This story published in the 2016 issue of The Olive Tree Review
The Knife in America
There is an old Senegalese parable about an arrogant, inventive little spider named Anansi. While listening to a story one day, the spider became very upset upon discovering that the story was neither about him, nor by him. He took his concerns to the local chief of the village and asked permission to have all stories, from then on, be about him and by him. The chief said that he would grant the spider this request only if he would single-handedly bring a tiger back to him, alive and willing. The spider agreed, and traveled to a cave that he knew the tiger lived. The spider then sewed up both of his eyes, and began singing and dancing wildly outside of the cave. When the tiger came out to investigate, the spider told him that since sewing up his eyes, he now sees the most beautiful colors and cannot help but to dance and sing all day. The tiger quickly insisted upon the spider sewing up his eyes as well, so he too could see these colors. The spider quickly complied, and danced with the tiger, all the way back to the astonished chief. Impressed, the chief granted the spider’s request.
Alpha enjoyed this story very much, and since moving to America, if pressed about his origin long enough, he would tell it.
"Ok bro, here is a good story from Senegal, bro. It's very good. Funny too,” he’d start. He'd tell the story, and based upon the response he would tweak it each time. If “his audience” wasn’t laughing Alpha (as Anansi) would conclude by breaking into a flailing jig that would eventually send him crashing to the ground. If his listeners were enjoying themselves he could often elaborate upon the story until neither he nor anyone else could keep it straight (Anansi has been known to end up on the moon selling breadfruit). You see, to Alpha, the story was not nearly as important as the response. He would do the same kind of tweaking with his own story. He told people he was from Senegal, and not really from Guinea, because he feared people would associate or even blame him for the Ebola Virus. He told people that his father was a scholar from France, rather than tell of how he had really fled his home country of Sierra Leone, to avoid a bloody revolution. He even told people his name was Alpha, because he feared his real name of Mamadu, which is “Mohamed” translated, would give people the impression that he might be a member of Boko Haram, or “even worse Al Qaeda,” he’d think to himself and get anxious (of course there was a slim chance in hell any American would ever research the origin of his, or anyone else’s name for that matter. Most jingoists these days make their “terrorist judgments” pre-research anyhow). However, he too chose the name of Alpha because he had once thought highly of himself.
Back in his home-village Alpha always attracted a lot of attention from the women. The older women, because he was a very kind and gentle boy, always offering to help, if he saw something needed to be carried or worked upon. The younger women, because he was a very handsome young man, with very rich dark skin, his face clear of any imperfections or scars. He was tall and thin, which allowed for his muscles to protrude from his tightly-wound frame. But what most attracted these women was Alpha's perfectly sculpted, symmetrically shaped skull, which he meticulously shaved every morning, with an ivory and bone-handled knife that his father had acquired on a hunting trip to Namibia, when he was a boy. The other young men in the village let their hair grow dirty and wild. They would much rather ride their bikes to the estuaries, take camping trips to Mount Nimba, and most important of all, prepare to get work at the hydroelectric plant that had recently opened at the base of the river. In doing this they could hopefully avoid a life of toil in one of the bauxite mines, becoming miserable like all the men that wake up to work early, then drink and cough all night after. The other boys thought Alpha was too concerned with his looks and they would tease him.
"Hey bald-boy! Hey pretty boy! Just like a woman. F'you're not careful you gonna wind up one!" They would laugh and slap each other on the backs.
"Nah bro, I'm going to America, to college; then, a millionaire bro,” He’d respond.
This would cause them to laugh even harder, and laughing, stumble off to do those man-things that I mentioned “real” African men do.
But, Alpha would study hard, and go to the local school every day, even though this was not required. He would save his money and buy books that had "New York Public Library" stamped in the front cover; because they were checked out under a false name by enterprising Africans, who quickly mailed them back to their home-villages. And he would win himself a scholarship to go study in Paris.
Alpha loved Paris. He would stroll around the city with books by Camus and Sartre, holding them high in hopes of sparking a conversation, thus allowing him to strut his thickened French accent.
Je suis Meursault. Et toi aussi! He’d exclaim, looking up from his copy of the Stranger. Unfortunately France does not suffer from a shortage of pseudo-philosophers and Alpha struggled to make his mark. He got a job working as a bellhop in a French hotel just off of the Sorbonne, and stopped going to classes. He stopped philosophizing and started fetishizing all of the wealth he would see in the American guests at his hotel. He would carry their luggage up to their rooms under a watchful eye, and imagine the bags being filled with American money, which their owners would dump out and roll around in the moment they closed the door. They would tip him well and say things like “where’s the loovrah, and where’s a good spot for snails?” J’aime l’Amérique, he’d respond while rubbing the tip between his fingers in his pocket. As his tips started to mount his passions started to return within him. He would flirt with girls at the hotel café, offering to show them the Declaration of Independence he kept in his wallet. He would carry around books by Twain and Truman Capote in hopes that someone would ask if he was from the Dakotas or Chicago or New York City. Soon Alpha had scrimped enough money together to make his way to America. Soon he would be the one doing the tipping.
Once arriving in New York, Alpha quickly realized that his hopes had been hinged on a false vision. The money he had seen in Paris was not waiting for him when he got off the plane. He took a taxi to the address of a hotel that one of his Parisian bosses had promised would give some work. The driver took him to a run-down two-story on West Twenty-Third Street. The neon sign outside glowed “Gem Hotel,” well “ em Hel” as the rest of the letters had burned out in the same fashion as its edifice. There were men in lawn chairs out front on the stoop drinking cans of Coors beer. They eyed him as the car pulled up. Alpha paid the driver tipping him five dollars. He walked toward the hotel doors trying to avoid eye contact with the beer drinkers.
One of them reached out and stopped him.
“You need help brotha?” The man looked to kill him in stare.
“No sir, I have a job at this hotel. Sir.” Alpha felt his toes grip his shoes as if he were about to bound away down the street. The man burst out in laughter. It was the wheezing kind of cancer-smoke laughter that you could imagine a villainous cat to have.
“Ain’t no hotel here no mo, you got had.” He took a swig out of his tall beer can and licked for a drop that had dribbled on his chin. Alpha was confused, but moreover he was frightened. He contemplated his next move. He was about to ask for clarification when the man spoke again.
“Naw you ain’t got to be thinkin. You got ta be movin. You got the wrong intel son. The Gem is for gems and you ain't shinin much my brotha.” He laughed again, and it scared Alpha more than before. He felt the presence of his father’s knife as his quadriceps tightened.
He called his job back in Paris and was given no clear indicator of what had happened. He was out of sight and out of mind. Out of Paris, out of Africa, and in New York. Alpha and alone. Finally a man at the hotel gave him some contact information on a place he might be able to stay. He wrote down the address and took the subway north.
He rented out a one-room flat in a dilapidated building in the North Bronx, and had soon spent most of the money he had cherished back in Paris. He feared his intelligence and shaved head would not be enough to get him his million dollars in America. Because of this he became depressed. He lost his kindness that had been so much a part of his soul. He had lost most of those protruding muscles (from eating all of the processed foods that the North Bronx has become famous for). He stopped reading books in public. He stopped reading to start conversations. He even stopped reading by himself. Stopped with all of the books that he loved, even though he now had a card that gave him access to all the books he could ever want. But worst of all, he had stopped shaving his head with the ivory and bone-handled knife from his father.
The Hunting trip to Namibia:
When Alpha was a young boy, his father would go on hunting trips with his childhood friends from the village. These were not hunting trips for food but rather for sport. Something that was a point of pride for his father who would always say, “It is meat that will keep you alive, but it is the hunt that will keep you hungry.”
His father would leave for a week or two at a time, but he would always return, with something nice for him and his mother. He would run to his father when he saw him coming from outside the front window. He would jump up into his arms and feel the sweat of the hunt coming off of him. His father would give him a package usually of pawpaw candy and wooden soldier figures. Later on in the night he would tell stories of how he had outrun the Cheetahs on the Lopori River, or had to dodge a mêlée of rough skinned plums thrown down by the Colobus Monkeys up in the argan trees. He would laugh and allow his stories to become more and more animated based on his sons widening eyes.
Then on one hunting trip his father didn’t come back for a very long time. Months passed by. Alpha would pace the floor anxiously before and after school. He would ask his mother “Where do you think he could be?” What could he possibly be hunting?”
“He’s taking care my son, don’t you worry,” was all his mother would say. He questioned himself as to why she would be so calm. He began to doubt her love. Then late one night Alpha heard a tapping on the outside of his window. He sat up and looked out. He saw his father staring back at him. His father’s eyes were mad. He was dripping wet and shaking. In one hand he held a bottle of brown liquor, and in the other a knife. He gestured for his son to come out. Alpha complied and walked out to the man that resembled his memory of his father. He smelled sharp and sour. He was radiating a heat like a cook-fire. He bent down and took his son’s cheek in his hand. He caressed him. Then he held out a knife. It shined in the moonlight. The white handle bounced the night back at him like the sun off a river. The blade was dripping loose stringy blood. His father wiped the red liquid off on his pant leg and handed the knife to his son.
“This is what you will have of me.” With that he squeezed his son’s shoulder and turned and walked off into the tree line.
Alpha wanted to do something. Anything. He wanted to shout for his mother. He wanted to run after his father and go on an adventure. He wanted to take his new knife and become a king. But he did nothing. He knew that was best.
In the Bronx his hair grew wild and dirty, and sadly it grew only around his ears. He would look into the mirror, feeling at his smooth central scalp, and curse his father, and curse the ivory and bone-handled knife, and most of all curse New York and America.
"New York has killed my head!" He would scream in the mirror, waving his knife. Alpha had pretty well settled into his miserable state of affairs. He would attain bad jobs, and put forth the little effort he felt they deserved. He cleaned toilets at NYU, all the while ruminating on the scholarship he had given up in Paris. He loaded trucks for UPS, and became angry when he lifted a heavy "book-load" on its way to Africa. He stocked shoes at a DSW, and hated handling all of the fancy Italian shoes that he couldn't afford. At night he would wear a different pair of shoes home, watching his feet and how dignified they looked as he walked. He would take them to an old man at Grand Central Station and get them shined.
“You sure do have quite the collection young man,” he would say, as Alpha would present him another pair.
“It’s just money bro.” Alpha would then lean back and hope for someone like Donald Trump or John D. Rockefeller to notice him. After the man was finished Alpha would thank but never tip. He was fired one night walking out of the store with a new pair of black Hush Puppies. He felt ashamed. Now he worked in a French Restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, running all of the food, that he wasn't allowed to eat, to the customers that couldn't care less.
He disliked the restaurant immensely. He thought the French chef was an asshole, which he was, but mainly because he's a chef (a French chef). One day when Alpha picked up a plate of food to take to a table, the chef stopped and scolded him for holding it wrong.
"Why is your thumb on top of my plate!?" The chef screamed.
"Sorry, it's hot, chef." Alpha now felt not only the heat from the plate, but from the chef's face as well.
"Use a tray you stupid monkey! This isn't Africa, we are clean in my kitchen!"
Alpha was stumbling over how to respond. He wanted to scream back at the chef, "In Africa, I was the king!" He wanted to throw the plate at him and call him a French Pig. But he did neither of these.
"Yes. Sorry," was all he said. With this the chef slapped the plate from his hand, the ceramic shattering on the floor, a jagged shard jumping back and nipping Alpha in his left thumb.
"Yes. Sorry, Chef! Is what I think you meant. Now get out of my kitchen!" The chef was breathing hard. Noticing the blood dripping from Alpha's hand, the chef became embarrassed over his irrational outburst and could no longer make eye contact with anyone in the kitchen.
Alpha bandaged his thumb, in the dingy must-filled locker room. A fellow employee and fellow African, Eric from Burkina Fasso (really Edu from Liberia) entered.
"My man, what happened to you?" he asked, kneeling down to inspect.
"The chef hit me with a plate bro." Alpha replied.
"You gonna get some money out of that my friend,” Eric laughed as he walked over to his beaten locker, and began to spinning his silver padlock.
"Oh yah? What do you mean money bro?" Alpha asked.
"C'mon. Worker's compensation my friend." Eric, realizing Alpha's ignorance to the concept, continued. "It's when you get paid if you get hurt at work."
Alpha lit up. "That's good bro."
Eric just laughed again. "Yah it's good, but anyway, you have to really get hurt,” he laughed. “You'd have to lose that thumb or something." Eric finished putting his waiter vestments into his locker.
"See you tomorrow. And feel, better, huh." Eric opened the heavy metal door and left Alpha to sit and look at his damaged hand. He noticed the slightest bit of blood, starting to soak out into the bandage, from where he had been cut. As the blood trickled down he pictured his father walking away into the distance of that tree line. He pictured his father sitting on a throne with a lion skinned coat requesting the presence of his son. He thought about his mother and how she never knew about his meeting with his father that night. He thought about the love that had left her, and he forgave her, and he cursed his father, and he forgave him. He thought for a moment he was like Camus’ Meursault and he was being sentenced to decapitation. He imagined himself the moment before his execution and he imagined he would be at peace. He heard the chef yelling in the kitchen above. He squeezed his hand so the blood began to flow more freely. His legs began to shake with anticipation, and he felt like he was going to scream. He opened his mouth but nothing escaped. He felt his heart racing inside his chest. He decided he would die a millionaire in his life. He decided that there was such a thing as starting over. He decided he was his father’s son.
He thought about the story of the spider. He thought about sewing the chef's eyes up. He thought about getting hurt at work and getting paid in America. He thought about his thumb. He thought about doing more with less. And he thought about the ivory and bone-handled knife.