The Pickup

A Novel

Nadine Gordimer

Picador

Clustered predators round a kill. It's a small car with a young woman inside it. The battery has failed and taxis, cars, minibuses, vans, motorcycles butt and challenge one another, reproach and curse her, a traffic mob mounting its own confusion. Get going. Stupid bloody woman. Idikazana lomlungu, le! She throws up hands, palms open, in surrender. They continue to jostle and blare their impatience. She gets out of her car and faces them. One of the unemployed black men who beg by waving vehicles into parking bays sidles his way deftly through fenders, signals with his head--Oka-ay, Oka-ay go inside, go!--and mimes control of the steering wheel. Another like him appears, and they push her and her car into a loading bay. The street hustles on. They stand, looking musingly beyond her while she fumbles for her purse. An expert's quick glance at what she has put in his hand assures the street boss that it is more than adequate. She doesn't know how to thank them enough, etc. He hitches his body to get the money stowed in trousers cut to fit somebody else and smiles with his attention on the lookout for the next vehicle seeking a place to park. A woman wearing a towel as a shawl, enthroned on a fruit-box before her stock of hair combs, razor blades, pumice stones, woollen caps and headache powders, yells out to him what must be a teasing remark in a language the young woman doesn't understand.


There. You've seen. I've seen. The gesture. A woman in a traffic jam among those that are everyday in the city, any city. You won't remember it, you won't know who she is.

But I know because from the sight of her I'll find out--as a story--what was going to happen as the consequence of that commonplace embarrassment on the streets; where it was heading her for, and what. Her hands thrown up, open.


The young woman was down in a thoroughfare, a bazaar of all that the city had not been allowed to be by the laws and traditions of her parents' generation. Breaking up in bars and cafes the inhibitions of the past has always been the work of the young, haphazard and selectively tolerant. She was on her way to where she would habitually meet, without arrangement, friends and friends of friends, whoever turned up. The L.A. Café. Maybe most people in the street throngs didn't know the capitals stood for Los Angeles; saw them as some short version of the name of a proprietor, as the old-style Greek corner shop would carry the name of Stavros or Kimon. EL-AY. Whoever owned the café thought the chosen name offered the inspiration of an imagined life-style to habitués, matching it with their own; probably he confused Los Angeles with San Francisco. The name of his café was a statement. A place for the young; but also one where old survivors of the quarter's past, ageing Hippies and Leftist Jews, grandfathers and grandmothers of the 1920s immigration who had not become prosperous bourgeois, could sit over a single coffee. Crazed peasants wandered from the rural areas gabbled and begged in the gutters outside. Hair from a barber's pavement booth blew the human felt of African hair onto the terrace. Prostitutes from Congo and Senegal sat at tables with the confidence of beauty queens.

Hi Julie--as usual, beckoned. Her welcomers saw a graceful neck and face, naturally pale, reddened with emotion of some sort. Black and white, they fussed about her: Hi Julie, relax, what's up with you. There were two of her friends from university days, a journalist out of work who house-sat for absent owners, a couple who painted banners for rallies and pop concerts. There was indignation: this city. What shits.

--All they care about is getting there . . . --

And where is it they think they're getting to--this from the hanger-on with a shining bald pate and a cape of grey locks falling from behind his ears; still unpublished but recognized from childhood as a poet and philosopher, by his mother.

--Nothing gives a white male more of a kick than humiliating a woman driver.--

--Sexual stimulant for yahoos--

--Someone else shouted something . . . like Idikaza . . . mlungu . . . What's that, `white bitch', isn't it?--Her question to the black friend.

--Well, just about as bad. This city, man!--

--But it was black men who helped me, of course.--

--Oh come on--for a hand-out!--


Her friends knew of a garage in the next street. With a wave from the wrist she left them to take the necessary practical step.

She feels hot gassy breath. Steel snouts and flashing teeth-grilles at her face. Inside her something struggles against them. Her heart summons her like a fist under her ribs, gasps rise within her up to her collar-bones. She is walking along the street, that's all, it's nothing. Walking round a block to a garage. It's nothing, it was nothing, it's over. Shudder. A traffic jam.

There's the garage, as they said. As she walked in she saw its ordinariness, a landing on normality: vehicles as helpless, harmless victims upon hydraulic lifts, tools on benches, water dispenser, plastic cups and take-away food boxes, radio chattering, a man lying on his back half-under the belly of a car. There were two others preoccupied at some noisy machinery and they signalled her over to him. The legs and lower body wriggled down at the sound of her apologetic voice and the man emerged. He was young, in his greasy work-clothes, long hands oil-slicked at the dangle from long arms; he wasn't one of them--the white man speaking Afrikaans to the black man at the machine--but glossy dark-haired with black eyes blueish-shadowed. He listened to her without any reassuring attention or remark. She waited a moment in his silence.

So could you send someone to have a look . . . the car's round the corner.

He stared at his hands. Just a minute while I clean up.

He carried a bulky handleless bag with a new battery and tools and it was awkward to walk beside him through the streets with people dodging around them, but she did not like to walk ahead of the garage man as if he were some sort of servant. In silence, he got the car going and drove back to the workshop with her as his passenger.

There's still some--I don't know--in the ignition. Your car will stall again, I think.

Then I'd better leave it with you. I suppose it needs a general service, anyway.

When was the last time?

She was culpable, smiling, I don't remember.

How long?

I suppose I just drive until something goes wrong.

He nodded slowly, did not speak: of course, that's your way.

I'll give a call to find out when it's ready--you're Mr . . . ?

Ask for Abdu.


She allowed the garage two or three days to do whatever was needed. When she called and asked by name for the mechanic who had taken charge of her car she was told he was out but it was certain the car was still under repair. This didn't matter, there was her father's third car at her disposal, a handsome old Rover he'd bought at a Sotheby's auction and had refurbished, then seldom used. It was a car from The Suburbs, of a kind that wouldn't be ventured down in the quarter of the EL-AY Café When it was parked there under the admiring care of a well-tipped street man, people stood around to gaze at it, a denizen from another world, affluence as distant as space. She was not over-concerned that it would be stolen--it was too unique to be easy to get away with undetected, and too grandly obsolete to be a profitable source of parts, if broken up. She was only uncomfortable at the idea of its exposure--and hers, as its family occupant--before her friends. She did not live in The Suburbs, where she had grown up, but in a series of backyard cottages adapted from servants' quarters or in modest apartments of the kind they favoured, or had to, being unable to afford anything better. On the Sunday when she came to dose on therapeutic mineral water and coffee with the friends after a night at a club in Soweto where one of them was blowing the trumpet, she found three happy children and a baby in arms sitting on the gleaming bonnet and playing with the silver statuette of Mercury that was its figurehead. Her father just might have been amused by this new game on his vintage plaything, but she did not relate it because it wouldn't do to reveal to his young wife that the car was being driven around in unsuitable places--that one was vigilant in protection of his possessions.

In the week that followed--she had not yet bothered to call the garage again--when she got out of her father's car there was the mechanic, in the street, turned looking at it.

That's a car . . . Excuse me. As if he had accosted someone he did not know.

It's not mine! She claimed her identity: I'd like to have my own old one back! And laughed.

He seemed to recall who this was among clients under whose vehicles' bellies he lay. Oh yes--. Ready by Thursday. They have to get a distributor from the agent.

He was looking at the Rover from another angle. How old? What is the model?

I've really no idea. It's borrowed, I don't own it, that's for sure.

I never saw one before--only in a photo.

They used to be made in England ages ago, before either of us was born. You love cars? Even though you work with their insides all day?

'Love'--I don't say. That is something different. It's just it's beautiful (his long hand rose towards his face and opened, to the car). Many things can be beautiful.

And mine certainly isn't. What else's wrong apart from the whatever-it-is you have to get from the agent? Sounds as if it's going to be a major overhaul.

Why do you keep it. You should buy a new car.

He was turned from her, again looking at the Rover: the evidence gathered that she could afford to.

She lobbed the accusation back to him. Why should I when you can get it going again for me?

He screwed his eyes, very liquid-black in the sun, authoritative. Because it can be a danger for you to drive. Something can fail that can kill you. I can't see (he seemed to reject a word, probably that came to him from another language--he paused uncertainly)--know to stop that, in my work.

And if I were driving a new car, someone else on the road could fail in some way, and that could kill me--so?

That would be your fate, but you would not have--what do I say--looked for it.

Fate.

She was amused: Is there such a thing? Do I believe in it. You do, then.

To be open to encounters--that was what she and her friends believed, anyway, as part of making the worth of their lives. Why don't we have coffee--if you're free?

I'm on lunch. He pulled down the corners of his mouth undecidedly, then smiled for the first time. It was the glimpse of something attractive withheld in the man, escaped now in the image of good teeth set off by clearly delineated lips under a moustache black as his eyes. Most likely of Indian or Cape Malay background; like her, a local of this country in which they were born descendant of immigrants in one era or another--in her case from Suffolk and County Cork, as in his from Gujerat or the East Indies.

EL-AY Café.

The friends probably at their usual table inside. She didn't look, and made for a corner of the terrace.

In casual encounters people--men and women, yes, avoiding any other subject that may be misunderstood, compromising--tell each other what they do: which means what work is theirs, not how they engage their being in other ways. A big word had been brought up from what was withheld in this man--`fate'--but it was simple to evade its intimate implications of belief, after all, steer these to the public subject: the occupations by which she, driver of the Rover (even if, as she insisted, it was borrowed), just as he, his place the underbelly of other people's vehicles, gained her bread. Whatever his ancestry, as a local of the same generation they'd share the understanding of `bread' as money rather than a loaf. Nevertheless she found herself speaking rather shyly, respectful of the obvious differences in `fate' between them: she in her father's (having lied by omission about this) Rover, he trapped beneath her small jalopy.

What I do, what you do. That's about the only subject available.

I don't know how exactly these things work out. I wanted to be a lawyer, really, I had these great ambitions when I was at school -- there was a lawyer aunt in the family, I once went to hear her cross-examine in that wonderful black pleated gown and white bib. But with various other things on the way ... I quit law after only two years. Then it was languages ... and somehow I've landed up working as a PRO and fundraiser, benefit dinners, celebrity concerts, visiting pop groups. Everyone says oh great, you must meet such famous people -- but you also meet some awful people and you have to be nice to them. Sycophantic. I won't stick to it for long. She stopped short of: I don't know what I want to do, if that means what I want to be. That was a lead into the confessional, even if the ethic were to be open with strangers.

It's good money, isn't it?

Commission. Depends what I bring in.

He drank the coffee evenly in swallows and pauses, as if this were a measured process. Perhaps he wasn't going to speak again: it was patronizing, after all, this making free encounters out of other people's lives, a show of your conviction of their equal worth, interest, catching the garage mechanic in the net, EL-AY Café When he had taken a last swallow and put down the cup he'd get up and say thank you and go -- so she had to think of something to say, quickly, to mend, justify, the pickup.

What about you?

It was the wrong thing--there! She'd done it, it came out god-awful as Showing Interest, and she thought she heard him take a breath in order to deal with it, with her; but he only put out his hand for the sugar-bowl, she hastened to hand it to him, he helped himself to another spoonful for the dregs in his cup. He would keep silent if he wanted to, he could speak if he wished, it wasn't up to her.

Many things, different countries.

Perhaps that's the way.

It is if they don't want you, say it's not your country. You have no country.

Isn't this our country. That's a statement, from her.

For you.

Oh I thought you were--like me--this's home, but it's good to get out of it. I was in America for a year--some other country would have been a better idea, for me.

I go where they'll let me in.

And from . . . She was tentative. It couldn't be avoided now.

He named a country she had barely heard of. One of those partitioned by colonial powers on their departure, or seceded from federations cobbled together to fill vacuums of powerlessness against the regrouping of those old colonial powers under acronyms that still brand-name the world for themselves. One of those countries where you can't tell religion apart from politics, their forms of persecution from the persecution of poverty, as the reason for getting out and going wherever they'll let you in.

Things were bad there. Not really knowing what she was talking about.

Were, are.

But you're all right, here? Are you?

Now he neatly replaced cup in saucer, placed spoon, and did get up to leave.

Thank you. I have to go back to work.

She stood up, too. Thursday?

Better if you call before you come. Thursday.
 
Excerpted from The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer.
Copyright 2001 by Felix Licensing, B.V..
Published in First edition, 2001 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.