View from the Tower (a short story)
Attending three high schools in three different countries (Indonesia, China, and the United States) exposed me to rare and vibrant cultural diversity in a formative period of my intellectual, social, and emotional development. Based in Jakarta, Indonesia, this story imagines a subtle cross-cultural relationship that I suppose my peers experienced, too, but that I also suspect is less known to most readers by virtue of the limited pool of children worldwide that were raised in such an environment.
Erik van Mechelen
This story was a finalist in the Nick Adams ACM Short Story Contest in 2009
View from the Tower
Armand didn’t know how many soccer balls he’d nicked from the fields at the foreign school, that fortress of a school. Jakarta International School, or, as he knew it, Bule Sekolah Selatan Raya. After school, Armand would catch the local bus and meet the others near the school’s fence, watching the little bules kick the round treasures around their green carpet of
a field. Then, at the opportune moment, they would scamper out onto the pitch from their hiding place in the bushes like silent lizards closing fast on unsuspecting flies. His friend Galuh had cut a hole in the fence so it was easy to get through. Once in a while, the school’s guards would locate a hole and have it sealed up, but mostly they were sympathetic to Armand and his friends’ plight, so normally they only found the holes when a foreigner noticed one and complained. The biggest catch was seven balls. Seven white and black soccer balls, praise Allah. And good ones too — they still had the paint on them (they get worn down so quickly on the locals’ dust field, the one that was set up after the landlady refused to resell it to the foreign school).
Some of the older kids said that the foreigners were just plain stupid and spoiled to leave their soccer balls unwatched. It was gila, crazy. Armand recalled, too, that on the other side of the office park of a school, that the Gunawan children often stole backpacks that the kids left outside their classrooms during recess. Maybe the foreigners were a bit shortsighted. He’d overheard the grandparents say once that fences weren’t much more than a symbolic barrier anyway. Chain link fences never stopped them stealing. And bamboo fences never blocked the smoke of the village trash fires from drifting into the foreign backyards. They had to burn it, though, since there wasn’t anyone to collect their garbage.
Armand swept the last few leaves from underneath the guard tower at the end of the cement-bricked road of Blok K. This was his first time in this section of the compound, though he’d swept the streets of Executif Paradiso for two years since he’d finished mandatory school at age thirteen. He had just been reassigned to Blok K and Blok J — he had swept Blok A and Blok B before that. From this guard tower one could see down into his kampung, his village, which was just over the two-story bamboo fence. He knew the bule
trees, the “white trees,” were there on the other side of the fence, too. These trees stood to a height several arm-lengths below the bamboo fences of the bules, the white faces, as if reaching for a view into the foreigners’ world but unable to achieve it. He wanted to climb the metal ladder that led up to the lookout, to see his village from this side of the world.
Some bule children had thrown rocks from this tower onto the clay tile-roofed huts of the kampung last month. Though no damage was done, Armand’s grandparents had complained to the managers of the foreign compound and had ordered the village garbage fires to be lit twice a day instead of once. This meant Armand had to light them in the mornings; while he was at work, someone else would light the afternoon fire. The smoke, Armand knew, seeped (and sometimes billowed) right through the bamboo fences — the only barrier between the locals and the foreigners — into the front yard of K-5, the last foreign house on this street, just across the street from the tower. The daily assault of smoke attack couldn’t be a pleasant experience for the foreign owners of that house.
As he lifted the leaves into his orange bin that matched his uniform, he watched the bule who shot baskets on the hoop set up here at the end of the street, only ten meters away. From the looks of him, he was about Armand’s age, probably just starting secondary school. His light hair and light skin, so different from Armand’s darker tone, glowed in the mid-afternoon sun. Occasionally he wiped sweat from his forehead with his sleeveless tee, bringing the shirt to his face so as not to drop the pair of black sunglasses perched delicately atop his head like the garuda, the Indonesian national bird, resting upon a branch. He grinned after every shot he made, as if he knew Armand was watching him.
“Anda mau main basket?” You want to play? Holding the ball in one hand, the boy pointed at it with the other.
Armand assumed he was being spoken to; no one else was around and the boy was looking directly at him. So this white boy knew some Bahasa. “Saya suka.” I’d like to play.
Understanding him, the boy approached him, extending the orange ball to Armand — his light green eyes saying, “take it.” Armand glanced down the street until the small bridge over Kali Creek blocked further view into the complex beyond. As his eyes moved back towards the boy, they stopped on the second-story windows of the white mansions that lined either side of the street. Seeing no one, Armand set down his straw broom and accepted the basketball.
This was a quality ball. Armand felt for the ridges. For a moment, Armand was back on the courts at school, facing off against opponents, the only place he really felt at home, more at home than with his grandparents. He set his feet, and with flawless form he fired. Swish. That sound was amazing, like the sound of a layang-layang kite catching the wind. He hadn’t heard it often, since the rims at school hadn’t featured nets. He grinned at the white boy, picked up his broom, and gripping his rolling orange bin in his other hand, he walked away.
“Lihat anda nanti,” said the white boy. See you later.
Armand just smiled back. When Armand was about halfway to the bridge, he noticed the bouncing of the basketball had stopped, and turned to see the boy go through the gate into K- 5 — the house of the rock-throwers! Was that bule one of them? Was he one of the kids who had laid siege to their homes with stones? He hadn’t played basketball with the enemy, had he? The management of the foreign neighborhood said it was smaller children who’d thrown the rocks. Maybe it wasn’t this boy after all. Surely not. Still, he quickened his step, wanting to distance himself from what might be seen as commiseration with the enemy.
These days Jakarta’s new developments and foreign expansions increasingly extended into the farmers’ traditional lands. Like a plague, development threatened the farmers’ time- honored existence. The older generation remembered the rice fields upon rice fields that fled the eye eastward until they met Mt Bromo, the volcano that had given birth to the island of Java. It was these farmers that found it more and more difficult to settle with their
deteriorating lifestyles, every day losing bits of their land in the name of economic progress (which wouldn’t have been bad, except that the progress was mostly enjoyed by foreigners who took their land and the land of their ancestors). Some had abandoned the farmer’s life to seek a job in the burgeoning metropolis of the capital. As Jakarta expanded outwards, though, others demonstrated a more resolute commitment to traditional life, holding steadfast to the rituals, traditions, and the land of their ancestors. Armand’s village, like many others, was a rice-farming village whose lands were partially claimed to build Paradiso Executif, a foreigner’s residential paradise.
The next morning Armand was up and about well before the call to prayer began. He had already been to the fishing pool to retrieve the nets — he’d found four new fish caught during the night, tangled in the nets like helpless insects in a spider’s web. His family would eat well this morning. He noticed Budi and Chahaya, two of his cousins, were already out on the mud bridges between the rice fields checking for leaks in the paddy dividers. Armand wished he could join them, but the days when he would walk the mud bridges with the sun’s waking basking him with morning warmth were all but over. The grandparents had limited Armand to the few jobs they saw him fit to do. Three years before, he’d missed a leak while checking the mud dividers — an entire section of the rice was lost that day. He’d done everything right up until that point, but the grandparents didn’t consider that.
After he’d tended to the pool, he’d collected the clothing hanging from the lines across the bule trees. Armand found his family’s clothing and his orange work uniform. Most likely caused by the strong winds the night before, one of the pairs of pants had fallen from the line and was somewhat wrinkled. Armand hoped these weren’t his grandfather’s pants, but knew he’d hear it from someone either way. He carried the clean clothes and jumpy fish
back to his family’s village space. The village loudspeaker announced the call to prayer would begin soon.
After cooking the fish, enjoying breakfast with his family, and completing his morning prayers, Armand lit the village trash fire before heading to work. He walked up the hill from the village to the main road, passed the food stalls that smelled of chicken satay, the auto shop that smelled of diesel, and the furniture stores that smelled of polished wood, then began the walk down the same steep hill he’d just hiked up, but on the inside of the compound, past the large Executif Paradiso sign at the entrance to the foreign neighborhood.
Partly because of the rock-throwing incident and partly because of the long-held resentment of the foreigners, the grandparents didn’t really think highly of Armand for working in the foreign compound. He was, in their view, effectively serving the foreign invaders, the thieves who had stolen their land.
Armand recalled the time when he had lost most of the fish on his way back from the pond when he had failed to secure the net’s knot. When he returned with only one fish, his parents’ frowns did not hide their disappointment. But that was little punishment compared to the fury of his grandfather, who in his rage had insisted Armand go without food that morning.
When he crossed the bridge over Kali Creek he could see all the way down Blok K, to the end of the street where the basketball hoop stood, somewhat dwarfed beside the watchtower. When Armand was part way down the street, a sparkling light caught his attention from beneath the basketball hoop. Curious, Armand walked a bit faster, his bin clonking along behind him on the cement-brick road. He passed the house of the famous Mr Tony, one of the few foreigners who demonstrated generosity toward the locals; Tony had given his staff a television and Sony music player to use during their breaks. Armand only
waved at the drivers, maids, and gardeners that were congregated there to watch television. No time to chat today.
He brought his broom and bin right up to the basketball hoop then bent to pick up the sparkling treasure. They were black Oakley sunglasses. Even though they weren’t real, they were still a good pair. He could tell they were fake; the white “O” had been partly scratched off and the lenses weren’t perfectly aligned. He wondered why the foreigners would purchase these inferior quality goods when they could easily afford the authentic brands.
In the reflection of the lenses he saw his dark eyes, and his black hair flowing in the gentle afternoon breeze. These would look good on him, he thought. Trying them on, the sunny afternoon turned a shade darker. They felt good. He took them off and pocketed them. It wouldn’t be right to leave these out here — someone might steal them.
Then Armand looked up at the basketball rim and the white net that dangled from it like a leaf on a branch. If only he had a basketball to play a little. Since he’d finished school there weren’t really any opportunities to play. He recalled the special occasion when they’d found a basketball in one of the backpacks at the foreign school. Uncle Gunawan had taken he, Budi, and Chahaya to Senayan Plaza to play. On that day, he was able to treat Budi and Chahaya to the sort of domination of which only kids at his school had previously known.
When he crossed the bridge over Kali Creek the next afternoon, the white boy was talking to a group of bules. He saw the white boy extend the ball to them, a similar offer that he had given Armand two days before. The leader of the boys just shook his head and started walking up the street towards Armand. The group followed. Before joining the others, the last one, a somewhat shorter and meaner looking one, took the ball from the white boy and tossed
it into the mess of leaves and debris under the guard tower. Head down, the light-haired boy retrieved his ball.
The group of white boys passed Armand without acknowledgment — no surprise there. Armand then approached the end of the road where the white boy had started shooting hoops again, but veered slightly to the watchtower, where he began the ritual sweeping of the leaves and debris that had settled there.
“Hello, bisa main basket hari ini?” said the boy, holding up the ball as he’d done the time before. Can you play basketball today?
“Iya, singkat masa saja,” said Armand, after checking again for people watching. Yes, but only for a little while. Nodding, the boy passed the ball to Armand, who had to drop his broom in order to catch the ball. The white boy was grinning at him, white teeth glimmering in the sun. Armand might not have played if he didn’t long to play basketball so much since finishing school, or if, as was quite clearly not the case, the white boy had had someone to play with already.
“Anda pertama,” said the white boy. You first. Armand steadied himself and sank a long-range shot.
“Anda bagus sekali,” said the white boy as he moved to collect the ball. You’re really good. He then dribbled out to where Armand had just shot. He narrowed his eyes, looked into Armand’s, then looked at the basket, took two dribbles, and swished his shot. Armand nodded, otherwise expressionless. This kid could shoot, too.
“Anda nama apa?” said the white boy as he collected his own shot and passed it again to Armand. What’s your name? It was Armand’s turn again.
“Armand,” he said.
“Saya nama Ryan,” said the white boy even though Armand had not asked. My name is Ryan. Armand nodded, bouncing the ball a few times to fill in the awkward moment — he’d never met a white person before.
As Armand measured his next shot, he saw grey mist seeping through the bamboo fence behind the basket. The village fire had been lit. Soon the smoke billowed through and over the fence. The white boy had noticed it too. The air was somewhat darker around them, now, and then Armand smelt it, the smoke invading his lungs.
Armand passed the ball back to the white boy. “Maaf, saya pergi,” he said, indicating the smoke. Sorry, I have to go.
“Lihat anda besok?” See you tomorrow?
“Mungkin,” said Armand, gathering his broom and bin. Maybe.
As Armand walked back up the street toward the bridge, the smoke followed him, as he imagined Ryan’s eyes did. He wasn’t sure but he’d thought Ryan had looked at him strangely, not unlike his parents looked at him when he’d forgotten to wash the family’s clothes or returned from the pond with not enough fish in his net. He didn’t like to let them down. Did Ryan suspect him of taking the glasses, or were the narrowed eyes just a challenging expression, like the kids at school gave Armand when they wanted to play against him? Or maybe, just maybe, Ryan was just upset that their session had been cut short. It didn’t seem like there was anyone else who wanted to play with him.
The smoke was less concentrated the further along he walked, but when he turned to look behind, the dark smoke was still billowing over the fence. Ryan had retreated inside.
Ryan was waiting for him the next afternoon. He heard Armand’s trash bin rolling noisily behind Armand; even though Armand was still over twenty meters away, Ryan paused between shots to greet him with a smile.
Ryan again asked Armand if he’d like to play basketball. Armand responded yes he would like to. The white boy again deferred to Armand for the first shot. He rattled in the shot. The white boy smiled and told Armand he’d almost missed, that almost missing wasn’t like him. Armand agreed, but avoided Ryan’s eyes. The white boy collected the ball and prepared for his shot.
“Teman, tunggu,” said Armand. Wait, friend.
Armand thrust his hand into his pocket and pulled out the sunglasses, extending them to
the white boy, as Ryan had done to Armand with the basketball, just three days ago. “Kaca mata hitam anda.” Your sunglasses.
Ryan smiled, then, and said, “Bukan saya, kaca mata hitam anda sekarang.” Not mine, they’re yours now. Armand kept his hand extended. “Sungguh,” Ryan said. Really.
That evening, perched in his favorite tree overlooking the rice fields, Armand turned the lenses of the Oakleys toward him, and peering into them he saw his reflection. His hair flowed in the mounting breeze and blended into the threatening clouds overhead, black wavy paint on a dark canvas. Thunder rumbled like the djembe drums of the village band. Large raindrops plopped against the flooded rice fields, and he saw Budi and Chahaya retreat along the mud bridges to their shelters. Then Armand felt the sprinkle from the heavens. The imminent storm had long since sent the layang-layang kite-flyers back to the shelter of their huts, and now the gansing top spinners would have to pick up, too. At least the grandparents
would be happy. The nasi needed lots of water. He gazed again out over the flooded rice fields, then turned, pocketed the Oakleys, and plodded back towards the tall bamboo walls of the foreign neighborhood that loomed over their village like an overgrown wayang culitt shadow puppet. The tower peaked over the top of the fence line, next to the basketball hoop that Armand knew was on the other side. He had to get his family’s clothes off the line.
The next morning Armand took the short walk down to the trash pile, not far from the bule trees where the clothes were hung to dry. As he approached the massive heap, the smell of the garbage was already coaxing him to turn back, as it usually did. He looked up and saw the guard tower. The basketball hoop rested below that tower, Armand knew. As he inched closer he heard a ball bouncing — Ryan must be shooting hoops again.
Armand looked at the fence, at the concrete and then the bamboo that extended above it. The fence was all that separated Armand from a boy who shared his passion. He could almost see Ryan’s movements. His dribbles to the left, then to the right. His stutter-steps to fake out his imaginary opponent. Then his jump shot, pure as the morning sun’s rays spilling over the rice fields.
Armand felt inside his pocket for the box of matches his grandfather had given him to fulfill his village duties. He selected a match and prepared to light it. As he flicked the match to life, he saw the fire’s smoke spilling through the bamboo fence, assaulting Ryan. The smoke took the form of his grandfather’s face, billowing with unjust anger, forcing Ryan and his imaginary opponents to retreat indoors. Even the guard tower could not block the onslaught. Armand dropped the match. It fizzled in the dry grass before Armand stamped it out with his sandal.