Chapter 1: A Christmastime Sleigh Ride
Eight people in the five-seat cab. Ibrahim and I in the front, and stacks of two, two, and two in the back. We are so fitted together by long practice, it is not the least bit strange.
Late December morning. West African hot, dusty, and Saharan dry. Our first time outside the apartment together in more than a month, we’ve all been waiting for the mountain road. No AC still, but now the air finally starts to slice through the three windows stuck down. The bullet holes* on the rear side whistling, as they must have done since the civil war. Maybe ‘92 or ‘93.
And now we’re all going to die.
I know this because Ibrahim has stopped singing. You see, he cut three demo songs some unknown years ago, and he always performs them on a perpetual loop. Not only to pass the time, but also to audition live. He’s still convinced that I can manage him to hip-hop superstar in America, no matter how many times I tell him that I’m a teacher, from central Ohio. As we approach the sharp bend ahead, now, he remains silent and focused on pumping the broken brakes off-beat.
Elissa knows this through what can only be a mother’s intuition, buried as she is among our daughters. I feel her fingers on my shoulder. I am here with you, they say, and I’m not going away.
None of the girls have got it figured out quite yet. They are still singing the song of Ibrahim they have long since memorized, streaming again as it is through his phone.
Feel de Gee nor kill de Gee / Ye, feel de Gee nor kill de Gee / Ye,...
One eye on his stomping foot and one on the back, I try to think of something.
But my brain is nothing but Nutella. If you don’t know it, imagine crystal meth for kids: sugar and palm oil (> 50%), hazelnut (13%), milk powder (8.7%), and cocoa powder (7.4%). 79% pure—no surprise, then, that the girls have been fiending for it hard, ever since our very first day on the road six months ago. So, when I finally heard rumors of it in a grocery store downtown, my gooey brain suggested that we make a day of it.
Too bad for us.
There’s no time now. Perhaps, there will be later. But, in this meantime, the car is riding hard into a curve. Mountain walls to the right and blind traffic to the left. More left, a valley favela with its lean-to’s sliding down, and then back up the other side, poverty packed tight enough to keep them all upright.
Feel de Gee nor kill de Gee / Yo, feel me on the mic / Feel me on the streets
Elissa and I don’t even try to speak. A kind of telepathy developed over innumerable rough roads—keep the kids calm. The taxi yanks to squeeze just between a resting bulldozer and an oncoming 4 x 4, and then around the rest of the backwards C.
The youngest two girls squeal in delight - WHEEEEEEEEEEE!!!
If I remember correctly, the next curve should be about two or three minutes down. But the taxi is picking up steam. Freer now than perhaps it’s ever been, screeching with new liberty.
But not of speech. I fight the G’s to turn my body around as best as I can. I start motioning to everyone in the backseat, like a monkey banging cymbals together for passing change. Until all the girls are finally leaning towards the center. Now, a family teepee. Across its middle entrance, I close a bar with my forearms, dead level with baby’s abdomen.
Hundreds of thousands of miles past. Tens of thousands of dollars passed. Thousands of daily safety checks. Hundreds of days without a home. Scores of corrupted officials. Dozens of foreign countries done. Handfuls of deadly diseases. A trio of thwarted thieves. One life-and-death rap battle with angry, well-armed mercenaries. And now goddamn Nutella’s going to be the thing to finish us off.
Something smacks the right side of my face and drops away - Ibrahim’s rastacap. I laugh deep inside. The curve can’t be much further now. But at least we’ll go down the mountain together. Even perhaps into the sea, depending on our speed. All of us. Some comfort then in unity.
Until I realize that the headline, if there is one, will undoubtedly and simply read:
TWO AMERICANS DEAD IN TRAFFIC ACCIDENT
And, for that, I will never forgive them.
* Asterisks will be used throughout to indicate holes: content holes, bullet holes, and/or assholes (as required).