The names in this piece have been changed, but we still remember.
I haven’t been here in years. There’s a clubhouse in back now, and a toilet block, and the concrete slab where we used to sit and waste the day has sprouted aluminum walls. They rent the auditorium out on Sundays as a church, and the singing billows out into the yard. Someone’s brought a drum set: the tinny splash of the cymbals, the ragtag bite of the snare. I sit in the sun on the stage door steps, counting the bottle caps ground into the dirt. Tusker, Fanta, Coke. They look like the hats of tiny men buried up to their eyebrows. The tree on the fence line rubs its hands together.
I was here almost a decade ago: Nakuru, in Kenya, folded in against the green-brown hills, ranged along the railroad line. An old settler town, where white farmers brought their meat and milk to market. They’re mostly gone now, the farmers, and the white people you see on Kenyatta Avenue either work for NGOs or have come to gawk at flamingos. I came in 2005 to make a documentary and only saw a flamingo once. This was where you’d find me then: the backyard of the Players Theatre, the colonial hideaway local artists were remaking for themselves. I was a twenty-year-old white kid with a preposterous camera bag. I stayed for a while and then I left. I came back the next year and then I left again. The town and my friends there turned spectral in my mind: likes on Facebook, unanswered invitations on LinkedIn. In 2007, disputed elections tore the air of the place apart. I wasn’t there then; I was in India, reading the news on the ancient desktop computer my fiancée’s uncle kept shrouded in plastic on his shoe porch. My friends Omolo and Jacko, actors and comedians at the theatre, were holed up in their homes, waiting for the fires to burn themselves out. I sent fifty dollars Western Union and felt guilty for days. I knew my guilt didn’t matter.
Two years ago, my friend Jacko was murdered. He’d been missing for weeks, the news of his disappearance filtering through to me in California in foreboding fits and starts. He was found hanged in the woods, a cellophane bag wrapped around his head. It wasn’t a suicide, though it was made to look like it was. I dreamt up the usual stories, the old Africa canards. They’re never true; they weren’t this time. Yesterday, Saturday, Omolo sat opposite me in a Punjabi restaurant where he remembered I liked the bhajia and told me that Jacko went into the construction business after I left, that he racked up debts on a project that fell through. When he couldn’t pay his lenders back, they called their muscle, simple as that. The police were trying to cover it up. It’s possible they were on the take, or maybe murder is just embarrassing. Omolo went to identify the body, since Jacko’s wife couldn’t bring herself to. The rains had made it difficult. His face was as soft as candle wax.
Jacko was a handsome man. When he spoke, his hands would move – leading from the knuckles, drawing out punctuation in the air. That’s not the right way to describe him but it’s as close as I can get. I hadn’t seen him in years when he died. He’s there in the film I made, perched artfully on a pile of something in the backyard of the Players Theatre. We’re close on his face. His easy smile. Apart from being an actor, he used to caddy for local golfers and do odd jobs for NGOs. He and Omolo did street theatre for AIDS education. He’d play the landlord or the boyfriend, his face all comic twitch. When he danced, especially with white girls, he chickened out his elbows.
I kept meaning to send Omolo money to give to Jacko’s wife. But I was far away, and distance deadens everything. Days and weeks and months. Not denial, not exactly, just a low, dull ache; a deep, small no; a helplessness. Even after I came back to Kenya last fall, I didn’t come to visit. We make ourselves the protagonists of stories that aren’t ours. I didn’t want that for Jacko. He didn’t need my sorry-s. Omolo said that even though he hardly ever went anywhere, all Jacko built was roads. Maybe even the one I came in on – I never found out – skimming into Nakuru on new asphalt.
In the end it was just practicalities. I had work to do in Nakuru, so I got a matatu from Nairobi. Nothing much has changed. Maybe that’s a comfort. The same choke of dust, same hawkers in their curio stalls. A line of cyclists trundles round and round the park on Sundays just as diligently as they did nine years ago: heads down, mouths set, chests tucked close to their knees. I can’t stay long this time. I’m leaving this afternoon. On my way down from the hotel to meet Omolo at the theatre, I stopped at Tusky’s and got Jacko’s wife a card, filed cash inside. And here I am now, on the stage door steps, counting bottle caps in the dirt. The hills frown down on the town in the bowl of their hands. I lose count at thirty-five. I feel like an empty room, like somewhere I lived once a long time ago, everything gone from the closets. I lick the flap of the envelope and stick it closed. Four little children, escapees from the church service, wage a ray gun battle across the yard. They’re caught and shooed inside.
I know it’s too late, but I’m here. I sit and listen to the singing, waiting for Omolo, waiting to leave. I know they’re not singing for Jacko. But they’re singing for him all the same.