A Short Story
By Jarred Thompson
Vusi was familiar with the sound of tires bouncing off the metal expansion joints of the concrete highway as the minibus took the off-ramp into the CBD. In the city, the whir of engines, whooping of hooters and scurrying of voices swirled, dipped and rose in the atmosphere like hordes of restless pigeons. Of course, the pigeons themselves were almost an invisible sight: pasted grey and dirty brown against the pavements, gutters and alleyways, pecking at whatever scrap of food lay soggy and uneaten on the ground. Outside people brushed up against each other, moving to and from their day jobs, standing outside their shops or next to their hawking stands (selling bananas, fabrics, sneakers, chicken feet or single Marlboro Reds). In the taxi, though, the passengers were unusually quiet with their hands in their laps. Even the old ladies, who Vusi assumed were on their way to pick up their pensions, had little to say today. The less talking the less open mouths the less chance to spread it, he thought, scooting over an inch to the right from the man who’d just sneezed into a tissue.
He got out the taxi on the corner of Richmond and 5th just outside the stadium (which hadn’t seen a rugby or soccer match in over a month) and pulled the hand sanitizer from his pocket, rubbing hard and fast between his fingers. The wind had picked up, bringing in some dark clouds from the South. He walked to the warehouse where he worked, buzzed himself in and went to the back to prepare for his shift.
“Probably be another slow day today?” He asked Lungelo, the barman, who was undressing in front of his locker.
“You never know. People still need to get some. Pandemic or not.”
“They can get some at home. No one is going to expose themselves like that now.
“Ha! Look ’round brother. We got no choice but to go on. See anyone panicking in the taxis or on the street? No, right? We go on, that’s all. Just stay clean.” Lungelo handed him a breath mint. Vusi took it and bit into it, releasing notes of menthol on his tongue. The taste and smell of it reminded him of when Lungelo had him against the lockers one night after a long shift. Something they hadn’t talked about; something that didn’t need to be talked about.
“How’s the girlfriend?” He asked Lungelo, who was naked now, except for the snapback he always wore.
“Broke up with her. She was getting too needy. Also, too nosey about where my money was coming from.”
“Guess that means you’re working here for longer? No reason to quit now.”
He didn’t answer; he shrugged his shoulders and walked out the locker room towards the bar counter. It was almost time to open.
Two hours passed. No customers. Vusi was at the reception, the large bottle of hand sanitizer stationed on the counter for the people who walked in. He hoped no customers came today. The fewer people, the better. At about three o’clock two men walked in, one slightly older than the other, paid entrance and began stripping. The younger one looked like a student—someone he saw on campus once maybe? The pair undressed in front of Vusi and handed him their clothes. The tall one was lanky with a patch of hair that stretched from above his navel to below his waist. The short one had a plump ass with wide, firm thighs, the kind of composition that drew his eyes. Before the pair disappeared into the dark maze Vusi made them aware of the health warning on the counter. They were in the middle of a global pandemic and even places like this had to be conscious of that. The pair nodded at the sign (the short guy’s eyes drifting between Vusi’s nipples) and proceeded into the maze—losing themselves in each other in one of the corners on the ground level (within moaning earshot of Lungelo and Vusi).
By five o’clock the place had about fifteen people: a good number by pandemic standards. Every now and then Vusi would spot a face emerge from the maze beyond the reception counter and take a peek at the clock on the wall. Who did they have to go home to and, whoever it was, did they know what their men were getting up to? He usually wasn’t one to judge—he’d loved this place since the first time he walked through its doors—but in times like these he wondered what it was all for: the desire, desire to become a shadow meeting other shadows—just shapes eyeing up other shapes.
He remembered the first time he came here. Seventeen: he walked in and the man at reception gave him the number four to wear round his neck. It reminded him of the number a cattle herder might brand cows with. He walked, excited, into the maze. Round one corner was a man sucking off another, underneath the stairs was another older man sleeping on a couch, and on the drab leather seats in the smoking area were three old men watching porn on the monitors, quietly. He went to the bathroom and looked at himself in the smudged mirror. His body—lean, young, shaved—glowed in the red light from above. “This is so cool!” He kept saying. “Whatever this feeling is, it feels good to be this naked in public.”
By eight o’clock the place was almost at capacity. The more people left the more people pressed the button downstairs to be let in. Vusi did his best to enforce the hand sanitizer rule as well as alert people to the current health crisis. The customers nodded, some even put on serious faces when he spoke, but as soon as he finished speaking their faces lit up knowing that, finally, they could lose themselves in the herd, jostling against one another for hours on end.
We have a thing for hunting, he thought, as the short guy with the nice legs walked past the counter to check the time. He’d been here for half the day. There’s an excitement to being on the prowl—in realizing that success and failure are equal to each other; that, with the throw of a dice, you can end up extremely satisfied or disappointed. It was a lot like gambling, especially in the dark room: volunteering yourself to be brushed up against, felt up (ass to dick, hands to nipples, stomach to stomach). Where your body lands was up to you in the end—sometimes you’d get swept up in a feeling not solely your own; other times you’d withdraw from the game, having given enough (maybe too much, but you’ll never be entirely sure).
It was nine when the short guy with the round ass gave his tag back and got dressed again. This was Vusi’s favourite part: watching the prowler separate from the rest and assume his human clothing—father, businessman, lover, brother, son. There was always a different demeanour between the customers walking in and the ones leaving. Some walked in briskly, eyes already darting from the bar to the corridor behind it. And then, after a few hours, they’d leave, exhausted, unable to look at another naked body, and just wanting to put on their clothes and go to bed.
“Be careful out there” Vusi said to the short guy, who smiled and said he’d try. He wanted to go after the guy (maybe get his number) but that was against the rules—you don’t eat where you shit, something the boss told him on his first day. It was nearly time to clock off, he’d sanitized his hands more times than he could count; he was getting ready to call his lift home.
“Why don’t you come home with me tonight?” A message from Lungelo, whose hands were busy under the bar, typing away.
“Are you sure you’re clean?” Vusi typed back.
“I mean you know I’m undetectable.”
“I’m not talking about that.”
“You and this pandemic business.”
“There are 65 cases already. Who knows how many more?”
“Vusi…I’m fine and you’re fine. How many diseases do you think have swopped groins in this place?”
“I prefer not to think about that.”
“Exactly. We do our job. People pay for what they get, even if it’s not what they want. We still gotta live.”
“You right. Okay fine. I’ll come home with you.”
Lungelo was right. People still had to live or at least try and find a way. We’re not meant to be alone, cooped up in houses or flats for long periods of time. Guess that’s how viruses like this spread: because, as much as we don’t like to admit it, we need one another’s loneliness. For the first time, Vusi thought he was onto something. He’d figured out what made this place so popular, even now, and what would continue to make it popular: our bodies are lonely places and in places like this the lonely are packed to the rafters.
The two men pulled into the yard. A kitchen light was on (Lungelo’s grandmother had trouble sleeping). She knew Vusi, knew he was Lungelo’s close friend (she wouldn’t ask questions, especially not at her ripe old age). “You should be careful about coming into close contact with her. I mean you’re out here, exposed to who knows what. It could be dangerous for her.” Vusi said, getting out of the car.
“You’re right. Which is why I make sure to clean myself before I get close to her.” Vusi was surprised Lungelo had heeded his advice. Perhaps, when it came to people he cared about, Lungelo took more precautions. Still, there were diseases which needed more than just a good clean and those were the ones that really frightened Vusi.
“Let me ask you this” Lungelo said, once the pair had gotten into bed.
“Ever since I’ve known you, you’ve been a germaphobe. And when you started working with me, I was surprised you could handle it. I mean, you know how that place can smell sometimes.”
“Like you said. Survival trumps any kind of fears you could have.”
“It’s like me…when I first tested positive, I thought there wasn’t any point of going on. I felt…dirty. Spent. Like I had used up all the goodness in me.
“And now? How do you feel?”
“Now I take my pills and life goes on. No regrets. In a way, I took whatever I’d inflicted upon myself, whatever fate had thrown my way, and I’d eaten it up. It became part of me.”
When Lungelo spoke like this; when he began to let whatever was inside him break open in stammers and broken sentences, in odd observations and disjointed comparisons…this was when he was his most beautiful. Not naked in front of a bar under a red lamp pouring out alcohol to would-be lovers but right here: wrapped in blankets, a moonbeam lighting half his face, a pup barking deliriously far away, and his voice—soft yet steady—directed at the man he could not help but draw closer to his chest.
“We should get some sleep. Seeing that the boss probably won’t close down the place unless this whole country is put on lockdown.”
“Well, when people are off from school and jobs our business is good. And if business is good, we can eat.” Lungelo turned round and let Vusi hold him.
The virus spreading throughout the world could be more dangerous for people like Lungelo, thought Vusi; the fact that Lungelo wanted to be held that night (instead of holding) was confirmation to Vusi that, despite Lungelo’s bravado, he, too, needed comfort and reassurance that someone—anyone—had his back.