess this up and lose my gig but there wasn’t a quiet corner anywhere. SHIT SHIT, SHIT! No bars on my cell. What’s that old cliché, if wasn’t for bad luck I wouldn’t have any luck at all. The place was crazy busy with babies crying, bigger kids bored and annoyed, people talking loudly in all kinds of languages, and running to get into the long security lines. Well, the food court looked inviting and I was starving I had had no breakfast. I sat down for a hearty breakfast of over easy eggs, toast and orange juice followed by a latte. I had found out earlier in my travels you can order this anywhere in the world. When I finished I glanced to the right and there at the end of Terminal B was a sign:
Johannesburg Tours: Open at 08:00 to 17:00 hours, see Soweto, The Apartheid Museum,
The Home of Nelson Mandela: Tour packages starting at 1,000R.
Six hours to kill. I’d seen the beauty of Table Mountain in Cape Town, and the wine country in Stellenbosch and outside of Durban saw the movie set of Shaka Zulu supposedly a real Zulu village that was turned into a tourist site. I had already had my safari experience in Botswana. Why not see more of Johannesburg? For one thousand rand, or about eighty-six dollars US, I’m set up to see Soweto in a cab with a tour guide. I studied him. He had a well-muscled body that gave him the appearance of young man, but his hands on the steering wheel were veiny and spotted and his short Afro was sprinkled with gray around his balding circle. His khaki pants were crisp with a straight neat crease, like a military uniform. On his matching khaki shirt was his name tag above his breast pocket.
“It is a pleasant morning to take a tour, ja madam. I will be your driver my name is Samuel. And you are madam?”
It was 15 km to the city and he drove us speedily out of the airport and onto the expressway. It was beginning rush hour and the cars speeded past like it was the Autobahn. The cab was as neat and clean as the clothing Samuel wore. The chrome handles were spit polished gleaming and the floor carpet, not a piece of lint or scrap of paper, only the dust from my shoes. It was awkward sitting in silence, me pretending to have an intense interest in the passing scenery, I’m not an extrovert and I was glad it was Samuel who broke the silence.
“May I ask where are you from Madam Janie?”
“I’m from Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Northside.” I don’t know why I had to give the location like it mattered to a stranger but I’m proud of my side of town where I grew up and where we now bought our first house. The place has a reputation for being all thugs and poverty to those outside of the neighborhood.
“North Minneapolis Minnesota, that’s where Prince live, ja! I love Prince, Purple Rain. He started to sing Purple Rain to me. Ah, so said he died. Did you know him?’
“No, I’m sorry to say I didn’t know him but I saw him in concert, it was something to see.” This was all kinds of weird. A true Prince fan to know exactly where Prince grew up. North Minneapolis had a cool factor now.
I turned my head again to look out the window and the Jacarandas trees were blooming their purple blossoms brightening the side of the highways.
“Ah Janie, I’m gonna show you a Soweto you’ve never seen before but I must be careful the SAP is still about and they’re after me.”
“Pardon me did you say the SAP?” I said turning my head to face the back of his head. “You mean the South African Police?”
As he drove he said he knew where the paramilitary hit squad of SAP had murdered his daughter during the rebellions.
“There are murdered bodies buried all over Soweto and the Veld, not hundreds like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said. There are thousands.”
“Didn’t the Commission give amnesty to many of the members of SAP?” He looked at me with such disdain I immediately was uncomfortable as he continued to stare at me instead of the road ahead.
“The road Samuel.”
“Ja miss I understand, I know this road, how do you Americans say, like the back of my hand.”
It was odd this talk about the South African Police and murdered bodies made me uncomfortable and quickened my pulse that I knew was a prelude to a full-scale panic attack. I slowly reached for the door handle but the car was speeding with the rest of the traffic. If I jumped out the other cars rushing by would run me over. I quietly rummaged around in my purse for the cell phone. I glanced down and there were no bars. It was as if Jerome had willed something bad would happen to me. He wanted a wife, a mother for his child; he wanted a sheep wife to follow the mold of the rest of the women in our gentrified neighborhood. I needed a lie.
“What do you do for work, Madam Janie?” He said this so calmly like what he just said wasn’t strange at all.
“I’m a writer and a teacher.”
“What! I love writers! Where can I buy your book? Or should I say what kind of books do you write? I use to teach too.” Somehow, I felt better that he loved writers and was a teacher. Someone who loves writers can’t be all bad.
“I’m still working on my book of fiction, I’m not published yet.” I pretended to look at my cell phone. “Oh no Samuel, I’ve got to get back to the airport. There’s been a change in my flight schedule. I need to get back now. I’m so sorry I can’t finish the tour.” I spoke in my most sympathetic voice but he ignored my request.
“We are almost there, madam, you’ll be back for your flight home in a jiffy. You know, you resemble my daughter. Ja, Janie. My daughter had light brown eyes, petite with curly hair and she was golden brown like you. She could pass for colored. If she’d lived she’d be about your age, she wanted to be an opera singer.” We were near Johannesburg and like all big cities around the world a blanket of grey smog was on the horizon shadowing the skyscrapers that pointed skywards like giant fingers. The township shacks greeted you as you entered the city. Rows and rows of these self-made homes packed closely together made of discarded corrugated tin and wooden pallets, some no bigger than my small front coat closet. A misplaced match or an untended fire could destroy them all. Above their houses, a tangle of electrical wires. On sagging rooftops were satellite television disks. Behind the houses stood Port-a- Potties lined up for those without some sort of indoor bathroom facilities. And a water spigot running a trickle of water, muddy ground with children of all ages, who should have been in school, splashing and playing.
“I need to get back to the airport, my flight.” I said repeating myself.
“No worries, Madam Janie. It won’t take long I promise. You won’t miss your flight, you will be back in plenty of time. I didn’t hear your mobile ring”
“I was texted.” Again, he went on like he heard nothing.
“Ja I read Toni Morrison, when she wrote her first book, five years before it was published.”
“How did that happen?”
“Someone leave the manuscript in my taxi.”
“You’ve read Toni Morrison? Before it was actually published?”
“Ja sure! People leave magazines, books, sometimes even mobile phones, but I don’t allow eating in my car. I speak and read English, Afrikaans, they are required if you want to go to post-secondary schooling. I used to be a teacher, I’m retired now.” Samuel didn’t look crazy but how are crazy people supposed to look.
“Look, Samuel I’ll pay you the full fare of the tour, just take me back. I’m not interested in seeing where people were murdered in Soweto. I don’t want to be unreasonable but—”
He turned to look at me, tears were welling up in his eyes, “And I thought you would understand a black American. Do you remember Emmett Till? Do you know even who he was?”
“Yes, I know.”
“Well, my daughter Celia, to me is the Emmett Till of Soweto. Celia was only fourteen a sweet child, she sang in the church. Do you go to church? Everyone said she could be a great opera singer, like the black American, Leontyne Price. I would have sent her abroad to study. On that day, she was protesting with her school friends. She didn’t want to be left out, she was stubborn like her mother.”
“I’m so sorry.” I said.
“In a ditch on the side of the road, I’ll show you, it’s still there. As I walked home praying Celia was there, I saw a body in the ditch, face battered beyond recognition—it was her dress, patches of blue seersucker, her mother, Thembe had sewn for the first day of school. They say I released a howl more animal than human, I have no memory. What kind of people do this kind of thing?”
I was silent. There was no answer. Was this a kidnapping? Did he not hear the news in the United States about other young black men and women beyond Emmett Till still being murdered? My palms were sweaty even though Samuel had turned on the air conditioner; it was November, still spring, summer in South Africa hadn’t arrived yet.
The loss of a child makes you crazy. It haunts your life forever. Just like Samuel. There could never be truth and reconciliation for such a loss. I did not want to see the ditch where his dead daughter was found. To see the ugly truth to witness the pain and suffering to hear the ghostly echoes of strangled screams this is what Samuel wanted to show me and I didn’t want to know his world.
“What I’m about to say is unbelievably harsh, I’m sorry for your loss, your daughter is dead and me being a black American is not going to change your situation. Look, if you think that you’ll get money for taking me hostage or something like that, no one is going to pay you money. My husband and I are working stiffs, I’m a writer and he’s a computer programmer, we’re not billionaires, okay. The American government wouldn’t give you the time of day if you were to try to extort money, they don’t care.”
My heart was pounding, yet when I spoke my voice didn’t quiver. This is why I didn’t want children. The death of a child sending you into madness with all of the what ifs in the world. Cops killing black boys, black girls disappearing off the face of the earth and no one puts their faces on the milk cartons, autism, gangs, drugs, there are endless possibilities of what ifs mayhem. I never want to be one of those black mothers on the evening news wailing to God and Jesus, my face contorted in grief, snot and tears in combination making a river flowing down my face.
If Jerome and I split over me not wanting kids I’ll be okay. I’m not going to be guilted into motherhood. No stupid argument about middle class black women must have children to save the race. Such bullshit. Why did I think I could change his mind about having kids? He seemed more flexible before we married.
He didn’t look at me when he said, “I will take you back, no problem madam Don’t want trouble. There is no justice for black children.” I said nothing.
Samuel and I rode back to Tambo in thick frigid silence. We were in our own personal hells. The sweat from my arm pits trickled down each side of me puddling at the waist band of my yoga pants. My neck ached from the strain of staring out the passenger window but I sensed his eyes on me. The planes were flying low as I looked up I saw passengers’ faces looking down on the cars below. One of the ancestors was by my side, protecting me; I could feel it, most likely Auntie Jane, daddy’s youngest sister and I’m named after her. In California she was killed in a car crash when I was seven. I was her favorite out of all the nieces and nephews.
“Your heart is too hard, you will never have any children. Some women can become soft, but you never, cold, cold, cold. You are back to your airplane flight and back to your world where children have no value.”
I left the money on the seat next to me as I opened the door and leaped out of his cab. What Samuel said was right, I never want to lose myself in desperate grief. I couldn’t help Samuel with his sorrow; there was too much in my heart already.
Debra Stone: "I am a poet and fiction writer. I live in Minnesota and have published in Saint Paul Almanac 2017 edition, Random Sample Review, Gyroscope Review and other work forthcoming."