I wrote the first draft of this piece while living in Champaign, Illinois—a town that on appearance is easy to write off as sleepy, predictable and boring, especially if you’ve lived in big cities your entire life. But soon after I moved to Champaign I discovered on my daily walks, a place fraught with interesting and sometimes perplexing juxtapositions. On the day I started writing this piece, I saw a man about a block or so down the street holding an object of which I couldn’t identify. I felt like my eyes were playing a trick on me as the object’s shape and physicality changed as I approached him, but I decided—perhaps for the sake of possibility—to turn the corner before I could see the object clearly. The original draft was a very brief prose poem that was playing with the idea of seeing a thing as one thing in one moment and as something else in another moment. From this idea the story’s tension and back story emerged.
Michael Don teaches creative writing at St. Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya and serves as the Assistant Creative Writing Mentor of the Storymoja Hay Festival Fellows Program in Nairobi. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Washington Square, Fiction International, Quarter After Eight, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. He’s on the interwebs at: michaeldon.net
Permalink: Three Months and Counting
It’s winter and everything is gray making it hard to see what he’s fishing out of his little red car. If we weren’t in the middle of nowhere, I’d think he was a cool-indie-band dude fetching his guitar. We are in the middle of nowhere and the guitar is a pair of binoculars that he holds one handed like a bowling ball, just below his waist. This is reassuring; this is exactly what I want to see on my morning walk. Someone who I can stop and look at. An object I don’t own. A reason to ponder. Is he a birdman? A voyeur? His season tickets are in the upper deck? Anything to take my static mind off what wakes me from my sweat-soaked slumbers, my chest buzzing like a dragonfly. We are not in the middle of nowhere, but we might as well be because it’s one of those places where if you’re not content holed up in your apartment waiting for your phone to vibrate, then you have to walk laps around your neighborhood until you’ve found the spark of life, until you’ve created it with your very own eyes.
Last night I couldn’t find her. I traversed the city on hip-hop blaring matatus through the hazy purple night. The conductors’ cheeks inflated like balloons with miraa, pulling me on, pushing me off the mini-bus, their bloodshot eyes unwilling to pity me. Two nights ago I found her in the Savannah napping under a coffee bush next to a snoring lion. I approached slowly, more afraid of waking her than the lion, whose rubbery face and shiny mane looked like a Halloween costume, afraid her face would turn into a stranger’s or mine a stranger to her. It was their summer, the sky bright, the air light and smelling of tall yellow grass. She flipped over, grazing her arm against the red-berried shrub. Then I woke up in our Illinois apartment as I did every night and hobbled into the bathroom. I left the lights off. An inch of moonlight sneaking in, I cringed at what I thought was a long furry bug shimmering across the bathtub. I shut my eyes. I emptied my bladder into a space that was not the toilet. The sound—like coffee brewing—and the acidic odor resulted in my eyes flicking open and recognizing the bug as just a clump of her black hair.
So we continue towards each other and once there’s only a few sidewalk squares between us, the binoculars morph into two bottles of fancy pomegranate soda pinched together at the necks, barrels splayed out. We nod because we both have small eyes and patchy brown beards. He invites me onto his porch where we sit on Adirondack chairs. We sip the sodas. He says he’s seen me around and that we could be friends. We could be, I say, holding the liquid in my mouth and swooshing it around until the fizz tingles my tongue, but this does very little, so I pinch my arm and then my stomach, but it’s still he and I on the Adirondack chairs, so I take my bottle by its neck and smash it against my forehead. My vision blurs, my cheek finds the wooden porch, my arms and legs sprawling out like a snow angel. My eyes shut and then I find her on a dhow anchored in shallow turquoise waters, sunbathing on the boat’s deck. I wade out to her and lift myself aboard. Touching my forehead she says, what happened to you? I laugh and repeat her question.
by Michael Don