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Like God on a Sunday Morning

by Bernard Farai Matambo


Go and see Tete, says Fadzi down the crackling phone line.

It is hot and loud in the phone shop. You lodge a finger deep in your right ear to try to catch her words.

Tete, she says. Go and see her before it rains.

You stare at the phone shop’s dusty floors. It scalds your mind how Fadzi is always right. Fadzi the well adjusted African who after years abroad returned home with no fear of Harare’s streets. The cradle, she calls it—where else can we die with dignity?

You place the receiver down and stroll through Harare’s sun-baked streets toward Rezende Street Bus Terminus.

Tete from Hatcliff now lives with Gogo from Mount Pleasant. Gogo is old, but has been so for as long as you can remember. Gogo and her nicotine-stained teeth, the ones she insisted on cleaning every morning with fine ash from Baas DeBeers’s fireplace. Learn what matters, Gogo used to say while thumbing the ash against her gums. Not all knowledge is written on paper. It has never struck you as peculiar that your grandmother was the only grandmother who smoked cigarettes from a box. She disdained snuff and the large tobacco leaves that the other elderly rolled up in khaki paper. What will you bring Gogo if not her favorite cigarettes? You finger your pockets for loose change and purchase three boxes of Madisons. They cool the itch in my chest, you hear her say.

~

It occurs to you while waiting in the queue for a Makoporo bus that it has been six years since you last visited Tete Gladys in Hatcliff Extension. Tete, your father’s only sister, with whom you share a nose. She of the long and warm embrace, whose arms said you belonged.

Don’t forget us when you get there, she pleaded at the airport when first you left the country.

She was round and plump, and healthy rings of fat rolled down her neck and waddled loosely into her arms. In her zambia and dhuku, Tete had looked out of place in the newly built airport with its polished granite floors. African men clad in brashly colored suits strutted down its vast hallways fingering their bellies. Women waltzed about in fancy African garments and head-wraps imported from Nigeria and Kinshasa, Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, their skins bleached and angry with skin lesions. It was a time when everyone was searching for an identity more African.

But Tete, unfashionable and out of place in the airport, stood undeterred.

She gathered you in her arms and wept tenderly. Don’t forget us, she whispered, standing next to Gogo, who was busy being impressed by the new airport.

Crushed in Tete’s arms, you branded the memory onto your chest so as never to forget. You swore that once you were established overseas you would send money so Tete could add a few more rooms to her two-room house in Hatcliff Extension. You would buy Tete durable fancy furniture from Willowvale Home Industries or Nyore Nyore Zimbabwe Furnitures. You would build around her house a strong brick wall that would be the marvel of her neighborhood. It would be a high brick wall, like those in the fancy suburbs where Baas DeBeer used to live. Tete would rent out rooms and be able to retire from her vending stall at the market.

She grasped you tightly, pressing the side of her face against yours.

In those cold lands, she said, her voice small, vanishing into her throat. Don’t forget us in those cold lands when you get there.

Her tears wet your cheeks.

Tall and round and kind-faced Tete Gladys.

She had taken you in at a dark time, when none of your relatives would give you a second look. Days after the second funeral, and still you were living alone. You were a cursed child: your mother had died with the stillborn during birth. Your father had plunged himself into the sewers on the edge of the township, drowning to the bottom of his grief. It had devastated Gogo, the way he had died. After viewing his body at the morgue, she had stood outside, clasping her hands behind her back, quizzing your father’s corpse. Patrick, she had said, her voice sweet and soft. Patrick, were there no better ways to die?

It was an evil spirit, your mother’s people were quick to say; it was following you. Soon you too would die. A brick would tumble and crush you. Lightning would flash out of a miniscule cloud and bolt you to ashes. You too would slip into the sewers. A car would knock you dead. You would chew a poisonous root. You would pick poisonous mushrooms. You were a corpse on two feet, biding its time.

But Tete had listened to none of it.

Don’t cry too hard, she had said, wiping your nose with her fingers. Don’t cry too hard; you are not an orphan.

But each time you have returned to this country, you have postponed seeing Tete till the last days. Often you have left without seeing her.

But not this visit.

This time you’re determined. With friends like Fadzi, it’s hard to procrastinate. For days since your arrival she has probed you on the matter. You will see Tete first, she said as she drove you from the airport. You will see Tete first, promise? No coffee before you see Tete; she is your closest blood, you know: her and Gogo. Your true remaining blood. Fadzi, the wise one; the one who left America soon after college and traveled to Tibet and Nepal, India and Bhutan, studying something obscure about the ancient practices of Buddhist nuns.

I am tired of all the evangelicals back home, she’d argued down the phone. God is not a fascist.

Fadzi has never been one to mince her words. She wears her opinions on her sleeves like war vets wear medals on Heroes Day.

Stop avoiding Tete as though she has a bad disease. Tete has a big heart—all these years of your silence, Tete will forgive you.

You pinch and wriggle and claw your way past wet armpits onto the Makoporo Bus. The bus is overcrowded and you stand in the corridor as it groans to life and turns onto Nelson Mandela Avenue, Julius Nyerere Way, then up onto Samora Machel. An African city must celebrate African heroes.

~

Since Gogo from Mt. Pleasant began to suffer from the old people’s disease, she has lived with Tete Gladys from Hatcliff. Gogo has vehemently refused to relocate to the countryside.

What for good, Gogo has argued. Why can’t I die here, in the city? Do you think it is yours alone?

Gogo from Mt. Pleasant has never been one for the countryside. Once, Tete Gladys tried to have her move out to the country. Where the wind could be gentler on older bones, Tete said to her. There Gogo could be cared for by her blood relatives. She could sit under a musasa tree on a rupasa and impart wisdom to the youth all day while they waited on her like honeybees on a Queen. Tete had labored from dawn till after dark at her market stall in Hatliff, selling vegetables, trying to raise the money to build Gogo two robust huts for her retirement.

Once, Tete had narrated her efforts on the telephone while you watched a brilliant snowstorm blind those tiny windows of your apartment in Providence, Rhode Island. White fluffy snow, acres of it, fanned out into the distance.

Yes, Tete was saying over the telephone, a homestead for Gogo, to retire to.

You had sent money to this end. It did not excite you, but it helped you to feel good about scraping dishes in the back of sweltering kitchens with Pakistanis and Mexicans—Pablo and Juan, Sara and Zeynab, Manuel, and Jorge who had a glass eye and could not stop screaming Negro! each time you entered the kitchen.

You worked long silent hours washing pots. The vapor rose and scathed your skin and cut your forehead with a belt of yellow rash. But you were determined: you would send this money to Tete, and Gogo would have her huts. You would look back at all this one day with a bitter pride.

But Gogo would not hear of it.

Me? she screeched down the phone. Live where?

In the country, Gogo.

Gogo laughed thickly into the phone, her voice galled and heavy. What for good? she asked. Why throw me into the bundu?

But Gogo—

I am a city girl, I will die in this city.

You could live, Gogo. Comfortably.

Yes, Gogo said, breaking into hiccups of laughter. Yes, I could live comfortably—in the village!

But Gogo, you said, and your voice trailed off.

You could see over the phone her full set of teeth, large and brown and stained with nicotine, her thin, pursed lips, the slight edge of her beard. She was, after all, your father’s mother, and you had nothing new to tell her, not the colors of the sun as it came up, not the beauty of birds as they flew in spring.

I wiped your ass when you were a child, she said, her laugh trailing off with exhaustion. I changed your diapers when you wet yourself. You know, you were your own little tornado, the way you bed-wet. You could water a dying garden back to health with your piss.

It will be good for you to live in the country, Gogo. You could age with grace, sit on a large chair and tell people about that time you travelled to South Africa and Namibia with Baas Debeer and Madam.

She coughed at the other end of the line. Not when the young have wet my bed and being done with that have traveled to England, then telephone me and tell me what to do.

I am in America, Gogo. Not England.

Not at all. South Africa and Namibia did not impress me. It was Scotland, 1984. Christmas in Scotland. Are you in Scotland?

Providence, Rhode Island.

You should go to the castles there, in Scotland. To Duddingston Village, near Edinburgh where Baas was born.

I am in America, Gogo.

You have never been good at listening. You never want to do anything for your grandmother. What for good.

I am a student, Gogo, in America. Not a banker.

Don’t use big words with me. Guide your tongue. Don’t piss at people.

Gogo—

A grow man like you, are you married yet?

Soon I will, Gogo. We have talked about it.

Don’t boss me. You must marry soon. Find yourself someone else to bully. An old woman like me, haven’t you made me suffer enough already? Oh, the itch in my chest—when will you buy me cigarettes? When will you do something good for your grandmother?

Don’t mind her, Tete said soothingly later on, after she’d managed to claw the phone from Gogo’s fingers. It’s the old people’s disease that is talking. But in the background you heard Gogo go on and on about how if people did not want to care for the elderly they should just spell it out in plain English and keep their monies to themselves.

It’s the old people’s disease, Tete said.

Hours later, that conversation still sizzled in your mind.

~

Gogo from Mt. Pleasant visited your family on Tuesdays. Always when she came she hung on the crook of her elbow a basket full of gifts. Mangoes and oranges, fruit jam and handkerchiefs, and an assortment of dainty gifts that she bought on her trips overseas, when Baas and Madam DeBeer took her along.

Gogo was a maid and a nanny and took great pride in it. She’d raised all four of Baas’s children and they were all now successful men and women with weight in society.

You would watch her amble bowlegged down the road toward your home in the townships and would run home to your mother’s skirts to announce Gogo’s arrival.

It was your father who had seen fit that you leave the townships and live with your grandmother in the suburbs. At night in the dark you had heard your parents whisper. Your mother, pregnant and practical, assented. With another child on the way, your one-room home would not suffice to hold four people. You lay quietly on the cement floor next to their bed feigning sleep, listening.

Besides, your father said, Gogo was lonely in the suburbs. She could do with your company.

Your mother agreed. There were better schools in the suburbs, she said, and although just in Grade One, at school you were doing convincingly well already. A good education would not harm you.

How you fantasized for weeks on end about your impending fortune.

You lay idly on the concrete surface of the township’s sewerage tanks, conjuring the life that awaited you in the suburbs. You would live in a big house. With a big yard. Hot water would spurt at will out of hot water taps. The taps were lodged inside the house, not like in the township where water taps were perched outside and poured out water so cold you could hardly drink it in the morning. And, Tomana added while squatting in the dust playing tsoro, the water that gushed from those taps in the suburbs could only be pink. It was true, he said, nodding nonchalantly, his older brother Moses had been to the suburbs: he knew all about it. He had seen it with his own eyes.

For weeks you folded your clothes neatly and placed them in plastic bags from O.K Bazaars and TM Supermarket. You hid them beneath your parents’ bed and woke up early each Tuesday morning to splatter yourself in cold water. You smudged your face generously with Vaseline petroleum jelly, put on your school shoes and sat quietly by your front stoop, waiting for Gogo, waiting for the suburbs. At night you had such wild dreams about living there you woke up dizzy and out of breath.

Finally your day came.

~

On the Makoporo you are sandwiched between Sisi* and a young man who has stood up to offer Sekuru his seat. Sekuru stares out the window watching the city rushing past. He hawks bluntly and lets his spit dribble into a handkerchief that used to be white. He folds it away like a gentleman, stuffs it into his coat pocket.

Sekuru smells like Vick’s Vaporub and carries on his breath the fetid stench of the roots of a tuber well known to enlarge the male sex and increase virility.

Later, when sheets of rain begin to batter the city and the Makoporo has pulled off the road to allow the presidential motorcade to whizz past, a stiff silence envelops the bus. Amid the wailing of sirens in rain, Sekuru says politely, Dayi vachienda.

The Makoporo buses were imported from China by the government of the Republic in an effort to ease the transport woes of the city. They arrived named for Marco Polo. Though Marco Polo had travelled through Asia and the Near East, he had not, for some reason, made it to Africa. But centuries later, and on his behalf, the buses did. It happened when the Chinese discovered a small piece of land that sat between two vast oceans: the Indian and the Atlantic. This piece of land was called Africa. The Marco Polo—as it was—arrived safari-suited for the African bundu, with reinforced polyvinylchloride seats, robust fans and a television set. But nothing prepared the Marco Polo for the brute fist of Africa, harsh, mauling, and indiscriminate. Soon, the Marco Polo’s slick design gave in. Doors fell off moving buses and seats broke apart like communion. Once the television sets had been stolen and the buses were left with holes on their foreheads, the Marco Polo lost its luster and became, humbly, Makoporo. There was a big scandal in the news about it.

What remained of the Marco Polo were the wheels and the engines, but with these a citizenry could still go places in Africa.

~

After your grandmother’s words on the telephone, you wandered down the quiet white streets in the early hours of the morning, nudging the heels of your boots into the snow. Your grandmother’s words pressed heavily on you.

It was that night that you met her, at the Black Students Meeting. You walked in bitter and confused, seeking refuge from the dark, turning heads as you stumbled awkwardly over something. She turned and cut you a smile, blooming in the crowd like a moonflower. Like you, she sat a cautious distance from the podium; any closer and her politics would have been contaminated. She was part of the struggle but not too down with it. A moderate, you mulled, making your way into a corner. (The more radical of your skin-kind sat near the podium, backing up the speakers’ words in some sort of terrible Swahili.) But beneath that Afro loomed a ferocious woman, one who could harangue you with her eye till you confessed your sins and inequities, as though salvation dangled at the tip of her tongue.

Quiet, spectacled, and cross-legged.

She carried in her sharp, narrow eyes an ambivalence about the cause that you associated only with Africans.

It was always the Africans, she said, who ignored everything, walking about town looking tragic.

Africans wore that lean and hungry look, like Cassius. A fierce hunger in their eyes that made you think of scabbed riverbeds and big-bellied kwashiorkored children.

You’d laughed about it all over a drink at the students’ union. With legs like that, twice crossed over, she could curse your dead mother if she wanted. And you would smile. Later that night you caught yourself becoming sly—a fox glancing out of its hole. So, you said, what of you? Do you have someone?

~

No, the water was not pink. Her toilet was outside. You dreaded walking into the darkness, woke up moist. Long-faced, dry-eyed. But she was understanding and tender. She let you hang your blankets on the wire behind her boyski, and on Saturday mornings she rose up early and washed your blankets with Cold Power powdered soap, or Surf that she took from the DeBeers’ scullery.

Her name was Mangamuripi Mashura Jessica Mandinde. But to you she had always been Gogo from Mt. Pleasant, a short fragile bowlegged woman slightly bearded, with a bit of a mustache and a strong whiff of tobacco that accompanied her everywhere.

Your father’s mother.

She had shared her beer with you since you were a toddler, encouraging first that you put sugar into your cup. She was well respected in the family and her word was law. No, she was not particularly warm. She could not be argued with once her volcanic anger rose through her body and wrinkled up her brow. She wagged her finger. She called people ugly names like kaffir and bastard, boy and picaninny. She stared people into silence and made dogs fold their tails. But nothing quite prepared you for the scandal of hearing Baas DeBeer call her by her first name.

Ruthie, he’d called out to his wife from the hallway that first day you arrived, frightened by the imposing size of the DeBeers’ home, its lavish furnishings. Come and meet Jessie’s grandchild, Ruthie.

The horror of it all. You were five years old but you had your manners clean and intact. Baas had a loose tongue, you decided, an insulting one even. Calling your grandmother by her first name like that. But you sat stiffly in that plush sofa staring at the heavy head of a buffalo bull sticking its neck out of the wall, its eyes fixed on you. It looked at you scornfully, asking, Who are you? What are you doing here? Why do you feel like easing your bladder? You steered your eyes away, prayed you would not sink and be swallowed whole into the sofa.

Back straight, knees gelled.

Ruthie, Baas called out again. Come and meet Jessie’s picaninny.

Feet pattered down the hallway and soon an old brittle woman stood in front of you, her smile wide, her teeth clean and veined and fine as ivory. Poor little thing, she said, tugging at your cheeks and slapping you a little. Good boy you have here, Jessie. Good, good boy. We will have to feed him, though; he looks sickly. It must be hard in the townships, is it not?

Gogo’s uniform was a hideous pink with lime green flowers peppered across it. It made her look like a strangely aged little girl.

She dried her hands on the hem of her apron and smiled politely, nodding. Good boy him, she said. Yes Madam, very good boy him.

It was the kindest you had seen your grandmother smile. A smile so long and loud it must have ached her cheeks for hours.

It occurs to you that your grandmother has always looked fragile. But that fragility, you accept now, has always belied a whirlwind of a woman. She was generous with her ears, Gogo. Especially after Tete had come to the townships, found you alone there, and convinced her to live with you again. We cannot listen to what people say, Amai, Tete had said to Gogo. He is only a child.

~

Her name was Nicole.

Your President, she said as you lay in bed, months after your first meeting, does have a point.

She was talking about land, land reacquisition, and the legacy of colonization in Africa in general.

I hate that term, black Africa, she said. It makes me uncomfortable. It implies militancy and war. You know, how everything black in its hues and shades is evil: black magic, black sheep, the crow, night. It suggests that Africans are warlike and primitive, volatile. But black Africans do need land, their land.

It was too late in the night to engage her. But against your better judgment you started. People died during that whole farm thing, you said, trying to sound casual. Now look what happened. We cultivated impunity.

In the means, she corrected, not the ends. To Caesar what is Caesar’s.

It was all fair to give to Caesar what belonged to Caesar, but who was to determine what was Caesar’s?

Months later, for Thanksgiving, she took you home to Montana to meet her family. In your fantasy you saw her wrapped in a zambia before Gogo and Tete, and yourself sitting next to her, introducing her as the woman you wished to marry. Tete would ululate and dance to welcome her into the family. And failing to contain her joy, she would weep a little. Gogo would smile and call her Ngosikathi. Nicole would wake up at dawn the following morning and sweep Gogo’s small yard in Hatcliff Extension, like a good daughter-in-law. She would scrub the sadza-encrusted pots soaked overnight and boil bathing water for all three of you. Nicole would buy Gogo tennis shoes and tobacco. She would collect firewood for Tete and drive to town to buy fuel for the car from Japan that you would by then surely have bought for Tete.

It was like a snapshot in sharp color.

But that big-skied afternoon in Montana over Thanksgiving dinner cranberry sauce, over turkey stuffing string beans potatoes gravy and turkey, you stared and watched crevices open in your relationship. It was the way her mother looked at you and smiled excessively politely, but without conviction, how she repeated your every word loudly to the table. Later, you would overhear her father whispering to Nicole in his study. He is a nice boy, your friend, he said, his voice tender and low. But he is not good enough for you, sweetheart. Look at yourself; then look at him.

It was not his words that particularly stung you; prejudice was everywhere. What stung you was how she cooled toward you over those days. She spent more time with her cousins and aunts, nieces and uncles, friends she had made at an old job, high school friends, high school teachers.

It was embarrassing, she would say back in Providence. I was embarrassed for my parents. My father, especially.

But months later it was she, not her father, casting nasty darts: something about your acute lack of ambition and your commitment to a writing career going nowhere.

The Makoporo takes the last turn toward Hatcliff. You wonder what became of her after she began dating that corporate lawyer friend of hers, the one you had met very briefly once while you were still dating. A tall handsome man, a little fat in the middle. She had introduced him as “her friend,” the one without a name. He had been overly polite and respectful, and as he shook your hand you knew somehow that he was the man chosen for her by karma.

Served you right anyway, Fadzi will later say over coffee at Jazz 105, after you’ve returned from Tete’s in Hatcliff Extension. You were aching for that sort of thing, vinegar for your teeth.

~

It is Tete who sees you first, and her eyes brighten. She is standing by her broken gate watching the rainwater flood the gutters. The storm has now subsided. Plastics and burnt shoes run down the shallow canals. It occurs to you that perhaps you could have bought Tete some groceries. Margarine, bread, cooking oil, flour. The edges of Tete’s dhuku are now speckled with gray hairs. Her face too has weathered, and she has lost considerable weight. Her arms hang loose and lean, dry folds of skin gathering darkly at her elbows. Later, while the water for your tea begins to hum over the fire, she will ask, But what can we do about this new country and its hunger, my nephew? What can we do? For now she stands statuesque by her gate, a brittle smile spreading across her face, the skin around her yellow eyes pale.

I dreamed of you, she says. It is you that brought the water to us.

She has left the door to her two-room house flung open, and behind her you can make out the scant furniture. A black and white television in the corner, the edge of a well-worn sofa, a bench.

Where is Gogo? you ask, and Tete shakes her head sadly. You finger your pockets for Gogo’s cigarettes. You are suddenly certain that she died and you prepare yourself for the news. You chide yourself and wish you had done more to better her last days. You wonder now why were you not more vigilant about Gogo’s welfare.

She is out walking the streets, Tete says. Each time I blink she leaves the house and wanders.

Your head shakes loosely as you try to stifle your relief.

Together, you and Tete set about the sodden walkways of Hatcliff, skipping potholes and quick mud, searching for Gogo. You comb the length of the busiest street, as well as the storefronts and bottle stores alongside it.

Sometimes she finds her way onto the highway, Tete says calmly, and I fear for her among all those cars.

We will locate her, you say, and Tete smiles warmly.

When you find her, Gogo is wet with rain and shivering. She is sitting in the mud beneath a tree along the highway, lecturing eloquently to an audience only she can see.

Let us go home, Amai, Tete says to Gogo.

But Gogo is hesitant. At first she just studies you closely, but in good time she obliges. On the way back to Tete’s, Gogo leans into you, reaching for your ear. You know, she says, trying to whisper, she is trying to kill me, your sister. She has been poisoning my food. She wants my pension, you know; she only wants my money.

Don’t listen to her, Tete says.

My money, that is all she wants. Thank you for coming; I can’t eat the food she cooks, this woman.

Tete stares and shakes her head somberly.

But tell me, Patrick, Gogo asks, coming to a halt, clear-eyed and staring at you. Why did you drown yourself in a septic tank? Were there no other ways to die?

You look into Gogo’s eyes, and between them you catch the nose that both your father and Tete inherited from her, the nose that you yourself carry, and that you shall one day, if fortunate, pass down to your child.

Patrick, Gogo says. Patrick, why?

It is the old people’s disease, Tete says, taking your hand in hers. She sees your father often. She is beginning to see the dead.

Gogo stares hard at you, blinking rapidly. She clicks her tongue and shakes her head. But you are not Patrick, she says finally, waving her hand in annoyance and walking away.

No, Gogo, I am not my father.

She shakes her head. Why did you say you were Patrick then? Why do you lie to me? Do you enjoy seeing me cry? Where is Patrick?

You have no words to offer Gogo, no gifts to offer Tete. You walk toward Tete’s house, the three of you together. Tete puts her arm around you and you hold Gogo’s hand. You wander too far, Gogo says calmly. You risk being lost.


*Editor’s Note: Sisi, meaning Sister, and Sekuru, meaning Brother, are names that strangers often use for one another in Zimbabwe. [return]

 

Bernard Farai Matambo, born and raised in Zimbabwe, is visiting assistant professor creative writing at Oberlin College. He received his BA from Oberlin and an MFA from Brown University, where his writing received both the Beth Lisa Feldman Award for Fiction and the Matthew Assatly Award. His work has appeared in Witness, Pleiades, The Laurel Review, VespertinePress, and elsewhere. He collaborated with sculptor Johnny Coleman and dancer/choreographer Dianne McIntyre on a multimedia woven reflection entitled “Still Searching.” Most recently he was artist in residence at the Delta Gallery in Harare, one of Zimbabwe’s leading contemporary and experimental art galleries. (10/2010)


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