“I scheme Brazil will take it,” Rinzlo says as the taxi pulls away.
“You’re drunk, bro,” I reply.
The taxi rank disappears along with the man on crutches who tried to sell me ice lollies, deftly swinging his body and cooler box between the cars stifled to a standstill by the evening traffic. He swung himself past angry, hooting Toyotas, irritated Nissans, and bored Mazdas, stopping at open windows, hoping to make a quick sale. The veins and scars on his reedy arms stood out in bas-relief. His face, dark from the sun, was indifferent to rejection—he simply moved towards another car. At my window, he let me peer into his battered ice box. Frozen lollipops, cans of carbonated fizz, and an assortment of sweets. I paid for a handful of Chupa Chups and passed some to Rinzlo in the back. The man on crutches had turned away, angling himself downstream, hoping for a better catch. He didn’t say thank you. Up ahead, the traffic light had turned green. Instead of going straight, our driver waited for the car in front to gain a couple of metres and pulled a tight U-turn into oncoming traffic. He narrowly avoided the opposite curb and hastily accelerated away from the gridlocked cab and crab bucket fighting for clients that had trapped everyone for close to thirty minutes. After much waiting, with the sun having set, we were finally on our way to Rinzlo’s.
—Did you know the capital city of Australia is Canberra?
—Did you know Triton is Neptune’s largest moon?
—Did you know Haiti was the second independent country in the Americas after the United States?
The trivia on the back of the gum wrappers hasn’t changed much. I’ve known most of the answers since the fifth grade. I chew through five squares before I find something interesting.
—Did you know panophobia is the fear of everything?
I didn’t know that.
The fear of everything.
It’s almost begging to be a novel title or a jury prize at Cannes.
What a strange thing. To be afraid of every breath, every minute, and every day, to have each waking moment be an act of courage. Who the heck has the time and wherewithal to fear everything? I can’t even multitask my anxieties. Fear has got to pick a number and wait in line. I crumple the wrapper and stuff it in my pocket. The fleeting grape flavour of the gum reaches the paper taste only professional chewers enjoy. I’m about to spit the wad out of the window before I remember I’m supposed to be a better nigga.
“Seriously, Brazil has the best team,” Rinzlo says.
“Clearly we aren’t watching the same tournament,” I reply. I’m hoping he stops prattling soon. I don’t like talking in taxis, or queues at the bank, or at the municipality, or at the cinema because everyone can hear your business. At least with queues you eventually get served and go your own way, hopefully, never to see your eavesdroppers again. But in taxis you ride with the drama of loan shark uncles and gossip about philandering boyfriends all the way home. I still remember the street and house number where the woman who might have caught the clap from her boyfriend stayed. When she spilled that tea, somewhere between town and her place, I had to work hard not to twist my head around and say, “Well, goddamn! Tell us more!” I was a teenager then, but even now when I drive through the old neighbourhood on the way to my dad’s I keep a lookout for her house, wondering if she ever got her antibiotics. “Brazil plays like their water just broke.” I hope that’ll shut Rinzlo up.
“That,” he says, “makes no sense. But, you can’t write off any team with Neymar—”
“Who only scores in Nike commercials.”
I think-speak at him: Keep quiet, Rinzlo.
“You’re disrespectful, bra. He’s easily the most exciting player at the World Cup. He gets people out of their seats—”
“And makes them sit down every time he misses a shot.”
Shut up, Rinzlo! I’m clearly broadcasting on an unused nigga telepathy frequency because Rinzlo carries on talking.
“You’re hating. Brazil has the best squad.”
“Nee! Jy praat kak,” the driver says. “France het die beste span.” This is why I wanted Rinzlo to shut up. The driver feels like this is his conversation now. Any football talk, regardless of time or place, is like a giant open letter. Any fool who can lick a stamp thinks it’s for them. The driver swerves the car sharply to avoid a pothole that’s been in the road since Resolution 264. The capital offence, though, once we’ve all been jerked to the left before being slammed back to the right like a typewriter carriage, is him not knowing the pothole was there in the first place. “France,” he says, “is the best—it’s the last African team in the World Cup.” He looks at me for agreement. I ignore him. I wish he’d focus on the road and leave Paul Pogba’s prowess and cliché quotes about diaspora alone. Rinzlo and the driver start arguing about which team has the better midfield. I zone out.
We leave town and pass through my childhood suburb—but not near where Gonorrhoea Girl stayed. The houses here are big, their walls are higher. The trees are tall, green, and sprawling. I imagine their cool shade in the summer and the dark chill they cast in winter. I make a mental note to have such trees on my estate when we get the land back. Soon, I think to myself. Soon and very soon. (RIP Brenda Fasie!) We pass near my father’s place and I think about what he said to me and my brother when we first moved there. He’d taken us for a walk to see our new neighbourhood. It was placid and content. An evening zephyr slipped through the trees. He whistled when he saw the houses and the sizes of the yards. He said, “The thing white people didn’t know when they condemned black people’s future to poverty is that they were chaining their own offspring to the past.” I didn’t get it. I was young. I was just happy to have moved away from our old house with its rotten roofing, noisy neighbours, and proximity to Rinzlo’s. He’d turned to us and said, “Don’t forget. Just because we live here doesn’t mean we’ve arrived. Halfway is nowhere at all when you’ve seen what’s at the top.” I can’t quite say I fully grasped the gravitas of his words, but even I know the present is a gift that keeps on grieving, and it’s only a matter of time before our parents run out of tears to cry, and their offspring lose the fear to try.
Soon and very, very soon.
I’m dreaming about the species of trees that’ll surround my house when the football talk curves back to me.
“Telling you, Rinz, France’ll take it.” I adjust the seatbelt. The driver changes the station and settles on Michael Bolton stealing tunes from Percy Sledge.
What is it with taxi drivers and ballads?
Another mental note to study this phenomenon.
“France is the biggest hype engine,” Rinzlo chirps. “They’ll choke.”
“If France Kanté do it,” I say, “no one can.”
“Here?” the driver asks.
—“Just here. Dankie.”
The woman steps out of the taxi and struggles to close the door. The driver reaches behind him to slam it for her. He doesn’t look in his side mirrors as he wheels the car back onto the road. A barrage of hooting follows us. He rudely overtakes another taxi. I pull on my seatbelt to make sure it’s securely fastened. The driver looks at me. “Is jy bang?”
“Brazil will make it through,” Rinzlo says. I harrumph. “Let’s make a bet, then. Brazil will beat Belgium.”
I’m sour Belgium is playing well. The only team outside Africa I can bring myself to support is France, but only as a last resort. Now Belgium has started calling upon its immigrants to do more than dirty work. My loyalty is being tested. When I was old enough to understand my history my father showed me pictures of the manacled men and the maimed bodies. When I saw the baskets holding small hands he said calmly, “Don’t be scared. This isn’t our history. This is just our past—you’ve got to wade through this to get to who we were before they came along, who we’ve always been.” Man, it’s hard not to believe in white devils when you’ve seen that stuff. So it’s a confusing time for me, really. On one hand I want Belgium dumped out of the competition, but on the other, our distant cousins are closer to lifting the World Cup than our own continental brethren. I’ve wondered if I could move abroad and become a first generation cleaner if it meant my son would become a second generation group-stage sweeper. The PSG money would certainly be dope. But I don’t know how I’d feel if Junior took the last penalty against Cameroon or Côte d’Ivoire and sent them packing. What I do know is that Rinzlo’s going to lose his money.
“Betting against Belgium is hazardous for your wealth, Rinzlo,” I say.
“Just make the bet, my friend.” Rinzlo spreads his right arm across the backseat’s headrest and then, swiftly, retracts it. “Sorry,” he says.
“One hundred on Brazil to win it.”
“Boss, you’ll be my witness, neh?” The driver nods to Rinzlo in the rear-view mirror and chuckles. “Okay, sharp, you can e-wallet me the money after the game.”
“You still owe me money for Germany going out,” I say.
“Eish! Don’t remind me. I’m still in shock about that.”
“Germans at work were sour, bro. They were hacked for days.”
Rinzlo laughs. “Portugal and Spain dipped out on the same day too. Everyone from the ‘Dal was stunned. You know how Coloureds think they’re related to Ronaldo and Ramos. And after Portugal was beaten, the damn Porra shops closed early in protest!”
“Jy praat kak.” The driver hoots at another passing taxi.
“Is waar! A porsie chips was two dollars extra, man,” Rinzlo says. “Mense was baie hartseer. They were thoroughly shooketh. Germany is washed.”
“Soaked, washed, dried, ironed, folded, and top-shelved, bro,” I say. At least for now. I know Germany’s got a fresh cohort of biracial babies for the next World Cup.
We crest a hill. Below us are the flatlands where Rinzlo and I spent most of our childhood. This was before my parents made enough to upgrade to a neighbourhood with pavements. My mother was so happy taxis would never be able to park outside our house again. From this height, the flatlands are flattered by the last of the sun’s light. They’re a smudge of indigo and purple. We dip down the hill. The flatlands lose their romance. The houses shrink. The walls become fences. The trees, stunted at first, disappear altogether. In front of us, a weathered soccer ball rolls into the street. The driver slows down to avoid it and as we pass, a skinny boy walks out of his yard to fetch it. Ahead, a traffic light changes from green to orange. The driver speeds up. The light flips to red. The driver doesn’t slow down until he realises he won’t make it. He brakes abruptly. I cast him the kind of look that would turn his bones to butter if I’d been eligible for Xavier’s School For Gifted Children. The car idles, croaking like it has emphysema. An urchin comes to the car window and begs for small change. I give him a couple of coins and he says, “God bless you, sir.” He goes to Rinzlo’s window. Rinzlo says he doesn’t have anything. The urchin swears at him and before Rinzlo can translate a life-ending Unforgivable Curse into Afrikaans the taxi pulls away.
“Okay.” The driver, slows down, and stops.
I count: one, two, thr—
“Bra,” Rinzlo says excitedly as he looks out of the window, “that ass belongs in the hundred-acre wood—Eeee-yoooooh!”
Two-point something seconds. I think Rinzlo’s getting worse.
“Jirre! Kyk daar so. Driver, just hold on. Sjoe! Okay, okay! We can go now.”
I really don’t want Rinzlo to know I sneaked in a glance when she walked to her gate. Like I said, I’m supposed to be a better nigga. But it’s just me, him, and the driver in the car now. “Yeah,” I say. “I saw her too, Rinzlo.”
“Legs longer than an arcade game fight ladder!”
I try not to laugh.
I realise I’m wrong. Rinzlo’s not getting worse. He’s just being his usual self. I’m the one who’s trying to get better, and failing at it miserably.
I turn my attention away from the car, away from this road, away from this town, away from this place where a nigga can’t become a better nigga.
If present me had to choose his all-time homie starting line-up Rinzlo wouldn’t get picked. But this is the kind of place where you’re friends with niggas from crèche to the casket whether you like it or not—ashy ankles to ashy elbows, dusty playground to dust. Your boy can borrow your shit indefinitely, and sometimes he’ll cheat you, but he’ll still be your boy. I could cut Rinzlo and the crew loose, start over again, and look for new friends who don’t use my hobbies as joke fodder but that would take too much time. I tried to explain this to my ex back when she first met them, something I tried to postpone for as long as possible because I knew what she’d think of them.
“Tell me again,” she said, “and slowly this time, why you’re friends with these guys?” We were back at my place after dinner with the boys. Franco, at least, had made brave attempts to be polite. He’d only referred to women as hoes once. Maybe twice. Okay, more than three times. Lindo was quiet, still reeling from his breakup, but doing his best to be happy for me. Cicero was kept in check by his wife. But Rinzlo was obstreperous—next-level ungovernable:
—“That waitress could get more than the tip!”
—“I don’t care what time of the month it is—well done, medium rare, or rare—we’re still gonna cut it up like a steak. It’s just a little blood.”
—“What’s the difference between a cupcake and a muffin? Muffin’s got handles for the grip.”
And all of that was before the drinks were served.
“Franco, I can understand,” my girlfriend said, “he’s funny in a miserable kind of way. Lindo’s more sensitive than you think. And Cicero’s greatest achievement is Nicole. He knows it and acts accordingly. I respect that. But you a need ten-slide PowerPoint presentation to explain Rinzlo to me.”
I did my best. I muttered some shit about us having history, about being our own Famous Five when all we had to watch was Holiday Specials on dull Saturday mornings. Our parents had struggled to get us new school uniforms when we outgrew our old ones. We were scrawny and bullied together until we grew bigger than the bullies. And for better or worse, richer (in my case) or poorer (in his), woke or backwater ignorant, what poverty had brought together no progress could tear asunder.
My girlfriend didn’t get it. “Sorry, but no. That’s a cop out and you know it.”
When we broke up Rinzlo offered to throw me a “Fuck that bitch” party.
I look at Rinzlo in the rear-view mirror. I’ve known him longer than he’s known his own father. I know he’s got a side-chick for every girlfriend—which makes six women orbiting him in total—but the love of his life is Kim, some girl who broke his heart in the sixth grade. He still carries that Valentine’s Day trauma with him, deep like a subterranean lake with unknown monsters lurking in the dark. I know Rinzlo wishes he’d had the courage to continue studying art. I’ve seen his sketches—all winged beasts and nubian queens and black superheroes. He’s still got the township adaptation of The Flash. Everyone knows the fastest man in the world would come from the ghetto. Rinzlo had to shelve his paints and pastels after high school. He had responsibilities back home, the kind that could only be met by doing a boring and unfulfilling journalism degree. I don’t think the lost arts major hurt him as much as losing the rest of us when we went to South Africa for university. Rinzlo stayed behind because of the “for poorer” I mentioned earlier. Those four years without us must’ve been lonely. When we got back we got the band back together. We’ve changed too much over the years, and it’s sad to see old rockers playing the music of their youth.
Rinzlo yawns loudly and sees me looking at him. “What, nigga?”
I’ve known Rinzlo since the butter and bread sandwiches we shared on the primary school playground to this afternoon’s curry bunny during our lunch break. When you’ve been friends that long you don’t just discard a nigga and get the new-new on the market.
Nah. We’re semper fi through and through.
The problem, though, is that I’m in my Joan Didion days—some of my best—and I can feel my friendships being tested. I’m writing again. Not a lot, and nothing great, certainly nothing that’ll blow a hole through memoir writing. But just enough to feel the familiar itch of curiosity, the blank space between paragraphs filled with possibility, and the thrill of writing towards some conclusion. Many of the things that leak from the pen are about the boys and our times together. A lot of the shit is about my mother. It’s been a while since her passing failed to rip the universe in two and bring an end to physics and memory. The world spins on, gravity holds steady, and each day drags me further away from the cold comfort of loss, from the warmth of grief, from the nigga sorrow that justifies every weakness of the soul, every sleight against man, woman, and child, and every tiny cruelty to strangers and friends alike. These are days of silence. These are nights of loneliness and dealing, and reading, and doing my best to peel myself away from the scene and herd.
The passing houses lose their colours. The yards contract and pinch against greying walls. We’re in the poor part of town now. Not poor-poor, but cool-poor, the kind of place that’ll be called real or authentic by anyone looking for street cred. The taxi veers to the left and brakes aggressively.
—“One to Gorea—sjoe, nee dankie.”
“Come, ma, we go,” the driver says. “There’s space.”
—“No. It’s just guys in this taxi.”
“Ag, it’s okay.”
—“No, it’s fine. I’ll take another one.”
“Shem,” Rinzlo says. I can tell it isn’t earnest though. It rarely is.
Actually, it never is.
Not with him, not with us. We know the unfairness of it all, we sense it at the top of our head. But we don’t feel it at the bottom of our hearts, or at the tightening around our necks, or at the stabbing pain in our livers. We don’t feel the unfairness of the petrol being dumped on our thick braids. We don’t know what it’s like climbing in a taxi and playing roulette with the front page of the newspaper.
We aren’t panophobic.
Every waking moment isn’t an act of courage for us.
“Anyway, what happened with that other cherrie?” Rinzlo asks.
Back to familiar territory.
“Nothing,” I say.
“You want me to believe nothing happened?”
“Told you. She gave her life to Jesus.”
“That’s a good sign, bra.”
“Between you, her, the J, and the Holy Spirit you could have a pretty good ménage à—”
I turn in my seat. “Rinzlo, you have serious issues.”
“Ja! Come, let’s go.” The driver shouts at someone and then mounts the curb. Rinzlo shuffles behind my seat. Outside, the stealth-slow evening has turned the day to night.
Rinzlo greets her. I do too.
How can every moment be an act of courage?
—“Driver, just by the shop, neh? I’ll show you.”
“Ja! Come!” The driver ignores the hooting behind him. She gets in too.
“Hallo,” Rinzlo says. Something in his tone has changed. “Dude,” he whispers in my ear, “this Dankie Botswana is just picking up baddies!”
“Speak up, bro. I can’t hear you!” I say it nice and loudly but I’m sending out those ultra low frequency hums elephants use to communicate over long distances. Please, Rinzlo, please don’t say anything. Rinzlo swears at me.
—“Do I know you from somewhere?”
“From your dreams.” Rinzlo smiles at her. The driver looks at me. I shake my head.
—“I swear I know you from somewhere. Do you know Beata?”
“No, I don’t know any Beatas.”
—“Okay, you look familiar.”
“Of course. Our firstborn looks like me.”
“Yoh!” The driver laughs.
“Driver, etche, why’re you laughing?” Rinzlo sounds genuinely wounded in the back seat.
“Ek sê niks, boeta.” The driver focuses on the road ahead. For once.
“One boy, one girl,” Rinzlo says. “Two years apart.”
—“I’m sure my boyfriend would have something to say about that.”
“Boyfriend? I’m not a jealous man. You can treat me like short-term insurance—”
“I apologise for my friend,” I say to her.
“—you can just pay your premium and claim.”
“Jissis!” The driver nearly hits a crossing pedestrian.
—“I do remember you. From Brandon’s party. You used that line on my friend.”
“Eh?” I can sense Rinzlo’s hard-drive brain parsing through recent memories, trying to find out who this girl is.
—“You’re Zenobia’s ex!”
“Damn.” He looks out of the window.
“Wow.” I work hard at stifling a laugh.
“Eish! Mr Super-Cool-In-Love, neh.” The driver’s laugh takes over the car.
—“Here. Thank you.”
The first woman alights and we drive on in silence.
She hands the driver her fare. As she closes the car’s door she looks at Rinzlo and scoffs before walking away.
We continue driving.
“Nothing to say?” I ask.
He keeps mum.
“Ja, neh!” The driver angles the car towards Rinzlo’s.
When we arrive at his place, one of his girlfriends—Number 3—is waiting for him. She’s furious. “You lied to me!” she screams, even before we’ve climbed out of the car. While he goes to head her off, I pay the driver.
“That one’s a problem,” he says.
“He’s my friend.”
He shakes his head and drives away.
On the stoep, Number 3 is about to become hysterical. Rinzlo tries to calm her down by saying, “Babe, trust me. I’m not lying. Just ask him. I was with him the whole time.” He turns to me.
I stare at him.
Choices: to be the fidouchery, the asshole who acts in everyone’s best interests, or to simplify and semper fi.
How can every waking moment be an act of courage?
I turn to Number 3 and say, “Rinzlo was with me the whole time, until he wasn’t.”
Rémy Ngamije is a Rwandan-born Namibian writer and photographer. His debut novel “The Eternal Audience Of One” is forthcoming from Scout Press (S&S). His work has appeared in Litro Magazine, AFREADA, The Johannesburg Review of Books, Brainwavez, The Amistad, The Kalahari Review, American Chordata, Doek!, Azure, Sultan’s Seal, Santa Ana River Review, Columbia Journal, New Contrast, Necessary Fiction, Silver Pinion, and Lolwe. He was shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing in 2020. He was also longlisted for the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize. In 2019 he was shortlisted for Best Original Fiction by Stack Magazines. He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Doek!