The following is a short piece I wrote on a bus ride from Maputo to Johannesburg in October 2011. It had been a long time since I wrote a short story piece such as this, but I was compelled to put pencil to notebook as I observed what unfolded before me. It was indeed one of those poignant moments that makes one hyper aware of their surroundings.
A man lies down to rest under the wheels of a Greyhound bus as it pauses in evening traffic on the streets of Maputo. When the bus’s engines fire and it is propelled forward, the man is lost in a dream. The bus comes to a halt once more.
At first people are confused. “What happened?” they ask. “Why aren't we driving?” “Shit! There's a man lying in the street.” Is he dead?” “He's not moving.” “Who did this?” they exclaim.
Oily foreheads are pressed to scratched windowpanes as the bus passengers try to crane their necks for a peek at the body. “Was it our bus?” “Did our driver do this?” “Was it our combined weight that forced the life from this man?” Questions abound.
As for me, I didn't even feel the bump. Bumps are normal around here. I was engrossed in a book, One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina. Later, when I am compelled to reflect on this moment, this collection of moments, I will channel a bit of Wainaina's style.
A few brave travelers disembark into the cool evening air to get a better view. Others follow slowly. Cautiously. It becomes clear that the bus isn't going anywhere anytime soon. The traffic is still flowing beside us nonchalantly, rows of cars making their way past the scene of the accident as if this is a normal occurance. Nobody is near the body. Does that mean he's dead, I wonder? Do we know he's dead? He is dead. Eventually an orange road triangle is placed near the body to alert oncoming cars of the obstacle.
Just across from the man, a homeless lady is wrapped in a blanket on the sidewalk. She seems not to notice or care that the sidewalk is now swelling with people. Faces marked with concerned expressions. Stomachs replete with knots. Some are saying the man and this woman are, were rather, together. She cannot be bothered. Her head is under her blue striped blanket. She projects none of the concern of those hovering above her. Perhaps she is desperately trying not to address the accident. Perhaps she knows just how much premeditation preceded the accident. At this moment, for her, her pavement blanket is the safest place on earth. The man’s body has no blanket covering it. It is exposed.
The man is now referred to as a body. He has been emasculated. The ambulance takes 45 minutes to arrive. We are back on the bus now. Waiting all the while. Calls are made to loved ones. Different versions of the story are told. Some stories are presented as theories. Others are authoritative facts. We wait. Someone exclaims in frustration, “How could he do this to us? He must have been on drugs. These people!”
People begin coping in their own ways. Jokes are cracked. Takeaway dinners make early appearances. Religious texts are cradled. Reassuring words are repeated in bowed heads.
The ambulance finally takes the body away. The police take our driver away. The driver has to make a statement about the accident at the police station the knowing ones say. I confront the evening chill one more time to examine the scene. This time I am alone. There is a pungent odor in the air. I can't remember whether or not it was there the first time I went out.
Another ambulance speeds past, siren blaring, responding to a different emergency. Other peoples' perceived inconvenience. There were no sirens for our guy. No speeding. No urgency. Just obligated perfunctory duty to take care of the mess cause by these people.
I go over to where the man was lying. The orange road triangle is gone. A flattened cardboard box marks his resting place. His memorial. A splattering of blood scintillates under the streetlights. The place is abandoned now. The traffic too has died. The only one left on the scene is the mysterious blanketed woman. She is unmoving in her patterned shell. She is the street's memory.