Public Key (xLviii)

Sitting there next to another person made me want to crawl out the window and make for the hills Bad enough I was hanging out with another person. Going off into town, the largest town in the area – what the hell was I doing?

My stomach gave a rumble. Necessity is the mother, as always.

We drove the ten or so miles up to Makhotlong, the capital and namesake of the district. With a population of around seven thousand it was the biggest town for about thirty miles in any direction. Even so, the population was spread over about five square miles. Not counting mountains.

There were rondavels scattered here and there, some flat-walled dwellings too. A few people were out and about, all on foot. A few were dressed like they’d just got back from Tattooine. A few were dressed like they were about to head over to Venice Beach to watch the sunset.

The jeep pulled off the road without really slowing down. I’d been off-roading before, but always in a place where there was a clear distinction between what was on-road and what was off-. Here, not so much. We drove in between two rondavels, we circled around a few more. These were houses where families lived. I guessed that front lawns weren’t the sacred things they were in the Suburban States of America.

He pulled up the jeep in front of a square-walled building. It looked sturdier than any of the other square-walls, if less sturdy than any given rondavel. He didn’t pull into a parking space. There weren’t any. He just found an unobtrusive place to stop, put her in park, and turned the key.

Oakley went inside. I followed. A bell rang as he opened the door. The store was clean and not very well lit. There was one other person inside, a gray-haired man in a gray workshirt and almost-gray jeans. He looked like any old guy in America.

Well, no. He was smoking indoors. The cigarette he was smoking seemed to be wrapped, not in paper, but in a piece of tobacco leaf. His sandals were strapped twice around his ankles like the boots of a Roman soldier. He had one leg up and resting on the other, and so I could see that the bottom of his sandal had an interesting pattern to it. It took me a minute to place it as the pattern of a car tire.

But otherwise, yeah. Just a guy.

Not that I was expecting any other. Just making sure.

The store was one long room. The walls were layered with shelves and the shelves stacked with merchandise. Tins of motor oil. Spools of fishing line. Band-aids. Whiskey. Wrenches. Knives. Lanterns. Notebooks. Pencils. Nails. Trowels. Bullets. Batteries. Duct tape – lots of that.

You could buy cigarettes two ways: by the carton, or by the butt. For the latter there was a wooden box that the store-owner kept near his feet. Half of it was filled with paper-rolled cigarettes. The other half, leaf-wrapped cheroots like the one he was smoking. 1/5 said the sign. One loti for a beedi. Five for a cigarette.

I found myself pulling two of the beedis from the box. Then I realized what I was doing and put them back. Then I realized I didn’t care and took one. Then I felt guilty and thought about putting it back. Then I realized, hey, fuck that. When in Rome. To say nothing of, when on the run.

Okay. That was my week’s quota of neuroses all taken care of. I put myself to shopping.

I followed Oakley’s example grabbed a wooden box from a stack near the door. I dropped in a box of strike-anywhere stick matches. I was glad to have them, cigarette or not. I added a roll of duct tape, a little tin of 3-in-1 oil, a box of Band-aids and a tube of antibacterial ointment. Some things never go to waste.

And after all, this was to be all I had.

From my shopping list I found a little plastic bottle of tooth-powder and a tube of SPF 15. Took me a while to make sure these things were what I thought they were. But everything, I’ve found, is labeled in English. If you look hard enough. And have a broad definition of ‘English’.

That was it. What else did I need? Didn’t need bullets. Didn’t need paper. Didn’t need anything, really. Didn’t do anything. Didn’t plan to. Maybe I would, one day. If I wasn’t in manacles by then. But for the moment… I had a laptop. What else was there?

Right. Food. I needed food. A laptop is only useful if you’re alive to use it.

There was a hip-freezer along the back wall. I didn’t have any way to keep things cold. Hell, I had only the vaguest notion of how get things hot. The foods that didn’t need refrigeration were all over the room, in barrels and buckets and bins. I stared at them, being confused and looking it, until Oakley took it upon himself to show me how it was done.

There were burlap sacks in a stack by the wall, and glass Mason jars with metal caps stacked three deep in a crate. Five loti and ten, respectively. I remembered going to the markets in the US and seeing people at checkout, mostly moms, so proud to have a reusable shopping bag or six. I guessed I’d be following their noble bougie example.

I filled the bottom of a burlap sack with peanuts in the shell. I weighed it from a hanging scale: three pounds. I topped it off with a wooden scoop: five pounds. Then I did the same with cornmeal, going back in the store to find a tin of baking powder. Then the same with brown rice, oats, and brown wheat flour. I filled a jar each with dried chickpeas, green peas, and two other kinds of beans I couldn’t identify. There were some grains I didn’t recognize. I’d come back to them some other time, once I’d Google-stalked them and learned how to cook them.

I bought two half-pound bricks of jaggery. I filled a jar with hempseed oil and another with clarified butter, then a third with malt vinegar that smelled sickly and sweet and succulent. I took a pre-measured sachet of mountain salt, then another for good measure. I filled a jar with peppercorns, and bought a wooden mortar-and-pestle so I could grind them up.

I fell in love with the mortar the moment I saw it. It was maybe as tall as my hand, like an egg cup for an ostrich egg. It had been whittled out of a single piece of dark wood. It was rough. It was itself. It was more than hand-made; you just looked at it and you saw the hands that made it.

I hoped that if they came for me in the night they’d give me time to pack it, take it with me.

There was one shelf on the wall from which garlands of red-brown chili peppers hung. I took down a garland. I counted twenty-two. Oakley informed me that one of those peppers was enough to kill a European at forty paces. I reminded him that I wasn’t a European. He smiled. Neither was he.

Towards the door I picked out some sorry-looking carrots from a bin of even sorrier specimens, then twelve big yellow onions and six little sweet potatoes. Looking at my provisions I felt a romantic stir within me, like I was living close to the earth, hearty and wholesome and simple. The fact that I’d eaten like this ever since I got to college didn’t faze me in the least.

This was what there was. I would make do. That was kind of how I always operated. I didn’t complain, but only because it didn’t occur to me to. I just made do.

I might call that my philosophy, if I ever stopped to think about it like that. Which I never would. Never, ever would.

I brought it all over to the guy. I was three kinds of nervous. Mostly because he was a person, and that was all he needed to be a threat to me. But partly because he was an African. And I am an idiot. And I realized that. It was idiotic. I was idiotic. But that didn’t keep me from being nervous. Or an idiot.

He rang me up practically by sight, stopping only to weigh a few things. No cash register, no adding machine. He wrote me a total in pencil and handed it to me. Three hundred thirty and change. I could afford that.

If I spent that every week, it would still be more than two months before I needed to trade in some of my other monies. But something told me that what I’d just bought would last me for a while.

I handed him four hundred rand. He gave me change in loti, all in coins.

Can I keep the crate?, I asked.

Fifty loti.

I figured I’d make use of it, one way or another. I handed him ten of the coins he’d given me.

I thanked him. He nodded, went back to staring at his cheroot.

He had about as much interest in me as I had an earthworm.

I had a place to live, I had food to eat, and nobody looked twice at me. I couldn’t have been happier.



~ by davekov on 22 February 2011.

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