I met Tesseba on a bus in Boston in 1978. She's the sort that peers
over your shoulder when you're reading and makes some uninvited
comment, and that's exactly how it happened. For a moment you
resent the intrusion and sometimes you brush it away but sometimes
you don't, depending on your mood. I've seen it replayed dozens of
times since then, on airplanes and park benches and in waiting
rooms. Tesseba has a disarming manner, which is why she gets away
with it -- that and a gamin face which is both mournful and exotic,
and draws you to her.
So she leaned over and asked what I was examining so intently, and
then one thing led to another. I was examining the difference
between life and death. But how could I describe that to her?
It was wintertime and whether an almanac would confirm that it was
especially cold that winter or not I don't know, but to me it was
as cold as death itself.
"What are those?" she asked.
"They look intimidating."
"They are, rather."
"What accent is that?"
Only a month, and already the question made me wary. What started
as a casual inquiry always invited a comment after it had been
answered, an opinion, a probing to see where I stood, to see if I
passed some sort of muster. And most people knew so little.
"South African," I said and looked out the window.
The wind could lift the snow up, I'd learned, twirl it, sweep it
against your skin.
"Is that where you're from?" Tesseba asked.
"It's an American word."
"I know that," I said.
"How long have you been here?" she asked.
And so Tesseba and I were on our way.
Even if it was not the coldest winter on record, what made it bone
chilling was how unprepared for it I was. It hadn't been that many
weeks before, after all, that I had been standing at the great
picture window overlooking Gordonwood's swimming pool, watching the
awnings flap, the leaves blowing across the patio, the goldenrod
sending showers of orange buds over the grass. Death was
everywhere, blood still on the walls almost, all life at a
It's where my thoughts were when Tesseba interrupted them.
Tesseba has stayed with me for all these years, through thick and
thin, or, more appropriately, through thin and thick. I'm not
really wealthy now but when I met her I had nothing, not even a
proper winter coat or insulated boots. Melted snow would creep in
around the edges of my soles and squeeze about in my socks for
hours until I was able to take them off. I had never seen anything
like it. In Africa people didn't stow themselves in insulated rooms
waiting for a thaw, the air was warm and moist, you feared snakes,
perhaps, drunks, runaway buses, a rabid monkey taunting with acorns
and squeals, but not the air itself, snaps of wind so sudden they
made you gasp. In Africa you could make mistakes, missteps, somehow
muddle through, but in Boston if you made a mistake you could die,
freeze to death or worse, fall without any hope of being stopped or
Tesseba had a strange little loft apartment in the middle of
nowhere when I met her. Even today I don't know what the area's
called. You go over a bridge and across an expanse of warped
asphalt and then you come upon a scrabbly hodgepodge of half-used
warehouses and half-filled tenements. A number of artists lived in
the warehouses, and Tesseba was one of them. I think her rent was
thirty-five dollars a month. It sounded almost as cheap then as it
"What are those forms?" she asked on the bus.
"Asylum papers," I said.
"What sort of asylum?"
I knew what she was thinking, toyed for a moment with the prospect
of leading her on, letting her think I was some kind of lunatic.
But it wouldn't have worked. Alongside her picture in a Providence
high school yearbook - straight hair, smooth skin, closed-mouth
smile - is the entry: "Semper Fidelis." Knowing Tesseba now I don't
think it would have changed how she regarded me.
"Political asylum," I said.
"Wow," she said. "Were you a political prisoner?"
"Is that one of the ways you could get to stay here?"
"Yes," I said. "I just came from a legal aid center."
"Is it hard to get?"
"Is it the only way?"
"The other way is to marry an American," I said.
I know as I look back on it that I said it with a touch of
mischief, an edge.
"I'd marry you," she volunteered.
"You don't even know me," I said.
"I know enough," she said. "Not marry marry. Just marry. Maybe
marry marry. I don't know about that."
It's peculiar, really, how after an exchange like that nothing is
barred even as it was one of those conversations that could also
have ended in nothing. We could have reached her stop and she could
have stood up and left the bus and we could never have seen each
other again, the whole exchange nothing more than an odd moment,
something on the margins of memory. But instead when we reached her
stop I got off with her and we walked, without commenting on what
we were doing, down the barren street and across the lot to her
"Do you want to come up?" she asked.
"Sure," I said.
"Where do you live?"
"At the Y," I told her. "I'm hoping to get a place when things are
"You could stay here, if you wanted," she offered.
I looked up at the building with its dirty brick face, boarded
windows, rusting fire escape.
"How can you make an offer like that?" I asked. "You only just met
me and you're making all sorts of offers. I could be anything.
Somebody who really needs an asylum."
"Sure," she said. "But you aren't."
"How do you know?"
"Am I wrong?"
"No," I said. "But you could be."
"Have you looked at yourself in a mirror lately?" she asked.
She took my hand and led me to a window beside the building's
I saw myself and then next to me a dark, pretty girl wearing blue
jeans and boots, a coarse woolen scarf wrapped around her neck, a
heavy blue jacket. Behind us were parked cars.
"Not at me," she said. "At you, with your neatly parted hair and
little blue blazer."
"I'm not wrong about things like this," she said.
Her apartment was narrow and long with a floor to ceiling window at
one end and a steel sliding door at the other. The roof was very
high and run with pipes and long-abandoned pulleys, and for lights
there were canisters the size of dustbin lids with large glaring
bulbs that you turned on and off by pulling on a rope. There was a
knee-high refrigerator in one corner and a little gas stove with
its own cylinder in another.
"This is quaint," I said.
"Quaint good or quaint bad?"
"Is this meant to be a place to live?" I asked. "I mean, are you
supposed to be living here?"
She was taken aback.
"Of course I am," she said. "I have a landlord and everything. It
used to be a warehouse where they kept stuff. Sometimes you can
still smell the things that have been here. But of course it's an
I thought I may have offended her. She walked to the window and
began to lift it.
"I didn't mean to criticize."
The air smelled vaguely of sawdust, that and seawater. It was all
"My father had a warehouse like this in South Africa," I said. "He
exported things to Europe and America."
"What kind of things?"
"Things," I said. "Cloves, ivory, wood, pepper."
"Does he still?" she asked.
"It became difficult with the boycotts," I said. "And he died last
"I'm sorry," she said. "Is your mother okay?"
"She's still in South Africa," I said. "She can't leave yet."
"She just can't."
"Sisters and brothers?"
"Just my sister, Bridget."
"What does she do, Bridget?" Tesseba asked.
"Bridget's in jail," I told her.
Excerpted from EMPIRE SETTINGS © Copyright 2001 by David
Schmahmann. Reprinted with permission by White Pine Press. All
- Genres: Fiction
- hardcover: 328 pages
- Publisher: White Pine Press
- ISBN-10: 1893996166
- ISBN-13: 9781893996168