The Dancer Blues

Ronald Ngala Street.

Ronald Ngala Street. When I walk out into the street I hear the band playing. A family is huddled outside the supermarket playing old hymns from a mix of percussion and string instruments, which offer their service out of pity for the players. I do not have the courage to look at their faces, to make out the men from the women and children. I will not dare make out if they have all their body parts intact. It is the only way I can be able to stand there, watching as they lower and raises the tempo of their music. It sounds impersonal, like the mourning of a distant relative when you go to a funeral in the country. The youngest, a kid about six years old, is holding out a tin bowl for strangers. The fellowship of the few coins in the bowl joins in on the music. The child is staring at me. His eyes call out to me in a sadness I cannot comprehend. They implore me to look at them. They are dark eyes, lacking the vitreous whiteness of childhood. They welcome the light of the street and amplify it for me to see. I can make out my own weak features in the child’s face. We know each other from a long time ago. He is the embodiment of gardenias in the soils of my last days. We both know that our nights can only get colder, darker and distant. The street will close its doors soon and let in the light of day and we will both seize to exist, he seems to warn me. I manage to look away. I leave without dropping any money in the tin bowl. His eyes follow me up the street until I disappear into a lane.

I call home. No answer. I know I will never get an answer but I still call, more out of habit than the need to be reassured that I am still alone. I imagine her naked body under the heat of February nights. She always knew how to hold beauty under her dark skin. Images of the dancer come back to me. A taxi halts a few inches from me while I’m still trying to make out the dancer’s face from hers. “Ghasia!” the taxi driver shouts. I ran to the other side of the road without looking back. A few weeks ago I would have had a ready retort for him but that was another life. I learnt to curse at a very early age, in fact I cursed so much they had to expel me from my first primary school because I called the math’s teacher something I would rather not say here. The eyes of the street child come back to me. I want to see the streets through them, to enter into an agreement with them, but he will not allow me. I have to learn to use my own eyes. As they gradually adjust to the dimming lights inside me I spot the magazine vendor sipping coffee from a paper cup at the corner of a street. I wonder if anyone buys magazines at this hour. He is the same vendor who sells me second hand copies of The New Yorker for a hundred shillings. He knows my face and smiles as he sees me approaching him. He is what I’d consider the best thing that has happened to me for years now. He knows the city better than the crooks do. He has seen everything, from the riots to the city council versus hawkers hide and seek games. He offers me the coffee and I gladly accept it. I choke as the whisky in it burns my throat. He offers his cunning smile as an apology and I accept it after emptying the contents of the cup in my belly. The vendor has been providing me with anything I could use to survive in a city like this. Today he has with him copy of Midnight’s Children. He hands it to me. “Happy birthday,” he says. I look through the cover art as if it was the face of a forgotten lover, tracing my hands above the various streaks of color. He takes out the gun from under the magazines and puts it on my backpack. I pretend not to notice this. “Thanks,” I tell him. I sit with him as the whisky and caffeine soak up my organs. I wish there was more of the whisky. I can feel the weight of the gun in my backpack as I become more aware of everything else in the street. The shops are all closed but their lights still shine on for a city that does not close its eyes to advertising. I imagine myself in the suits and boots donned by the mannequins. An old poem by my campus housemate comes to mind. I have not seen enough of figurines/for angels to dream. Guards sit outside the shops, snoring away. The gentle heat from the vendor’s breathing reminds me that he is watching me. I know what he wants to tell me: he wants to persuade me that it is all in vain, he wants me to change my mind. He is feeling guilty because he is now an accomplice although we both agreed that some things are too existential to be crimes. A man in an overcoat comes to the spot and the vendor gives him something wrapped in a black paper bag. The man in the overcoat leaves without saying a word to either of us. The thing I like about the city is that words have become obsolete: there is something more eloquent in our bodies than on our tongues. The man disappears down the street but not before pausing to look back. Despite the distance I can make out his eyes. It does not astound me that he has the same eyes as the child. I let my mind follow him down the streets to where he will disappear into a car or a bus. I follow him past the Central Business District to his house in Milimani. I watch as he takes out his overcoat and slips into his robe, as he plays McCoy Mrubata on the stereo, dancing from the sitting room to the back of the apartment. He walks to the bathroom and takes a long shower. He shaves with care and grace, like his father taught him how to. And just when A Brother’s Song begins he takes his own life. What is death if it is not underscored by beautiful music? His body lies in the blood, slowly accepting rigor as the immediate fate of all flesh. In his right hand is a gun identical to the one in my backpack. This man is my brother. Witnessing his death has made us so. His eyes are still open when my mind drifts from the house and take a bus back to the Central Business District, back to where the vendor is attempting to dissuade me against a crime by using a language that not contained in poetry. He implores me to let beauty sway my already made up mind. He asks me to listen to sounds of the night. “There is no sound,” I reply. Yet I know he already knew this. There is no sound. There is a man and a woman down the street, just past the club, who are kissing. The man pulls down her pants and unzips his trousers. The woman guides him in and they become entangled in a silent back and forth tango. “I want nothing more than those two have,” I tell the vendor. He thinks about this for a while. He watches the couple with a practiced detachment. He has seen enough of this through the years. “You want to be free at night. No one is free at night.” Only he understands what he is saying. He must have been like me a long time ago, tempted by thoughts of journeying into the night. He must have been young once when he ventured to sell magazines at night and has stayed in the night until now. “We are free only when we sleep,” he adds. I thank him for the coffee and begin to leave. “Just promise me one thing Marlboro, promise me that the decisions you make tonight will be out of love for her and not for yourself.” I hate to disappoint the old man. He has been my Virgil through the cantos of night for years now. “I don’t make promises,” I reply. I know his eyes, unlike all others, never follow me when I leave. I go to a telephone booth and call home. No answer. I am alone. A happy ending is all I can hope for.

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