In this chapter, Dublin meets a well-known Vietnamese landlady named Mamie, who rents him a house in Kodjoviakope.
Dublin walked down one of the nameless roads in Kodjoviakopé in full sun, searching for the house where Mamie lived. White blossoms lilting in soft breezes from the coast fell in front of him and into his hair. It was a quiet Thursday, and few people walked the streets, but there were enough of them for Dublin to feel self-conscious. To his right he saw a three year old girl mouthing words to a song he had heard several times since arriving, watching him through her eyelashes. Dublin stopped walking and asked her, “Où ça Mamie?” She pointed across the street, then ran around the corner.
Dublin looked behind him and saw a grand house with a creamy, peeling balcony and iron work of roses along the railings. Several people walked across the balcony, and he could hear voices from within the house. He walked closer and peered through the front iron gate. He saw a man pruning bougainvillea in a dirty wide-brimmed hat. The man saw him and walked over to the gate.
“Oui, Monsieur? En quoi puis-je vous aider?”
“Je cherche Mamie.”
“Est-ce qu’elle habite ici?”
“Oui. Vous êtes américain?”
“Oui. Je veux louer une maison.”
“Bon. Attendez-ici. Je viens.”
Dublin had begun to recognize African vernacular hiding in people’s French. Instead of saying “I’ll be right back,” it was, “I’m coming.” Dublin made a mental note of it so he could use it and make people think he had lived here for a long time.
The man returned after several minutes. He opened the gate and told Dublin to follow him inside and up the stairs. Beautiful women dressed in bright, thick cloth posed everywhere, in the garden, on the landing, in the foyer. They reached the balcony Dublin had seen from the street, and the gardener told him to wait there.
Ten minutes passed, and Dublin balanced from his left foot to his right, trying to find something to look at. He did not want to make eye contact with anyone.
Everyone stared at him.
Soft footsteps fell into the dust of the tile floors and out onto the balcony. Dublin turned to see Mamie standing not far away.
She had wrapped herself in silk of burgundies and gold, exuding a tawdry nobility. Her hair was curled, midnight black and silver, over her shoulders and around her slanted eyes. Her shoulders were not even, and one hand grasped the railing tightly.
“I have the right house for you. Kossi will take you. He has two keys for you. You will pay for electricity, and the rent is 100,000 CFA per month, due the fifteenth of every month. Satisfactory?” Dublin nodded. “Good. Go now with Kossi.”
Kossi was suddenly standing there next to him; Dublin heard the keys jangle, and they were walking back down the stairs. Once outside, Dublin looked back up to the balcony to find Mamie gazing at him, fanning herself and flanked by other women. They leaned into each other and whispered like a Victorian court. Kossi and Dublin wound through the garden to a carport, where several cars and motor bikes were lined up on a clean cement drive. Kossi unlocked the passenger door for a wine-colored Volvo and motioned for Dublin to get in. Dublin opened the door and sat inside the car, which smelled like sand tucked into the abscesses of old sandals. Kossi got in the driver’s side and looked over at Dublin.
“I’m Kossi,” he grumbled in English.
“Dublin. I’m Dublin.” Kossi made some noise and started the car. He pulled out onto the street carefully, checking the rear view mirror for some reason. Neither one spoke during the half mile drive to the house, and Dublin realized he hadn’t brought any money with him. He hoped this large, grumpy, quiet man wouldn’t ask him for any.
He stopped the car in the middle of an intersection, put on the emergency brake, and got out. Dublin didn’t know if he should stay in the car or follow him. Kossi walked up to a rusted green gate and reached over the top of it, throwing the latch. He walked back to the car and got in, pulling the car into the tiny courtyard between the outer walls and the house. When he turned off the car, they both got out.
“This is the house,” Kossi said slowly in English. He fumbled with a key, trying several times to get it into the lock in the front door. Dublin looked up to see a huge tree unfolding above him. He could see grapes hanging from the limbs. Huh. I didn’t know grapes grew on trees in Africa.
The door was open. Kossi waited for Dublin to go in first. Inside, Dublin found himself in a long hallway. To his immediate left was a dirty box that resembled a dormitory restroom. There was a shaky wooden ironing board set up in the corner, a toilet and a tiled shower that was exposed to the rest of the room without a door or curtain. To the right, Dublin saw a concrete staircase that he ignored for the moment. He walked down the hall and found two bedrooms of equal size, with beds that were too short for him draped in mosquito netting. Farther down the hall he found the kitchen, whose sole occupant was an old-fashioned refrigerator rounded at the corners.
“You must boil your water, or you will get sick,” Kossi said behind Dublin. They nodded at each other and moved on.
The hallway opened into a large living room with a table for eating, a glass coffee table and a sofa and chairs. Mamie had set potted plants in the corners of the room. A breeze blew apart dusty floral drapes that covered windows facing south, east and north.
“Do you like the house?”
“Good. Here is your key. Pay Madame Mamie on the first of March. She will have a bill for electricity for you. You must pay her for both, or she will make you leave. Do you need anything?” Dublin shook his head. “Good.” He turned and walked down the hallway without saying another word. Dublin heard the heavy front door close behind him, then the clank of the gate.