"Thoughtful, affecting and skillfully constructed... Schmahmann's portrayal of South Africa, past and present, is as poignant—and nuanced—as his delineation of the characters and their relationships."
— Los Angeles Times
Danny Divin is a young white man in South Africa who enters into an illicit romance with a mixed race schoolgirl, the daughter of a black domestic servant. When social constraints force Danny to end the romance, he travels to America with the hOut of Printes of starting a new life. There he meets Tesseba, a curious and trusting artist who takes him in and marries him to save him from deportation. The two build a life together, but Danny continues to be plagued by a growing sense of loss. Twenty years later, Danny returns to a "new" South Africa in the hOut of Printes of saving a family fortune and finding the girl he has never forgotten.
I met Tesseba on a bus in Boston in 1978. She's the sort that peers over your shoulder when you're reading and makes some uninvited comment, and that's exactly how it happened. For a moment you resent the intrusion and sometimes you brush it away but sometimes you don't, depending on your mood. I've seen it replayed dozens of times since then, on airplanes and park benches and in waiting rooms. Tesseba has a disarming manner, which is why she gets away with it — that and a gamin face which is both mournful and exotic, and draws you to her.
So she leaned over and asked what I was examining so intently, and then one thing led to another. I was examining the difference between life and death. But how could I describe that to her?
It was wintertime and whether an almanac would confirm that it was especially cold that winter or not I don't know, but to me it was as cold as death itself.
"What are those?" she asked.
"They look intimidating."
"They are, rather."
"What accent is that?"
Only a month, and already the question made me wary. What started as a casual inquiry always invited a comment after it had been answered, an opinion, a probing to see where I stood, to see if I passed some sort of muster. And most people knew so little.
"South African," I said and looked out the window.
The wind could lift the snow up, I'd learned, twirl it, sweep it against your skin.
"Is that where you're from?" Tesseba asked.
"It's an American word."
"I know that," I said.
"How long have you been here?" she asked.
And so Tesseba and I were on our way.
Even if it was not the coldest winter on record, what made it bone chilling was how unprepared for it I was. It hadn't been that many weeks before, after all, that I had been standing at the great picture window overlooking Gordonwood's swimming pool, watching the awnings flap, the leaves blowing across the patio, the goldenrod sending showers of orange buds over the grass. Death was everywhere, blood still on the walls almost, all life at a standstill.
It's where my thoughts were when Tesseba interrupted them.
* * *
Tesseba has stayed with me for all these years, through thick and thin, or, more appropriately, through thin and thick. I'm not really wealthy now but when I met her I had nothing, not even a proper winter coat or insulated boots. Melted snow would creep in around the edges of my soles and squeeze about in my socks for hours until I was able to take them off. I had never seen anything like it. In Africa people didn't stow themselves in insulated rooms waiting for a thaw, the air was warm and moist, you feared snakes, perhaps, drunks, runaway buses, a rabid monkey taunting with acorns and squeals, but not the air itself, snaps of wind so sudden they made you gasp. In Africa you could make mistakes, missteps, somehow muddle through, but in Boston if you made a mistake you could die, freeze to death or worse, fall without any hope of being stopped or saved.
Tesseba had a strange little loft apartment in the middle of nowhere when I met her. Even today I don't know what the area's called. You go over a bridge and across an expanse of warped asphalt and then you come upon a scrabbly hodgepodge of half-used warehouses and half-filled tenements. A number of artists lived in the warehouses, and Tesseba was one of them. I think her rent was thirty-five dollars a month. It sounded almost as cheap then as it does now.
"What are those forms?" she asked on the bus.
"Asylum papers," I said.
"What sort of asylum?"
I knew what she was thinking, toyed for a moment with the prospect of leading her on, letting her think I was some kind of lunatic. But it wouldn't have worked. Alongside her picture in a Providence high school yearbook — straight hair, smooth skin, closed-mouth smile — is the entry: "Semper Fidelis." Knowing Tesseba now I don't think it would have changed how she regarded me.
"Political asylum," I said.
"Wow," she said. "Were you a political prisoner?"
"Is that one of the ways you could get to stay here?"
"Yes," I said. "I just came from a legal aid center."
"Is it hard to get?"
"Is it the only way?"
"The other way is to marry an American," I said.
I know as I look back on it that I said it with a touch of mischief, an edge.
"I'd marry you," she volunteered.
"You don't even know me," I said.
"I know enough," she said. "Not marry marry. Just marry. Maybe marry marry. I don't know about that."
It's peculiar, really, how after an exchange like that nothing is barred even as it was one of those conversations that could also have ended in nothing. We could have reached her stop and she could have stood up and left the bus and we could never have seen each other again, the whole exchange nothing more than an odd moment, something on the margins of memory. But instead when we reached her stop I got off with her and we walked, without commenting on what we were doing, down the barren street and across the lot to her building.
"Do you want to come up?" she asked.
"Sure," I said.
"Where do you live?"
"At the Y," I told her. "I'm hoping to get a place when things are more settled."
"You could stay here, if you wanted," she offered.
I looked up at the building with its dirty brick face, boarded windows, rusting fire escape.
"How can you make an offer like that?" I asked. "You only just met me and you're making all sorts of offers. I could be anything. Somebody who really needs an asylum."
"Sure," she said. "But you aren't."
"How do you know?"
"Am I wrong?"
"No," I said. "But you could be."
"Have you looked at yourself in a mirror lately?" she asked.
She took my hand and led me to a window beside the building's entrance.
I saw myself and then next to me a dark, pretty girl wearing blue jeans and boots, a coarse woollen scarf wrapped around her neck, a heavy blue jacket. Behind us were parked cars.
"Not at me," she said. "At you, with your neatly parted hair and little blue blazer."
"I'm not wrong about things like this," she said.
Her apartment was narrow and long with a floor to ceiling window at one end and a steel sliding door at the other. The roof was very high and run with pipes and long-abandoned pulleys, and for lights there were canisters the size of dustbin lids with large glaring bulbs that you turned on and off by pulling on a rope. There was a knee-high refrigerator in one corner and a little gas stove with its own cylinder in another.
"This is quaint," I said.
"Quaint good or quaint bad?"
"Is this meant to be a place to live?" I asked. "I mean, are you supposed to be living here?"
She was taken aback.
"Of course I am," she said. "I have a landlord and everything. It used to be a warehouse where they kept stuff. Sometimes you can still smell the things that have been here. But of course it's an apartment."
I thought I may have offended her. She walked to the window and began to lift it.
"I didn't mean to criticize."
The air smelled vaguely of sawdust, that and seawater. It was all somehow familiar.
"My father had a warehouse like this in South Africa," I said. "He exported things to Europe and America."
"What kind of things?"
"Things," I said. "Cloves, ivory, wood, pepper."
"Does he still?" she asked.
"It became difficult with the boycotts," I said. "And he died last year."
"I'm sorry," she said. "Is your mother okay?"
"She's still in South Africa," I said. "She can't leave yet."
"She just can't."
"Sisters and brothers?"
"Just my sister, Bridget."
"What does she do, Bridget?" Tesseba asked.
"Bridget's in jail," I told her.
* * *
Whatever it is I have with Tesseba, whatever we started that day, it's almost twenty years now, the twenty years I have been an American, or in America, and Tesseba enters every measure I make of my years on this continent. Almost everything I have seen I have told, at one time or another, to her. It is her face that draws each of my days to a close. But even as we stand in the terminal waiting for the flight from London, the one that will bring my mother and her odious husband Arnold, I look across at her and wonder what it is that holds us together.
"They're late," she says.
"Maybe they missed the flight," I suggest.
"That's wishful thinking," she says. "Nobody's come out from London yet."
A woman pushes a trolley through the international arrivals door and Tesseba asks where she's coming from.
"Madrid," the woman says.
"What was the weather like?" Tesseba asks.
"Nice. Like here," the woman says.
Before I know it they're speaking Spanish, Tesseba and this woman, and I turn away. Tesseba's people are Spanish, or Catalan, she likes to say.
"It's not their flight," Tesseba confirms when the woman has moved on.
"I gathered that," I say.
"Are you annoyed about something?" Tesseba asks.
"Of course not," I say. "Should I be?"
"Don't play semantic games," she says. "Sometimes you get the look."
"Don't start, Tess," I say. "We've got a week filled with domestic debates ahead of us. We don't need to add our own."
"Don't you start either, you," she says.
We smile. It is impossible not to love Tesseba, I think.
The international arrivals doors open and out come my mother, Helga, and my stepfather, Arnold. Tesseba sees them first and gestures in their direction, and then I see them too. They're not hard to spot, of course, Helga with her inappropriately jet-black hair and excessive makeup, Arnold with his silver beard and monocle. He's also in a wheelchair for some reason and for a moment I feel concern. Not for him. For her.
But he looks exactly the same as usual and no one has said anything about an accident or an illness. The man is almost eighty but he can outwalk me. They're arguing, you can see from the agitated expression on my mother's face and her pursed lips, so involved in whatever it is they are bickering about that they forget even to look up and find us. But eventually Helga does and she sees me, and then she sees Tesseba. I can tell she is surprised. My mother has long since lost the ability to dissemble.
"Darling," she says extravagantly as they reach us. "How lovely of you to pick us up."
"I said I'd be here," I say.
"And Theresa," she adds. "What a nice surprise."
"It's Tesseba, Ma," I say.
It is no coincidence that the first words out of her mouth are bound to make Tesseba uneasy. I look across at Tesseba in her turquoise shirt and white canvas pants, at her long hair hanging in loose curls down her back. Her hair is threaded with silver now, not enough to change its chestnutty look but enough so that the silver strands stand out, reminders perhaps that she is no longer a girl.
"Hello Arnie," I say. "What's with the wheelchair?"
Almost in unison my mother and Arnold tell me to be quiet. There's a porter wheeling him and from the way they glance over at him there's something they don't want him to know. He's a black teenager with an earring.
"I can take you to the curb only," the boy says.
"That'll be fine," Arnold says.
He fishes extravagantly in his jacket for his wallet, pulls it out, and from a thick wad of notes peels off a single dollar bill.
"Thanks, kid," he says.
The boy is temporarily taken aback. He takes the dollar as if it were dirty and pushes Arnold across the terminal in silence.
"We'll go and get the car," I say.
"He can walk," my mother whispers irritably. "Why isn't Bridget here?"
"Leora had a gym meet," I say.
"Oh," my mother says. "I guess Tibor didn't want to go by himself."
There are a dozen ways I could respond but I say nothing. I made a vow with myself years ago that I would stop arguing with my mother. For the most part I have been able to keep it.
* * *
After my father died and we lost Gordonwood my mother moved with Baptie, the Zulu housemaid, to an apartment on the Durban beach-front and they lived there together, in their separate worlds but somehow dependent on each other, until Arnold came along. I know she was unhappy — I was here, Bridget was in London — but it has always been inexplicable to me how she could have married this man. Money isn't everything and never was to her before, but so far as I can see it's all Arnold has to offer, and his bombast is very difficult to take. He's going on now about a Bentley he used to own in Durban — I have no idea how he's come to the subject — and I'm only half tuned in until I realize it's a bridge, of sorts, to some other topic. He's been broadly hinting for weeks that a large part of the reason for their coming to Boston now is that there is something important he wants to discuss with me. He has refused to be more specific on the phone.
"I wonder where that Bentley is today?" he says. "Probably still going."
No one responds.
"Some African gentleman is probably reveling in its pleasures," he says with a sigh. "Along with everything else."
Helga can't resist taking the bait.
"Well, don't they deserve something too?" she demands. "Haven't they been shut out for long enough? I can imagine you'd have a thing or two to say if you were in their shoes."
"Mom's so excitable these days," Arnold says. "I keep telling her nothing's worth getting so heated up about, but she doesn't listen."
I cut my mother off before she can respond.
"Why were you in a wheelchair?" I ask.
He's walking quite normally beside me now, carrying an overnight bag in one hand and a walking stick under his arm.
"I'll tell you in a minute," he says. "But you must remind me later to tell you what arrangements I've made for you in Africa. It's critically important for Mom."
I don't know what he's talking about and I really don't want to know what it is that Arnold thinks he can do for any of us. He's filled with offers, my mother's second husband, but he never delivers on any of them. And when it comes to Africa there's something about it I guard, something private, something I want him to stay out of.
"Why the wheelchair?" I ask again.
"It's quite simple really," he says. "You call the airline and tell them you can't stand for more than a few minutes at a time, and they lay on a wheelchair for you. You should try it. When everyone else is standing around and waiting, you sit in comfort and then they wheel you right to your destination. I mean, you pay for it, you might as well get all the service you can."
"Except that it's not honest," my mother says to no one in particular.
"Mom disapproves," he continues, "but —"
"I do not," my mother interjects. "You do as you see fit. I only said —"
"I'm teaching your mother how to travel," Arnold interrupts. "For instance, she always packs far too much. I say, the difference between a tourist and a traveler is the amount of clothing they pack. When we left London —"
"I suppose you think I never traveled before I met you," Helga snaps.
"It's the little tips that make all the difference," Arnold continues. "Like ordering kosher food on the plane. It's always better, and usually served first. Mom ate all of her own and most of mine."
I notice with a strange sense of satisfaction that his cravat has come loose at the back and flaps about his neck like a flag.
"Will you cut your cackle," my mother says.
"Please," I say. "Will you both please."
"Mom just won't learn," Arnold says.
I see Helga clench her fists at her side, shake her shoulders in frustration.
At last we reach the car, Tesseba's new Mercedes, and she unlocks the doors and goes around to open the trunk. Just as she passes out of earshot my mother hisses: "You might have told us she would be here. We've brought nothing for her."
And Tesseba, in an instant of privacy as we close the suitcases in the trunk, asks: "Didn't you tell them?"
* * *
I sometimes wonder what Tesseba must think — really think in recesses of her mind she doesn't disclose to me — of this lumbering entourage.
Her family lives in Providence, her parents and two brothers and an extended collection of aunts and uncles, several grandparents, constantly drifting through a rambling clapboard house behind Brown University, where her father teaches. Her grandmother speaks no English and is hard of hearing, but Tesseba makes herself understood and when it comes to me Grandma's filled with handclasps and arm squeezes and knowing nods.
Excerpted from Empire Settings by David Schmahmann. Copyright © 2010 David Schmahmann. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Schmahmann was born in Durban, South Africa. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College and the Cornell Law School and has studied in India and Israel and worked in Burma. He practices law in Boston.
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