For Free
    Brian Cooper
It's morning at the Tumaini Hotel, in the Westlands of Nairobi. The hotel's owner, Jim, is getting ready to face the day. It shouldn't take too long. He'll use the toilet downstairs in the lobby. After breakfast, he'll ask one of the girls to bring up a bucket of hot water so he can bathe. His son, Mickey, is fast asleep on the other bed. Really, all he needs to do is dress. The clothes he wore yesterday are hanging over a chair. He puts them on.

A city has grown up on the desk opposite the bed. Hair spray, shampoo, mouthwash, Smirnoff, Bond 7 Whiskey, one or two Tuskers, one or two sodas, three or four empties to return for deposit, all lined up at the back of the desk and next to the mirror, these twinned towers are the glistening heart of downtown. To the east, a biscuit canister and a hair dryer dominate the industrial area, where the boxes and packets of Mickey's crackers and snacks house smaller operations. To the west, Ruth's perfume bottles and her jewelry box are landmarks for the urban elite. Between them, the shanty-towns of empty wrappers, a crumpled cigarette packet, keys, stacked coins, scraps of paper, pens, and Jim's battered old watch allow squatters' space for the overlooked masses. The plate holding an empty mango skin was once a nice park, but now's just a place to go and get mugged. On the edge of the desk, Mickey's toy cars ride the highway that skirts the city altogether, returning NGO workers to their gated compounds, nestled in the rolling hills of folded clothes on the counters on either side of the desk.

Standing above the city on the desk, Jim imagines Godzilla, raises his hand to sweep it all onto the floor. Instead, he only guts the slums, throwing some items into the wastebasket, and shoving others into his pockets. He puts on his watch, and takes away the plate with the mango skin.

He opens the door. Ruth is there, asleep, legs sprawled out, but wearing jeans instead of a skirt this time. He prods her with his foot.

She groans.

"Get up," he says, "it's morning."

She laughs, says something in Kikamba, and turns over.

He prods her again, harder. "You don't need to make a show for the guests. Get in the room."

She mumbles something about her mother and father.

"Come on!" He seizes her under the arms to drag her into the room, straining under her dead weight. He gives her a good kick in the middle of the back. She stiffens and starts to stand; he pulls her backwards and she stumbles, landing well inside the room.

Mickey is awake, and standing on his bed.

Jim shakes his head and walks out, closing the door behind him.

From across the river, Mwangi watches the bulldozers destroy his home. He's smiling; he carried his radio with him this morning and now he'll have a chance to rebuild on higher ground. It takes seconds to demolish his little place; within a few minutes, the bulldozers have taken down all the shanties on his row. The other residents watch from a short distance.

He has his radio on now and waits for the end of the song, singing along with Jennifer Lopez, "If you had my love . . ." Someone, probably Peter, will get his poster, but that is okay, he has put his faith in the Lord and knows that he will not be disappointed. It is a beautiful morning, a little cloudy, but getting brighter. His belly is still warm with chai. "If you had my love . . ." The music fades away; he turns off his radio and turns his steps toward the City Centre.

He buys a crate of sodas, wholesale and no deposit because the guy is his friend. He doesn't drink one himself for good luck because there is no such thing, but just starts walking. In the morning, he works outside the Hilton, because he has learned that the Americans, they drink sodas in the mornings. They do not like chai. They only like coffee, but also sodas. Especially Coke. Diet Coke even more, but they don't understand why it costs more and so, he doesn't sell.

This morning, there must be some kind of problem. No one is buying. Is he invisible? No, he can see himself. That is his arm, with the pink scars from the matatu accident. And that is his other arm, just brown. Not even a dark brown, just a little darker than the arms of Jennifer Lopez, just a little darker because he is a man. He is singing again, but it's not the same without her singing behind him. He wanders away from the hotel. Today is a sunny day, but there is a cloud over the Hilton. Mwangi shivers.

He will follow the Lord. He will walk down to the Westlands bus stop. He will walk in the light.

"Hey, jambo, white man! Why not take one soda?"

"No. Hapana."

"Hapana? Kwa nini hapana?"

"Just go away. Enda."

"Enda? Enda wapi? Why not open the business for me and then I go."

"No. Forget it."

"You like soda?"


"You don't like, oh. Kids?"

"Kids- ow! Shit! I hate this place, shit all over the sidewalk. Ow!"

"Pole. Sorry, sorry. Take soda and feel better."

"No, I'm fine. I don't need any soda."

"You don't need? Why not buy sodas for the kids?"

"I don't have kids."

"Oh, pole Bwana."

"I have a kid."

"So take one soda for him. One kid, one soda. Boy or girl?"

"Will you ever give up? Look at all these people walking by. Maybe some of them want sodas."

"Which ones?"

"I don't know! That's your job. You're the one selling sodas."

"Just take. One. For free. Take it for free. If you just take one soda to open the business I know I am having a great day. Just one will make me so happy."

"I don't care about making you happy."

"Oh, Bwana. You take. For free. Which one will you take? Drink, enjoy, give back the bottle."

"These aren't even cold."

"Try this one. You like cold? Try this one."

"That's not cold either."

"Okay, the bottle it's not cold, but inside the bottle, that is cold. Try; just try. I open for you."


"Okay, you try. You try. And you like?"

"Sure, I guess, I mean it's just soda."

"Oh, but I see you are drinking very fast. It is good soda."

"It's just soda."

"So you drink that one and then buy another."


"To take home for your kid. Boy or girl is it?"

"I don't want any more soda! Here."

"No, you finish first."

"No, I've had enough; leave me alone!"

"Easy, Bwana, careful."

"Take it!"

"The road, the road, Bwana."

"I know about the road, just take…"

"No, no! Chunga!"



Ruth knocked the cockroach off the vodka bottle with a horsehair fly-swatter; before it could get up again, Mickey, making a loud honking noise, ran it over with one of his toy cars.

A large crowd gathered to see the white man sprawled out and Mwangi sold the rest of his sodas. Someone suggested calling an ambulance. Then someone suggested pulling the driver down from the lorry and stoning him. There were no large stones available, but, as a young man wearing a red cap pointed out, many of them did have soda bottles. Mwangi congratulated himself for having anticipated this idea- he had taken a deposit of 10 shillings per bottle. After everyone, even the young man in the red cap had returned their bottles, Mwangi went on his way. He would return the empties, pay his friend for the one bottle that the white man had been carrying, buy a new case, and then maybe go to the Westlands, get some business from tired tourists returning to their hotel from the mall.

Doing brisk sales in the Westlands, Mwangi didn't begin his return home until many hours after dark. The City Centre was empty but for askaris and little boys sniffing glue. One of the boys followed him for three blocks, taunting him in Gikuyu. Finally, Mwangi gave the boy his last remaining soda. By the time he arrived home, all of the best spots were taken, and he had to rebuild his house right where it had been before, in the area that floods. Thinking he had been killed by the bulldozer, his neighbors had passed over the ruins of his shack when scavenging for building materials, and so Mwangi had no trouble putting everything back together just as it was before. Even his poster was still there, except Jennifer Lopez's feet had been torn off, a shame because she was a very good dancer.

Falling asleep, Mwangi did not forget to thank the Lord for his blessings that day, remembering that white man who died with a free soda in his hand.

Brian Cooper is working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nakuru, Kenya. He is presently writing a novel and has previously placed stories with *EWGPresenets* and *Street Corner*.


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