It’s late morning, I’ve had coffee in Marseille’s La Plaine quarter, and now I’m there, on a street where a North African boy of nine, ten, or eleven kicks a ball. I’ve stopped to watch this. I have to be there, at the end of this street where the boy’s kicking against a wall. It’s not the boy who arrests me, it’s the man I recognize above the boy, a man on a balcony who’s dropping a wet skirt to dry over the steel rail of it, and a blouse, and a towel, and other laundry, and then blue sheets. The man says, “Les pieds,” looking down at the boy. It’s the feet, he says, regard the feet, and the boy says, “Oui, papa.”
It is not Cassis, not Aix, not St. Remy-de- Provence. The word misère is sprayed on the wall. Someone has sprayed misère populaire 13. The boy kicks. I’ve seen the man before though I don’t say hello. The man begins to wipe black boots. He buffs the high heels of them. He works nights as a woman on rue Saint-Savournin. He is a sex worker. Some nights he works in a white van that can be found parked on the narrow streets around the Jardin Labadié where, I have heard, beer bottles are dropped on the vans from high apartment windows.
It is the man and the boy together who arrest me, because when I was the boy’s age I kicked a ball against a wall, I kicked and I kicked, but I did not have a father to coach me. I have to be there, at the end of this street, for this.
The man and his son rent a room. Other tenants rent other rooms. The tenants share a bath, a kitchen. Other tenants are single men who speak in passing but they do not speak of themselves because they’re undocumented. The man is the only tenant with a son. In his room the man hangs clothes on wire hangers from jointed water pipes. He hangs necklaces and earrings on flat nails in the wall. He drapes a satin scarf from the nails, to hide the jewelry from thieves. He does not wear rings or bracelets. There is a clear line, in his mind, between when he is a woman and when he is not, and there has always been, even when he was the age his son is now. He is who he is. Others are others in their own ways. It’s clear to him that his son is a boy, though they have never spoken of other possibilities. The man sleeps on a cot. His son sleeps on cushions on the floor. The boy’s clothes are neatly folded on two low shelves.
The man washes and folds his son’s clothes. He does not teach his son how to fold a t-shirt. The boy learns to fold by watching. When alone in the room, the boy pulls the t-shirt off over his head and practices folding it. When he hears his father coming back he snaps the t-shirt open, like a flag, and pulls it back on over his head. The boy is never discovered practicing.
On the wall, cracks radiate from a few centers. The man stares at these lines, arms crossed, and sees the ruin that comes with age. The boy sees a map. The lines are bus routes of a great chalk desert city, and when he closes his eyes he can see white buildings along these lines, with rows of black windows, and some with domes, like he’d seen in pictures of Algiers.
The boy sweeps the room, one of his chores. He sweeps all the way to the balcony though the way to the balcony is common, what they have no name for other than le salon. The balcony is common but they are the only ones who use it.
Now the father on the balcony lights a cigarette, blows smoke, and regards his son who plays well against the wall. The man does not see a future for his son, though he tells the boy, You are Pelé. He says, You are Abedi Pele. He says, You are Yaya Toure, Jay-Jay Okocha. The man no longer looks ahead, or to the past. This way of looking neither ahead nor behind has become comfortable to him. He is not unhappy to be without. He has money enough for today. There are expenses, always. Their food today will be bread, lentils, rice, a carrot. He does not look ahead but he saves what he can set aside for rent in a cloth bag hidden under his cot bedding. He pays rent in advance before the first day of the month to the landlord, a fisherman. The rent is collected by the fisherman’s wife, who buys her mother’s medication with his rent because, she has told him, her mother is in pain and stays in bed.
The man wakes one morning from a dream in which the fisherman’s wife’s mother has died, and so he’s told that he’s no longer required to pay rent, the money is not needed, the mother is dead. Upon waking he feels agonizing remorse—he clutches at his chest, he is stricken, and he can’t get out of bed—the money, made from the work he does, saves no one.
When he works at night, he chooses the light by which his customers will see him. He is particular about how much of his threadbare that his customers may see.
The man says, “Les pieds,” looking down at the boy. It’s the feet, he says, regard the feet. The boy kicks, he is barefoot, and he says, “Oui, papa.” I watch, and the boy imagines a crowd of me, cheering him.
Raised in the South, Christopher X. Shade now lives in New York City. His novel The Good Mother of Marseille is forthcoming in 2019. Over twenty of his stories have appeared in publications, and his stories have received awards and prize nominations.
He teaches fiction and poetry writing at The Writers Studio. His book reviews have appeared widely. Until recently he was an editor of Epiphany literary journal. He is co-founder of Cagibi, at cagibilit.com, a journal of international poetry and prose.