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  • He said he came back last night. We’d gone out after five to look for him but the streets were empty.

    You had written me at work to say you’d seen him Thursday. You told him to come back in the evening and we’d help. And your anger spilled out in the email, that this boy, this lost boy, should be so ignored and no one to stop and reach out a hand. Where was the humanity that a boy, somebody’s son, should be so desperate and forlorn. You said people told you it was a scam but you’d seen his eyes and you knew. You knew, you said. So we went out at 5 to look but the street was empty and we went back in. I went out to get pizza later and looked again but the night before the Easter weekend the town empties out and the neighborhood was quiet and dark.

    Today, at the edge of dark, I came back from a walk and you were standing in front of the garage with him.

    Ben, you said, this is Ivan.

    Good to meet you sir, he said and I shook his hand and said hello.

    His hands were rough and though he was a boy these were not boy hands. These were working man hands. Just a school boy really in baggy purple sweat pants and a heavy, rough sweater over his shirt wearing all that he owned for clothes and the rest of his possessions in the bottom of grocery store sakkie.

    He said he cried and called and waited the night before and I watched it break your heart when he said it happened that way a lot. People said they’d be there and to come back and he did and they didn’t show. And he cried then, three weeks into the same set of clothes, a scrap of a breadroll in a crumple of plastic wrap for sustenance and bugger all for comfort. He’d come north to Gauteng to get work. He had been down in Port Elizabeth doing piece work, working in peoples’ gardens, doing odd jobs for 100 Rands a day. 10 of Uncle Sam’s bucks if you want to do the math. He’d been promised an apprenticeship, a place to live, food and wages. Just pay a fee and got himself up to Pretoria. So he’d paid up and got a bus ticket. He arrived to find it was too good to be true, another mirage in a life as empty of hope as a desert. He’d fallen asleep somewhere woken to find what little he did have gone and his ID with it. No money, no ID.

    He just wanted to go home. For 400 Rands, $40, he could buy a ticket on the “black bus”. All the regular bus lines require an ID to purchase a ticket but the black bus is a cash only deal. Just a few hundred Rands to join the undocumented, the shifting restless tide of humanity who need to get from A to B. So easy to separate the wheat from the chaff, so easy to keep the better halves neatly in their places. It’s economics. No discrimination, clean of bias, pure economics. Pure, ruthless economics.

    He said he had 5 Rands towards a ticket home and he wanted to go home he said. Just a boy, on his way home.

    And what is home? you asked.

    He never mentioned a mother. His father died a year ago. An alcoholic aunty and uncle. Home was a room in a shelter. If he got back within 6 weeks they’d keep it for him, if not, well he was like family, he said, they'd let him sleep in the storeroom. Home.

    The black bus leaves the downtown station at 1:00. The driver told him if he bought him a cool drink he could sit near the front. The back of the bus is no place for a boy, no place for a kid. He didn’t know how to ask for what he needed, he just needed. You looked at me and I looked back.

    “We’ll get you there, I said.

    It was 7 then and just getting dark. You asked if he had anywhere to go until we’d take him to the station. I gave him enough money to order a meal at the restaurant around the corner and we said we’d pick him up to go to the bus station at midnight.

    We’re moving so I went through my closet and filled him a bag of clothes, a towel, a blanket, something warm cause winter is coming to the Southern Hemisphere.

    And at midnight, just on the stroke of midnight we drove down to pick him up and start his trip home.

    He was sleeping in the grass and dust on the side of the road when we drove down. The last patrons were lingering over smokes and a meal at the restaurant but he said he needed to lie down after all the food in his stomach. He saw me step into the light to look for him and we set off for the station.

    The station was locked down for the night hours ago. Hooded security guards walked slowly through eyeing the few odd passengers wrapped in bright Disney blankets, sleeping on the benches, a radio played, taxi drivers smoked and waited, like fishermen, for the human tide to turn. We walked to the train station just in case. One door was open, but it was deserted and echoing. The formerly grand ceiling and tiles now just a hollow shell, the turnstiles chained and the tracks empty.

    He unpacked the red bag I’d filled for him. Held up each shirt. Held each pair of pants against his, noted the polo necks, the warm jerseys, the socks, unfolded and looked over each pair of boxers. Nodding and smiling.

    Is it allright if I change, he asked.

    You smiled at his pleasure and he went off to the toilets to change.

    He returned and dropped his old clothes in the bin. Toweled off his hair, straightened his shirt and adjusted the pants in a ticket office window.

    We sat on the curb and waited. No one knew when the black bus would come through. Some said it didn’t exist, some said 3, others 5.

    A security guard stopped and eyed us for a long silent moment. Is this your son, he asked.

    It was easiest to say yes.

    Is there a bus tonight for the Cape, we asked.

    A bus? He replied. The bus is here at 8 in the morning. And looked another long moment at the three of us sitting on the curb, facing the empty street.

    He didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to go back to the house and return in the morning. He had money now, he knew his bus would come, he said. He just wanted to be on his bus and on his way home.

    Go home Uncle Ben, he told me. I’ll call you in the morning. And then, looked at me quick, you will answer won’t you.

    I nodded.

    I’ll be fine Aunty Megan, he told you. I won’t fall asleep.

    We left him then, he said he’d call if he got a bus. If not I would pick him up and take him to get a temporary ID then see him on a bus.

    We drove through the restless, uneasy, late night streets to make sure I would know where Home Affairs was. Other cars drove through the red lights. I waited at each intersection and so we made our way home.

    We were both up early and you up past 3, letting go of the deep well of agitation, the wish and the want to do against such an implacable empty sea that is our regard for those we call others.

    Just at 8, as I was readying to drive back to the station, he called.

    I am on my bus, he said. And thank you for al that you did and tell Aunty Megan not to worry.

    She’s here, I told him. And she’s smiling to know you are on your way home.

    Goodbye Uncle Ben, he said. I’ll call when I get home.

    Goodbye and keep well, I said. But in my heart I said, go well my son.
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