At Times Like This

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Lenny travels upcountry to tell a stranger that his mother has died.

Submitted: October 13, 2010

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Submitted: October 13, 2010

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At Times Like This
The director listened for a moment before he said, in an even tone, "Yes, yes I understand." He held the phone away from his ear and squinted, as if the person on the other end was speaking loudly, or upbraiding him.Which, as it turned out, was hardly the case. "Yes, as soon as we can. Sure, I'll call tomorrow. Same time." His voice faltered at the end of the sentence, went soft.
He pulled the phone away again and turned it toward him, examining the earpiece. "Wright's mother is dead." he said to the phone, and turned to Lenny. Blinked.
"Oh my God," Miriam said, across the room. Her eyes had gone wide.
"Jesus," Lenny whispered. At that moment, at the moment Miriam said it, he pictured Wright's face, bright somehow, with screwed-in eyebrows, Wright telling him that his mother was desperately ill. That was how Wright had said it, she was “desperately ill.” Not that he knew Wright all that well, at least not well enough to expect the guy to say something like that to him. It's just that out there in the bush, in the middle of no one and nothing familiar to you, a person will blurt out truths that are close to him and leave them there, hanging like that. It was as if the act of airing your fears would cause them to wither against themselves. Like confession.
Wright had said something about it, about how four months before he was due to leave for his two-year Peace Corps stint in Botswana his mother had learned she'd had cancer. He’d said he was worried his mother would die while he was out here in the godforsaken bush. Again, a phrase, the "godforsaken bush." He'd said it to a group that included some Brits and Americans, all expats, Lenny was in the group, and it was after several more than a couple of beers at the President Hotel in Gaborone. Wright saying how he wondered if he'd done the right thing, and it had come out in that animated, bright-eyed way of his. Looking for sanction. It was disconcerting. When he'd said it, the Brits and the Americans cleared their throats and glanced down, embarrassed for the guy but somehow hating him, too, that was evident. "That's bad bloody luck, mate," Gingers said, but without much conviction.
And now of course, she was dead. Of course he knew what was next.
"Someone's got to tell him," the director said.
"That would be me," Lenny said, already feeling the dread rise.
"Yes. Yes, it would."
Miriam nodded, slowly.
“I mean, someone’s got to go up there to tell him,” the director said, and pointed his thumb in a northward direction. He squinted hard to make his point.
“That would be me,” Lenny repeated. “I mean it. I'll do it.” Suddenly feeling adamant about it, acting as if he had to prove it.
“It’ll take two nights to get it done,” the director said. “Overnight up on the train, another day into the bush and back. Find him, pack him up, and get him back here.”
“Be back in two days,” Lenny said. “Friday.”
“We’ll have the tickets ready for him when he gets here," the director said. "The plane tickets. Miriam, we can do that, yes?”
“I'll have them,” Miriam said in her clipped Brit-Botswana accent. "But," she said. “But why not just call him? I mean, send e-mail or so. Tell him to come down here, post haste."
“It’s his mother,” the director said. “Besides, no phones at the school. No computers, no e-mail. The nearest fax is probably in Francistown. We can't call the police in Francistown, they'd take three days to even move on it." He looked embarrassed for a moment, glanced at the other two, lingered on Miriam, having revealed his unprofessional and wholly realistic bias. "Anyway, by the time anyone gets to him, Lenny will have found him and they’d be halfway back. It’s policy, anyway. A warm body tells another warm body in person that his mother’s gone cold. It’s policy."
"Jo," Miriam said, and exhaled at the director's words.
"I don't mind," Lenny said, perhaps too loudly, and he didn't mind, at least in theory, right then and there. But this was Africa. Things could change.
"Why didn't the family or Washington tell us some days ago, before she died?" Miriam said. "That would have given him time, maybe even he could have been home before she passed."
"Who knows what they were thinking," the director said. "People are insane at times like this."
"I'd better get going," Lenny said, and he turned to Miriam. "Can you ring me up some train tickets? One going up, two returning. I'll go home and pack something, get my kit together." He left thinking he'd have to make up something, something formal, some kind of speech to tell the man that his mother was dead, that he'd missed her last moments, her last words, a final embrace, or just the sweet, humid breath of delivery.
An hour later he was at the train station, alone in a second class car on the Botswana Railways overnighter to Francistown. After which he'd catch a half-day's taxi ride out to the village of Tutume and the secondary school there, where he'd hoped to find Wright. The train sat on the tracks, rumbling like a big cat, and he stared out the window at the low hum of activity. Small cooking fires oozed the acrid smoke of burning acacia, and vendors, mostly women, carried, on their heads, fragrant pans of roasted chicken and fat cakes, fist-sized gobs of luscious fried dough, offering them up to the windows. The passengers grabbed lustily, tossing coins and wadded paper bills into the pans. Lenny wasn't hungry. His stomach was already knotted, he was queasy. He had a central problem. What if it was his own mother and some guy he hardly knew traveled two days to tell him the bad news, how would he react? Would he cry outright? Would he turn away, embarrassed to be in front of everyone? Or would he be angry at the bearer of news for having the knowledge, that power over him.
It didn’t matter. All that was fantasy, none of it true. If he'd heard the news that his mother had suddenly died, it would be no more personal than if he'd heard some obscure movie star had died, though he'd be mildly surprised that the vodka and Vicodin and Vegas hadn't done her in earlier. Then he'd wonder why the hell the country director had even wasted the effort to send someone to find him, because it didn't matter, he wouldn't be going home. There was no home. She'd been more or less dead to him anyway for, what, eight years now. Ever since she'd taken up with her newest boyfriend. Or maybe a little before that, when he'd begun to notice the flight in her eyes, how she'd gaze out the kitchen window, both hands wrapped around a tumbler, making an offering to the open road. The way she looked at the walls of the house, the lawn, the furniture, her own kids. Like there was nothing else she'd rather not be looking at. Then she'd found her salvation and delivery in her walking cliché, a Viva Las Vegas savant, 20 years older and dressed in wide-lapelled sports jackets, a mouth-breather whose smell was open and decadent, and who, behind his new girlfriend's back, stared at Lenny's sister like she was a prime Vegas Delmonico.
Then they finally did it -- they were compelled to do it because it was in their DNA, in their life scripts -- they packed off to the actual Las Vegas to pursue the actual cliché. Married in an Elvis chapel, said they'd be back in five days, but after five weeks and double as many phone calls, Lenny knew it for sure, knew it from the sound in her voice, that she had a new life, the old one was long gone and buried, and she was somewhere else in body, mind and what she had left of spirit. So at 21 years old, his sister 19, Lenny was on his own.
That was eight years ago, and when he thought about it now he knew that as the train was his witness, when the day came that he heard his mother died, he'd cry like a baby.
The train's fake whistle sounded and Lenny started. He'd been drifting off, mulling over his speech to Wright. He sat up, stretched his legs, and heard the conductor outside his window, a fat, white South African, shout, "'Board!"
Lenny went back to his speech. "Hey, man, sorry, your mom died." Best to start from the base. But the "hey man," part sounded flip when he said it again. Or, "Wright, your mother passed away." Dignified, yet somehow formulaic. He wasn’t the kind of person who said "passed away." He tried, "Wright, get your bags packed, bad news at home, sorry, it's your mom. No, I'm not sure what the situation is at this very minute, but your family wants you."
That last one surprised him. The lying. But the words seemed comfortable, which made it feel like the right thing to do. At least while he was looking Wright straight in the face. He could just say it, and let Wright make his own conclusions. How Wright would react was the second part of the equation. Maybe he'd be calm and say, "Sure, I knew it was going to happen, let's go." Or not. Maybe he'd stare for a moment, disbelief overwhelming him, the tears under his eyeballs welling up and bubbling down his cheeks. Maybe he'd sob, drop to his knees, fall face first in the dust. Maybe he'd need a hug.
"Christ, no," Lenny said out loud, startling himself. He knew he wouldn't do the lying. It would have to be straight up and out his mouth, no screwing around. More like, "Wright, I'm sorry, but your mother died."
The train jerked and squealed, and pulled out slowly from the station, and from Gaborone. He was alone in his second class compartment, all red leather and brass, two sets of unmade bunk beds stacked against the walls. The porter would be around later, offering to set up the bedding. Lenny began to smell the vastness of the Kalahari, the clean, cool, nighttime air that slid off the desert through his open window. A hint of jacaranda, a whiff of cooking fires, the mist of cow effluvia in the dust. The train relaxed him, rocking gently, but he was wary about slipping into sleep this early. He could be joined at any stop by another lone traveler ushered into the compartment by the porter. It was a slow time, a weekday night, and there was little chance of the train being crowded, but he didn't want to be asleep if someone was shown the door.
He got up, decided to keep moving. He headed for the bar car, which lay in the middle of the train between second and third class. He'd been it in before, it was always happy-loud and crowded, boisterous, like everyone going on long trips was compelled to drink heavily until they rolled off the train. And so it was. Two dozen small tables lined the sides, and a small throng crowded up against the bar . He joined them, shouted here and there, waved some money, finally got his beer. He walked back to a table and sat, thinking he'd be sitting there again, maybe even the same table, with Wright on the return trip. Better than sitting in the sleeping car, the two of them wondering what to say.
The crowd was overwhelmingly African and mostly men. He was the only white in sight. It meant little to him. In the early days he was aware of the color difference, wondering not if, but to what degree, they resented him. Aware of their eyes on him on the street, on the buses, when the local butcher called him to the front of the throng -- there were no queues in Africa -- aware that when he politely refused the butcher with a nod and a "Thanks, I'm fine" gesture that the throng would roll their eyes at his liberal largesse.Aware that when he took girls home from the local watering holes it was his color they saw first.
Now, he went with it, easily. After four years, he was fluent enough in Setswana to diffuse most situations, and bridge some of the gaps color had carved out.
Two men and a woman entered noisily from the third-class side of the car. The thin double-doors slammed open from the center like the swinging doors of an old-time western saloon, and they tumbled in. They were drunk or high or both, and Lenny clutched his beer a little tighter as they glanced around the room, red eyes dancing. They were young, about his own age, and each of the men had a hand on the women's arms. She was on the fleshy side of thin, with a conservative, long dress that buttoned from her throat to mid-calf. She had on a dressy hat, sort of like a bowler with lace and a veil, the type Lenny saw on the church matrons on Sunday. Not the best get-up for this climate, and not the type of outfit you saw on a drunk in a train bar car. He was intrigued, glanced sideways, wondering what the story was. The girl glanced over at him, unsteady, and as the men led her to the bar by her elbows she smiled and turned her head back, and over her shoulder did the movie star thing, the wink. He didn't respond. He watched them buy their beers, and soon they turned back to the bar car, looking for a spot to sit.
Lenny had three chairs open at his table, thinking it had to have come to this. This is still the movie playing itself out, a high drama script where they all sit down with him to make small talk while the girl, drunk and oblivious to her male companions' smoldering hate for the white man, makes jokes and flirts dangerously with the stranger. Eventually going to far, touching him or something. Then the shouts, the recriminations, the finger pointing, the chairs pushed back and toppled over. The knives.
Instead, the two let go of the girl to stop at a table full of men, laughing and shaking hands all around. She made a straight shot for Lenny, for the table, and sat down, exhaling loudly. Her eyes were looping rapidly, nearly vibrating.
"You look like a Peace Corps," she said. She hadn't completely focused on his face yet.
"You look like schoolteacher," he said. She laughed, and tipped her beer to her lips, squinting through the bottle as if she were sighting him over the barrel of a rifle.
"I am a schoolteacher," she said.
"You're not acting like a schoolteacher," he said. "At least, not the ones I know."
"Oh, and how am I supposed to be acting?" Still smiling. "Like a good girl, like one of my students? A woman can drink as well, you know? I am a modern woman. What is the harm in it?"
"None," Lenny said. "None at all. It's fine by me. O mang?"
"Thandi," she said. "So you speak the language. And yours?"
"Lenny. Leonard."
"I like that you speak our language," she said. "You honor us."
"No," Lenny said, sliding into the game. "It is you who honor me."
"O tswa kae?" she said, her eyes now moist and twinkling.
"America," he said. "Las Vegas, I guess. Le wena?"
"I'm from Ramotswa," she said, slurring it. "A little village up north. That's where I am now going. I am going home."
He thought he caught a slight sigh, a wistful exhale.
"I know the place," he said. "And your two friends. They are, what, students of yours?"
He'd caught her sipping the beer and she choked, laughing. "What? Do they look like schoolchildren? Jo. These are my brothers, that's all."
"You're traveling to Ramotswa together?"
"Yes, yes. Well, no, not really, they are dropping me there. Like that. I am going to my family."
The two African men glanced over, looking for her, frowns building on their faces.
She saw Lenny glance up, then turned toward them as the two men made their way across the car.
She turned back quickly, undid the third button on her dress, and reached inside her bra. She came out with a palm-size change purse, beaded, blue and glittery, and placed it on the table. Her eyes looped again. "I've had too much," she said.
She twisted in her chair, and looked for the two men, raised herforefinger to them, the universal gesture for "give me a minute." It stopped them, and they glanced at each other, confused.
She turned back, smirking. "They can wait, isn't it."
"Guess they can."
"So, you, Leonard, where are you off to tonight?"
"Francistown," he said. "Long story."
"Tell it," she said, and her eyes invited him to go on for a long time.
Then the men reached her shoulders, one on each side, still the grim looks. The one on the right said in Setswana, "Let's go." Staring at Lenny.
"I'll be coming soon," she said. Her gaze also on Lenny.
"Now. Jaanong," the man said, calmly, but emphasizing it.
"No. Not exactly now," she said in English. She said to Lenny: "My mother has died, isn't it. That is why I am going back home."
The guy placed his hand on her forearm, she paid no attention. The skirt button was still undone, and it stretched out to reveal the pink lace of her bra. She slid the change purse across the table, and whispered with another wink, "Hold this, I'll be right back."
"What?" Lenny said.
"I said hold this, I'll be --"
"No, I mean, your mother died?"
"Yes. Suddenly. She was not yet fifty." Her face began to turn into itself, and she breathed through her nose, holding back, then unable to hold back, the tears.
"A re tsamaya," the man said again. Let's go.
"Shut up," she snapped, and dragged her arm across her face.
The other man took the forearm on his side and they both pulled her up out of the chair, halfway between gentle and rough.
"Wait for me," she said.
"Are you okay?" Lenny said, dumbstruck.
"Yes, of course. No problems," she sniffed.
"Do you want to go? With them?"
She laughed now. "I'll be right back," she said again.
"Wait!"
"Yes?" she said, even as the two men pulled at her.
"How did you find out?" he said. "Who told you?"
Her brow furrowed and she stared, perplexed, as if language had failed them both at that moment.
"I mean, that your mother died?"
She shrugged her shoulders and the three walked out, the two men guiding her, all rocking with the rhythm of the train, the drunk walk, through the door, back into third class.
Lenny reached over for the change purse. So much in Africa -- he knew it then better than he'd known anything in his entire life -- so much of Africa was completely out of his grasp, it wouldn't matter if he lived there for thirty years. He just wasn't ever going to get it.
But he did know she wasn't coming back. He would never see her again, never be sure how it worked out for her, at her mother's funeral and all, and after it. Or, now.
He popped open the purse. It contained a one and a five-Pula note, and loose change. Nothing more. No ID, no papers, no keys. The money was nothing. The purse itself was worth more. He snapped it shut and thought, one more beer, then I'm gone.
The beer went down fast. He thought better of running off like that, and made the decision to wait another twenty minutes. It was a long twenty minutes, lots of watch-checking involved. He was completely aware that the tables were glancing his way, pulling up short if he turned toward them. But he'd made the promise to himself to wait, and twenty minutes seemed reasonable. More than reasonable, given the circumstances.
In what seemed like an instant, like swallows in flight turning on a dime, the drinking crowd thinned out, returning loudly to their compartments and benches for the overnight portion of the trip. He checked his watch again and got up, handed the purse to the bartender, who took it slowly as if he was used to being handed women's purses on a constant basis. Lenny said, "If she comes back, give it to her. There's six Pula in it." The bartender nodded. Lenny put a couple of Pula notes into his hand, and walked out.
His compartment remained empty, and he found a freshly made bed for him on the bench. He leaned over, filled his hands with a gathering of sheets and breathed in deeply. They were starchy and crisp, and clean. Without undressing, he crawled under the sheet and put his head on the pillow, listening. Once or twice he began to drift off and heard light footsteps in the hallway, and some whispering, which he couldn't make out.
It was an intimate gesture, handing him the purse like that. The promise to return, the order to wait for her, the wink. The wink.
He drifted but never slept, aware that the beers and the gentle rocking of the train and the cool night air should have put him to sleep instantly. But he rocked, and dreamed half-awake.
"Thandi," he said, "I'm sorry, but your mother died. Time to pack up. Come to my compartment."
"I know," she said. "My brothers have told me. Keep the purse, in her memory."
"They aren't your brothers."
"I know," she said.
"I gave the purse to the bartender."
"I know," she said.
Maybe he did sleep, he wasn't completely sure, but suddenly the conductor was in the corridor, rapping on doors with his key, knowing which passengers were disembarking and which doors they were behind. "Francistown," he said in a sing-song way, "Francistown!"
The train was slowing down, chugging slightly. Lenny knew he had about thirty minutes before it pulled into the station. He had a headache, and his mouth was dry. It was four-thirty in the morning. He ran the water in the small sink in his compartment and splashed his face, dried it with his sleeve. He grabbed his bag and put it on his lap. The porter came by, knocked, and said, "Tea, sir?"
"Yes, thanks," Lenny said.
The porter opened the door and handed him a mug of rooibos bush tea off a cart, the best tea in the world, sweet, milky and scalding. Lenny paid him, and he was alone again.
An hour later he was in a beat-up, smoking Russian Lada on his way to Tutume. The taxi driver Lenny had hailed, Basiame was his name, was initially confused, then elated. He'd never once in his life gotten an eighty Pula round-trip fare, but then this was a white man, whose funds were unlimited and whose mission was undeniably important. They'd never even bothered to haggle. Lenny stated his needs, in Setswana, and Basiame made up a fare on the spot. He was to wait for Lenny at the secondary school while he fetched someone, presumably another white man, to bring back to Francistown for the return train trip to Gaborone. He couldn't believe his luck, and he berated himself for not asking for more. Still. As he found the west-bound road out of Francistown, he was thinking of a way to hide the money from his large and overbearing wife.
They didn't speak much. The cattle, the rains, the villages they passed, this and that. The taxi rumbled and spewed along the tarmac, a decent road for this part of the country. "Wright," Lenny said to himself, "Wright, I'm sorry but your mother died."
And he was sorry. Wright was off-kilter, a bit of an enigma, but a guy's mother was a guy's mother. His heart began to pick up pace as they neared the turnoff to Tutume. It would be twenty minutes of rough road before they reached the school.
They pulled in to the school yard, surrounded by four or five nondescript, cinder block buildings in the African veldt. Basiame announced it: "We are here!" The enthusiasm, all the better for the tip. They both got out of the car.
The nearest building was what served as the administrative headquarters. Lenny imagined it had a staff room with an old-fashioned mimeograph machine, a broken photocopier, and boxes of chalk, paper, and rulers. There would be a small gas stove to make tea. Chairs and tables. The lone door opened to the outside, and presumably another inside door led to the headmaster's office.
The staff room door swung open, and a white man stepped into the late morning light. Wright. He was dressed in khaki trousers and sandals, a shortsleeved shirt with a lion's head print motif, and he carried a canvas duffel bag. He'd had a beard until recently. Or, he still had a beard, half of one. He'd shaved the left half of his face, and half a beard and mustache remained on the right. On top, he'd shaved the right side of his head, and left hair on the left. It was as if he'd drawn a line vertically down his face, bisecting his forehead, nose, and lips. Picasso in the Cubism period.
"Jo," Basiame said, whispered, really. His eyes were wide. "Is this who we are picking up?"
"'Fraid so," Lenny said.
An African man, older, about fifty, stepped out behind Wright. The headmaster. He stepped up to Wright and put his hand on his shoulder. Wright's eyes were red-rimmed, and his lips trembled slightly.
"Dumela," the headmaster said, then dispensed with the usual greetings. "You are here for Mr. Wright?"
"I am," Lenny said.
"Well and good."
"Wright," Lenny said, and took a deep breath. His heart hammered. "I'm sorry, but your mother died."
"Understood," Wright said quickly. "She was desperately ill."
"That's right," Lenny said, and held back for a moment. "You knew?"
"Yes, I knew," he said.
"Mr. Wright knew it," the headmaster said. "He knew. You must help him."
"I can see that," Lenny said. He turned back to Wright, blinking. At the hair. "Well. I've got this taxi, we can be in Francistown and on the train by evening. You're going home."
"Understood," Wright said. "I'm packed. Good to go."
"You're ready?"
"She was dreadfully ill," he said.
"Let me take the bag," Lenny said. Basiame, his wide eyes riveted to Wright's head, stepped forward and took the canvas duffel from his hand.
"You okay?" Lenny said.
"Perfect," Wright said, looking at the ground. "Perfecta-monto."
"Wright," Lenny said. "Don't mind me asking, but what's with the look? The hair?"
"Ritual cutting," Wright said. His half-beard quivered with his lips. He was going to cry, Lenny sensed it. "In her memory," Wright said. Then he cried.
Awkward moment. Basiame glanced at Lenny. A white man is supposed to hug another white man, isn't it? African men do not hug white men. Or other African men, for that matter. He waited for Lenny to step forward.
Lenny was thinking: There's never a woman around when you need one. The hugging business was not going to happen. Then the headmaster's hand on Wright's shoulder must have given a squeeze, a nearly imperceptible grip, which had the effect of being enough. Wright caught hold of himself.
"You're going to get on the plane like that?" Lenny said.
"Sure," Wright sobbed. "It's the least I can do."
"They might not let you," Lenny said. "I mean, get on the plane and all. With the hair."
"Take him, please," the headmaster said, a little too quickly. "He needs help. It will all get sorted out."
Lenny leaned forward, took Wright's arm. "Sure. Let's go. You okay? Let's get in the car."
Wright's head was bowed, his shoulders curved forward, like he was walking away from the last round of a prizefight. He slid into the back seat of the Lada.
"Thank you," the headmaster said, and practically blessed himself. "Thank you."
"We'll be in touch," Lenny said, and got into the front seat.
They drove the first fifteen minutes in silence, Lenny glancing back at Wright, who stared out the window as if seeing the African veldt for the first time. Idly twirling his half-beard with dirty fingers. Basiame's eyes moved between the road ahead and the rearview mirror, checking on Wright, wondering how he could squeeze more money out of the situation. He decided he would take Lenny aside at one point and ask for hazardous duty pay.
"Because I am transporting a madman," he would say.
"He's not mad, just grieving," Lenny would say.
"He is mad. A complete lunatic. His hair and beard cut that way, isn't it, makes him a madman."
"It makes him look like a madman, doesn't make him a madman. Anyway, he's a harmless madman," Lenny would say.
"But he obviously has a razor," Basiame would say. "He may leap from the back seat at any moment and slit my throat. Twenty-five Pula extra, it's a bargain."
"Bargain my ass," Lenny would say, because that's how white men talked.
Lenny turned around in his seat. Wright was still staring out the window. "Wright," he said. "I am sorry it had to happen like this."
"Thanks," Wright said.
"You want to talk about it?"
"No," he said to the window, and breathed out heavily. "Not much to say at this point."
"Look, I've got to ask something, though. How did you know?"
"What?"
"I mean, you were packed and ready when we got there. How did you know?"
"You mean that she died?"
"Yes, that your mother --" He paused, thought about it, went for it, "passed away."
Wright turned away from the window and looked straight at Lenny for the first time that day.
"It's something you just know," he said. "She was hideously ill."
Basiame glanced sideways at Lenny, alarm in his eyes. "This will be twenty-five Pula extra," he said.
"What?" Lenny said.
"Twenty-five Pula," Basiame said.
"What for?" Lenny said.
"You just know," Wright said again. "Two days ago I guess. Got up in the morning, got dressed, got some water from the rain tank. I'd forgotten to fill my twenty-liter at the borehole this week, so I was tapping my rain water. I was brushing my teeth outside the hut, and I felt something behind me. Like when I was a little kid, how she used to stand behind me, making sure I did a good job."
"I meant thirty Pula," Basiame whispered. "In advance."
"She used to say, 'That's good, Erin, you're going to have beautiful teeth all your life,'" Wright said.
"Your name is Aaron?" Lenny said
Wright nodded. "Spelled E-R-I-N."
"So you heard her say something. I mean, she was there with you?"
"No, I was just brushing my teeth and all of a sudden I knew my mother died. That's it. Who knows, I don't even know why I'm telling you this."
"You're telling me because I asked, I guess. And it's a memory you have, a good one, and you knew she was sick. Not everyone has those memories." Lenny was aware that he could pile it on, be bitter about, milk it for reasons he didn't understand. But he couldn't. He was already tired of thinking about it.
"She was a good mom," Wright said.
"Moms are good," Lenny said. "The best ones stay that way. It's okay, look, you were ready when we got there. Of course you knew."
"Nothing more to say about it," Wright said. "I was ready and I'm still ready."
"Shaved and ready," Basiame said. His shoulders heaved up as he chuckled to himself.
Wright snickered into the window, leaned forward and tapped Basiame on the shoulder, spoke perfect Setswana. Flawless, Lenny would later say. "Half-shaved, and ready. You see, my friend, I shaved to honor my mother, but she would have been seriously alarmed if she'd ever seen me this way. Would have killed her."
"So I suppose it's a good thing she--" Basiame said, and turned in to the two white men. "No, I didn't say that!"
But he was the first to laugh, hooting and snorting, joined by Wright, who in a minute was sprawled across the back seat holding his sides. Lenny in the front gagged and hollered, glimpsed his mother in the dust of the side-view mirror, waved and stomped his feet and the Lada rocked like a cradle.
END


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