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  • Writer's pictureChristopher McHale

Jo'burg (excerpt)

A big boom, rattling the window of my bedroom. Rattling my brain to be honest. Jesus.

I open my eyes. At first, I’m not sure if the boom is real or part of a dream. You know how that goes? I’m not even sure where I am. I’ve been traveling for over a year. Lots of different rooms.

A little swirl in my head and it come into focus. Cape Town. South Africa.

I hear sirens. Sirens are nothing. I’m in a city. I was raised on the Lower East Side in New York. If I don’t hear sirens I get nervous.

I hear an air horn blasting across the city. Okay, that doesn’t sound good. Why do they feel they need blast air horns? In old movies that usually means a prison escape or a bombing raid. I don’t know much about Cape Town. Who knows? Maybe it’s time for lunch. And then I hear a woman scream.


I swing my feet to the floor. My body is stiff in all the wrong places. Wait a minute.

I think it through.

Tequila, a party down by the docks, and, I squint my eyes trying to squeeze more information out of my fried brain pan, a girl.

Oh no, Joe, man. That never works out. Remember the oath? I will center. I will meditate. I will be like an itinerant monk seeking whatever itinerant monks seek. I will be ninja. Except.

What was her name?

I look at my wrist. A bracelet. I’ve seen those before. Elephant hair, braided in a thick circle.

“I am from Ghana.”

I remember her saying that.

“I am a singer.”

I remember that too.


We sat on the harbor wall and I played guitar and she sang. I remember her voice, deep, dark. You don’t forget a voice like that.

Outside my bedroom window there’s another boom, an explosion, and this one is closer.


The sirens are getting louder, little tiny needles in my eyes. I thought this neighborhood was supposed to be quiet? I rented a room here specifically to sleep. Unlikely this morning.

The girl gave me the elephant hair bracelet to remind me. Remind of what? There was no way I was going to remember.

She sang. I thought oh God this girl has the voice of an angel, and then we went back to drinking.

I’m in a room rented from Mrs. Tarkanian. The walls of the house are hung in Persian carpets, and the rooms stuffed with heavily wooded furniture, every corner filled with potted plants. Hard to move around, like moving through an old lady jungle.

Bobbi Birdsong. The girl’s name. Just like that it pops into my mind.

I think about her. Right across the room is an old chest of drawers. Oh no. Big mistake alert.

I promised the girl I’d lend her money. Well, you would too once you set eyes on her. And of course, heard her sing. Do you call me a sucker for that? Or just dumb? Both labels fit neatly around my neck.

I pull the drawer open. It sticks slightly and I have to lift and tug to get it open. Underneath my shirts and socks, I’ve hidden an old cigar box, Inside, I find my roll of cash.

I have no idea how much I should take. Bobbi Birdsong never said how much she needed. She asked me like she knew the answer was going to be yes. I stuff all the bills in my jeans pocket.

Meet me at the pawnbroker at three, she said. Pawnbroker. I’ve got it now. Bobbi hocked her guitar and she needed cash to get it out. Of course I said yes. It was a music thing. Right?


“Reports say that more than a dozen people were injured in the explosion on the Cortland Street bus. The police are asking people to keep away from the center of the city.”

Mrs. Tarkanian is in her kitchen listening to the radio. There’s always a pot of dark coffee on her stove. I pour myself a cup.

“I woke up I wasn’t sure if that explosion was a dream or real.”

“It’s a nightmare,” Mrs. Tarkanian says. “These people make us live in a nightmare.”

“These people?”

“The terrorists. The bombers. What do they call themselves? The revolutionaries.”

“Does it surprise you?”

“I am always surprised at the violence people do to one another.”

“I hear stories of what it can be like here.”

“You stay away from those people.”

“What people?”

“The ones with those stories. They are trying to turn you.”

“Turn me?”

“Do you know right from wrong?”

“I do.

“No you don’t. You’re too young to know. That’s why they can influence you. You keep away from those people.”

“I have no idea what people you’re talking about.”

“The bad ones.”

“I’m going out,” I say.

“There’s nothing but trouble on those streets, Joseph.”

We hear a second explosion from the outside, this one bigger than the first, and close.

With a quick Sign of the Cross, Mrs. Tarkanian says, “Jesus protect us.”


The cops are out in force. They looked scared. I pass through three checks points in three consecutive blocks. It’s going to take me forever to get to the pawnbroker.

The wind cuts through the streets. I’ve got a light jacket, not much of a wind-breaker. I shiver. The wind has a name in Cape Town, the Crooked Wind, a crooked wind for crooked streets and a crooked day. I walk faster hoping I’ll warm up.

She has long dreads and a snake tattoo down her right arm, trippy green eyes, and a deep, soft voice. Not your normal type of girl.

When she mentions her hocked guitar and needing money you know what I say.

She’s acts surprised.

“I’m bantu,” she says.


“So?” She shakes her head and laughs. “The boy says ‘so.’”


I turn a corner and see TX standing there. Okay. Let’s talk about TX. He’s a big guy. That’s the first thing you notice. When I met him I thought he was Spanish or maybe Portuguese.

“I’m mixed blood,” he told me. “A Cape Town original. Back generations. I’m classified , man.”

“That means?”

“That means you go inside and get me coffee. They won’t let me in the door.”

It’s a complicated place this Cape Town. A little more complicated this morning, things blowing up.

TX leans back against a wall watching me approach.


“American Joe.”

“I need to get to the pawnshop by the Town Hall,” I say.

“There’s all sorts of hell between here and the pawnshop. You heard about the bombings. They say thirty people dead, but that’s so far, it’s probably more. Thirty people. Jesus.”

“Who did it?” I ask.

“How do I know? In this place, I mean the System did it is the way I see. The System comes to a slow boil until everything explodes. It’s a pressure cooker. It won’t end until the System ends. That’s it, man. That’s the truth.”

“You stay with me.”

“Why would I do that?”

I watch a car slow down. It had to be cops. We’re being checked out. TX attracts cops like rats to dead meat.

I step in front of TX to shield him from the cops. Pretty futile gesture for a guy his size.

The windows of the car are dark. I see the outlines of three men. Two in the front, one in the back. TX sees them too.

“That’s a commander’s car,” he says, keeping his eyes locked on my face.

“How do you know that?”

“It’s a white Ford Falcon. Only the commanders drive in those. And it’s always the same - two men in the front, the commander in the back.”

The man in the rear seat turns his head, I see him clear enough, and he wants that. He wants me to see him. I work not to flinch, not to react.

“This is nuts, man,” TX says. “I’ve got to get off the street.”

The cop car moves up the street and turns the corner.

“We need to get out of here before they come back,” TX says.

“Come with me to the pawnshop,” I say.

“Oh, that sounds like the worst idea of all, but I’m in.”

“Just like that?”

“You got that white guy power shield thing going. Why do you think the cops kept driving?


Our luck runs out in a city park.

“You two,” a voice says. “Stop right there.” We turn to face two young cops. One keeps his hand on his gun. The other studies our papers, mine dealt with quickly.

“American?” the cop asks. He turns the passport a couple of different ways like my guilt is going to fall out onto the sidewalk.

“Yes.” I learned a long time ago to ‘yes’ and ‘no’ cops.

“What are you doing in South Africa?” I'm going tell him that. But I have an answer at the ready.

“Surfing,” I answer.


“Yeah, I surfed down the west coast of Africa from the Canary Islands, now I’m heading up the Wild Coast.

“Avoiding the draft?

“No. That’s unnecessary. Amnesty.”


“Amnesty. The president has given everybody Amnesty. You don’t have to serve in the military.”

“Americans are soft.” He hands me back my passport. He sneers. I’m a weak-minded slug in the cop’s eyes. And he’s right. I am kind of a weak-minded slug. But there’s nothing he can do about it.

The cop then goes over TX’s papers, takes more time with them. He looks up.


“Yes,” TX answers. TX is not Portuguese, but he told me he has different papers for different situations and he has olive skin and curly hair. He can pass. And he’s big. That always counts for something.

“Are you sure?”

“What do you mean, am I sure? My father was Portuguese, my mother is Portuguese. I was born in Mozambique. I’m a Portuguese citizen. Do you want me to sing you the national anthem?”

I bet he knows it too.

“Is your father dead?” the cop asks.

“Why would you say that?”

“You said ‘was.’ Your father ‘was’ Portuguese.”

“He died in an accident on the docks. A crate of tea fell on his head.”

“What are you doing in Cape Town?”

“Working on the docks.”

“Like your father.”

“Yeah. I have to be careful.”

“Where were you when the bombs went off?”

The other cop speaks into his radio, cupping his hand over the mouthpiece so we can’t hear.

“I was in bed asleep.”

“No work?”

“It’s Saturday.”

“The docks are open on Saturday.”

“But I was off. I worked a double shift on Friday. Look, what’s this all about? I had nothing to do with the bombing.”

“Did I say you did?”

The other cop speaks up. “They need us at the square.”

The cop holding TX’s papers doesn’t look like he wants to catch and release.

He hesitates.

“Can I have my papers back, please?” TX asks.

The cop hands them back. He looks at us a moment, deciding how far to take it.

From couple of blocks away there’s another loud concussive pop. I jump. The cops turn and run down the street.

TX yells after them. “We’re going to escape if you leave us here, you know.”


“My mother had a Portuguese sailor boyfriend once. Long gone now.”

“Gone without his papers.”

“Wasn’t too difficult to fix them up. Let’s go find your girl.”


We wait for Bobbi Birdsong outside the pawnbroker shop. She’s late.

“I feel naked out here, American Joe. Hug me.”

“Wrap you in my white boy shield?”

“Is that unreasonable?”

Three bombs in 90 minutes. It feels like the city is under attack. Is that the smell of cordite?

“Who is this girl?” TX asks.

I look down the block to see Bobbi Birdsong walking toward us.


TX watches her.

“That’s not a girl for you, American Joe. Please allow a man to take over.”

The girl all motion and fabric and smile, the long trail of dreads down her back.

“You’re here,” she says.

“I am.”

“I am?” TX says. “Is that anyway to greet a woman? He’s American, Bobbi Birdsong. We must forgive him.”


Inside the pawnbroker’s store, I feel a pang of regret. I don’t have a good relationship with money. I don’t like to share it, and here I am in a pawnshop with every dollar I have.

I don’t know this girl. Do I want my money back from her? I should know the answer to that question before I give it to her. A fool and his money. All that.

I plonk the bills down on the counter. The old man takes the cash the way every pawnbroker in history takes your cash--with a small flicker of sorrow in his eyes, and a slight trace of drool on his lips.

TX stares out the window. Without turning around he says, “We have to get out of here, American Joe and Bobbi Birdsong.”

The pawnbroker slams his hand on the counter. “You bring trouble to my shop.”

“Cops, man,” TX says. “Over there. A lot of them.”

Out the window I see the cops, lined up like soldiers, hard helmets and batons, riot cops.

TX takes Bobbi’s guitar and hands it to her, pushes me to the back of the shop.

“Okay, children, it is time to exit the premises,” he says. "They're coming for me, American Joe."

"You? Why are they coming for you?"

The glass of the front window shatters and a canister of smoke rolls across the floor.

“Go,” TX says. “Move.”

We run out a back door of the shop into an alley. The cops have it sealed off on both ends. A wall of cops. Nowhere to go.

“Damn,” TX says. He pushes Bobbi and me away from him.

“What the fuck, TX. Let’s stick together.”

“You stay back, American Joe. Your white boy shield has no real power for me. Thank you for the offer though.”

The ranks of cops open and an officer steps through. The commander I’d seen in the back seat of the white Falcon.

He lifts his gun and points it at TX.

“Did you think you would escape?” the cop asks.

“I have Cape blood in me, man,” TX says. “Generations. Do you think I don’t know which way the crooked wind blows?”

The cop fires and TX falls back, a small hole in his forehead.


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