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“The Car Ride” by Mercy Mkhana Simiyu

“The Car Ride” by Mercy Mkhana Simiyu


“They should just let the wazungus come back…” my boss said, hugging her thick arms around the black steering wheel. Her sister, who sat in the seat next to her, shot her a wide-eyed look and almost dropped the half-peeled orange held loosely in her left hand. Boss glanced over at her and clicked her tongue. “Yes, you heard me…colonization should come back…we wouldn’t have… potholes…!”  She threw her left hand over her left shoulder, her thumb tilted to point at the back window behind me and her face half-turned in my direction. “…and idiots…” Boss turned back to face the road ahead. I craned my neck quickly to look back at whom she had pointed at, worried that she may have thrown out ‘idiots’ at me.

I let out my breath when I saw two traffic wardens in their white uniforms standing beneath the avocado tree that marked the center of the roundabout. They stared out at the mass of cars idling around them. I couldn’t tell if they were men or women. The white uniforms stood still, idling beneath that massive tree that Boss always said should be cut down so they could get rid of the roundabout. I suspected Boss did not know how to move this machine. She would screech out of the narrow driveway faster than Askari could open the thick green gate, missing him narrowly. Sometimes she called him this word ‘idiots’ when he did not move fast enough. He would scratch his silver tufted beard and suck his teeth.  

The machine was not moving but there was a soft hum in the air. I shifted in my seat to keep my knees from hitting Boss’s seat, thinking about my five-day stay with Mataya. I pulled my mask back over my nostrils. Five days. To rest, Boss had said. Sister had nodded excitedly as Boss said this, her smile wide, her warm eyes looking into mine. But I had heard them talking a few days before. Boss had seemed angry when she mentioned my name. Five days to rest. Who rests for five days?

Boss had found me in the kitchen early the next morning when Sister was still asleep. She had pulled the door shut behind her and, in her office voice, told me she didn’t want me to work for her anymore. She never looked me in my eyes when she spoke to me so I just swallowed my spit and nodded. I packed my small green kaveera with all my five t-shirts and my extra black skirt.

Some days later, Sister asked me if I wanted to be dropped off for my rest since bodas were not working. Mataya’s was three bus rides away and I nodded yes, knowing that Boss would never let me in her machine. I looked at the back of Sister’s head. She always looked me in the eyes when she spoke to me, unlike Boss. I didn’t think she knew that I was not coming back and I had almost told her that last night when she came to help me do the dishes. 

I lifted my eyes and looked out of the window. Two more traffic wardens stood ahead, staring out at the road.  All the cars stared back at them and nobody was moving. I had heard that the police were beating those not wearing masks and I pulled up mine in case they could see inside the car. The car was hot, my nose felt squashed beneath my mask and my thighs were sticking together. I wished desperately to sit with my thighs apart like we used to do back home but Mataya had told me these new wazungus would not like it. 

There was a half-empty taxi next to us. The driver kept stretching his toothless smile towards my boss’s half-open window, his bald head shiny and sweaty. When she did not react, he turned his attention to me. He stuck his tongue out at me and licked his pink gums where his front teeth used to be. His mask was low, cupping his chin, and I wished I could reach over through my window and pull it up. I didn’t know how to open up the window on this machine so I looked away. The President had asked us to all wear masks and, in fact, he had said they would distribute them. My breath, smelling of my eggs and onions lunch, was held in against my nose by my kitenge mask.

My boss had asked me to sit in the back when we left the house, asking me to put my belt on. I was confused by her instructions but I couldn’t let her know so I pushed myself into the seat, huddling against the door and pulling up my mask over my nose. I hoped they would not notice I had not put a belt on. I did not own one. Who wears a belt with a skirt? Before today, I had only washed this machine. Well, the machine had not moved since the President shut down everything because of this cornervirus.

Boss kept talking about cornervirus. She bought us these vitenge masks from somewhere but she never wore hers. Her sister kept telling her to stop complaining about the masks. Sister almost always wore her mask and always softly reminded me to wear mine. Sister would leave the house when the dew was still gathering on the grass in the garden, masked, with her rastas wrapped, ready for her morning walk. Boss would stay in bed until the mosque song at lunchtime.  I am not sure how they were sisters because sometimes they would hold hands and giggle together then jump apart when they noticed me watching them. They slept in the same bedroom that held the largest bed I had ever seen. 

Her sister was slender and built like a small bottle of Fanta with skin the color of unroasted peanuts. Boss was built more like a large 1-litre bottle of Coca-Cola and her skin was the color of those chocolates she hid in her room. I once unloaded the shopping and placed the chocolates on the counter instead of placing them in a bag in the pantry for her as she had shown me. Later that night, from my room, I could hear raised voices on the verandah. Boss was quarreling Sister because she ate up the chocolates on the counter. Her sister didn’t know about the hidden chocolates. The same way Boss didn’t know I knew about both the chocolates and the things that she hid in that one drawer that vibrated and were shaped like Baba Junior’s thing.

I missed Junior. I didn’t miss Baba Junior.

Boss had asked me to stay and help around the house when the President closed everything five months ago. He had just allowed cars back on the road so the police were back at it; they had just stopped Boss and promptly asked for lunch when she said that she had forgotten her driver’s license at home. I had longed to go home to my son, see my mother and eat her cooking. Boss made me cook things without flavor. She didn’t want to eat anything that had eyes and called herself a vegetarian. She almost called me ‘idiots’ when I cooked some meat for her rice during my second week but Sister had looked at her and she had swallowed the ‘eeyots’. Mataya had told me what this word meant. Maybe because I was dark like the wood of the Mugalubalu tree from back home that blended in with the night. 

Sister was now talking with a raised voice, her mask pulled down to her chin and her half-peeled orange probably in her lap. Sister’s hands talked too when she talked. I had noticed this on the first day she came to the house and introduced herself to me in that soft voice that reminded me of the warm stone benches my mother brought out only for visitors. She had waved her hands around, telling me her name and asking me many questions in an English I could not quite understand then.

“You want to go back to slavery!?” Sister’s voice sounded small now, her hands flapping in the heat of the car.

Boss was quiet, her heavy bosom pressing into the three-lined symbol that shone from the middle of the steering wheel. She touched something and her window rolled up. I shrunk further down into my seat and wondered when we would start moving. I closed my eyes, the smell of the orange filling my nostrils and the heat in the car pressing against my throat.

I had worked for a mzungu family for one month and then they hurriedly packed up and left on a plane. The plane was going one way, taking them and others home. Cornervirus had cornered them into leaving. Mataya, who worked for the neighboring Indian family, thought I’d go back to the village after the wazungus left. But then the wazungus had called me two days after they left and introduced me to Boss.

Boss was from here but she had gone to university very far away and, sometimes, I could hear her talking through her nose the way wazungus do. Sometimes she would speak our language but mostly she spoke English. She dressed like a mzungu too and kept her hair short and colored yellow. I wished I could do that too. Speak through my nose and dress like that but my mother would kill me if I cut my hair or stopped perming it.

Sister’s veins were popping out from the side of her neck as Boss continued, saying how we would be so civilized by now. My head started to ache as the heat in the car seemed to increase with every word Boss said. 

Boss never asked me about my family, about Junior staying in the village with Mama and my younger sister. When we buried Papa, Mama refused to marry his brother so they came, beat her up and took everything. I wondered if cornervirus would make men stop beating their wives. Because now, if you got sick, isn’t it your wife who would take care of you then? So why beat her?

“I’m just saying there might have been some benefits or some…calm down” Boss dropped her voice slightly and moved her left hand to Sister’s knee. Sister sucked her teeth as she moved Boss’s hand from her knee. The orange remained half-peeled in her lap. She crossed her hands across her small chest and turned her head to the window, staring at the dust swirling by from beneath the cars.

Boss continued on and her voice started coming out of her nose. Sister did not like that, I knew. When Boss did that to me, I cupped my ears and strained hard to understand her. The cars around us suddenly began to move and the traffic wardens ahead of us started to wave everyone forward. The honking started then, the loud noises sounding distant. 

I wished I could go back to school like my father would have wanted. Maybe I would have been a traffic warden or a policewoman. My father’s brother, the one Mama slapped one night when she thought I was asleep and he had shown up at dinnertime and eaten most of the rice, refused to send his five girls to school. At least my father had made sure my sister and I went to the Catholic primary school. When they took everything from us in the name of tradition, that was the end of school for us. The President, the same one who said they would give us masks, had said they would let us go back to school for free. One day.

School was a sweet memory. I remembered lining up for Assembly every morning and being selected to raise the flag one day. When Boss would sometimes raise her voice at me, her voice coming out sharper than a panga, I would think back to that day. The Headmistress had placed her hand on my bony shoulder and said to me “Good job…”, her voice dripping with warmth and then she had smiled a wide one. 

The car stopped abruptly and I found myself thrust roughly against the back of the driver’s seat. I opened my eyes to find Sister angrily opening up her car door and stepping out hastily. “Call me when you get some sense and stop yearning for a time you barely understand…” she kept her voice low but firm. When she slammed the door, Boss winced and so did I because she had once warned me to be careful when I washed the machine. I turned to the back window and watched Sister walk away, sidestepping the potholes and moving quickly in between cars. She disappeared behind a large white truck.

Our car was now suddenly on the side of the road, other cars moving past us slowly. In the small mirror at the front of the car, I watched Boss as she sighed softly. I had seen her face fall and, as her glistening eyes caught mine, I cleared my throat and pushed my voice through my nose. “Boss, you can let me out here…” She stared at me in the mirror, her eyes pooling with tears. I wanted to stay and tell her kalaa but she had told me to go home. Mataya was waiting for me.  Boss turned and looked at me properly, her arm resting on her seat, her eyes pinning mine. 

“I will see you next week, okay?”

Her tears spilled onto her cheeks and I reached out and placed my hand on her arm.

“Yes, Boss.”

We both knew we would never see each other again.

Mercy N. Simiyu is a Kenyan story teller and a public health specialist.

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