“Ah! This chicken is hard!”, Belle exclaimed as she tried to saw through the chicken thigh one last time with the now-bloody knife. It reminded her of her late father’s carpentry shop and the constant drone of the porters sawing through tree trunks, and unfortunate shrubs in times when the demand rose past their supply. Ssalongo’s voice was always able to rise past the drone, especially when he summoned her to his room for their regular ‘talks’. For a moment, the blunt, now-bloody knife she held in her left hand brought back the memory of the ‘talks’. She was snapped out of it by Manny’s outburst.
“Wh-what the? Fuuuuccc…”
Manny transitioned from exclaiming to weeping in one fell swoop. He couldn’t feel his face, even though his immediate reaction had been to cover his face with his hands the same way he’d been taught to pray to the Lord back in nursery school by his elder brother, Floyd. Floyd always told him he needed to cover his whole face because God didn’t like to look at dark-skinned faces. Manny’s love for sun-glasses, which Belle had questioned him about every-so-often could be traced back to these life lessons Floyd dished out regularly. He figured, if God didn’t like his face, and God was everywhere, then he’d have to hide as much of it as he could for the rest of his life.
Manny’s jerking away from the round metallic table they were seated at had knocked over the Ketchup bottle, and it shattered as it met the tiled floor of Lover’s Lounge, a posh eatery in upper Naguru that was the current talk of the town. Belle never really understood Manny’s obsession with the place. It was secluded, toweled in crawling plants and thick Mahogany trees, and the tiled floors always reminded her of the bathroom at home. That tiled bathroom where Ssalongo had given her her first ‘talk’. He’d walked in on her on one of his drunken nights, the ones he’d always have when Belle’s mother had travelled on church mission every month. Belle kept asking herself why she hadn’t locked the bathroom door that night.
The broken Ketchup spilled in every direction, and some got on Manny’s camel-skin moccasins. The neighboring diners seemed unbothered by the awkward sounds that were coming from Belle and Manny’s direction. One waitress caught the sound of something breaking from across the room and made her way over to their table.
“What’s wr-wr-wrong with you?” Manny whimpered, in between muffled sobs coming from somewhere behind his large hands which were still covering his face, and doing a pretty good job of it from where Belle was standing. She could barely see the sunglasses he had on behind there. Manny wasn’t sure whether to open his eyes or close them. He wasn’t even sure he could control them at this point. All he knew was that his face was numb, there was warm liquid flowing from either eye, and that made this a rare darkness. He’d always been accustomed to seeing nothing when he covered his face as he prayed with Floyd those many years ago, and even when Floyd had left for the States, Manny had continued to cover his face wholly whenever he went before his creator who seemed to always have something against him. What he wasn’t accustomed to was crying while he covered his face. There was only one other time he’d felt this hopeless in his entire life. He remembered going before his creator praying for his mummy to get better. He remembered trying to get Floyd to come back so they could pray together. He remembered Floyd telling him they were old now, and that prayers were useless. He’d prayed his last prayer, that teary prayer, the morning his mother breathed her last in the cancer ward of Fan-Siyass Hospital of Uganda, her hand in his. He’d started praying and wept until his tears had become loud mourns interspersed with dry whimpers which attracted the nurses to his mother’s room. They eventually had to guestimate her time of death.
“What’s wrong with me? You, what’s wrong wizyu? N’orira ki?” Belle burst out, her nostrils flaring. A part of her caught the ‘wizyu’. She’d always had speech problems, and it had always been Ssalongo who’d helped her all through nursery and primary since mama was always spreading the good news in whatever country or continent she was. Her speech problems, much like her asthma, always crept up when she was furious. This particular pronunciation error reminiscent of the first time she’d ever seen blood. She’d been in her favorite class; Senior One art class.
Their instructor, a tall dark handsome man, was standing beside her workspace as she put the finishing touches on her clay sculpture. “You’re good with your hands, Belle”, he’d said with a smile on his face. All the girls in proximity had giggled at his remark. Belle had felt her chest melt from his voice. “I could listen to this man all day”, she’d thought to herself in that moment. His next words had come, but they were not as warm as the first. “Belle, I think there’s a problem…”, he’d said, seeming to hold something back. She looked up to him with a puzzled look and an expectant smile and had asked, “Is it my model, teacher James?”
“Errm, no… There.” He pointed down to her cream uniform dress that now had a deep burgundy-colored blot. When Belle saw it, she was scared out of her mind. She leapt up from her seat and embraced him at the waist in fear, as though an invisible adversary had scared her from her workspace. When the other girls saw the blot at the back of her dress, that was nearly thrice the size of the one at the front, they all burst out laughing. Teacher James, who had been taken aback when she hugged him, now composed himself and had ordered the now-hysterical class to simmer down.
“It’s okay, Belle”, he’d tried to calm her. He could feel his navel area wet from her crying into his tailored blue buttoned shirt. “It’s okay, my daughter…” he allowed her. She broke down more at the statement as the class toned down to maintain a steady murmur.
He’d then taken her to the sick bay where she wept until the nurse summoned Ssalongo to come and quell the situation.
“What’s wrong wizyu?” He’d asked as soon as he’d entered the Sickbay. He turned to the nurse who gave him a disinterested look, and looked back at Belle who was now sniffing and wiping tears with teacher James’ handkerchief.
“Ssalongo, have you had the ‘talk’ with her about menstruation?” the nurse had asked half-attentive and eyes squinted at her phone.
“Ah, those are women’s’ things!” he had responded with a dismissive swish of his palm, almost as if he’d been expecting the question. “You, why don’t you tell her?” he’d asked the nurse, who paused midway a finger movement and shifted her gaze to him without lifting her head.
“But I was-”
“You think you can just use me and dump me? Oranzaanisa-zaanisa, oranyeta omupiira?” Belle followed her interruption of Manny’s whimper-speech with a long jeer which was easy to hear from anywhere in the room.
“Nyoko!” she finished, like a well-bound bow is the finishing touch to an extravagant, well-wrapped gift ready for a ceremony.
No matter how much trouble she’d gotten into for cussing, Belle seemed very comfortable expressing her anger or disappointment with whomever using this very word. It always took her back to the days Ssalongo used it to chastise his laborers whenever they misused his tools, cut the wood wrongly, or over-smiled at his female customers. Her first face-to-face encounter with the word was, by no surprise, in the presence of Ssalongo. He’d entered the bathroom trousers half-open, swaying left to right like a very large penguin, his manhood already spilling the first drops of urine on the floor. He’d realized he wasn’t alone halfway his act, when he slowly turned his head and saw her standing there in the white fluorescent light of the room, the steam in the air giving not thick enough for her to hide herself. He’d smiled as his eyes scanned her from the tip of her large braids to her barely-wrapped breasts and down to her red toe-nails contrasting against the large white tiles. She started to step back when his penis started to harden, even after the last drops had fallen from it. There was no sound from either of them as their gazes held, as if to hold a negotiation. He’d drawn closer, his pants now down at his ankles, and he’d ripped off her body the short towel which was the only item belonging to her late twin sister they’d allowed her to keep when she’d passed away a decade ago. Her best friend was gone, but Belle could have sworn she could smell her late sibling’s scent whenever she used that towel.
“aah, mwana wangye. I think it’s time for the ‘talk’. Nyoko kanindeeba tariho…” Ssalongo had said, a grin building on his face, as he thrust her to the cold hard floor and fought and overpowered his way to between her thighs.
The waitress approached the table where Belle was seated, licking a knife, and Manny was standing beside his chair shaking, his head bowed down and his face hidden in his hands. She had cleaned broken soda bottles before, but had never dealt with broken Ketchup. It seemed too thick to mop, and yet too liquid to sweep into the dustpan she was wielding as she approached them.
“Sorry about this”, she said, trying to remember if that’s what the meneja had taught them to say when they were cleaning up messes the guests had made. She probably didn’t remember because half her mind was counting the Redds she could now be able to afford in her salary, and the other half was wondering why she had to apologize to guests when she hadn’t contributed to messes they’d made.
“It’s alright, miss…” Belle stretched her head toward the waitress, trying to read the handwritten tag that she was wearing at her breast pocket.
“Gloria”, the waitress offered.
“Miss Gloria”, Belle smiled at her, temporarily taking the knife out of her mouth to be more audible.
As the waitress bent over to sweep the broken glass bottle pieces in to the dustpan, Manny felt her reach close to him. He’d decided early in his childhood that this was his superpower; to be able to sense people reach close to him while his face was covered. He was convinced he has a force field around him that worked like a human radar system, detecting whenever someone or something came close to him or left his vicinity. How else could he explain Floyd finishing the prayer and that it was time to say “Amen”? How else could he have known when to tighten his ass muscles for every impending stroke fo the cane whenever the teacher was canning the whole class for failing an exam, or caning him for crying when he was canned? He’d always weep, the class would always burst out in laughter, he’d always weep some more. He’d always gone back home and begged his god to bestow upon him another super power, and always suggested to his creator, “…the one where I can make people stop beating or laughing at me.”
Even though it was over a decade, several schools, and some bad decisions later, he still couldn’t break the habit of cupping his face whenever a new situation thrust him out of his comfort zone. He’d convinced himself that there was no future between him and Belle, even though their late night texts and sleepovers had implied otherwise. The torment of pretending to love her had become a musk of irritability and depression. It was like the midday sun on a hot Masaka day in his uncle’s air-conditionless Benz pick-up van as they transported his mother’s bloated motionless body in a pristine white casket to the burial site in Nyendo. A situation he didn’t want to be in, but couldn’t escape from. He’d felt like that rat he and Floyd had trapped that one school holiday, it racing around and trying to bite through the rusty metal caging, him and Floyd knowing full well that its end was near. He owed it to himself to call off this – whatever this was – with Belle before it had matured. She needed to know he wanted out.
The waitress fidgeted with the spilled ketchup which was splashed all over the area. She figured she’d have to return when the ketchup was dry for her to scrape it off the floor and decided it was best to get up and let the couple resume their weird romantic evening. As she motioned to get up and head back to her station, she wondered if perhaps some of the Ketchup had gotten on the gentlemen’s chair. “But why does he sound like he is crying?” she thought to herself. In one decisive move, she decided she would inquire if everything was aright with the gentleman. “I might get some tip from them, they even came driving!” she thought to herself as she picked up Manny’s car keys which had fallen next to one of the table’s feet.
“These are yours?” she said as she offered the keys to Belle.
“Yes, please” Belle responded, with a smile. “Please bring the bill”
“Alright madam. And the sir, he’s okay?” the waitress asked as she pointed to Manny.
“DO I LOOK FINE?” Manny burst out, lifting his head and uncovering his now-moist face. The waitress dropped her dustpan and the shards of glass had another go at the tiled floor. She clutched her mouth, as if to prevent herself from burping stomach’s contents, and shrank in posture as she inhaled a long deep breath.
“D-DO I??” he continued, this time lifting back his trembling left arm and removing the gold-rimmed glossy-black RayBum sunglasses, one of which was shattered, from his face.
“AAAAAEEI!” the waitress let out a loud high-pitched scream, commanfind chair screeches from the rest of the patrons as they turned to see what the commotion was about.
She turned around and aimed her gaze steadily at meneja, who was at the bar standing and craning his neck to see what was happening. She yelled out with a shaky voice, her eyes beset with fear,
“Yanguwa! Omwami bamufumise akaso mu liiso!”