Jacob meticulously rolls a cigarette, dabbing the edge of the paper with saliva to make sure the newspaper he has used holds the dry leaves. He takes his time, moving with the precision of a sculptor. Once he finishes, he stops to appraise his creation. Satisfied that this is one of the best cigarettes ever made – a worthy rival to the Cuban cigars he has seen in Hollywood films – he pats his jacket for matches. Despite holding all sorts of paraphernalia, he is only able to rattle a teaspoon, a fork, a folding knife and a tin opener. Here is a man always prepared for a meal and a loyal student of Lord Paul Baden-Powell, yet at this critical moment he’s out of matches.
A thought suddenly occurs to him. He runs his fingers through his matted hair and retrieves a broken matchstick which must have snapped in half while he slept. He scratches it against the steel bench. Not everyone can light up a match on a park bench, but here is man who has mastered all sorts of skills in his 40-something years alive. His calloused fingers tell the story of his former life: rough and wrinkled from years of digging graves with a heavy pick and shovel at the local cemetery.
Jacob places the phallus-shaped cigarette between his lips and he inhales. He closes his eyes in orgasmic ecstasy as the smoke fills his lungs. He sees cadavers approaching, gesturing at him with bony fingers to join them in their underground abode. There are multitudes of dead men, women and children walking before him. His heart is pounding.
He opens his blood-shot eyes to escape the visions and stares blankly at the freeway, just a few metres away from the park. Some pedestrians – wishing to take a stroll through the park – walk past him, ignoring the rusty plate he uses to collect change. Not a single coin has been dropped in his plate since sunrise. However this is 7:00am – it’s a cold June morning and business is slow.
Jacob shouts out at them: “Ah, what kind of country has no coins? I miss Rhodesia!”
Here, only madmen have this freedom of speech.
He always looks forward to Sundays. This is when the church nearby comes to life as the preacher whips up his congregation into a frenzy, singing gospel music and recalling the parable of Lazarus and the purple-robed rich man. These are the best days as churchgoers, filled with guilt, walk past him and hastily drop change. This gives him enough to buy a loaf of bread or even an ounce of marijuana. Yet others scowl at him as they walk by, shouting: “Get the fuck out of here. We are not the ones who bewitched you.” When this happens, he simply stares back and grins at what he sees as the folly of dunces who don’t know the story of his life.
He takes another puff of his cigarette. The “tobacco leaves” rolled into his cigar are making him see double. When he runs out of marijuana, Jacob usually collects dried leaves that fall from the park’s trees and crushes them. When he has finished smoking the leaves, the process is repeated – this cycle seems indefinite for now – at least until his God decides that he has seen enough misery.
In his late teens, Jacob had joined the then white-run Bulawayo municipality as a garbage collector. His parents had been killed by rebels who accused them of snitching to the white government the identities of some freedom fighters. Leaving for Bulawayo, the big city, was the only way to escape poverty as an orphan. This was a time of gainful employment and Jacob arrived for work, fresh-faced and eager. He would look after himself, start a new life, and screw the city girls.
After working a few months as a garbage man, the young Jacob had walked into an Indian shop in downtown Bulawayo. “I want a bed, a paraffin stove, two blankets, two plates and two pots,” he told the Indian shop owner. The old man looked at him as if Jacob had crawled out of a pit latrine. “Do you have the money to pay for all those things?”
Jacob responded by waving a wad of notes close to his face. “I don’t accept money from tsotsis, phuma lokayena mina biza mapholisa,” the Indian man hissed, threatening to call the police. This was 1970s Rhodesia and African natives were believed to only understand pidgin.
But young Jacob had thought of everything. He produced his pay slip from the municipality and a note from his supervisor. It read: “To whom this may concern: Please note that Jacob Mehlomakhulu is an employee of the Bulawayo Municipality. Kindly assist him with all purchases and transactions he might want to enter therewith. Signed Mr. Dick Van de Merwe.”
The Indian man grinned. “Ah, why didn’t you mentioned the Municipality? Come in, come in.” He patted Jacob’s back as if he were a long lost son.
Jacob earned good money. He lived, he loved, and watched the world turn. Before the year was over, his supervisor, Mr. Van de Merwe, called him to his office. “Jacob, we are experiencing new challenges,” he said.
Young Jacob was staring redundancy in the face and he quaked in his boots.
“The director of health services says there is an increase in deaths in the city. Young men and women dying of untreated sexually transmitted diseases, so there is demand for freshly dug graves. You’re a hard worker so I have chosen you to be part of a team that will be assigned new duties as gravediggers. As you know, not many Africans are keen to work in a cemetery so what we have agreed to do is to double your salaries.”
The young man almost collapsed with joy. “A pay increase for an uneducated fellow like me? Surely my dead parents are watching over me,” he thought. And so began his long stint working as a gravedigger.
“What are you going to do with all this money,” asked Mfundo Mbali, a fellow garbage collector who had also been offered a job as a gravedigger. They had paused for a lunch break and they settled on a mound of earth – beneath which rested an anonymous soul.
“I don’t know yet ndoda. I will first enjoy the finest things money can buy, then buy some cattle, maybe get married one day. I don’t know. We’ll see.”
This was their life: they shoveled the earth, creating gaping holes where they would bury the city’s thieves, gangsters, prostitutes, as well as noble men, women and children from Bulawayo’s high society. Yet the more he dugs the graves, the more the screams of his dying parents came alive. Bed time became a moment of torment. As the screams of his parents rang in his ears, Jacob would see the graves he dug opening and cadavers of mysterious people emerging from the earth beckoning him to join them.
“Ah, you bloody superstitious kaffirs and your superstitions,” Mr. Van de Merwe responded when Jacob told him about his nightmares. “Dead men tell no tales. They are nothing but pictures. Your parents are dead. The people buried in those graves you dig are dead. Now get back to work or you are fired!”
Many years later sitting on the park bench, Jacob grins as he recalls that encounter. School children passing by him shiver with fear as they give him a wide berth. They wonder what on earth is amusing the mad man.
Jacob suddenly stands up and the children run off, screaming. He violently scratches his genitals before lying on the floor to do some push-ups. A curious female motorist stops in the middle of the road to watch the mad man. Sensing her interest, Jacob turns to watch her as he stands back up. He slowly unzips his trousers, takes his penis out and lets loose a spray of urine. The motorist puts her foot on the accelerator and flees as he laughs out loud, enjoying the moment.
As the moments pass, Jacob instinctively senses that it’s around 8:00am and the food outlets are now open. Picking up a greasy sack that contains all his worldly possessions, he trudges across the park to the roadside bin, to scavenge rotting cast-away food for his breakfast. He rummages through the bins outside the restaurants, siphoning cool drink drops from a hundred discarded soft-drink cans, and satisfied, returns to his park bench to eat a hearty meal.
He washes down the junk food with the soft drinks, and sated, he lights up the tree leaves and smokes. He closes his eyes. He sees a man raise a machete to strike his head and he screams. Passers-by also scream as they scurry for cover.
“Ah what the fuck is his problem? He almost gave me a heart attack,” says an immaculately-dressed female office-worker.
“His problem? Can’t you see the guy is mad?” her male companion responds. The female worker briefly pouts, seemingly annoyed at him implication that she’s an idiot to ask the obvious. This is Jacob’s world – an orphan of the war, former garbage man and grave digger, now a mad man.
On a cold morning, his body is found lifeless by park cleaners. Only the Jacarandas weep for him as purple petals fall on his dead body.