"Chérie," Talibe said one morning—that is to say around one fifteen in the afternoon—gulping down cold palm soup, "I marry you, yes?"
"Well, yeah," his African wife answered cheerfully in her heavy Slavic accent, "it was very nice of you, I know."
"Mais I have one cousin—"
Gin didn't freak out. She didn't know what was coming. She was just the tiniest bit surprised at why Talibe should, so early in the morning, talk about some cousin at all. ONE COUSIN certainly didn't belong among Talibe's relatives. Even the word "brother" meant not much more than that they belonged—probably—to the same tribe. But even that wasn't for sure. Gin had already met several dozen of Talibe's brothers: they flicked in front of her, then disappeared—and when Gin dared to ask about the well-being of this brother or that one, Talibe at first had no idea who she was talking about and then he waved his hand: "Oh, this one? Mais he move long ago to Michigan!" As a matter of fact, all you had to do in Harlem was come out into the street and you'd discover that everyone was a brother of sorts. Limamou, who'd been driving a gypsy cab in Harlem for quite a while now, told her about a customer who pulled a shiny gun on him, stuck it to the nape of his neck, conducting the smell of steel into Limamou like he was an electric wire, and said: "Black brother, I kill ya dead, gimme all your motherfuckin' money!"
One cousin, that must be somebody who came more or less from Africa and who Talibe drove in his taxi into Flushing, Queens, last night.
"One cousin," Talibe continued. "More handsome than I. Very, very handsome. I ugly. He most very handsome taxidriver. Mais in Brooklyn. He make forty a day, most. And he needs send money to Africa. He no work permit, illegal, you know."
Gin took a spoon out of a used Folgers Coffee can (that now served as a kitchen cabinet) and sank it determinedly into Talibe's breakfast. The soup tasted like fried orange termites, parboiled in turpentine. Until the end of my days I'll eat on the fire escape, she thought. She went to the bedroom to get a sweater.
"Chérie!" Talibe yelled after her. This was unusual, he almost never raised his voice. "I your husband, non? Mais you no listen! I talk, you listen what I talk, tu as compri? You to my cousin get married. You this make for me!"
|Gimme the Money|
Gin dropped her sweater on the floor and then followed it, slowly sliding down the side of the refrigerator. She sank to the linoleum and dropped her head between her knees. No, she wasn't fainting fashionably like a fair heroine in a Harlequin romance. She only kind of lost her balance, thinking about all the BS she'd have to discuss with Talibe in the hour to come. In the City of New York, some culture shock was laying in wait beyond every street corner—the little Park Avenue ladies who screamed bloody murder every time the taxi hit a pothole; "tough" Wall Street executives who used silver tubes to stuff cocaine up their noses on the back seat; Chinatown where she struggled with chopsticks and a bowl of chow-fun noodle soup, and all the waiters retched every time a Westerner touched his face with his left hand; the unwritten laws of the Harlem ghetto where many a decked-out resident was purely begging to be ogled at but at the same time a curious stare was a crime punishable by instant shooting.
Gin should have been used to culture shocks.
But she simply refused to believe that they would occur on a more or less daily basis and in her own kitchen.
"But Talibe! I am already married! To YOU!"
"He no have money, you know? Forty dollars a day, never more. And his family he has in Upper Volta, I want to say Burkina Faso. Problem, in Burkina Faso, you know?"
Gin had never heard about a single country in Africa in which there wouldn't permanently be a "problem." But she decided to keep that comment to herself.
"I can't have TWO husbands! Jee-zus Christ! Don't you understand?"
Talibe gave her a look of chilly appraisal. Personally, he was convinced that Gin could have a dozen husbands, should the need arise. He could easily imagine her in bed with Limamou, with Traore—pretty much with any of his acquaintances. He didn't even get mad at that thought anymore. Anyway, Gin isn't going to actually sleep with her second husband, that's not the plan. Now he tried to concentrate on this deal, a deal a friend had secured for him. It's not going to happen overnight but in the end Talibe might make as much as seven thousand dollars.
"Here we are in America, Talibe!" his wife was presently screaming. "I can't get married two times, or three times, or eight hundred and twenty times. I'd get DEPORTED, don't you understand? Everything is on fucking COMPUTERS, don't you fucking understand? If we were in Upper Volta or in West Sahara or in Crocodile-on-the-Nile-istan, well, I'd marry all the cousins, male or female, you ever heard about. If it makes you happy. But this is AMERICA. Can't you fucking get it?"
"Mais he very, very handsome," Talibe said.
Talibe's apartment stood, pretty much, in the middle of the ghetto (that is, if we don't listen to those experts who say that 116th Street isn't quite Harlem yet, that only on 125th a cemetery begins, slowly turning into a morgue somewhere around 145th). In order to enter his apartment one had to climb up a marble staircase, smelling of gallons and gallons of dried piss, decorated in the corners with the green bile left by junkies and the orange bile left by junkies-cum-methadone addicts, strewn with cigarette butts and empty pot bags—and syringes so decrepit that not even the most desperate of junkies were willing to shoot up with them one more time, and used condoms, and crack vials, empty of course, but equipped with orange, purple or pink caps, all that in several stages of brokenness. In the second mezzanine several bullets got embedded in the plaster, forming a cute little semi-circle. Gin had no idea what their motive, target or success rate was but they sure looked dramatic in the soft, sickly light the cracked cream-colored windowpane let inside. The peeling paint on the walls was made more lively by colorful curlicues of graffiti. Sure, they all looked a bit unfinished and indecisive—the spray-paint artists didn't pay quite as much attention to them as they did to the murals on the more visible outer walls.
(Graffiti in New York, by the way, seemed to be born right from the plaster: It grew out of the gray concrete of highway overpasses like some strange decorative mold... It sprang up—within days—on any fresh surface; even at places where the artists couldn't get in any other fashion but hanging down from a rope by their feet one could soon spot huge, round, fat, silver-rimmed letters. Gin, who spent her nights sailing down rivers of concrete didn't once see anyone actually spraying graffiti. But the designs on every corner, every street, every highway kept changing all the time, like growing colonies of iridescent bacteria. Like the sand dunes in the Sahara desert, shaped by the wind into newer and newer patterns that were the same for thousands of years.)
(Perhaps this desert theory had a meaning of its own on 116th Street: in Harlem there thrived certain adjustable life forms—plants with amazingly deep roots that can reach down for the water of the Earth, thorny cacti that store moisture inside themselves, fast-legged ants who have half an hour to find food on the hot surface of the sand before they die of dehydration.)
Gin knew she was no desert flower, even though she would like to be one. And Talibe was deathly afraid of Harlem.
So he turned his place into an oasis. A sweet-smelling and life-giving one.
The door leading to apt #5C had peeling paint on the outside, and the silverish curlicues on it read PUSSY and KILL—but Talibe painted its inner side celestial blue and decorated it with pictures of his whole family: about thirty-five people whom Talibe hadn't seen for at least four years. His grandfather, grandmother, father, mother, brothers, aunts and uncles, and also his beautiful sister with four children like little steps— the children Talibe missed so much he could cry.
Talibe's apartment had beautiful, spiffy, wall-to-wall carpeting. Its windows were perfectly washed but covered by heavy curtains because, after all, they only led out into a reality he didn't want to live in.
Talibe's apartment smelled sweet. Day in and day out Talibe burned three scented sticks he'd bought in a botanica on 116th and Park Avenue, owned by a certain Rasta. The sticks were supposed to purify the air by getting rid of lousy smells and witches—so Talibe would wave their little flames around the whole apartment day after day, wafting their cleansing smell into every corner.
In the bathroom, right above the spic-and-span tub, there was a whole pile of fluffy towels and the metal faucets were all sparkly. By polishing the faucets, Talibe fortified his place against the dusty, dangerous reality of Harlem, a neighborhood filled with unknown smells and strewn with colorful garbage, plastic cups, papers, bags—things children in Africa could play with but here they were festering by the sewer grates.
Talibe swept his apartment daily.
He swept away the wail of the police sirens and took it out in a black plastic bag, all the way to the garbage can that was squeezed in between two blue Greek columns in front of the building. From behind the dresser he swept out the never-ending fights of his upstairs neighbors. He collected Gin's dumb ideas on a large dustpan, and flushed his unrequited dreams down the toilet, in the form of used rubbers.
Talibe's cleaning binges were awfully similar to purifying one's house from the presence of bad spirits.
All around Talibe's living room, on the clean, sweet-smelling, wall-to wall carpet, several Africans—about fifteen of them—were sitting in classical tribal positions. Dressed in richly embroidered long shirts called boubou they drank green tea, which was served, as tradition prescribed, three times into the same plastic cup, and they gnawed on cola nuts that reminded Gin—both by look and by taste—of horse chestnuts soaked in turpentine.
The light of a tall lamp reflected off their noses, cheeks, temples and foreheads in so many different ways that even Gin's untrained eye could clearly recognize they weren't of the same tribe.
They talked—really loudly—African creole of which she understood only a couple of words here and there.
As the only woman nearby she was appointed to serve tea and pile up (with her RIGHT HAND!) newer and newer cola nuts on a little tabouret in the middle of the room. In her spare time she was supposed to pretend she was cooking dinner in the kitchen. Talibe had decided to splurge and have food delivered from a recently opened Senegalese restaurant on 117th Street.
Gin was not supposed to enter the conversation. Which was easy because nobody paid any attention to her anyway.
They were discussing Gin's second wedding.
In among shards of words she didn't know the word "Ouagadougou" emerged out of Talibe's mouth, hanging in the air for a while.
Then it fell.
"Ouagadougou!" Limamou yelled out, hit his knees with his fists and began to laugh. "Ouagadougou! Ouagadougou!" he screamed. "Ouagadougou! Ouagadougou!" He went down to all fours and then collapsed, head-first, on the carpet. "Ouagadougou!" he bellowed, wiping tears from his eyes with the tip of his thumb, wriggling like he was a shaman in a trance or fish on a hook. "I've never heard anything like that! Ouagadougou! You will kill me!"
Soon all the advisers were rolling around with laughter, among spilled green tea and kola nuts. The whole conversation was reduced to one four-syllable scream.
Gin searched with her eyes for the dark brown eyes of Talibe's. They were narrowed with anger. Silently Talibe kicked her out of the room with a single motion of his head.
Members of few nations carry their name so unchangingly, docilely and publicly as Europeans do. In Africa people deal with their names in a much more generous manner. They often have one name while they're little babies, another one when they grow up a little, and still another one after they've gone through initiation ceremonies and become men and women. When an African decides to move out of the village of his birth to another, he often changes his name for this occasion. It's not because he wants to hide and act like a desperado. For various residences, just like for various ages, various occupations or even various moods various names are fitting, that's all.
Even though the naming ceremonies significantly differ based on the tribe, apparently, in most of West Africa their principle is the same: every man gets his SECRET name, whispered into his ear by the tribal shaman, or his father, or his grandfather. It's a name no one else must hear. It's a dangerous name and when pronounced aloud it carries in it its owner's death, but at the same time it accompanies him throughout his whole life, protecting him. That name is the essence of his self, and whenever an African thinks about his self, he addresses himself in his thoughts by his secret name. All other names are just additions, they don't carry his identity in them.
And so it shouldn't be surprising that many an African, upon departure behind the ocean, chooses a completely different name, one he'd never carried before.
It's his "Western" name—but, of course, only a fool would write an American-sounding one into his passport. The best is to choose a name that sounds very African but reveals absolutely nothing about its owner.
Africans write into their passports—perhaps out of laziness, perhaps out of nostalgia—the names of rivers, mountain ridges or villages in their homeland. The syllabic clusters in them sound exactly the same way the immigration officers with a trained ear imagine the "Africanese" of a certain land should sound.
And so throughout the United States perhaps thousands, perhaps tens of thousands roam whose names, if translated into English, would be Hudson River, Empire State Building, Arizona Texas or Hellville Wisconsin.
It turned out that Gin's future second husband chose as his American name the name of the capital of Burkina Faso.
"I marry to you in Manhattan. Mais you marry to my cousin in Bronx. And not to be afraid of anything, chérie. We have magic in Africa you don't believe, I show you. And nobody knows anything bad, nobody, nobody. My cousin get his green card. You understand what I speak to you, chérie?"
Talibe squashed Gin between his thumb and forefinger and then squeamishly threw her between a hard place and a concrete wall. She tried to explain to him that that whole plan of his is total bullshit because whatever the clerks at the Borough Hall won't find, the computer at the Immigration Service certainly will, and this whole thing is not about getting Ouagadougou to marry, it's about his getting a green card—however Talibe was equipped with a rare ability not to hear whatever he didn't want to hear. He announced to her sternly that if she doesn't marry Ouagadougou he, Talibe, will have to divorce her and marry some other woman—some woman who will willingly give her hand in marriage to any of his cousins.
"And I know many woman like this, many!" Talibe gave a worldly wave of his hand. —It's a kind of web, chérie, you know. I helped you, you'll help my cousin, and when you have some girlfriend who needs a green card, well, it isn't quite out of the question that my cousin will—
Visions of complicated, multidimensional, hopelessly entangled and never-ending webs thanks to which all the people will help each other so they ALL can get to America, haunted Gin even in her dreams. She dreamt about fishermen's nets with square holes in which a whiting called Gin was hopelessly wiggling; she dreamed about honeycomb nets in which she sank into a sweet and sticky substance; she dreamt about doilies crocheted out of black and white threads, about rectangular nets and 3D nets, about mosquito nets, about resonant spider webs in which huge spiders with mandibles like Caterpillar excavators were sitting, whetting their appetite for Gin. While—a smug half-smile on their snouts—smearing the ropes of their webs with KrazyGlue.
"Don't worry about nothing, chérie," Talibe cheered her. "We have magic in Africa..."
He reminded Gin more and more of a spider as the days went by.
When it comes to magic, however, he wasn't telling her the truth. Talibe couldn't be sure of any specific African magic, and even though Limamou swore to him that he knew everything about green cards, including the right magic that will bring them to you, Talibe didn't believe him so much anymore. Limamou had been living in Harlem for almost eighteen years already and so far he hadn't managed—magic and all—to bring his own wife over here. "Bah!" Limamou used to brag on every possible and impossible occasion. "Bah! That green card of yours, those never-ceasing worries of yours, you're just like women! You people just sit at home in Africa, in all comfort, you wait in line for a tourist visa, that's all—is that what you call trouble? It doesn't take longer than a year or two, when you know which strings to pull, and as soon as you're here, then—"
It was true, after all. As soon as a person made it here, to America, even though only as a nonentity without a social security number, without a driver's license and without any rights—well, then it's a sink or swim— and Talibe was truly grateful for the life belt the Harlem African community threw to him day after day. The African community of Harlem—that was an alliance of people who would—at home in Africa—barely say hello to each other, but here they were glued together with their need for unity in an enemy land. The Africans recognized one another immediately—after all, they were substantially darker than American blacks, their faces swallowed light much more hungrily. The African faces were so dark that in subdued light their features were hard to read, even though, Talibe believed, they shone with an inner fire that penetrated to the surface in glistening pearls of the skin structure. And so they recognized one another—and immediately started to speak to each other the African creole.
But they also knew how to hate each other, and Talibe, thanks to Gin, made a lot of bad blood for himself in the community. He shouldn't have shown her off to them, he knew that now and was mad at himself about it, even though he had no idea how to keep her a secret anyway. The West African community of Harlem resembled—judged by its nosiness, gossip and public secrets—a truly strange and truly tiny village in which women were practically missing. The news that Talibe had married a redhead taxidriver flew through Harlem faster than the white puffs of dandelion seeds.
All of which meant that Ouagadougou represented a great hope for Talibe. He had to prove to them somehow that his wife is good for at least something.
Otherwise, they'd think he is a fool.
Limamou was right, after all, when he said that immigrants of Talibe's generation had it easy in America: Limamou himself had entered this continent, hanging from a hook on a shipyard's crane, nailed into a huge box of bananas. It wasn't possible to travel with cans, they provided a rather monotonous and salty diet, even if one didn't forget to take a can opener with him, and because they didn't go rotten so fast, they often got totally lost somewhere in depots and shipyards, so that it took forever for your skeleton to make it somewhere, and one often didn't even know where exactly. Limamou, as he said, had to spend over ten weeks in the shipyard in Dakar, bribing all the guards daily, choosing his box—one with as soft as possible wood to sit on, with its boards as far away from each other as they came, so light and air can get inside—and seven times he made sure where that ship of his was headed, before he descended on it with the assistance of the shipyard crane (on the rope of which he was swinging for at least half an hour). The problem was that the United States didn't import too much stuff from West Africa—and the impatient security guards at the shipyards were trying their best to put you on any boat, never mind where it was going, and get rid of you in this way. Oh-oh, didn't Limamou hear about cases! Like that one about a certain desperate guy who, after a year and a half of sailing (of course, out of the box already) ended up exactly in the same place where he'd began his journey: in a shipyard in Senegal, and from the ship his journey made a beeline for the jail in Dakar. Or, a relative of his had himself nailed into a box of mangoes, just because he liked mangoes, and after a suspiciously short sail he debarked—in Norway! He lived in Norway ever since and he apparently was doing quite well, but Limamou shuddered at the mere thought of northern winters that penetrate every bone of Africans' bodies, so they get arthritis within a year and pneumonia within two weeks— and he was already congratulating himself on his farsightedness as he was swinging on the rope above the ship that would take him to the American paradise, when, in one of the sunrays that cut through the darkness in the box like thin golden guillotines, he saw some bright-green shape coiling.
A well-developed green viper was trying to emigrate in the same banana box.
"There are occasions in life," Limamou liked to elucidate philosophically, "when magic works one hundred percent, and there are others when you can't rely on magic." This, evidently, was the latter case. After hours of laying in wait while every, every! shadow in Limamou's box was coiling and hissing poisonously, Limamou killed the snake with his fist. The bananas were bitter and green, only during the trip did they slowly ripen.
Well, whatever happened, Limamou would say, when his ship landed at Elisabeth, New Jersey, the weathered box, made of tropical wood, contained— except for the thinned-out Limamou, banana peels, two big gas cans that were originally full of water and now brownish yellow pee was splishing in them, and a huge pile of what a decent man won't talk about—also the white, chewed-off skeleton of a viper whose power now belonged to Limamou.
"Yeah, you are a snake, aren't you?" Talibe said, but not aloud.
The situation into which Talibe let himself be manipulated, just begged for some unnatural powers, but at the same time Talibe was afraid it belonged among those situations in which African magic doesn't work. At least he couldn't remember any recipe to follow when YOUR WIFE IS MARRYING YOUR (DISTANT) COUSIN IN THE BRONX BOROUGH HALL, AND THE COMPUTER MUST NOT FIND OUT ABOUT IT.
He couldn't depend on Limamou and he knew that. He went for advice to the Rastafarian who had a botanica on 116th Street and Park, and this was the advice he got: "Shit, mon! We didn't get to that in my Island Magic 101 course, mon! But as we're talking about it, how 'bout checkin' out my Universal Track Sweeper, mon?" He picked up a box from a shelf and added: "I know a mon he rob houses for twenty years, mon, and he always sprinkle just a pinch of the Sweeper, mon, just a tiny little pinch, and he only got caught once, and that's just 'cause he was out of it, mon!"
The Universal Track Sweeper was a greenish brown dust with a bitter and acrid smell, and it cost more than three La Guardias. Talibe had long ago begun to measure prices with the distances he had to drive in his taxi to get that kind of money. But he would gladly return to La Guardia Airport ten times or more, if only he could be sure this magic would work.
Talibe was taking his cousin Ouagadougou (from whose eyes the dried cow shit of his home village was falling in flakes, he thought with an air of worldliness) to the Bronx Borough Hall on 149th and Grand Concourse. From a little box with magic inscriptions on it he threw little pinches of the Universal Track Sweeper behind their heels. Better something than nothing at all, he reasoned mournfully.
Gin's knees were buckling with terror and the rattling of the train, as it was making its way through the slimy tunnels, was turning in her imaginative soul into the horrendous earthquake that will sweep her off the face of the Earth one day not so far from now.
It wasn't easy to tell what Ouagadougou was thinking. His face looked like he didn't have a clue what was going on around him. They had to show him three times where to sign the register, then he grabbed the pen like it was a hammer—and his signature resembled dried out rat's droppings.
"You kiss him very, very much, chérie." Talibe waived his hands disapprovingly, angrily casting the last bits of the Universal Track Sweeper around the subway station.
"I have to kiss him at the City Hall, don't I? That's normal, isn't it?"
"Mais, you kiss him. Very—really! With ton... tongue!" Talibe blurted out, and if he wasn't black, he'd turn crimson. He
wasn't used to talking like that.
"Maybe I liked it," his half-wife said brazenly. She grabbed the confused Ouagadougou by the hand and intertwined her fingers with his. She formed a black-and-white chessboard. Talibe began to stutter.
"Mais... mais... you must not be me so... unfaithful, chérie, it... I muslim. I will not tolerate you... I will not allow. I-I-I—"
The very same evening Gin followed Ouagadougou to his Brooklyn apartment where they—while his three roommates smoked in the kitchen—descended to the bed of love.
It was a mattress, thrown on the worn-our parquet floor.
So far, Ouagadougou didn't own a good-luck charm to protect him from bullets. But it took him about fifteen minutes to remove some kind of magical contraption, made of shrunken snake skin, from his ankle.
They turned off the overhead light, so the contrast of their bodies wouldn't disturb the wedding night.
They didn't talk very much.
Even if Ouagadougou did speak English, he wouldn't have a clue what to tell her.
He took off his pants. He'd only started wearing jeans a short time ago, as one of the concessions he made to this continent. They got on his nerves.
With his hand, which would like to have the practice of a womanizer's, he checked in between Gin's thighs.
Gin emitted a deep sigh.
Ouagadougou got up, pulled those damn pants back on (so as to hide his confusion) and stumbled to the switch.
Electric light had its advantages, after all.
In its yellowish glow he saw an image he'd never seen before.
Wedged between the labia on Gin's private parts, a protruding, wet, pink bump was sitting. He'd heard about such a thing quite often. But he'd never seen it. The girls of his tribe were initiated when they were about thirteen years old: the older women sliced off their male part with a knife, as tradition prescribed. The genitals of the girls of his tribe consisted of a sewn-up unity, of devoted meekness; of a hollow into which their husband sowed his sperm—and after some time his son came out of the hole.
The girls of his tribe were beautiful, dark, smiling and inaccessible. The ritual surgery removed from their bodies some kind of control switch, a lump of flesh that would turn them on and make them unable to say NO.
In the yellowish glow of the American lamp Ouagadougou examined the pink genitals of his new wife. They seemed overgrown and unruly to him. They didn't look at all like the neat scar in the dark skin of girls he'd known so far.
The beautiful maidens of his tribe wanted nothing but a son. But Gin could be manipulated.
It was enough to touch with his finger the pink protrusion between the thighs of his white wife, and Gin began to moan and wiggle, almost as if he was hurting her, but a little differently. She mumbled something in English. Ouagadougou didn't understand very well but he was sure it was an invitation into the unknown depths of her loins.
In a rather experienced way, with two worldly fingers, Gin pulled a light-blue condom on Ouag.
It wasn't easy to fantasize about sons.
Iva Pekárková, 30 April 2001
Special thanks to Serpent's Tail for permission to publish this extract from Iva Pekárková's Gimme the Money
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