TOM THOR BUCHANAN
On the street a man reached out and touched my father’s shoulder. “Sir! Hey Sir! Sir!” he said to my father. When my father turned to face him the man took a screwdriver from his pocket and thrust it into my father’s face, above his right eyebrow. A ribbon of blood appeared on the street. The man reached down and took hold of the gym bag my father was carrying. “Your bag, sir! Your bag!” he said. For a moment the two of them struggled over it, tugging back and forth, blood in my father’s eyes. Then the man let go and took off running down the street. For a while my father stood panting, watching the man go. Someone leaned out of a window above him and yelled something in Ovambo. My father looked up and saw the person through the lens of his blood.
When my father tells me this story his face is filling the screen of my computer. It’s pixelated and sometimes the image stalls so that his face hangs frozen and blurred for seconds at a time. Despite the distortion, I can see the purple line of stitches above his eye, and the yellowing on the surrounding flesh. He looks tired. In the bottom corner of my computer screen is a smaller square filled with the image of my own face, watching me as I watch him. I find it impossible not to focus on my own image, constantly glancing down to it (a gesture which in turn I see reflected in the square) and sometimes I tape a post-it note across it to block it out. My father never does this, he stares directly into the monitor with a kind of concentration that borders on suspicion. The device we use to communicate is still very new for him. When we first began using it I picked up my laptop and used it to take him on a tour of the apartment I was living in, and he asked me to stop because it made him dizzy.
After the attack, my father went to the hospital. He had purchased an expensive health insurance policy and was admitted right away, even though there were many other people in the crowded ER. A doctor cleaned his wound and stitched it closed, he told my father he was from Angola, and had been a doctor during the civil war. Once he was released my father went home to the flat he rented in a loud, crowded section of the city, the front half of which he shared with a kiosk that sold plastic cellphones. He put his bag on the kitchen table and opened it. He removed the fourteen hundred Namibian dollars he had just withdrawn from his bank and carried it over to the small personal safe he kept in a kitchen cupboard. He removed a handful of bills to put in his wallet and put the rest inside. He left his house and went to the cellphone vendor, with whom he’d struck up a close friendship. His friend exclaimed when he saw my father’s face, and asked him to sit for a while. They sat facing the busy street, drinking South African beer. They discussed the frequency of crimes like this in the city, in a country where many people distrusted the national banks and kept their money in their homes or on their person. My father’s friend told him that when he had been living in another district he had been awoken one night by men in ski-masks, who held military pistols to his head and then his wife’s until he opened his safe and gave them all of their savings. My father asked if he was afraid of it happening again. His friend told him that for a while he had been, but then he began going to his church every week and making donations to St. Peter, and now he felt at ease. He suggested my father come with him.
My father asks me about my life, I tell him about the job I recently quit. It was for an animal rights group that infiltrates meat processing plants and documents all the cruelty and misery that occurred there. I had been assigned to get a job at a pork plant in Waterloo, and they paid for a motel room and a rental car. They also gave me a small digital camera and microphone that I could conceal in my work clothes. I was supposed to be there for a month but after three days I called them and told them I couldn’t do it anymore. I had been instructed that while I wasn’t supposed to engage in any of the cruelty that workers at these plants often inflict on the animals, I would have to perform to the requirements of the job, both to avoid suspicion and to make sure I kept the job long enough to get the footage they needed. I had imagined myself overlooking a never-ending flood of terrified, shit-smeared pigs, periodically jabbing them with a cattle prod when they became bottle-necked. But I hadn’t been prepared for castrating the males with a gas-heated set of clippers, or helping immobilize a semi-conscious sow while her hind legs were hung from a hook on a conveyor belt. And I hadn’t been prepared for the useless cruelties that the other workers inflicted on the pigs, backing them into corners and shocking them til they passed out, or urinating into the crowded pens from the catwalk overhead. Most of them were from Waterloo, and many of them had worked in factories for a telecommunications company that had recently gone bankrupt. They didn’t seem to relish mistreating the animals, they did it with the same glazed look of fatigue that they did everything, as if it was just another part of the job. When I told the animal rights people that I was quitting they were furious. They threatened to sue me for breach of contract over the money that they had already spent renting my room and car, but after a while I stopped answering their emails and didn’t hear from them anymore.
When my father moved to Namibia he bought two taxi cabs. They were both Fiats from the 1970s. He painted them bright yellow and stencilled Namibian flags on the hoods. He hired two drivers, a man and his nephew from a far flung corner of the northern provinces. Each day they had to make a certain amount in fares, which they gave to my father, and anything on top of that they kept for themselves. If they were under, they owed him. It was trouble at first, the nephew had never been to the city and spent a lot of time drinking in bars and staying out late. He slept in and never made his quotas, and quickly went into debt to my father. My father knew that if he fired him his other driver would quit too, and didn’t want to have to start all over again. Eventually it was the uncle who came to him with a solution. He told my father that his nephew needed to be shown the error of spending all his time in bars, with unemployed old men and soldiers. He said he a plan. The next night the uncle went to the bar that his nephew frequented, and saw him through the window, sitting at the bar, drinking and laughing. He called my father on his cellphone and told him that he was there. My father called the local police and told him that he had been at a bar and had his wallet and passport stolen. He told them he was a Canadian. An hour later the police came to the bar and told everyone to line up along the wall outside. When one man who was very drunk tried to protest they hit him in between the shoulders with the butt of a rifle. The nephew was terrified. He had grown up in the north, where he was told that the police in the city were all veterans of the Border War, dangerous men who had committed terrible acts of violence during the war. Everyone was told to empty their pockets. The police found no passport, or any Canadian’s wallet. Irritated, they took all the money they found, including an entire week’s pay that the nephew had brought with him. After they left the nephew walked home shaking, not having even enough money for the bus. After that he stopped patronizing bars and my father had no more trouble from him.
There are many things my father and I don’t speak about. We don’t speak about the money he sends me. We don’t speak about either of our mothers. We don’t speak about our hometown, where he worked on machines that pumped heavy water through the microscopic fissures in underground rock. We don’t talk about the people who knew him first and then knew me. We don’t speak about the women he meets, if there are any. I don’t tell him that I was recently thrown down a flight of stairs for refusing to leave someone’s home. I don’t tell him that in crowded places I can see people’s words circling like weather, driving the air from the room.
When my father calls me it is always just before dawn. Though where he is it’s nearly midnight the following day. Afterwards I can’t sleep, so I get up and dress and leave the apartment. Outside the street is grey and quiet. Gyro wrappers lay supine on the sidewalk. I walk south on my street towards the river. I pass a huddle of people waiting for the all-night bus. I can’t get to the river because of the freeway, but I can see the line of the water’s edge through the chain-link fence. I spend some time watching it. Periodically there will be the sound of a siren breaking in the distance, or of church bells ringing in the early hour, a sound that I don’t consider so comforting now that I’ve heard it. On the corner is a bar called Cemetery’s, the implication being that Cemetery is a person and a property owner to boot. As the morning comes on the water turns aluminum, begins to move. If the day is clear it flashes. People start to appear on the street, and I hear a man calling for someone named Martha.
“Martha!” he says. “Come home.”
On my way back home I stop at an all night restaurant to sit for a while. Inside there’s a few people slumped over in booths, and a waitress who is asleep on her feet. The radio is being piped through cheap speakers in the ceiling. Everyone looks ossified, unmoving, except for one older man sitting in a booth with his arm around a girl who is half his age. He is holding a beer in his hand and I worry he’s going to spill it on her shoulder. The music playing is loud and indistinct and belongs to a previous generation. The man has a pointed beard, he is wearing a leather jacket. The girl is small and Asian and uses her fingernails to brush her hair behind her ears.
“Look what my wife can do! Look what she can do!” says the man.
People look up in surprise, turn to the girl. There is the squeaking sound of heavy asses in denim rotating on vinyl stool cushions. The girl looks at us, smiling in a vague, inscrutable way. she says:
“Sirius, Canopus, Alpha Centauri, Arcturus, Vega, Capella, Rigel.”
There’s a long pause. The man is beaming. He reaches across the girl to transfer his beer to his free arm without removing the other from her shoulders.
“What’s that’s supposed to be?” someone says.
“It’s the seven brightest stars in the galaxy!” says the man.
“That we know of.” says the girl.
“That we know of.” says the man.