Paris, January 1986
The damp and wind of February always made Diallo feel furthest from home. Back there, the sun was warming the earth as the first plantings pushed through the sandy soil. Here it was dark before 9:00 and after 4:00, and the sun might appear, but usually did not.
He was selling “a la sauvette”–selling “ready to run”–from a meter and a half square tarp upon which he arranged his trinkets and cheap plastic wind-up toys. A la sauvette because when the cops swooped in, you gathered up the four corners and ran. They never chased. Couldn’t be bothered. But if someone were too slow, they would snatch up the goods and, laughing, pass them out to the tourists wandering by.
Three years. He never lost his goods though he got grabbed by two of them one time and hauled off to a station. His “papers,” purchased from a “specialist” back home, were clearly fake. And that day he thought his time was up–to a cell, then a plane–expelled. But there had been a robbery somewhere, the police had left, and after a while he had just walked out. No-one stopped him. Why bother?
He had learned early. In making his way from the boat in Marseille to Paris, after he hooked up with a “cousin” who was going to set him up in the business. The cops did not care. The smallest bribe was sufficient to move the human traffic forward to its inevitable place on the streets.
He had left with hope: hope of success and a quick return. Though the “grande secheresse”–the big dryness–was officially over, there was nothing there. Nothing. He had offered to go, and with the word from his “cousin” that opportunities were abundant in the new regime socialist, they all, his mom included, decided he had nothing to lose.
Now he slept in an HLM in Romainville with ten others from “home.” Moving frequently into newly abandoned units until they turned off the water or electricity. Lately, they seemed to have forgotten, and so the ten had been at peace for almost three months.
At first mom had written–the handwriting not hers, she was illiterate. Spending her money to pay the shiftless schoolteacher in the village grated on him.
“We have nothing; we are hungry; the roof has a leak…”
He wrote two letters back, full of hope, empty of truth. But he moved so much that the letters soon lost their way. That was two years ago.
Khadija had written only one, but he kept it in a small plastic bag in the bottom of the backpack that never left his back (he tied a rope to it and his arm when he showered). In it, she addressed him as cousin, but the truth of it was contained in the final sentence: “I miss you.”
The wind increased outside the metro at Pigalle. In summer he fought for the best spots at Trocadero or Concorde, but in the winter, with the tourists mostly gone, he came to the strip club and peep show streets where a few tourists still sauntered and where even Parisian regulars might buy a few things for their kids to assuage their guilt.
Diallo worked, as did the ten, for Brahim. He sold them the goods, and they kept whatever they could earn–a handful of francs each day. Brahim, in turn, got his junk from up the ladder, and so on. Diallo did not know how high it went, but some of the ten got pulled into extra activities that Brahim arranged. These sometimes left them bloody and crying. They paid better. Diallo never joined
He was lucky. Even back home, he could fix anything–anything. And so he added to his pay by repairing boomboxes and electric appliances of any type. He was also known as the “cassette doctor,” able to rescue any torn, or stretched, or mangled cherished music for a modest price.
But, now, three years in, he still had less than 3,000 francs–a lot of money if he had been sitting on a mattress in his mom’s house, but nothing here.
Two in the afternoon and already getting dark. Inshallah, he would get a break and find a real repair job in a real shop.
God willing, but he did not really believe that about God. From a long time ago, when the worst of the drought years were killing everything, and the only food was “Kennedy” rice from far away, he had assumed that God had abandoned the Sahel for Europe, or America, or the Gulf. God was not present along the Senegal River.
And his supposed intermediaries–the “petit marabouts” who represented his beneficence and mercy–were useless grifters, who reported up their own ladder.
The grigris–little leather pouches with obscure verses from the blessed Qur’an sown inside–that they sold to people who buried them in the corners of their fields to ward off pests and roving camels and cows were fucking useless.
The amulets they sold to desperate moms–like his own–made no difference at all. He had taken note. Two cousins, one nephew, and his own little brother Hamidou–so weighted down by the grigris his mom had bought and hung around his neck that he could’nt even lift his head. Two weeks of ever-mounting numbers of this trash did not save him from the diarrhea that drained his life away.
And even the “grand marabout”–Djibril, who lived hard against the river inside 3-meter high concrete (concrete!) walls–walls that could not hide his three-story home or the sound of his generator that gave the only electricity within 50 kilometers–even Djibril was a fraud.
They said he was a shapeshifter. Turning into a wolf–that is how he got his meat. Turning into a fly–that is how he gathered his information (the man knew everything about everyone and trafficked in that knowledge).
Impotent men swore he could turn their flaccid members to “bars of steel” for hours. Diallo believed non of it. Hopeless people seeking to control a world that was out of their control.
Djibril’s biggest “money maker” was his purported ability to bring people home. The droughts had led men (mostly) everywhere to abandon their dead fields and flocks and head to the cities. Dakar, Nouakchott, Abidjan, maybe the Gulf, rarely Paris. And when they left, many never returned. Angry wives told stories of how they had moved on, started new families in those new places, and left them for dead. But Diallo now suspected that most just got lost, never made anything of anything, and were simply too ashamed to come back.
Empathy born out of his own shame.
But all it took was for one person from two or three villages over to come back, and all the talk was “Djibril did that.” And Djibril grew fat. And whether Diallo liked it or not, Djibril was a “tres grand marabout” indeed.
But the dreams had started about six months after Khadija’s first and last letter. They were always the same. He stands at the entry to his village, coming from the north. It is late in the day, the home sounds of women preparing meals. He knows he has unfinished business, and someone always meets him.
His aunt needing help with a broken door. His mom needing that roof fixed. His uncle seeking help with a tape player that eats up batteries too fast. The widow next door asking him to mend the fence where the goats got in and ate her garden–no carrots this year, no lettuce this year.
At first, they came sparsely–the dreams. One every so often. Then, each month. So vivid. He remembered each one, unlike the other jumbled mass of confusion that passed through his head each night.
And then every week. Always the same. Unfinished business. Going home to finish it.
And then every week. Always someone new needing him to finish something.
And then every night.
But never Khadija.
Until last night. She was there, and she said dinner was waiting.
He awoke in the dark. His mouth filled with the residue of fat from the goat–a morsel still in between two teeth. His unwashed hands held to his face with the grains of couscous still clinging. His shirt smelling of the charcoal fire. His shoes filled with sand.
He had nothing to return with, and all his money would be needed to get there. But he knew. He knew. And he was ready to run.
She had called him home.