Long Pants Under a Hot Sun

A novel about Africa, drinking and the meaning of life

Archive for the tag “Fiction”

Drinking with Alcoholic Norwegians

In this chapter, Dublin spends the first night in Burkina Faso with the Norwegians, drinking and philosophizing.

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Drinking with Alcoholic Norwegians

The group coasted into Ouaga well after dark. It had been quiet in the countryside as Dublin watched it go by with the window down. At night, the air was cool enough to clear the sweat away from his forehead, and he wondered if even this slight change in latitude made a difference in the temperature. By the time they reached the city, the Peugeot’s gauge hadn’t registered any gas for nearly an hour, and everyone in the car stayed quiet to focus their energies on moving the car forward for as long as possible. It whispered to a stop just outside the Hotel Proletariat. David went inside to check on rates and was back out 30 seconds later.

“Proletariat my ass! These rates are for kings and their mistresses! We go now.” Dublin sighed and got back in the car while David mumbled through the rest of his tirade. The engine wouldn’t turn over, and it took them a few minutes before remembering they had run out of gas. David pounded the steering wheel with the flat of his hand and cursed in ancient Scandinavian. Dublin actually smiled. Norwegians had funny letters in their swear words. Vegard and Dublin got out and pushed the car up onto the sidewalk with David still in the driver’s seat. He wouldn’t help out with the steering or the brake, and Vegard had to run up to the car and push down on David’s knee before the car crashed through a closed clothing store.

“Afraid I would rip a shirt, mon ami?” David laughed. Vegard whispered something into his ear, and he climbed through the window of the car and opened the trunk. “Don’t just stand there, American Boy! We have to find a hotel! No stopping. Head up. Shoulders back.” They took as much luggage as they could carry from the car and started off. David ran back and kissed the 504 on the rear bumper.

Eight blocks and a pee on the street later, they found the perfect hotel. There was a patio bar out front that seemed to take up more space than the hotel itself, and David proudly proclaimed that he had led them to the promised land. Rooms were cheap. Five nights. And are there showers? Yes, messieurs. Good. The Norwegians told Dublin to meet them downstairs at the bar for a drink, and maybe they’d go out after. One beer, one beer, then bed. They whined. Dublin submitted.

His room was at the end of the hallway and tiny, with only a bed and a desk as furniture. There was a tiny shower in the corner with no curtain, and he guessed the only toilet in the hotel was downstairs. With a sigh, he unpacked his belongings onto the desk and the floor and stared at them. A drop of sweat fell onto his journal, and he wiped it across his stomach.

He turned on the shower, testing it for hot water. Of course there wasn’t any. He wanted a cold shower anyway, but wished he could ease into it so it didn’t shock. Certain parts of his body drew in closer. His ears began to chatter.

Dublin could actually see the mahogany of Burkina dust swirling into the drain as he rinsed off. He thought and thought under his little rented waterfall, and stayed beneath it until the water that ran from his head was cool.

No towel. He got lost in his thoughts again as he dripped in the shower.

No towel. He started thinking of something else, and dripped.

No towel. He was mostly dry, except between his toes. His fingertips had prune-wrinkled in the shower. With a deep breath, he finally stepped out and glanced at his backpack. No reason to get dressed yet. He sat down at the desk and opened his journal. It had already been almost two weeks since his last entry. He picked up his pen deliberately and thought for another moment or two before writing.

Thursday, 27 February, 1998 10:56 pm. Ouagadougou

I am sitting at a small wooden desk in a small hotel room in the city of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. This is not a lie. It is, as far as I can tell with however many senses I have, Reality. Sitting with me at the desk is a large bottle of warm Burkina beer, a clock, a puka shell necklace, a lighted cigarette, fifteen thousand CFA francs, a book of Kangaroo matches, and a handkerchief. I am freshly showered and naked.

I am wondering about romanticism. I believe there are people who, should they be in precisely the same time and space environment as I am, would accept it as, well, ordinary. I am romanticizing it. I don’t believe I am here. I do not feel the impact of the idea in my soul.

Will there come a time when I feel ready? Will the time come when I can act with security and confidence that yes, I am here, and I am ready? I am ready. Still soft, not ready.

                                                                                DG

He wiped his forehead and closed the journal after reading what he had just written. The shower dew had already begun its transmutation into sweat. He lifted one butt cheek off the wooden chair and listened to it stick. Then the other one. He went back and forth until he got tired of it. He wondered when it would rain.

Some daydreams came and went, and Dublin looked around startled when he awoke from them with his head in the palm of his hand. The clock hands had moved fifteen minutes without him noticing. Sneaky African clocks. He wasn’t ready to go, but he knew David and Vegard were waiting.

“I’m never ready,” he breathed into a polyester shirt as he pulled it over his head. Vegard walked into the room without knocking.

“Ready to go?”

“Yeah.”

“Good. We got the last of the open tables in the bar. Come down.” Vegard slipped into the hallway and pulled the door slowly closed behind him. It needed oil.

Dublin looked down and realized he hadn’t put on his pants yet. He looked toward the closed door and wondered why Vegard didn’t say anything. Maybe that’s normal in Norway, he thought. He shrugged his shoulders and pulled on the only pair of pants he’d brought, still dusty from driving. After another glance at his journal entry, he felt disgusted with himself. He didn’t write again for a long time.

“There’s our boy! All clean and grown up and ready to drink with men!” David said, smirking. Dublin almost took it the wrong way.

“Yes, he’s an entire man, now,” Vegard added, and they snickered. “We have beer for you. It’s terrible. You must drink three of these to catch up.”

“Oh, I don’t feel much like drinking a whole lot tonight. You know, I’m tired from the trip and everything.”

“Yes, I used to be tired too when I was a little boy. But I got over it and fucking drank so I could someday be a man.”

“But it never really happened,” Vegard said shaking his head.

“No, no it never really happened,” agreed David. “More beer, perhaps.” He snapped his fingers and whistled.

“Is there a waitress?” Dublin asked him.

“No.”

“Well, who are you trying to call?”

“The beer! It’s made by Africans, and it should damn well serve itself. They’re all servants over here.”

“OK, David,” Vegard sighed.

“You know, David, imperialism is so old-fashioned, even for Europeans,” Dublin said smirking. Vegard giggled.

“Immaturity is too long embraced by some, but I don’t throw a shoe over it,” David countered. He snapped his fingers again. “Beer, come!” Dublin stood up and walked to the bar. He returned with three liters of Star.

“That’s good for you,” Vegard said, clasping his hands together, “but couldn’t you have gotten us a bottle while you were up?”

“No, these two are for you,” he said, handing them over.

“What did I say about catching up? You can’t drink just one of these horrible potions. You’ll hate yourself. You have to get three of them going all at once, drinking from each bottle, or you’ll suffer terribly. I’ll go.”

David returned in short order with eight more bottles of beer. He set five of them in front of Dublin, who already had one, and drank one of the others before sitting down. Much of it ended up in spots and streaks on his T-shirt.

“Wait for it,” Vegard sighed.

David erupted into belching. The accent was distinctly European, not like Monday Night Football beer burps or the rumblings of a post-apocalyptic Thanksgiving that Dublin was used to. It was musty like Welsh castles and deep as the trenches in Alsace. David held one hand to his belly during the chorus before flopping into his chair with a bemused satisfaction littering his face.

“So, my friend,” he continued during the aftershocks of his beer “tell me, what do you want to do here?”

“In Burkina?”

“No, I know what you’ll do in Burkina. You’ll drink the volume of the Dead Sea in hops, lose sleep, watch funky films by indigenous wackos and catch malaria. By the way, if you drink enough beer, you can keep the mosquitoes away.”

“That’s not true, is it?”

“Yes. I never lie to strangers. The mosquitos become drunk and forget to lay malaria maggots before they stagger off to some mucky pond.”

“You’re…odd.”

“I have started a band called Astroburger. We will be well-known in four years. I think you would like them, since you are a thinking man.”

“OK.”

“How’s your beer?”

“Horrible.”

“Then drink faster. Faster. It’s like a bad relationship. If you are a boyfriend to some girl that’s dumb or ugly, spend as much time with her as possible, until it ends. That way, when it’s over, it’s over.” Dublin slapped his arm. A dead mosquito bled on him with its legs spread.

“What?”

“If you don’t spend a lot of time with someone who is unattractive to you, you’ll end up lingering around them. They don’t make you sick enough or bored enough to leave them. You must see them day and night, to keep from letting things carry on too long.”

“Astroburger, huh?”

“I don’t remember where we got the name, from bourbon or something, but Han made the Astroburger logo out of clay just before we left. We’ll have it on the next album cover. This one won’t sell, and neither will the one after that. Then we’ll change our sound radically, maybe more electronic. Britain will like us and then we’ll do the United States and bus around with virgins and balloons of nitrous.”

“Every child has a dream, I guess.”

“You can get anything you want, little boy. Just take it. People will hand over almost anything if they think you’re important. Look at Congress.”

Dublin fumbled for a cigarette. He needed an out, even a little one. Vegard, the quiet one, didn’t bother him at all. He wished he would talk more, in fact. Might take a little of the edge off of David.

Blue smoke, in and out. Light through brown glass. David’s words tumbled around the crowded bottles on the table. Most of them were emptying nicely. An hour, maybe more. Boredom bordering on anxiety.

The drinking helped.

Something to the right of Dublin had been tugging at his attention for awhile, and he finally looked during a break from David’s omniscience. There was a man, skinny and lighter-skinned than most West Africans, spreading batiks over the low walls of the bar patio. They were not blue.

He’d learned, from his first day in the market, that the shade of ink in a batik helped determine its value. Blue and violet batiks were for tourists. They showed elephants and djembes and villages. Africa for the white. Dublin stood up in the middle of a sentence from David.

“Are you listening little boy?”

“No.” He pushed his chair in. Vegard stood up and followed him over to the batik artist.

“I know what you want to know,” the artist said to Dublin, smiling gently.

“What’s that?”

“Do I make these batiks? Yes. I make all of them. Take a look, and see why I am fulfilling my destiny.”

World travel, it should be noted, is a hell of a cure for the tedium of meeting boring people.

Dublin turned over the corners of stacked batiks, holding up handfuls of them at a time to take a closer look at the really good ones. The man mixed burning dark yellows with greens from dead seaweed choking itself on the beach, brown and red from tree bark chewed to death by termites. There were portraits of old men huddled next to chairs, stars in the desert, an open door in a shabby home. He went through them knowing there would be just one for him. Patiently, patiently.

Vegard walked back to the table to warm up with his beer.

Sometimes Dublin asked the artist a question. He gave kind, whole answers in turn while Dublin folded and flipped and waited, staying with one, another. The night grew more night-like, longer and more quiet and thick.

The one.

A man and a woman’s face, hers turned away, hovering over large hands holding each other and an oval-shaped fruit with a large yellow seed. It was the most beautiful expression of reluctant love that Dublin had ever seen. Hesitant, but love nevertheless. The faces were almost featureless, but Dublin felt a permanence in their affection for each other, despite the turned head.

“I will not tell you what it means,” said the artist, squatting on the ground a few feet away. “You will tell yourself what it means.”

“I think it has to do with love, and I see…I don’t know.”

“Don’t tell me. Tell yourself. Tell yourself tonight and tomorrow and in seven years. Tell yourself and show it to your friends so they can whisper to themselves. It’s easy.”

“How much?”

“I can’t tell you. Everything is priceless and worthless when borne by the heart. Give me some money, what you think is right. There is no price. Pay for the ink, the cloth. Give my heart some peace of mind, a reward. It feels good. But there is no price.”

Warm, nighttime air moved in and out of Dublin’s mouth as he thought. Breath in, breath out. Wonderful. For a moment, he was happy. Happier than he had been at Chez Alice, happier than he had been when he was half asleep and bounced by potholes into car window glass. He reached into his pocket and gave money to the artist without counting it. The man was right. There was no price. Not knowing how much he gave kept the idea true.

“Should I frame this? Keep it safe?”

“Fold it. Hang it on walls. Cover a small table. Wrap your baby in it. Just have it. It doesn’t matter what you do. Just remember to look at it.” Silence for a few moments more together, then Dublin stood up and folded the batik over his arm. He said goodbye and returned to his friends in the bar.

David held two empty quart bottles of Star in his hands. He peered at Dublin through his glasses.

“What the hell have you done?”

“I bought this.”

“Well, I bought beer, and look what it’s done for me. How much did you pay?”

“I don’t know.”

“Hmm. You’d better learn the conversion rate, rookie, or you’ll be had for ten dollars on a bottle of water. Make sure you drink plenty of bottled water, by the way.”

Vegard stood up.

“What?” David said with his head turned up to his companion.

“Sleep, brother. And sleep, brother,” he said to Dublin. “Let’s to bed. We have films and the rest of a day to live through tomorrow. The beer will be cold when we wake up, and it will be cold after dinner. It’s the end of a night.” David clinked the two empty bottles together in a toast to himself and his diligence in consumption and stood up.

Dublin eyed the bottles still in front of him, searching for one at least a third full, something drinkable.

“It’s over, little boy. Go dream now, maybe about naked breasts and sweaty backs. We’ll get you for eggs.”

That was it. The end of a night and a day. Dublin climbed the stairs to his room and slid into his linens. Thirty or so minutes passed before he wriggled out of his shirt and pants. He turned on his side and watched the moonlight bathe his new batik before striking out for sleep.

Hitchhiking with Alcoholic Norwegians

In this chapter, Dublin wakes up the morning after his night with the Peace Corps Volunteers and meets two Norwegian travelers exploring Africa.

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Hitchhiking with Alcoholic Norwegians

It was one of those mornings when the mind slowly, unwittingly, begins to pay attention to the sounds around it. Dublin’s eyes weren’t on board yet, but his ears were tracking and identifying the morning noises from the rest of the house. He heard the distinctive wet chime of orange juice glasses, sandal soles scraping up the dust off the stone floors, voices murmuring through sleepiness, and finally a shout from the front porch: “God I am freaking hungover!” Dublin laughed and crawled out from his borrowed sleeping bag. He walked barefoot into the bathroom and cleaned his mouth with his finger and somebody’s toothpaste and walked out to the front porch.

There were half a dozen volunteers stretched out in deck chairs, shielding their eyes from the bright and already scorching sun. Three of them sipped on a Bloody Mary from a fishbowl. Dublin sneezed from the scent of celery salt and hot sauce.

Santé,” one of the girls said from underneath a cold towel draped over her face.

“Thanks.”

She took the towel off her face. “What’s your name again?”

“Dublin.”

“Oh, that’s right,” she smiled. “You were sleeping on the floor in the living room.”

Dublin smiled back and sat down on the steps with his back turned to everybody. He lit a cigarette.

“Oh, fuck vodka, and fuck all things that make me want to die!” A man screamed, walking onto the porch. Dublin looked up and saw a pudgy half-naked man with splotches of hair all over his tummy. He was scratching his head and ass at the same time. The volunteers fidgeted in their chairs. One of them got up and made room for him. Vodka Man was joined by a thin dark-haired fellow and Jason, who both sat down on the deck.

“David, Vegard, meet my friend Dublin, also from Lomé. He’ll be coming with us.” Dublin put out his hand to the thin man, who shook his head in time with the fat one.

“Coming with us?”

“Yeah, these guys are gonna take us up to Ouagadougou. They’re going straight through. It would take us another day or so to get to Ouaga by taxi or looking for a ride. We can get there in eight hours now. And there’s plenty of room for us. Get ready to go.”

David farted.

Dublin’s backside already hurt from the elegant network of potholes in the Togo highway system. His mind switched back and forth from the pain down there to the one in his ears. The two Norwegians’ mouths never stopped, and they were filled with bubbling ignorance that delivered pounds of heavy oatmeal into Dublin’s head.

A little extravagant, maybe, but that’s how it felt.

The countryside delivered itself into Eden the closer they got to Dapaong in the north country. They were in the land of the Kabiyé now, “the dog-eaters,” Jason had told them. David cussed out Africa and named the exploits of Togolese cuisine. “And do you know,” he said, looking over his shoulder, “I saw some ten year old kid carrying a carcass through the market in Sokodé? I don’t even know what kind of animal it was. I saw ribs and blood and blue eyes that begged me for help. What the hell kind of people buy carcasses and bring them home for dinner? ‘Oh, look, kids, I found a real nice dead animal body for dinner tonight. Help me cut its ears off.’ Norway is more civilized. But the women aren’t as easy. That’s why I’m in a band. I make good money working for my daddy, but not enough for whores.”

The whole time he spoke, Dublin watched the road in front of them, wincing at potholes and dangerous swerves. David drove by watching the road behind them, and his turns were a little over two seconds late. The car tore up the scrubs on the side of the road.

After a hundred minutes in a hundred degree day and a hundred potholes and a hundred bad jokes about prostitutes and cripples and dead animals, Dublin finally fell asleep.

He woke up with his face stuck to the window where he’d drooled. His head hurt from knocking against the glass. Jason and David had gotten out of the car, and Vegard was asleep in the passenger seat. It had gotten hotter, and Dublin felt a change in the air, that it was somehow drier, which seemed impossible. This was the utopia of desert, empty of rain and river, empty even of sweat and saline. Dublin wiped the sleeping goop off his lips.

After a good stretch, he walked towards the building the others were standing in front of. A sign above the blue front door read “Douanes.” They were at the border.

“How long was I asleep?” Dublin asked Jason as he approached the building.

“Oh, I don’t know, four hours or so. I don’t know how you could sleep on that highway. We talked the whole time. I’m surprised we didn’t wake you up.”

“Yeah, me too.” He looked around and saw two other cars at the customs station. “What’s going on? Are we waiting for something?”

“Well, they’re trying to tell us to walk off the edge of the fucking planet is what’s going on,” David said with all his grace. “They say we don’t have the proper visas to go into Burkina. I’ve been talking to them. It’s almost time to take out the cash.”

“Why didn’t you just give them money in the first place?”

“Because I wasn’t put on this planet to be a pushover. I have to give them a good fight before I inevitably give in. What kind of person do you think I am? Some weakling?” Dublin didn’t know how to talk to this man. He wished he could get drunk. Living in Africa was like going through puberty again, a mental and emotional growth spurt that made everything uncomfortable.

“It’s hot out here,” Dublin thought out loud.

“You’re damn right it’s hot out here! Someone should tell them to move the continent a little farther north. They could park it next to Norway. Only the fishers would notice. And it’s not like anyone from Russia would care. They have enough to think about. I could piss out the Russian GDP after a good night of vodka drinking.”

“Well, can we get going? It’s really, really hot. I mean, isn’t that Burkina Faso right on the other side of that checkpoint? Wouldn’t it be nice if we were over there right now, cruising down the highway to the capital to see a film festival and get a beer and somewhere to sleep? Get your wallet out and let’s go!”

“Holy shit, American boy. I guess you weren’t put here to be a pussy either! All right, I’ll pay the man, but no more yelling until I get whiskey in me. I don’t know how to handle conflict. I’m still very young.” He winked at Dublin and made a throwing-up face at Jason and turned on his heels.

They heard bells.

Dublin started walking like a man who’d just found water in the desert. Well, he was, sort of. The bells were attached to the bicycle of a Fanmilk man who had an ice chest of frozen yogurt perched on the handlebars. He was, surely, the most admired man in the region. God could not deliver you from thirst, but Fanmilk could.

Dublin’s palms got sweaty when he saw the man had chocolate Fanyogo with him. Nobody carried that in Lomé. If he walked down to Bordertown just blocks from his house, he could hear the Fanmilk vendors on the Ghana side shout out “Chocolate!” It must been what the wall was like for Berliners, listening to Westerners calling out “Democracy!”

Dublin ate so fast he didn’t bother to stop and wipe the chocolate off his chin. David bought four and ate them all underneath the baobab tree whose shade they shared. Vegard was slumped over the dashboard, drooling onto the vinyl. He didn’t wake up when they all slammed the car doors to cross into Burkina.

David waved his middle finger and smiled at the two border guards, who watched the old Peugeot 504 pass and kick up dust, fanning their faces with the francs David gave them. When the car was gone, the guards glanced at the Fanmilk man and the trash the travelers had left under the baobab tree before heading back into the border station.

Peace Corps Girls Get the Boot

In this chapter, Dublin drinks with Peace Corps Volunteers on his way to Burkina Faso.

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Peace Corps Girls Get the Boot

A half dozen volunteers and the three students from Lomé walked the eight blocks to the bar together. The city was busy, even that late at night, and Dublin kept close to Jason. Bonfires burned in the middle of the street, flaring into aromas of kerosene and cooking meat and candle wicks. A man walked in circles around one of the fires, repeating “If you knew your history, then you would know where you’re coming from,” over and over with his fist raised to heaven. He gave Dublin a hard look.

The name of the bar was Le Château, and it was crowded. Two volunteers pushed three tables together. They pulled chairs over from other tables, and Dublin tried to squeeze in next to Jason. He listened to everyone else talk for a few minutes. He couldn’t find a conversation he belonged to.

“Boot!” One of the girls yelled at the rest of the table. Everyone nodded their heads and held up their beer glasses, except Keri and Dublin. The girl jumped up from her seat, knocking into someone’s chair at the table behind them, and danced over to the bar. She returned a few minutes later with a gallon of beer in a gigantic glass boot.

“They say they only have one, so if we break this, we owe ‘em some francs. Who’s first?” The man next to her took the boot gently in both hands and raised it to his mouth. Beer poured from around the sides of the lip of the boot, running in parallel streams down his cheeks and his chin. He laughed into the beer he was drinking. Everybody else laughed.

Somehow Dublin got skipped on the first round, and then the second. All of the beer was gone from the boot. “Who’s gonna buy the next one?” someone asked. A couple of fingers pointed at Dublin. “That guy’ll buy it.” He wanted to say something to them, that it wasn’t fair, but he didn’t want to do anything to make them not like him, so he pushed his chair back and stood up. The chair legs got stuck between a couple of boards and pressed into the backs of his knees. He almost fell down.

Socializing rarely gave him beautiful memories.

He approached the bartender, who motioned for him to go back and get the empty boot. A moment later it was full of beer again, giving the young Americans in West Africa something to do. Dublin unwisely set the boot on the table.

“Drink! Drink!” They shouted at him. He obeyed, sucking as much beer from the boot as he could before his breath took over. “You have to buy the next one, too!” the first girl shouted at him with a laughing, open mouth. “You shouldn’t set it down.” She was smiling and coy. He hated her.

He took his seat again and lapsed back into non-conversation. In a way, he relished the night. Again, he made himself become aware of Africa, visualizing it and his home on the globe, smelling it and hearing it and being amazed by all of that. He was drinking beer in public in the middle of a foreign town he’d never been to before. And he was with interesting people. Well, they were world travelers. They had seen a few things and would be comfortable in just about any town in the world. They spoke multiple languages; they just didn’t know how to use them. They were intellectuals, and they bored Dublin to tears.

Lighters flickered on and off for the rest of the night as a film of beer, smoke and sweat formed on the foreheads of the drinkers. Peace Corps volunteers smoked even more than Dublin’s friends at college. In a climate of such desolation, they had learned to cultivate an abundance of old mystery novels, alcohol and tobacco. It got them through. Still, many volunteers became genuinely depressed, and the others rarely left with any sense of true accomplishment. They fight too hard against the world.

Dublin could have fallen asleep at the table easily several times throughout the night, and by the time they left at three in the morning, he was exhausted. They stumbled back to the house together in blue darkness, the boot now kicking them all in the ass. Some of the volunteers decided to stay up drinking at the round table on the front porch; they had real Jack Daniels and Cokes and safe ice made from boiled water. Dublin felt like his whole body was one big pair of eyes fighting to stay open. Even his elbows felt tired, which he had trouble explaining to himself. The residents of the house had rolled out two sleeping bags for him and Keri, and he took off his khakis and slipped into the bag without zipping it up. Keri climbed into her bag and began undressing, fighting with bra clasps and zippers and socks for almost ten minutes. She rolled over on her side with her back to Dublin.

Light from the bathroom angled into the living room and spread across his face. It wouldn’t keep him up for long, but he was still annoyed. It’s just like these people not to know when to shut off a light. He had just about mustered up the ambition to get up and turn it off when two of the PC girls walked in there. One of them turned on the shower faucet while the other took off her T-shirt.

He didn’t want the light off anymore. It could stay on all night. There can’t be anything better to do on this entire, frustrating continent than watching a girl from Illinois brushing her teeth topless. He couldn’t hear what the two were chattering about because of the shower, but he wasn’t all that interested in the soundtrack anyway. One of the girls’ butts poked out from the doorway as she undressed all the way. They both got into the shower. A giggle popped out from the steam every few seconds or so as Dublin lost his struggle against sleep.

Hitchhiking to Kara

In this chapter, Dublin hitches a ride from a French woman, who is also giving a ride to two young Togolese men going to see their grandfather on his birthday.

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from Hitchhiking to Kara

The two men were also students at UB. They had been picked up by the French woman downtown, by chance. They were going to the village for their grandfather’s birthday.

“How old is he?” the woman asked.

“He will be ninety-seven.”

“Wow. I didn’t think anyone lived that long over here,” Dublin said.

The young man in the front seat squeaked and looked back at him. “My friend, when you see him, you will believe.” He turned back around.

They drove for about two hundred kilometers, mostly in silence, watching the road rush by them on either side and villages come into and fall out of existence, black plumes of smoke from coal fires pouring into the sky. The boy in front began giving directions to the French woman, and they came to a stop at last in a very small village just off the highway.

Looking back at the road in Togo

Dublin followed the two boys into a short hut next to the car, calling out their arrival. They offered Dublin a seat inside the main room, where their grandfather sat in one of two chairs. His hair was brittle and patchy; it had started to fall out in bales. An unbuttoned linen shirt revealed a chest so diminutive, Dublin could have counted his ribs from across the village. He had cataracts in both eyes, and one of them bulged out from his eyelids, sheathed in sky blue film. He smiled affectionately at the boys, looking toward the wall in blue blindness. They had brought him a bottle of whiskey for his birthday and opened it for him. He took a sip of it, then a longer drink, smiling broadly and licking his lips. Some of the whiskey dripped onto his chest, running over his ribs and onto his pants.

They talked in French, probably to make things more comfortable for Dublin, who stayed respectfully silent. Dublin liked the old man almost immediately, even though he couldn’t understand the geri-African accent. He bided his time by looking around the house. It was spare and functional, more a reflection of the man’s age than his economy. The sounds of the village through the window were muted; there couldn’t be more than fifty or sixty people living here.

Dublin had started to get the feeling that Togolese people were much more open with their families and neighbors than Americans. He couldn’t imagine hitchhiking in the States, much less having the people who pick him up bring him to their grandfather’s house on his birthday. Some of it was about race; Africans wanted to show things to white people. But it doesn’t explain everything. Everyone in Togo wanted to go to America, but Dublin was sure that if they did, they’d be surprised at all the loneliness.

“Americain?” he heard the old man say.

“Oui. Il est aussi étudiant.”

“Ah, bon,” he whispered and cleared his throat. He looked directly at Dublin with blind eyes, then croaked, “Dis nigger’s still kickin’!” He squinted at Dublin a little bit, gave a half smile, and turned back to his grandsons. If it was the only English he’d learned, he had picked a hell of a line. Dublin was still sitting in the chair in shock when the boys motioned to him that it was time to go. He followed them out the door with one last look at the old man, who was sitting cross-legged and looked very much like he had just passed away.

The Albino

In this chapter, Dublin meets the Albino, one of his new neighbors in Kodjoviakope, who protects him from the lunatic.

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The Albino

Dublin walked back to his house from a morning of swimming in the ocean. It had knocked the holy hell out of him again, and he was too beat to even smoke on the walk back. He passed the cigarette vendors he’d become familiar with by now, an old woman and her daughter who put the sour of an African orange to shame. They never greeted him kindly and rolled his change in coins at him, which fell into the sand. They had the cheapest cigarettes in the neighborhood.

A block ahead of him, he saw the two women who ran the fish smoker just getting set up. One of them was lighting the fire for the smoker, and the other held up two tiny silver fish like earrings, buckling with laughter. He heard her giggles echo off the whitewashed walls bordering the street.

A man stepped in front of him, holding a knife and a piece of wood he was shaping. His skin was very light and freckled, and his tightly curled hair glinted red and silver in the morning sun. He smiled broadly beneath acres of thick glasses.

“Hello, brother.”

“Hello.”

“You are American.” Dublin nodded at him. “I see that you have a house up the street.” Dublin nodded again. Thief? Pimp? Schizophrenic? Friend? “My name is Robert. I come from Ghana, from the university. I am the Albino.” No decision yet.

“My name is Dublin.”

The Albino laughed deeply like James Earl Jones. “It is a genuine pleasure to meet you. I have seen you walking. How are you getting along in Africa?”

“Fine. I’m still figuring it all out.”

“My friend, you will never figure it all out. You will never figure out any of it. I don’t understand the compulsion of Westerners to handle everything they come into contact with. Africa is Atlantis, Africa is Alpha Centauri, Africa is the last reaches of the soul, always undiscovered by Man. Whites may try, but they won’t succeed. Better to enjoy what is here, which is not there where you come from.” Dublin liked him immensely.

“But let’s say I came here for a very special reason, and I’m actually relying on the Atlantis and the soul of Africa to make it work. I don’t really think of myself as being here as a white person, but as a person doing what he was put here to do.”

“What could be so important?”

“Well, I can’t tell you that. I’m not even really sure what I’m supposed to do. But I had this vision, and I-”

“A vision of coming to Togo?”

“No, a different kind of vision. Knowledge was revealed to me, let’s say. So I had this vision, and I think Africa is the only place left in the world where something from, you know, the next place, or from God, or whatever, could take form in our world. What do you think?”

“You’re telling me the spirits told you something, and you made up your mind to go to Africa so you could act on your wisdom?”

“Yes.”

“What about California?”

“Well, I don’t think that’s the same thing.”

“You know, they may have led you here to teach you something else. Perhaps what you think you are doing is just a way for you to learn something on your own. Did you think about that?”

“Well, that’s not it. Not in this case. I know what they told me is true. I just have to figure out have to tell everyone else.”

“They say Jesus walked around to every village to spread the good news. Is that what you are going to do?”

“Well, no. I was thinking there was another way.”

“That it would just happen on its own?”

“Yeah, sort of.”

“Good luck.”

“Thank you.”

“So, my friend. Is there anything I can do to help you get to know your neighborhood?”

“Well, I don’t know. It’s Kodjoviakopé, right?”

“Yes. It means village of Kodjo. Kodjo is a boy’s name they take for being born on a Monday.”

“Did you grow up here?” A man was walking from the direction of the ocean towards them.

“No, no, I was born in Ghana. Nineteen-fifty-two. I came here because Ghana is too affluent now, and people don’t treat albinos very well when society is healthy. People are too poor and happy in Lomé to make fun of me. Like those two nice girls,” he pointed up the street. “They have a lot of laughter. They already talk about you. What more can you ask for? Visions from God?” He laughed.

“What are you telling him? Are you telling him about drums?” The man who had been walking up the street had reached them. He was dressed in a shirt soaked in sea salt and a pair of pants patched from linen rags.

“No, I’m not telling him about drums,” the Albino answered.

“You shouldn’t be telling him anything. Don’t tell him anything! You don’t know who he reports to.”

“A fool?” Dublin asked the Albino out loud, without really thinking.

“A fool? A fool? No, American! You are the fool!”

“He didn’t mean anything,” the Albino said, putting his freckled hand on the other man’s shoulder.

“No! He said I’m a fool! Now I will have to hit him in the face!”

Dublin looked at the Albino, then began laughing nervously and walked away, waving to both of them.

“Goodbye, my friend!” The Albino shouted as he walked away. “Say hello to God for me!” The fool was crying into the Albino’s shirt.

“A fool, a fool,” he sobbed. The sun reached its highest point in the sky, making their shadows disappear.

Mamie

In this chapter, Dublin meets a well-known Vietnamese landlady named Mamie, who rents him a house in Kodjoviakope.

———————

Mamie

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.

“OK.”

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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

Money Road

In this chapter, Dublin visits the outdoor market in Lomé to find supplies for his new home.

———————

Money Road

 

Dublin stepped out of his taxi and onto the sand covering the Rue de Commerce. Money Road. The boulevard is home to the banks of Loma, scores of black market moneychangers and the largest outdoor marketplace in West Africa. The market is centralized in a three story building, but stretches out for several blocks in all directions, stuffed with chickens and jewelry and raw steaks blistering in the sun. On the first floor of the market, vendors push all kinds of food, from rice and millet to yams, peanuts, steaks, lamb and wild rat, peppers, spices and canned coffee. It smells. The great vendors of pagnes occupy the second floor. These are the famous Nanas Benz, the Mercedes Mamas. In West Africa, if you are fat, you are affluent. And these women are giants, physically and economically. They sell some of the finest cloth on the continent and often employ several servants. Usually the Mamas sit back and watch the transactions without actually doing any work. If there is a question of quality or price, they uncoil from their chairs, shaking their fingers and damning the doubts of the buyer. They are the ultimate in luxury and resilience.

On the third floor of the market building, Dublin bought a green coffee cup and two orange bowls, a bucket for rubbish and a large orange washbasin for laundry.

Back out on the street, a young boy carrying a goat walked by him as he passed a shaky table of rotting roma tomatoes and green bell peppers, while a woman balancing sixteen large suitcases on her head slid by a girl selling scissors and toilet paper. He was looking for soap through the arms and legs of two hundred people slipping around each other like bait in a bucket. He didn’t know yet that some people sold their goods in the same place every day, that some of them had lower prices or better quality than others. Expatriates and tourists built up legends about such people, such as the flip-flop vendor across from Ecobank, the mask seller in tiny Woodworkers’ Alley, and the cassette vendor circling Boston Pub. He asked two or three people where to find soap, but they shook their heads.

Just then, he felt a leathery, cool hand crawl into his, and he turned to see a tall man in American clothes and dark sunglasses standing next to him. As time passed in Africa he almost got used to holding men’s hands, which felt odd sometimes, reassuring at others. But he didn’t know this man at all, and we are all familiar enough with American culture to know that it was uncomfortable for Dublin. He left his hand there, anyway.

“Hey, man, let me tell you about Alice.”

Oh, great, Dublin thought. A crazy. But the man started up again.

“Yeah, you new to Togo, so you need to see Alice. She have acrobats.” He looked over the top of his glasses. “At the home of Alice.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Chez Alice. Hotel in Lomé. For the white people. But they have acrobats there, and you like it.”

“Acrobats?”

“Yeah! They great. Come and see it on Wednesday night when the sun go down. I will look for you there. But now you come with me, I show you around a little bit.”

“OK, sure.”

They walked around the market for another hour or so (he knew a friend who sold soap), and Dublin bought him a Fanta for his gratitude. He learned a lot in that hour and was shown secret places he may have never found on his own. The woodworkers in the Alley of the Grand Market pressed him as he visited their stalls. Men and boys chattered at him and showed him masks plated with silver and beaded with small white seashells. They took him to a small café to eat fufu with chicken sauce, but he wouldn’t try it. They laughed at him. They told him about the fetish markets that sold monkey skulls and magical branches that produced large erections. Boys with wooden cartons filled with cassette knockoffs of American pop singers and young Indian divas clamored around him. Girls begged for francs, pulling on his T-shirt. There were no old men, and no couples with children. This was not a family neighborhood. This was all business, and it was the closest thing to the empty America Dublin knew. The differences were that Dublin could sense nature and life all around him in Lomé, and people were outside under the open sky, and lips didn’t remain tight for even a second when strangers met. It was Money Road, but the human beings had cast off their masks.

Losing the Center

In this chapter, Dublin, a student who has traveled to Africa to learn the meaning of life, is just getting to know his new home.

———————

Losing the Center

The next few days passed out of memory as soon as they happened. With nothing to reference, Dublin’s mind could anchor only a few sounds and smells, feelings and sights. There were short taxi rides, and spectacular clothing, certain large baobab trees and rotting homes, the smell of gasoline and garbage. He tried to record some of his experiences on a micro cassette recorder, but on later review, they did little to color in the black and white line drawings of those first few days.

The first morning at the American Recreation Center, he left his comfortable room and walked down a hallway with lime green floor tiles to the yard, where there was a pool, tennis courts, and a man selling hamburgers and Snickers bars. The Center was rarely used; Togo’s golden years of tourism had atrophied with every violent election. A few Peace Corps Volunteers wandered in from time to time, some diplomats with their children on the weekends. A concrete wall surrounded the compound, topped by a line of broken glass to keep out intruders. Dublin had never seen anything like it. He wanted to try climbing over it.

After three days of drinking Cokes and writing journal entries, with no sign of the woman who had picked him up at the airport, Dublin asked the guard to find him a taxi. He had walked around the outside of the Center that morning but was intimidated by the stares he got. By mid afternoon he was feeling braver. He took the taxi down to the ocean to take a look around and found a hotel just off the beach that served sandwiches and cold beer. The rooms were small, but cheaper than those at the Center by a few dollars, so he decided to move. The guard at the Center warned him about wandering the beach after dark and wished him well.

Dublin had plenty of time to daydream at the hotel. A middle-aged man, half French and half Vietnamese, owned the hotel with his wife. She had given it the name Hotel Galion. They rented an empty lot across the street for live music on Saturday nights. Business was slow, despite clean rooms and incredible beef and carrot sandwiches for less than 1600 CFA.

There are 100 African francs for every French franc. There are five or six French francs to the dollar. Dublin had done the conversion wrong in his head at first. He thought cigarettes cost sixteen dollars per pack. I should quit, he thought. Then he realized they were only a quarter a pack. I should get some smokes, he reconsidered. Marlboros were more expensive, but he found British cigarettes for as little as fifteen cents. At that discovery, he felt like Columbus.

Nicotine would prove essential for him there. Many moments call for tobacco, and he was determined to conquer every single one. Besides, he was too young to appreciate the costs of tobacco. He classified his entire experience in Africa as a special occasion, his loophole for smoking whenever the voice told him to quit. He had lots of literary evidence backing him up. Ayn Rand had written something about the fire of imagination invoking itself in the ember at the end of a cigarette, just inches from the human mind. How can the case for smoking be broken with such powerful advocacy?

Coastal Highway – Lome, Togo

This is the paved highway that runs along the coast in Lome, Togo. It’s my first ride on a moped taxi, and I’m on my way to the house I rented in the neighborhood of Kodjoviakope. You can see the beach on the left. There are two kinds of beaches in Lome: soccer fields and pooping grounds. Be careful where you kick!

Coastal Highway - Lome, Togo

This is the space between getting and got.

You know what I mean – the time that nobody documents in a biography, the time between “worked part time at a grocer in his early 20’s” and “had his first manuscript published at 35.” Have you ever wondered what happened in between doing nothing and getting discovered? How did these people spend their time? And what did they do special to achieve their dreams? How did the manuscript get read?

How many people read it first and thought it was garbage?

So far, that number is 3. Three agents have rejected my first novel, Long Pants Under a Hot Sun. But hey, everyone has an off day here and there. I don’t hold it against them.

So I’ve decided to document this time, this space between the last letter of Long Pants and the first edition. The fun part is that you get to watch the rejections pile up with me – just think of the anticipation – how many will I get? How long will it take? As if that weren’t motivation enough, I’m also going to post excerpts from the book. Take a few minutes at work or on the train to find out who Dublin is, and why he’s in Africa, and why it’s so important to drink a lot in Africa, and why albinos make good friends, and why you should never give French Scotch to an African king, and why blind people farm, and why we sometimes don’t realize when people have fallen in love with us, and maybe, just maybe, what the meaning of life is.

And how Dublin screws that up too.

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