by James Penha
The big Toyota truck, its cargo covered with a blue tarp, stopped at a coffee warung near the Garuda statue at the center of Lahat. The driver and his assistant left the truck and stretched as they ambled to the closest wooden table and sat on a bench.
“Two black coffees. Plenty of sugar,” ordered the driver. His assistant grabbed a couple of fried bananas from the tray in the middle of the table.
The ibu who brought their drinks noticed the B on the truck’s license plate. “From Jakarta,” she noted.
The driver helped himself to another fried banana. “Mmm. We have stuff to deliver to someone in this town.”
“Who?” said the ibu, sitting across from the driver and helping herself to a fried banana. Ibu Midah was famous in the county for the unique taste of her fried bananas. The secret ingredient was a bit of finely dried chili that subtly enflamed the sweetness expected of this otherwise typical Indonesian treat. “I know everyone around here.”
The driver took out a paper from the back pocket of his jeans and read, with some difficulty, from the thin ink of the bill of lading, “Bapak Amrudin.” There was no address on the form save “Lahat” because in small towns of Western Sumatra, there were no street addresses. “Do you know him?”
“Of course,” Ibu Midah replied. “He owns Candlenut Farm, a big place not far from here.” She laughed. “In fact, you are eating bananas that grew on his land. I buy most of my bananas directly from Udin. We went to school together.” She laughed again. “But not for long. Udin had to take over the farm when his father died, and I started this business soon after that. We made it to ninth grade though. Not bad for those days.” Midah pointed to the truck. “What are you bringing him?”
“Don’t know,” said the driver. “The truck was already loaded when we were assigned to it.”
“And you didn’t peek?”
“No reason. The bill of lading says” — he brought the paper close to his eyes again — “party equipment.”
“Udin is having a party?” Midah asked.
The driver shrugged. “S’pose so.”
“How about I slide in that cab of yours and show you the way to Udin’s place myself?” Midah suggested. “I can pick up some bananas there, and you can drop me back here after you make your delivery.”
“Okay, but I need to hire a team to help unload the truck.”
“We’ll head over to the river first. There are always bunches of boys ready to work. They fish while they wait. Meaning they spend most days fishing.”
Midah yelled for her eldest daughter to watch over the warung while she led the truckers to Udin’s farm.
With an extra load of six beefy young fishermen sitting atop the tarp, the truck shook its way up a mountain road alternately composed of blacktop, crumbling concrete, rocks, dirt, puddles and ponds until it reached and followed a well-mown grassy lane cut through verdant acres of wheat, tapioca, tomatoes, lettuce, yams, cabbage, bananas, and orchards of rambutan, durian, mangosteen, and the flowering candlenut trees that gave the farm its name. The driver stopped the truck behind an old tractor and an even older Nissan pick-up at the side of a long wooden house.
The fishermen leaped off the truck and squatted in a circle to smoke while Midah and the driver approached the front porch of the house. The driver’s assistant waited in the cab of the truck.
“That you, Midah?” said a man shadowed in the door frame. “The fried banana business must be booming if you hired a truck to carry my whole crop down to your warung.” Dressed only in a sarong, Bapak Amrudin, his handsome face framed by white hair and beard, invited his visitors to be seated at the glass-topped rattan table on the porch, while he leaned on a wooden column.
“Wish that were so, Udin. But I can’t complain, and these boys will be helping me carry a couple of bunches of your bananas back to town,” Midah replied. “First, though, their business is with you.”
“And what business is that?”
The driver stepped forward. “Pak, we have a delivery of party equipment here for you.”
Amrudin was literally taken aback on his heels. “Party? I didn’t order any such stuff.” His querulousness turned to laughter. “I haven’t had a party at this farm since... since when, Midah?”
“Well, I know I haven’t been to one since your own wedding, Udin.” Midah paused to remember. “How long ago was that?”
“I married Nurhaliza almost twenty years ago, down at the mosque in town. For the reception, we set up a big tent extending the porch. I think every citizen of Lahat was here that day.”
“And the tent was back up two years later for Liza’s funeral,” Midah recalled out loud
“Yes,” Udin recalled. Midah saw tears in her old friend’s eyes.
“You still grieve for her? After all this time?”
“I do. Look.” He pointed toward a patch of garden, precise and elegant, about fifty meters from the house. A gravestone was visible amidst the surrounding blooms. Midah couldn’t see it clearly, but she recalled the motif carved beneath Nurhaliza’s name: the burning candle and the two candlenuts. The image represented, Udin had told her when the stone was erected, the eternal love between him and his wife. “I greet her every morning,” Udin said, “and we pray together every evening. We pray...”
“Never mind. I’m getting way too sentimental.”
“That’s what I love about you, Udin.” Midah blushed. “As did Liza,” she quickly added.
The truck driver took advantage of this awkward moment to intrude. “Excuse me, folks, but I need to empty my truck and get out of here. I need your signature right here, Pak Amrudin.” He handed him the bill of lading.
“But I don’t want it, and I’m not paying for it, so you can just turn this truck around and haul it all back where it came from.”
“There’s nothing to pay, Pak,” insisted the driver, pointing toward the zero balance on the bill of lading.
After another few hefty rounds of back-and-forth between Udin and the driver, Midah, who had in the meantime unknotted the back ties of the tarp, poked her head underneath the canvas, came up for air, and advised Udin to accept delivery. He didn’t have to keep everything. He could sell it. Or, she suggested, “You could give away some of the handsome folding chairs and tables in there to a good friend... like one whose warung could use a makeover.”
Udin laughed and patted the shoulder of the driver. “Okay, brother, where do I sign?”
The driver and his assistant organized their day workers to offload the cargo to positions Udin determined. One hundred folding chairs and ten long collapsible tables soon leaned against the side of the house. “When the truck is empty, you can put them back in the trailer and deliver them along with their new owner,” said Udin to the driver, “to Midah’s warung. I’ll give your boys a tip for the extra labor.” The driver nodded.
“You’re giving me all those chairs and tables? They’ll fill up the whole cafe! I need some space for customers, you know,” Midah objected.
“Use what you can in the warung. Then stow the rest in that old shack of yours out back. Cover ’em with a tarp, and you can get into the party rental business yourself,” Udin advised.
“They’re pulling a tent and awnings out of the truck now. Can I have them too?”
“Let’s take a look at what’s left, Midah. Likely you can have it all.” Udin asked the boys to slide the rolls of canvas back into the truck. He called to the driver inside the trailer, “What else you got in there, brother?”
“A big wooden box. And something behind it in the corner. Can’t quite make it out in the dark. We’ll have to remove the box to see.”
Midah asked the driver what was inside the box. She was hoping for dishes. Or linens.
The driver lifted the lid of the box. “Nothing,” he said. “It’s empty.”
“Want it, Midah?” Udin asked.
“I got no need for an empty box.”
“How about for all your jewels?”
“Ha! I haven’t handled any kind of jewels since my husband left me, Udin.”
“Pull out the box, boys, and set it inside the garage over there.” Udin yelled for his son, “Adi, lead these boys over to the garage and have them set the box in the far left corner.” He turned to Midah. “Wow, a free box. This must be my lucky day.”
Udin and Midah stepped away from the truck to give the crew room. “Quite a handsome box, though. Looks like good teak. That ain’t cheap. With some cushions, you could make a nice sofa out of it.”
“So you want the box too?”
“No, Udin. I’m just suggesting.”
“Let’s see what remains.” Like kids at an ice-cream stand, Udin and Midah hung on to the back dock of the trailer. “What is that thing?” Udin called to the driver who was pushing something heavy toward the light.
A loud “Aduh!” from Midah echoed through the trailer and vibrated the surrounding air. “It’s... it’s a gravestone. And—”
“This is what I’ve been waiting for.” Udin grabbed the bottom of the stone in both his hands and jerked it away from the grip of the driver. “Let me have it.” He hauled it down, carried it against his chest, and started walking.
“No!” Midah screamed. “Wait for the boys! You’ll hurt yourself.” The driver sat on the dock next to his assistant. Midah, screaming for him to stop, followed Udin whose knees weakened and wobbled as he reached the flower garden where, next to his wife’s grave, he set down the stone and collapsed in front of it. Midah gasped and fell to her knees. Carved on the stone, above the image of a lighted candle and a pair of candlenuts, was the name “Amrudin.”
Udin’s son, having heard the commotion, ran to the garden with the gang of boys in thrall. He kneeled next to his father and listened for his breath, for a heartbeat. He turned to Midah. “He’s gone.”
“To be with your mother,” Midah said.
Adi lifted Udin in his arms and strode slowly to the house where he would wash and wrap his father’s body in preparation for the burial. He asked the boys to bring the wooden box back from the garage and set in on the porch. It would serve as a casket. Later, the boys would erect the tent and arrange the chairs and tables beneath it.
Midah thought to explain to the driver and his assistant that they would not have to transport the furniture again this day. But the truck had already disappeared. She borrowed Udin’s Nissan to let the townsfolk know when to come for Amrudin’s funeral and to carry the foodstuffs she and her daughter would prepare for the guests.
For more than twenty years, Midah and daughter would cater funerals and weddings, birthdays and circumcisions, until the tent was motley, the chairs rusty, and until, one day, a truck arrived in front of the warung and a driver Midah recognized stuck his head out of the window to ask if this were the home of Midah. “I have a delivery for you.”
Copyright © 2020 by James Penha