I entered into a contract with the pit bulls with extreme caution. They are known to be ruthless negotiators. They are said to be unscrupulous too, willing to use forms of leverage that lie outside the contractual domain. You will understand that I was nervous about dealing with them, but I had little choice.
I drafted the contract myself. I am not a lawyer, but I have an accurate way with words. I wrote each paragraph in simple, clear language, allowing no ambiguity or room for malicious distortion. Then I had an attorney scrutinise it. She made certain suggestions, which I followed through, and made the corrections. She also advised me to avoid dealing with this conclave of pit bulls if I could possibly avoid it, but as you know, I had no option at all. The situation had gathered momentum, as if by itself, and in the end I saw no way out. I printed two copies of the final draft, initialed each corner, and signed the last page in full. I had it witnessed and signed by two close personal friends, men I have trusted for years. At last I placed the contract in a heavy manilla envelope, moistened the glue strip with my tongue – it tasted awful – and sealed it.
It is important to describe the physical appearance of this contract. It was printed on a heavy, good quality paper. The colour was a light cream, with a textured finish. It was printed in plain black ink, double-spaced, the font being an 11 point Verdana sans serif. Needless to say, there were no illustrations or diagrams, no watermark, no extraneous colour. Only the signatures breached its regularity.
After that, I looked to my physical security. It is well known that pit bulls are abusive, that they have no restraint. I took no weapons with me – weapons could only make things worse if push came to shove – but concentrated on the limited defensive strategies that were available. I do not have a heavy car, in fact it is an old Mazda Familia. I would have to trust this simple cage of steel and glass, inadequate though it would be.
I placed the contract on the passenger seat, started the car and drove slowly to the point of rendezvouz. The place was exactly what you might expect of pit bulls – I had to turn into a blind alley in a disreputable neighbourhood, one that ended at a locked steel gate. I opened both front windows about half an inch only, made sure the doors were locked, and waited. You might wonder why I opened both windows, but I felt claustrophobic, and needed what little airflow I could get. I also wasn’t sure to which side the pit bulls would come, and I didn’t want to open a window too widely by mistake – being as nervous as I was – in the presence of such intimidating animals. I also wanted to keep the situation simple and rigid, building in few permutations as possible. It is well known that they will attack if provoked by sudden movement, and that nothing can stop them afterwards, except perhaps a bullet.
The pit bulls came at last. There were two of them, one on each side. I still have a vivid impression of their cold yellow eyes in massive skulls, their white fur, and the high slabs of their cheeks. As I write, I visualise only their faces. Yet I do recall that they walked upright. Their eyes were at the level of the half-inch gap in the windows, which by then were steamed up, so I couldn’t see them too clearly. They waited in silence, knowing what I had come for. I was relieved not to exchange words with them, for my attention was fully taken up by checking that all the doors were locked, taking stock of the situation outside, keeping my movements regular and slow. I did not trust myself to speak. It is said that with canine species of this kind, you dare not show any signs of hesitancy or fear. They will read that as weakness, which will provoke an attack.
I reached for the envelope beside me and slid it carefully and smoothly through the gap in the window furthest from me. You might think this oddly inconvenient, but I did it for a reason – I needed to keep my body as far as possible from the pit bull which would take the envelope. At all times I was aware of the frailty of the car, and the berserker nature of these dogs.
They took the contract without incident, commanded me to wait, and vanished out the alley to consult with their collective. I sat in the car for a long time. My nervousness grew. My body felt clammy and cold at the same time. I turned on the air-con, but it grew too cold, and I didn’t want to use up too much petrol, even though I had a quarter tank left. I kept glancing at the indicator. I did the calculation a number of times, and knew objectively that I could probably idle for an hour or two before exhausting the tank. But that didn’t help, not at all. Fear kept suppressing the objective information. Nor was I willing to switch off the engine and rely on my battery. I didn’t need to struggle to start the car at a time like this.
By the time the pit bulls returned – I don’t know exactly how much time it took – I was exhausted by the tension. They explained that they had accepted the contract, had signed it, there was no problem. I was greatly relieved. They slid it through the gap in the same window. Their bearing was civilised, not threatening at all. My relief, as you can imagine, was profound. In fact, a shockwave of relief hit me as they turned and left. It seemed as if matters had gone off as well as could be expected.
I remained where I was for a moment, to compose myself before driving off. I remained terribly uneasy though, despite appearances. Perhaps it was a premonition, or simple distrust. In any event, before I left – despite my anxiety to remove myself from that place – I picked up the envelope and looked at it. It had been opened with crude force, but the document inside, as I slid it out, seemed intact in all respects.
Nothing could have prepared me for the coldness of betrayal I experienced. The character of the contract had been entirely reworked and reformatted. Each page ran to three columns, in a ghastly travesty of some muck-raking tabloid. The typeface was a shabby pica that mimicked the worst kind of gutter journalism. There were bold-faced charges in blue, accusatory red lines. The text was embellished by blurred colour photographs. These purported to be of myself, no doubt faked, caught in flagrante with women I have never met, what you could see of their faces sleazy and beautiful. And there were all the old, reliable tools of compromise: hostile witnesses, scandalous exposure, compromising positions, lurid accounts of things I might never have done.
I recall tossing the contract onto the seat beside me, struggling to find reverse, backing out too hastily. I damaged the rear fender against a wall, but didn’t stop. I wasn’t going to get out of the car and inspect it till I was far out of range. The city I thought I knew turned into a nightmare labyrinth and I struggled to find my way home. What appalled me most was not the lie, the falsification as such, unbearable though that was. The worst thing was the knowledge that I was legally committed. There was no recourse either, as the signature was undoubtedly mine. Pit bulls have a reputation for unreasoning violence, but I had underestimated their willingness to cheat and lie. They are cunning as well as malicious. Only in retrospect, I understood more fully: they had swallowed me whole.
Ken Barris is a writer, photographer and former academic, based in Cape Town. He has won various literary awards, including the University of Johannesburg and the Herman Charles Bosman prizes, the latter for his short story collection The Life of Worm & Other Misconceptions.