His daughter was in the living room. She had a set of stacking blocks, and she was trying, half successfully, to get them to form a tower. She was not quite two.
Fat Amadou – for this is what he had been called since he was five years old – stood just behind the bedroom doorframe, watching and listening. She sang as she worked. A high, pretty voice. She was singing savez-vous planter les choux, repeating the phrase again and again without movement in the song.
Fat Amadou was deeply moved. For this small beautiful child there was only a living now, blocks to be stacked, a refrain to turn over on the tongue. He felt the tremor of poetry.
He was a poet. A bouncer at a restaurant, yes, and he also did some paralegal work for a small law firm in the city. But in truth he was a poet. Words rolled from his tongue with music, they always had. He kept his poems in a small black notebook tucked into his back pocket. He had published three of them in literary journals. No one but his wife knew.
He was often moved to poetry by his daughter. Moved past it, really, for even poetry was insufficient. She was the thing that poetry was pointing to. Even when she was unknown to them, still just a flutter in his wife’s belly, he had tried to put this into words. There were a few clusters of verses somewhere in the archives of his notebooks. They were like Michelangelos of clay. Ah! He jotted down the phrase in his notebook.
The blocks toppled and the moment’s sweetness turned. Amadou swept from the doorway to scoop Doudou into his arms. Her disappointment in the blocks vanished and she pinched his lips shut with chubby fingers.
“Allez-vous travailler, papa?”
He spoke through his pinched lips. “Ooeee.”
Doudou giggled. There was a rustling from the couch. Fat Amadou turned. His wife was smiling.
“I fell asleep.” They spoke in French, their common tongue. She was Haitian, he Senegalese.
“I’m going to work.” To his daughter: “Give me a kiss?”
She pouted and said, No! Then without warning she bent herself forward and flung her arms around his great neck. She planted a wet kiss on his cheek, and he reciprocated, tipping her upside down and blowing bubbles on her exposed belly. She disintegrated in giggles.
Amadou swung her by the ankles over to the couch, then set her gently down headfirst into her mother’s beckoning arms. Rosaline pulled down her t-shirt and the girl curled up to nurse.
“Au fait, Ama. I can’t find my ring. I had it in the bathroom.”
“I’ll look for it.”
“No need; just keep your eyes open.”
“I’m going in there, now.”
He slipped into the tiny bathroom to empty his bladder before he left. If he caught the A, he might be early. If not, who could say? When he was done, he opened and closed the creaky medicine cabinet. He tilted his head into the bare tub, behind the sink, the toilet. The wastepaper basket was empty. The ring was probably in the bedroom. He would look tomorrow when Doudou was with her grandma and Rosaline was at work.
He washed his hands, wiping them dry on his black work pants. When he reemerged, Rosaline and Doudou were reading a lift-the-flap book on the couch. Amadou took his black coat, big as a sail, from the back of the door. He remembered the garbage; a little ritual, easy to remember because it coincided with his shifts. Rosaline consolidated, and he removed.
“Au revoir, mes coeurs!”
“Au revoir, papa!” Rosaline blew him a kiss. The girl was lost among the rabbits under the logs.
Amadou went down the five flights to the basement, tossed the trash bag in the building’s bin. He ascended to the shabby lobby. Just outside on the sidewalk two old heads sat on folding chairs. They were Jamaican. The thin one, white-bearded, tucked his dreadlocks up in a vast red, yellow and green wool rastacap. The other was fat and clean-cut. There was a faint air of marijuana.
“Time for your medicine, is it?” Fat Amadou grinned, serene as Buddha. The thin one bumped his fist.
“Wait until you get arthritis.”
“Leaving that beautiful family?”
“Work in the city.”
“Good man, hard-working man.” The thin one handed him a narrow joint. “For after.”
Fat Amadou grinned and tucked the joint into the fold of the black wool beanie he wore high on his head.
He bid adieu to the old heads and headed down the block towards Nostrand. He hoped the A was running on time. He hated to be late.
He got off shift at two a.m. when the restaurant closed. He spent a few bucks at the Duane Reade across the street, gummy worms and a bottle of Diet Coke. When he reemerged, he saw that the Mozambicans too had finished up. They were standing on the corner waiting for the light to change. They didn’t see him.
Stelio, the tall one, elbowed Ismael. Ismael turned and saw him. The light changed and they crossed to Fat Amadou’s side.
“Do you have to go home?”
Fat Amadou shook his head. “No, they’ll be asleep. I can play for a little while.”
He scratched his head where the cap was starting to itch. It caused him to remember the joint. He pulled it from the hat. “I brought dessert.”
Ismael grinned. “Hakim is downtown.”
Hakim was a friend of Ismael’s, now a friend to them all – a Tunisian kid who turned records at a couple of clubs downtown. He seemed to make good money. Amadou could not be bothered by that small injustice.
Stelio clicked his tongue a few times. He could be rendered in poetry onomatopoeically. “You want to go to the club?”
Ismael shrugged, noncommittal. “It’s an idea.”
Most nights their meandering decision-making was half the fun. They would pick a direction to walk, and then go that way, smoking and bickering rhythmically in a mixture of English, French and Portuguese.
Tonight, Amadou soured quickly on the indecisiveness. He divined quickly – for he was perceptive that way about his own feelings, his keel so even that imbalances were quickly spotted – that he was bothered by the missing ring.
He had been with them, Stelio and Ismael, the night he bought it. All three of them new to the city, new to the restaurant, new even to one another. Well, the Mozambicans new to him, for they had known each other since the cradle. They fought fiercely, like brothers. Nothing could possibly come between them.
“I’m going to go home,” he announced to no one in particular.
“Not staying out, then?” Stelio reached out and they slapped hands goodbye, a few quick and intimate twists and bumps, then a pound. They would never presume to beg him to stay; a man knew his own heart, and he had to be trusted to be free.
“No, man, I’m tired.”
Ismael came over and together they repeated the departing handshake. Almost as a token of apology, Amadou handed over the joint. Ismael grinned. “Now, it’s good he’s going,” he said to Stelio. “More for me!”
Fat Amadou pretended to swat at him, and Ismael ducked for cover behind his friend.
“Au revoir, I catch the light,” Amadou said, and he shuffled west toward the Port Authority. He mulled a poem as he walked:
I catch the light…
He debated scratching it into his notebook, something to build on. Where could you take an image like that? What was he, a bottle, to catch the light? Some line about his black hands illumined by this light? What the fuck was it to catch the light?
It was, he decided, too precious by half.
That night, only a couple of years ago – that night too he had left their company. They were somewhere in the village, maybe Alphabet City, maybe Astor Place. He couldn’t remember. It was earlier in the evening, probably before their shift. Or maybe none of them had worked that day. There had been a time when long hours were free from obligation. The details now eluded him.
They had bumped into Ismael’s friend, Calvin. Whenever he was between apartments, which was often, Ismael stayed with Calvin, rent-free, an arrangement that baffled Stelio, who would give Ismael the blood out of his veins, but still couldn’t fathom what Ismael brought to the strange friendship.
Calvin was unlike anyone Amadou had ever known. He was American, from California, a gay black angel in human form. The vestiges of heaven still clung to him. He had the charisma of Prince, that other-worldly essence that made it possible to imagine him lounging in the nude surrounded by a pride of inky panthers in diamond-studded collars. He was impossibly good-looking. Fat Amadou, who had a voluptuous, poetic love for the feminine, for his wife, especially – he found Calvin to be beautiful.
Calvin was going to a little pop-up open-air market in SoHo and did any of them want to come? Stelio and Ismael were going to get Ramen at an underground place on St. Mark’s, next to the place that kept the wooden bins of discount athletic socks street side. Ismael was excited at the prospect of Sake.
Amadou didn’t have enough cash to eat with them. Their means were modest, their apartments under-heated shitholes, but this was only because they really knew how to spend the dribbles of their money. You can sleep anywhere, but they seemed to believe fiercely that if you live in New York City, you had better not let it slip through your fingers. Any other night he might have said something, but he was feeling homesick and lovelorn, and the prospect of a market sounded warm and nostalgic. There was always another Senegalese to run into, someone selling scarves or carvings or some other knick-knack to Americans. It was fun to talk of home.
So, Fat Amadou and Calvin broke from Ismael and Stelio, and together made their way towards the market. Never before had the two of them been alone. Ismael was the glue that bound them, so they spoke for a while about him. Apparently Ismael had gone to college with one of Calvin’s ex-boyfriends. They had met and the rest was history.
Amadou wondered whether he were imposing by coming along. Calvin would never betray the truth. Amadou had never seen him ill at ease. As they chatted and weaved through thickening crowds of SoHo tourists, Calvin’s attention was like elastic – he snapped back to it whenever they shared space.
When they reached the market, Amadou offered to split up. Calvin set a finger on Amadou’s arm and turned down his mouth.
“Oh, I’m just out for a walk. We’re sticking together for this one. Lead away.”
The market consisted of perhaps two-dozen makeshift wooden storefronts wedged with serpentine efficiency into a lot between a Hermes store and a Montblanc.
“Can I tell you something?”
Calvin was running his fingers along a stack of bright pashminas, pink and aloe and yellow. It was hard to imagine him in anything other than black. He was dressed now in black yoga pants, spit-shined doc Martens and an inky poncho. “Of course.”
“I’m proposing to my girlfriend.”
Calvin beamed. “How charming!”
“I believe that you have met her.”
“Oh, of course, I remember. She has that hair.”
Amadou blushed darkly. It was true. Rosaline’s hair was glorious, vast and wild like the ecstatic spray of ocean water as it crashed into a rock.
He had not yet said a word of this to Stelio or Ismael.
They pushed deeper into the labyrinth of shops. Through the thicket of inter-lapping voices, sure enough, he heard a few dusky phrases in Wolof. Amadou pushed past them. He had the mad thought, filled with a kind of certainty, that he must find a ring, here, tonight.
He found a little kiosk selling jewelry. Two white girls were tending the store. One wore her blonde hair in dreadlocks under a red bandana. The other had a crystal pendant on a strand of leather around her throat. Her septum was pierced. The stall smelled of incense.
“Can I help you?” The girl with the pendant smiled. Her eyes shifted back and forth between him and Calvin, trying to imagine what possible relationship could exist between them.
“I’m looking for a ring.”
“We’re getting married,” Calvin said. He set a hand on Amadou’s elbow.
The girl’s eyes popped, but she maintained her professional grin. Amadou suppressed a smile. He gently patted Calvin’s tiny hand in his paw.
“Do you have any idea what you’re looking for?”
Calvin craned his head to look into Amadou’s eyes. He was so earnest and self-possessed in that moment that Amadou, outside himself, might have believed it was really true. “What do you think? Something that says masculinity and power.”
“Something that says, ‘daddy.’” The words tumbled from Amadou’s lips.
Calvin had to force the corners of his mouth down. At last a grin broke out, bright and clear.
“Something very girly.” He primped and shook his braids.
“In silver,” Amadou added. “Perhaps with a jewel.”
Calvin nodded. “Silver.”
The rings were arranged in a series of flat wooden display boxes lined with inky blue velvet. The girl brought two or three of the boxes forward, setting them atop the others. Amadou scanned the selection. Calvin had slipped his hand into the crook of his elbow. Amadou was not homophobic, but it was the first time he had stood so intimately with a man. Had it been anyone but Calvin, there might have been some discomfort in it.
Amadou found something small, modest, in polished silver with a circular bright blue stone inlaid almost flat with the band. Amadou took the thing between his great forefinger and thumb, swallowing it up. He fumbled with it for a moment, afraid he might drop it and have to search for it in the crumbly concrete underfoot.
Calvin extended his pinky, and Amadou slid the ring on. It fit perfectly.
“It’s Tibetan silver,” the girl informed them.
Fat Amadou nodded knowingly. “Tibetan silver.”
Calvin began to laugh. “She’ll like it.”
The girl’s eyes caught his meaning. She blinked rapidly. Amadou took Calvin’s hand and gently pulled it towards the light. “You’re as black as she – the color is good.”
“And there’s that little peep of blue.”
“How much is it?”
Amadou had thirty dollars in rumpled tens in his pocket. He pulled them out and smoothed them with his thumb, as if through that ritual they might multiply like Jesus’ loaves of bread.
No need for Christ; the angel would suffice for miracles. Calvin proffered a twenty. Amadou handed him a ten. The girl took his money, handed him back the change. Amadou forked the bills over to Calvin.
“Keep it. Buy me dinner next time.”
Of course, Amadou had.
The express screamed to a halt when Amadou was at the top of the stairs. He hustled down through the salmon-like flow of people moving up towards the surface. The doors were closing when he jammed his hand between them; his timing was good and he pushed one door aside, shouldering his way in like a great bear pressing into the burrow of a much smaller animal. He would be home in twenty, thirty minutes.
Rosaline loved the ring. She knew the story of its provenance, and she adored Calvin.
She had mentioned its disappearance to him, he now understood, because she was distressed not to find it. Those thirty-eight dollars – a few more if you count the dinner and drinks with Calvin – they laughed sometimes at their poverty, at the naivete that led them to marry broke, to have Doudou right away because babies are glorious, and they had so much love it seemed a shame to hoard it between themselves. Neither was afraid to say that the ring meant something.
In Brooklyn, where it was cooler, calmer – darker for the spread of the streetlights along the long avenue-blocks – Amadou was overwhelmed again with nostalgia, an echo across years from the night of the market. Folded within that memory now were the remembrances of what had come next: the proposal, their shoestring wedding, a midweek honeymoon between long shifts in a motel in Montauk; memories of their time at Hofstra, the false bravado of their early courtship, early dates in Brooklyn with her mother, Halal food at Gloria’s on lazy nights when there were a few dollars to spare.
And of course, Doudou. Amadou was not a providential thinker, but there was a furious inertia between then and now, and his daughter was at its head. He stopped for a moment, almost breathless on the sidewalk. Allahu Akbar. He believed in his luck at this wife, this daughter. He tipped his black cap back on his forehead, surveyed the landscape in the hours between night and morning. A figure or two strolled across the street. There was no moon.
The lobby doors were locked at this time of night. The old heads were long asleep. Amadou fumbled in his pocket for the key. He glanced over his shoulder. The super, a tiny, muscular Guatemalan guy who grinned compulsively and who had somehow, without English, managed to raise four kids in New York, had put out the trash in a vast mountain on the street side.
Amadou found the key, let himself into the lobby and was halfway up the stairs when he heard the unmistakable sound of the garbage truck’s hydraulics down the block. He was struck with an intuition so powerful he lost his footing and stumbled hard on one knee. He turned and skidded back down the stairs. He blasted back through the lobby doors and began to tear open the heavy black garbage bags that the building’s smaller bags were stuffed into.
The garbage truck pulled up before him and the guys on the back began to shout.
“Man, the fuck you doing?”
“This guy’s fuckin’ crazy.”
Two sanitation guys, a middle-aged big-bellied black guy with a black back support strap wrapped around his waist like an armored cummerbund, and a young white guy with a blondish goatee and thick eyeglasses, began to sling bags into the back of the truck.
They were moving too fast. He still had too many bags to work through. They ignored him, kept slinging bags.
Then he found it, the bag he’d tossed on his way to work. With his thumbnail he scored open the plastic at the bottom. The smell was nauseating: rotting plantain peels, soupy coffee grinds, soiled diapers and jerk chicken bones.
Amadou plunged his hand into the very heart of things, feeling his way like an octopus at the bottom of a lightless cave.
And there it was. He withdrew his hand, brandishing the grime-encrusted ring.
“What’d you find, brother?” It was the older black guy.
“My wife’s ring.”
“Must be worth a lot – or divorce, eh?”
The garbage man began to laugh. The white kid stood off to the side, bug-eyed and unsure of what was happening. The older guy laughed ‘til he cried, then removed one of his heavy work gloves and clapped Amadou on the shoulder. With delirious benevolence, he gathered up the spatchcocked garbage bag and flung it into the back of the truck. He leaned against the lever and the blade crushed the mountain into the hopper’s maw.
The garbage men leapt back onto their engine. The black man raised his hand. “It must be real love.”
Amadou watched as they lurched down the block. In a few minutes they were out of sight.
In the apartment, he was careful to be quiet. Doudou would be asleep with Rosaline in the big bed. He would sleep on the couch. He hung his coat and hat, went into the bathroom. He washed his hands, rinsed the ring clean and set it on the tip of his pinky – it would not fit over even the first knuckle – while he brushed his teeth. When he was done, he set it gently on the little shelf under the mirror with the blue stone facing the door.
Rosaline would find it in the morning when it caught the light.
Thomas Bulen Jacobs was raised overseas, mostly in South America, Turkey and Spain. He is a graduate of St. John's College in Annapolis, Md. His fiction has appeared most recently in Variant Literature, River River Journal, and The Oddville Press, among others.