Please help, God bless by Frederick J Botha
09 Nov 2016
Frederick J Botha’s story “Please Help, God Bless” was nominated by PEN Afrikaans for the 2016 PEN International New Voices Award. PEN South Africa nominated Beatrice Willoughby for her poems “The Mad, Sad, Rad Collection” and James Clarke for his short story “Old Iron”.
Read “Please Help, God Bless” below and our Q&A with Botha here.
Abiding by the speed limit on the road sign, I drive down Beyers Naudé at 60 km/h. To my left, the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens, where pensioners walk their dogs and fitness-conscious individuals jog in expensive running gear. To my right, Wespark Cemetery, where the new mounds of soil are gradually closing in on the fence.
As I wait for the light at the intersection of Beyers and Judith to change to green, I press the volume button on my steering wheel to turn up the radio. On Jacaranda FM it’s time for Good Morning Angels where the new Miss South Africa is presenting ten-year-old Rochelle from Benoni with R10 000, with compliments of South Africa’s largest cell phone network. Rochelle has a severe squint and must undergo an urgent eye operation costing thousands to prevent total blindness.
“One step at a time, hey, Rochellie?” snivels the presenter.
The light changes to green and the two cars ahead of me start moving. I drive past the sign welcoming me to Melville, around the bend that changes into Main Road. Next to the Eben Cuyler Park sports grounds I press another button on the steering wheel and change to 94.7 Highveld Stereo. One of the presenters is playing a prank on the leader of the opposition party by pretending that he is President Barack Obama wanting to congratulate him on his party’s sterling work.
As I stop at the intersection of Main Road and 4th Avenue I change the station again and switch to RSG where Lynette Francis on Praat Saam* is talking to a psychologist about teen suicide. It’s 08:16 and on the sidewalk to my left, in front of the shop selling second-hand office furniture, a group of homeless people is waking up. Slowly they get up from under their cardboard boxes as taxis roar past. The taxi drivers hoot at them, ignore the red traffic light and push through the traffic in 4th Avenue, then stop right in front of Adult World and Absa to squash even more passengers into their totally overloaded minibuses. On my right, business is picking up at Mays Chemists in the Super Spar complex.
The radio reception becomes spotty and I switch over to 5FM, then to Classic FM, but the buzzing only grows louder. The traffic light changes to green and I drive past Catz Pajamaz, Stones and the Supa Quick tyre fitters. I have to slow down for a Tuk-Tuk turning into my lane and struggling up the hill. I press another button on my steering wheel and switch the radio to the MP3 player.
Ek oorweeg nog ŉ ooreenkoms met die swart kruisies op my almanak**, says rapper Jaco van der Merwe of the group Bittereinder.
The traffic light at the intersection of Main Road and 1st Avenue is green and thankfully the Tuk-Tuk turns left, passing Postnet. Just as I start picking up speed, a taxi cuts in front of me from the right-hand lane and stops to pick up a passenger. I swear, hoot at him, lift my hands in disbelief and frustration, and wait for someone in the right lane to be nice enough to give me a gap. Eventually a gentleman in a red Toyota Corolla lets me get back in, and as I round the bend into Auckland Park, I am greeted by the Sentech tower and the big yellow M of McDonalds. On one of the lampposts to my left I read a headline from the Daily Sun: My punani doesn’t eat pap!
Ek is tydloos en tydelik, ŉ silwerskoon almanak***, Jaco van der Merwe raps on.
As I’m approaching, the traffic light at the intersection of Kingsway Avenue and University Road changes from green to orange, and I start slowing down. I stop between Campus Square and the Goodbye from Melville sign.
To my left, on the centre island, there’s a wire fence that the municipality put up a few months ago. The idea was to block the masses of students wanting to cross from the other side, all the way across to Campus Square and the bus stop. A handful actually use the pedestrian crossing and walk the resulting extra few meters to the entrance of the shopping centre or the bus stop, but the majority still weave their way through the cars, all along the narrow passage between the traffic and the new fence. Shortcut. They step tentatively on the white stones next to the fence; these are an attempt to lend some aesthetic value to a construction that would have been quite at home in the Jewish concentration camps of the Second World War. The attempt is thwarted, however, by cigarette butts, Simba chips packets and other rubbish getting caught between the stones and sticking to the fence, along with some weeds poking through here and there.
The animals, the animals. Trapped, trapped, trapped ’till the cage is full, Regina Spektor starts singing.
In my rear-view mirror I watch the students approaching and carefully traversing the narrow space between the row of cars and the fence. I watch them, eagle-eyed, not wanting my car to be scratched by their satchels.
The cage is full. The day is new. And everyone is waiting, waiting on you. And you’ve got time!
In the corner of my eye, I see a beggar approaching from the left side of my car. He walks among the cars building up at the traffic light, laughing as he goes. I see that his left arm has been amputated. With his right hand he knocks on car windows, then holds it out so the motorists can give him a few coins. His big, skew, brilliant-white teeth are emphasised by his sunburnt skin. As he comes closer, his smile becomes more and more prominent. The edge of his grey shirt is stuffed hastily into his black trousers. The sleeves are rolled up. Even the one on the left, right up to the stump where it hangs limply due to the lack of an elbow and a forearm. His rough feet are wearing brown sandals, his toes sticking out over the ends.
I haven’t seen him here before. Usually, this spot belongs to an old woman who bemoans her fate of having no job and no food on the smallest sign she could find, staring bitterly at the passing motorists. I wonder if beggars swop their locations. Do they have community meetings where they give feedback about the ideal locations for optimal begging? Do they organise think-tanks for methods to get motorists to fork out some serious cash?
I realise that this beggar, now standing at the window on my passenger side, doesn’t even have a sign. The audacity! What about having a bit of initiative? How hard could it be to hold up a sign, even for someone with one hand?
The beggar puts the coins placed in his hand by the woman in the pink Opel Corsa into his pocket. He takes a copy of CAR from the back of his trousers with the same hand. He shakes the magazine open with his one hand and as he brings the open pages up to his face, the stump is waving up and down excitedly. He takes the magazine away from his face and then I see his smile exposing even more teeth. I amuse myself thinking that every beggar must have their own reasons for standing at traffic lights.
Just before the traffic light changes to green, I think I see a bulge in his pants, but I’m already in Kingsway Avenue with an indicator showing my intention of turning off at the gate to the university.
From that morning, on my way to work I would always be aware of the beggar at the traffic light before the entrance to the university. Always with a smile. I become aware of his audacity in knocking on motorists’ windows and indicating to them that they must wind them down. Through the slit he would always start up some friendly conversation with the motorists. Some would ignore him, some would chase him away, and a few might even take part in his silliness and play along, entertaining him. He always wears the same grey shirt and black trousers with brown sandals; always the magazine stuffed into the back of his trousers; the stump waving up and down. And always the bulge in his pants.
The first time I saw the bulge, I told myself that I hadn’t really seen anything. But the next few times the bulging knob was very obvious. After finally getting confirmation that it was most definitely an erection, the image started giving me endless pleasure. I would burst out laughing every morning when I saw him weaving through the cars, probably unfazed about it. Once I finally found a parking space on campus, I would wonder what the reason for his erection could be. Could it be the result of looking at female (or perhaps male) motorists? Or the excitement and enthusiasm of his beggar’s dream in CAR? Maybe he was just very well-endowed, with the lack of underpants making it look like an erection?
The fact that I seemed to be the only motorist who was aware of the bulge in his pants started bothering me. Later on, he equipped his right hand with a McFlurry cup from McDonalds for the motorists to put his money in, but they still seemed to pay little attention to his bulging trousers.
From where I was stuck helplessly inside my car in the morning traffic, the beggar’s bulge started intimidating me. Its brazenness made me uncomfortable. The more I tried to ignore it, the more its presence bothered me. Eventually it felt like the beggar was using it to torment me on purpose.
By the middle of summer, the city is caught in a heatwave. It is unbearably hot by early morning, with a discomfort that leaves you feeling schizophrenic. On the way to university, my car’s air conditioning is set to its highest setting, but the heat in the car is still oppressive. I remind myself to check when the car is supposed to go for its next service. I turn the air conditioning off and roll the window down all the way. The heat rushing into the car from outside intensifies the stuffiness and claustrophobia. My head starts throbbing behind my eyes.
The traffic light at the intersection of Kingsway Avenue and University Road is red, and as my car comes to a stop, I see that one of the other traffic lights has been knocked over in a collision. It’s on the ground, bent, its wiring protruding from the tar.
Out of nowhere the beggar suddenly appears at my open window. He leans against my car, torso tilted somewhat, looking inside while exhibiting his numerous teeth. I grow anxious. Since becoming aware of him, this is the first time he has come this close to me. He has never knocked on my window for money before, and I have never called him to give him any. He is invading my personal space for the first time. The threat is becoming very real.
Instead of the grey shirt with the rolled-up sleeves, he’s wearing a greyish vest with no sleeves this morning. I see his jagged amputation for the first time. His begging equipment, comprising only a McFlurry cup up to this point, has been expanded through the addition of an election poster hanging around his neck on a piece of string. He has written Please help, God bless on the back of it. Short and sweet. No soppy stories or extensive lies. He holds the McFlurry cup out to me. And then I see it: the bulging trousers below his sign.
“Hello sir, how are you today?”
I gulp, and try not to look at the knob.
“I’m fine, thanks,” I answer curtly, avoiding eye contact. I notice that his fly is halfway open, gaping.
“Please sir, don’t you have some spare change for a brother?”
“No, I don’t.” I look away from the bulging gap at the front of his trousers and press the button to roll the window back up.
The beggar sticks his stump through the opening to stop the window. I start, and take my finger off the button.
“Please just go away!” I yell at him. My head is throbbing in the scorching heat.
I look at the traffic light. Is it just me or has it been stuck on red for some time now? My eye catches the knob again. I imagine that it must be throbbing. I feel sweat pearling on my forehead. My shirt is stuck to my sweaty body.
“Please sir. I’m begging you.”
“I said I don’t have any money!” I snap, frustrated.
The knob in his trousers is undoubtedly throbbing. My mouth is dry.
“Please sir. Please just help me out. Anything sir.”
Before I realise what I’m doing, I lift my right hand from the steering wheel and stick it through the window. My fingers dig up the erection from inside his trousers. As it flops out from behind the zipper, I fold my fingers around the veiny rod of meat and ignore the fetid smell filling my nostrils. I start jerking it rapidly. The beggar drops his McFlurry cup, and silver and bronze coins roll over the road surface. His mouth tenses in a perfect circle and his stump shakes up and down like the flapping fin of a fish flopping about on dry land. The beggar starts grunting and his eyes roll back in his head. He sprays forcefully into my car. It lands on my shirt and drips down into my lap. Then I hear angry hooting behind me.
In my rear-view mirror I see the woman behind me in her silver BMW X5 waving her arms in frustration. The exaggerated movements of her lips show me that she’s yelling at me. Her one fist is balled and she hits her steering wheel repeatedly so that the hooter blows at me, while her other hand is showing me a middle finger.
Then I realise: The light is green.
* Lit. “Talk Together”, an Afrikaans breakfast show where listeners can call in and take part in discussions on current affairs.
** “I’m still making a deal with the black crosses on my calendar.”
*** “I am timeless and temporary, a blank calendar”