May 7, 2020: “The Cape Cod Bicycle War” by Billy Kahora

What’s happening, Story366?

Last week, I wrote about my son being enrolled in a ton of merit badge classes for Scouts this week. Today, we focused on Genealogy (stupidest spelling of a word since “colonel”), a badge that made him, among other requirements, fill out a big family tree. Now, the way the counselor was describing things (via Zoom, of course) was that we were going to have to subscribe to Ancestry.com or one of those other pay sites, as this was the only way he was going to complete all the requirements. He even mentioned how we’d be lucky to live in Northeast Indiana, where they supposedly have the largest genealogical research library in America (at Ball State, maybe?), but it was too bad most of us didn’t live there; and it’s also closed now.

When we got to the actual requirement today, getting ready to see just how far back my mom would be able to remember her family, we saw the requirement only asked for three generations on the tree—including my son’s. So, he only had to fill in himself, me and the Karen, and our parents. That was it.

What was all that talk about subscribing to some ancestry thing? Or writing Ellis Island? Or that place in Indiana? Or time travel? Who’d need to do any of that just to find out their grandparents’ names?

I guess it was just overkill. Or maybe the guy was just doing his job, getting the Scouts interested in the topic at hand, beyond the actual requirements. I’ll give the counselor credit: It got both of us thinking on family, thinking about where we came from, and how we probably need to sit down with my mom for a longer talk, get all the names and such recorded before she’s gone (along with all her recipes). She has a sister who just turned 90, but otherwise, that’s it from her generation. And then we would have to do some heavy research if we wanted to know anything else. All and all, time well spent, badge earned.

Today I read from Kenyan writer Billy Kahora‘s brand-new collection, The Cape Cod Bicycle War, out from Ohio University Press as part of their Modern African Writing Series. I’d not heard of Kahora or read any of his work until I got this book in the mail and cracked it open today, so this is one of those complete-suprise scenarios, which I always enjoy.

The first story in the book is “Zoning,” about a guy named Kandle who is basically the cock of the walk in his Nairobi neighborhood. He’s gotten to the point where he stops having sex because he’s bored with it, instead turning to drinking. After a good bender, he can work himself into a mode called the “Zone,” where he feels like there is no wrong in the world. We see Kandle’s adventures on the rugby field and in front of his superiors at work, after he more or less stops showing up and they’re pissed about it. But he’s Kandle, from what I can tell, Kenya’s Fonzie.

“The Gorilla’s Apprentice” is about two characters—three, if you count Sebastian, the gorilla—starting with Jimmy, who’s visited Sebastian at the zoo (“orphanage” in Kenya) most of his life. Trouble is, Jimmy’s parents’ lifetime pass is about to expire for him when he turns 18. He’s afraid of not seeing Sebastian anymore, who recognizes him and likes his visits as well. Enter Semambo, a scholar who believes he has found a way to talk to gorillas (Koko and his sign language were sham, he believes). The three eventually meet up and work it out … sort of.

The last story in the collection is the title story, “The Cape Code Bicycle War.” This is a collective narrator story about a group of eight young immigrants, from all over the globe, who sign a contract to work at a Wendy’s in Orleans, Massachusetts (the elbow of Cape Cod). They \live in a house together, too, and on top of a guaranteed salary to take home six months later, they all get a bicycle to drive around Orleans, crucial for their ability to travel to and fro.

One big catch: There’s only six functional bicycles for eight Wendy’s employees, forcing a couple of the young people to share. At the outset of the season, this isn’t a big deal. It becomes a big deal later, as the story’s title might imply, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

The eight characters all seem to get along at first and Kahora assigns them all names, countries of origin, and a simple trait. A couple are from Brazil, someone’s from South Africa, another from Muldovia, etc., along with one guy from Kenya. One girl is pretty, one guy’s a liar, and another has a great smile. Kahora keeps it simple, as he’s juggling eight characters and giving us eight people to keep track of, so we don’t exactly get to know anyone all that well, which makes the story work.

Eventually, the winter in the Cape—the first cold and snow for many of the characters—starts to get to them all. They eat way too much Wendy’s for one, so everyone gains weight, breaks out, and feels lethargic. They also get bored and shiftless, not wanting to do much except go to work and stay in their rooms. Being in America isn’t as glorious as anyone expected, especially when they all start to transform into stereotypical lazy, fat Americans almost immediately.

Something that stands out as odd to me here: Eight people in their late teens are stuck in a house together all winter with nothing to do, nowhere to go, with no supervision. Yet, there’s not one mention of any romance or sex. Maybe I missed the part where they all fuck like rabbits whenever they’re not making fries or mopping floors. Or maybe that’s not what this story is about.

Or maybe all the bicycle war stuff—someone’s seat goes missing, another’s chain is ripped off, etc.—is one huge euphemism for sex and I just didn’t catch that.

Probably not, though. I think they’re just dicks to each other because they’re sick of each other.

Or maybe one of the inhabitants is responsible for the bike vandalism? Whose bike isn’t damaged? Who would have the most to gain from all this shenanigans? Don’t they have anything better to do?

There’s also an active competition, of sorts, as the owner will issue a year-long visa to stay in America for the employee he likes the best—their currenty manager is the guy who won that prize the year before.

Have I mentioned the weird creature they see slinking in and out of Cape Cod Bay in the middle of the night?

As the winter wanes, the eight inhabitants of the Wendy’s house shift from loving America, to hating their decision to come to it, to seeing their time running out, to feeling the nostalgia they’ll eventually feel when they’ve all gone home—save one lucky Wendy’s employe-for-life—and never see each other again. I think “The Cape Cod Bicycle War” is a remarkable story for this reason, the realism that Kahora is able to project, how solidly he’s able to put me in that house, in that Wendy’s, how I felt the tension and stress and grease all eight of his characters feel day to day, page to page.

I’m glad someone mailed me a review copy of Billy Kahora’s new book, The Cape Cod Bicycle War, the author’s examination of young-adult Kenyans trying to figure out their transitions from kid to not-kid. I’d not heard of this author before his book came in—and he’s had stories in Granta and McSweeney’s, among other places—but that’s the beauty of this project, how covering 366 books stretches me out quite a bit, gets me reading books I’d never normally read. This is definitely one of those books. Kudos to Ohio University Press for bringing his voice to print, for this wonderful series.

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