The boom joined with a whishz, the unstable wheel jerking the heavy safari car to the right and into a deep ditch. Doug banged his head on the steering wheel, sending a line of his own blood flowing down to drip from the end of his nose. Flicking the key with an unsteady finger, he killed the racing engine and pivoted to Laura.
“I’m all right,” Laura said. “But you’re not.”
Doug looked in the rearview mirror. The cut was short but deep, and he wiped his forehead with a sleeve. Quickly searching for the first-aid kit, but finding only toilet paper, Doug stuck a wad on his forehead and eased out to inspect. The right front tire was flat, but he did have two spares. After circling the odd-angled car a number of times, Doug realized he would not be able to drive the car forward because it was high-centered, the ground and transmission jammed tight together.
“Laura, I can get us back on the road, but can’t say how long. You should take the waterbag and go sit under those trees over there.”
“I can help.”
The afternoon air was stifling hot and saturated with humidity.
Doug said, “I don’t need any help.”
And Laura didn’t need any more encouragement to get out of the sun. She grabbed the waterbag and hurried to the shade trees. She frumped down into a cooler place and tried to brush the road dust from her skin and clothing, but it clung to her, mixing with her grime to form a veneer similar to lead-based paint on cheap plywood.
Remembering what she could from a tourist brochure at the airport, Laura’s memory provided her with a means to pass the time. The famous missionary David Livingstone brought this part of Africa to the attention of England. A British businessman named Cecil Rhodes, a man who controlled the world’s diamonds and gold, created his own country, naming it Northern Rhodesia. Independence came on October 24, 1964, and the name changed to Zambia. Not able to recall any more, Laura decided to try a nap, but despite the shade, the heat was unbearable, and her attempt to sleep failed when a large dark fly worried her face. She tried to force the pest away with a burst of exhaled air from the corner of her mouth but only managed to puff her hair.
Doug found both spare tires, which required moving everything in the car, and the hydraulic jack. He began to sweat heavily as a late afternoon hangover arrived, souring his already foul never-one-liking-an-argument mood. A small man with a goat on a rope walked up the road and stopped to watch. Doug did not break from his labors, pushing to get back on the road, but he knew to be polite.
Doug’s hand slipped, opening a gash on two knuckles. “Good afternoon,” he said as he licked the blood from the back of his finger.
“Good afternoon,” the Zambian man with the goat said. He stared at the white man, with toilet paper on his forehead and bleeding knuckles, trying to change a flat tire on a car wedged into a roadside ditch.
“How are you?” Doug asked.
“I am fine. How are you?”
“I am fine, thank you.” Doug paused. “Do you know if this road leads south?”
Doug tried a smile as he dug with the small camp shovel to create a flat surface on the engine side of the flat tire. On this surface, he placed one of the spares, and then placed two boards from the rear floor of the safari car on top of the spare. Now he was ready with the jack. He took his time knowing the car could tip, and if it did, it would kill him.
A large audience gathered. In addition to the man with the goat were four children with one soccer ball, a woman with a baby, and two full-grown men. Doug greeted each in the Zambian fashion as he, or she, arrived.
Standing to the side and keeping his fingers crossed, Doug eased the flat tire off the lugs and, slow as you pretty please, slid a good tire on. The new tire just cleared the boards and spare platform, which gave Doug another idea as he tightened the lugs. Instead of placing the flat back in the car, he placed it in front of the right front, ahead of the wheel. Using the boards to gain elevation, he should be able to drive forward and then straddle the ditch. Downhill in about fifty yards, in the direction where Percy’s car had disappeared hours ago, there appeared to be a place where he might be able to get all four tires back on the road.
Doug eased behind the steering wheel and wiped his forehead with his forearm. The toilet paper, which he had forgotten, slipped away, causing his head to bleed again. The car started without complaint.
After a glance at his audience, who were all frozen in rapt attention, Doug said, “Here we go.”
Doug shifted the car into first and edged forward. The car lurched off the jack onto the flat spare tire, nothing slipped, everything held.
He jumped out, positioning the first spare with the boards on a line to the far high side of the ditch, and tossed the jack in the back then stuck more toilet paper on his forehead. He got in and eased the heavy car forward. The undercarriage complained, but the car made it up to straddle the ditch. Doug retrieved both spares and his boards, while the crowd remained spellbound. Taking his time on the soft roadside, working the car ahead, the fifty yards slowly gave ground until he was back on the road. The crowd followed and gathered as Doug circled the rental car looking for any damage.
The man with the goat stepped forward. He tapped Doug on the arm. “Next time you will find it easier to change a spare tire if you keep your car on the road.”
Doug smiled at the man and said, “Thank you, I will.”
Doug waved to Laura. When she came up, he noted how frazzled she looked.
“Are we ready?” Laura asked, her head bobbing back and forth on her neck while she spoke.
“Get in,” Doug said.
“No, don’t ask. I feel much better. I even attempted a quick nap, but really couldn’t, because a large, dark fly kept trying to crawl under my eyelid.”
Doug grunted a reply as they took their seats. After a wave to the crowd, the open safari car sped down the road, and the swirling air rapidly dried Doug’s sweat-soaked shirt and skin. Parched, the driver found and drained a water bottle.
Laura had more and said, “While you were playing with the car, I sat in the shade and do you know what I saw…a big black beetle rolling a big brown ball of poop across impossible rocky ground under this sweltering sun.”
“You should let me look at your head. I’m an EMT.”
“So am I.”
“Douglas Daniel Thompson. It took a long time to get here so I could be with you. I’m speaking to you.”
Doug cocked an eye to Laura, but not an ear.
“I want to go home as soon as possible, and I want you to go with me.”
“This is my big chance,” he said.
“Well, this is our big chance. You have your tenure. We have our home, and I have my career. Now, out of nowhere, you decide to do field research in Africa. I’ve never heard you speak about Africa. This is about Tom, isn’t it? You’re still jealous of him and his research and his success.”
“Tommy was a long time ago.” Doug could not tell from a glance if Laura was about to cry or clobber him. “The chance to do field research came up, and I had to decide or lose the chance,” he said in an exhausted-angry yet even voice. “I will only be gone for six months. I keep my position, and we keep the house. Your career has never been in jeopardy.” He tried to wipe some of the sweat-crusted dust from his face, only to succeed in starting the forehead blood flow again.
“What am I supposed to do for six months?”
“I can’t turn back now, and you know it. What about your job? Your career? Who’s taking care of the house and your—”
Laura interrupted before he could finish. “Doug, I read your emails. I don’t believe you when you say it will be six months. I want you to come home with me.”
“It is only six months, I promise.”
“How do I know?”
“Zambia controls all the wildlife research within her borders, and my permit is for six months. There is no chance of extension. No one has ever studied sitatunga in the wild and mine would be the ground-breaking work.”
“I heard your permit was in trouble.”
He shot a sharp glance at her then sighed. “Where did you see Tommy?”
Laura hesitated. “We met after you left. We had coffee. I won’t lie to you, he wants me back.”
“You never told me why you two split.”
“That has nothing to do with this.”
Laura paused, the earth, sky and trees jarred by, and the engine growled, pushing them farther south. She tasted bitterness on her tongue. “Tom was never going to be home, and I realized he would never change. He left me waiting. Now you have changed, and I am scared you are never coming home. I am afraid of being alone.”