This all happened when Moustapha was young in Niamey, he’d just begun school, certainly he hadn’t finished more than one or two years. For months they’d been building in the lot next to his family’s, erecting high walls with barbed wire across the top, setting gates in the walls for the passage of cars and people. While they were building, a security guard took up residence out front, and although Moustapha recognized the employers of many guards in the neighborhood according to their uniforms, he couldn’t place this man’s tan shirt with a camel embroidered on the sleeve, or his brown pants with its matching brown cap and black boots. He asked Abdoulaye’s father, who was a guard himself for Royal Securité—or maybe he didn’t ask him, maybe it just came up naturally in the course of things—and Mr. Hamza told him, “Don’t you know that’s a guard for the American embassy?”
“They’re moving the embassy here?” he asked, and many people laughed then, there were always a lot of people within earshot, and he felt embarrassed and wanted to run back across the street to his family’s compound. “It’s a house for an American,” Mr. Hamza explained. “Someone who works at the embassy.”
At the time, Moustapha hadn’t the faintest idea what went on at an embassy, but the thought of having an American for a neighbor interested him, perhaps primarily because the American was certain to be rich, as he knew all Americans were, and thus there might be gifts, maybe even a bicycle or a football jersey. But mostly he forgot about it, even as the construction continued for several months, because he was young and life was taken up by the usual things, school and football and his friends. Back then, he ran with Abdoulaye, Raissa, Raissa’s older brother Musa, Boubé, and Mahamadou. They were just kids, but they felt as if they owned Koura Kano, they spilled all over the neighborhood at all hours of the day, they knew everyone and everyone knew them.
Moustapha would later look back on those days with great fondness, because he had had a freedom then that he took for granted, one that would quickly dissipate in subsequent years. He never wore shoes, often disdained a shirt as well, and school hadn’t been very taxing then—he almost never had had homework, because the teachers knew that most of the students didn’t have a light to work under at night. He had also been too young for his mother to give him any heavy chores, just fetching this and that from time to time, unlike his sisters who had had to pound millet, fetch water, and mind the goats like they were still in the village. In short, little was demanded of him, and he likewise demanded little of himself, save the constant pursuit of play, of fun.
So in spite of his family’s poverty—they didn’t even have a proper shelter, just some stick-frame structures covered all over with woven-reed mats, and pieces of tarpaulin, pagne, and corrugated sheet metal if they could find it—and even though his father was away in Côte d’Ivoire earning money, it had been a happy time. Obviously they hadn’t known then that his father would never return.
He remembered trying to catch a glimpse, from time to time, of what was going on behind those high walls. He and Abdoulaye occasionally played across the street from the construction site, among the soon to be deployed piles of sand and rocks, and every so often workers emerged from the gate to hunt down materials or to go home for their lunches or to urinate in the street. He remembered leaping up at the sound of the gate opening, the awful, grinding sound of a door poorly hung, and scurrying with Abdoulaye to sneak a look before it shut again. The guard didn’t like this, he chased the boys off with words as harsh-sounding as the gate.Get out of here, you little rats, he said. What did I tell you?
What they saw in their stolen half-glances wasn’t much—more piles of sand and an expanse of reddish orange soil, with the skeleton of an unimposing, cinder block building at one end, and a huge pit being dug off to the side. Certainly nothing that inspired reverie, nothing to keep their attention. Progress was slow, and there were lots of other things to divert them, after all. Then one day smack in the middle of the rainy season (Moustapha remembered because school had been out for at least a month), a bunch of cars began streaming down their little street, which ran for just a block before teeing at the wall of the Nigerian embassy. The street had only two real buildings, the American’s house and some other rich person’s house or office, also with high walls, outside of which there were always security guards, even though no one ever seemed to come or go. The street didn’t see much traffic, and the caravan attracted a lot of attention, including Moustapha’s.
People were already gawking—someone always was in their neighborhood, usually a group—and he ran down to join the pocket of kids rapidly assembling across from the gate. The crowd watched the guard open the gate with great care, and he didn’t say a word to them, in fact he looked nervous as the first car, an SUV, although not a big one, pulled in. Then Fatma and Rayanatou and Ibrahim’s mother, Nafissa, descended, hissing and grunting and shooing the kids away. And some of them ran away, including Moustapha, and some of them didn’t. Moustapha remained at a distance, pretending he wasn’t interested but watching all the same. In the end, there were too many cars to fit inside the gate, several were forced to park on the street, and everyone stared, even Nafissa, as people emerged from the cars with big boxes and objects that the neighborhood had never seen before. Later a big flatbed truck pulled up and strapped to the back were huge plywood cubes, and although no one said it, they all wondered how big the house must be to fit all of those things.
One might imagine that this intense curiosity endured over the subsequent days and weeks, but the truth was, as with so many of life’s enthusiasms, it was fleeting. The existence of the American and his new house had little bearing on the lives of Moustapha and his friends. He (and they always assumed, naturally, that it was a he) was less interesting, in a way, than many other, more immediate things. Around the same time Moustapha’s mom finally allowed him to go to the corner at night to watch television with the guards outside the house of some Chinese oilmen. He joined a big group from the neighborhood who watched Nigerian programs in Hausa, dubbed soap operas from Latin America, and the occasional football match, cheering and tittering, and it was television, instead, that captured his fancy, at least for a time.
He didn’t hang around his family’s compound much in those days. Like many families in Niamey, they lived in an empty lot they didn’t own, one surrounded by just three-and-a-half walls (and they were fortunate in that, because, for example, Abdoulaye’s family’s lot across the street didn’t have any walls of its own, and even though it was hemmed in on three sides by others’, everyone on the street knew that it wasn’t as good, wasn’t as private). Scattered inside were three of the aforementioned shelters of shaky facture and porous walls—one for his family, one for his dad’s brother’s family, and one for their cousin’s family. It wasn’t even a compound in the traditional sense, not in the storybook sense, because the families didn’t eat meals together, they didn’t share things; in fact, they didn’t much like each other, and that dislike was even more apparent with Moustapha’s father away.
That was one obvious reason he didn’t hang around much at home. Also, his mother spent most of the day there, and it was better to be beyond her gaze. She was strict (although not as strict as many of the other mothers in the neighborhood), and he couldn’t get away with much when she was around. It had been different with his father there, when he had been in charge of the children’s discipline. His father had rarely smiled, seemed perpetually preoccupied, shaded by worry, but he had a soft heart, he rarely even struck them. And Moustapha loved him for this.
One day after Moustapha had been out and about, avoiding the compound—perhaps playing on the giant rock pile around the corner, or turning backflips and cartwheels in the dust for some girls—and was on his way home, Mahamadou spotted him turning onto their street and rushed up, his arms flailing in a comic fashion as he ran.
“We saw him!” he cried, almost breathlessly. “We saw the American!”
“We’ve all seen the American,” Moustapha reminded him. “The woman.” And it was true. In the week since the caravan of cars had arrived, they had seen a woman exit the American’s gate each morning, climb into a big white SUV, and then repeat the same ritual in reverse each evening. From what little they could see as the car zoomed past, she was youngish and suitably exotic: she had pale, uncovered hair tucked behind her ears and impossibly white skin the color of goat’s milk. But all the same the boys were disappointed. Just a woman someone said the first time she emerged, and that was it: No one they could talk to, no one to engage with, no one to potentially lure into their games and their lives.
“No!” Mahamadou insisted. “There’s a man, too! He had a dog with him, a big dog. A huge dog! We were all scared, but the dog didn’t even look at us. The man had him tied with some sort of rope.”
This was stirring news. It seemed fantastic, wonderful even. If the bit about the dog was frightening, it was also irresistible. Moustapha immediately took off at three-quarters speed in the direction of the American’s house, Mahamadou just behind, as if Moustapha somehow expected the American to be waiting there for him at the gate, and he could just wave and say hello and thereby make his acquaintance. But of course he wasn’t there, it was just the guard on a folding chair outside the guardhouse, scrutinizing the boys with a stern look.
“What did he say?” Moustapha asked Mahamadou as they walked back up the street. “What did he do? Did he talk to anyone?”
“Not really,” Mahamadou said. “He nodded at some people. I think maybe he even waved at Mariama and Abdou. But otherwise he just walked with the dog.”
People told Moustapha the American was like a bat, emerging just after sundown to swoop through the neighborhood. But Moustapha never saw him, he always played football at that time, when the day had finally cooled enough to permit activity more vigorous than a hurried walk from one shaded spot to another. Still, the red, sandy fields at the Lycée Goudel, where he played with other boys from the neighborhood, weren’t far from his family’s compound. Indeed, he contemplated abandoning the game many times, looking up at the sky and thinking, “The American must be out with his dog now,” but he could never bring himself to it—he loved football too much.
But finally, one night, a few weeks after Mahamadou’s revelation, as the legend of the American and his beast grew on their street and in the neighborhood at large, Moustapha forced himself to forego football with the determination of catching the pair on their crepuscular circuit. He waited at the bottom of their street, pretending to play with a bald old bike tire Abdoulaye had found canted against the wall of the Nigerian Embassy, all the while sneaking furtive glances at the American’s gate.
From this end of the street one could sometimes smell the river, its loamy scent. It was less than a kilometer distant, hugging the city as it bent south towards Nigeria. Moustapha missed it. It terrified him—he couldn’t swim, and it was broad, churning, powerful, especially during the rainy season—but he missed it. His father had been the only one to take him, they would scramble down the banks, wade in the turbid shallows, and skip stones, watching for the backs of hippos. Now he didn’t go any more, it had been eight months at least, an eternity.
The effort of waiting that night was, finally, all in vain. Moustapha lingered until well after darkness had fallen before giving in, a few tears falling in the meantime, as he brimmed with the frustration of having surrendered an evening of football for nothing.
“Where was the American?” He asked Mahamadou that night as they gathered to watch television on the corner. Mahamadou had swiftly become the authority on all things relating to their new neighbor. He knew, or at least seemed to know, his every movement.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“You said he comes out every night with the dog after the sun goes down.”
“No I didn’t.’
“Yes you did!”
“He doesn’t come out every night!”
“You’re such a liar,” Moustapha told him, and they began to shove one another and wrestle in the dust.
Nearly a month had passed since the cavalcade of SUVs, and Moustapha still hadn’t seen the American. Meanwhile Mahamadou had boasted that the man had allowed him to hold the dog’s rope and walk with it a few steps.
“Yes, but you were so scared that as soon as the dog looked at you, you dropped the rope and ran,” Raissa pointed out.
“Who cares?” Moustapha said. “Who cares about the American anyway? Big deal, you got to hold on to a dog. I’ll hit it with a rock, and then we’ll see who’s scared of who.”
“Yeah, then we’ll see who gets a football and who doesn’t,” Musa said, picking up a handful of dirt before tossing it down again.
“He said he’s going to give us a football,” Boubé said.
“He’s going to give me a football,” Musa corrected.
“No, it’s for all of us!”
“How do you know? You don’t speak French,” Musa scoffed.
“I do too!”
“Donne-moi cadeau, donne-moi cent francs,” Musa mocked. “That’s all you know how to say.”
“He said it was for all of us!” Boubé shot back, and he leaped from atop a pile of dirt, kicking Musa in the ribs mid-descent. But it was only a glancing blow, and Boubé thudded awkwardly on his hip and began to cry. Musa, laughing, walked away. “I’m never going to let you play with my football, Boubé,” he taunted.
Moustapha, while tired of the aimless chatter surrounding the American, inwardly still hoped for an encounter. The American felt like something of a ghost, a phantom presence demanding verification. It seemed obvious that his chance to really make an impression on the man had been lost, that the others had gotten the better of him on that front. But still, the curiosity was there.
Then one day, not long after the incident between Musa and Boubé, Moustapha did see the American. Strangely, it was still early in the morning, and he was, as it happened, in his family’s compound. His mother had asked him to watch his younger brother and sister, because she and his older sisters were going to Yantala Market to buy some new pagnes for the tailor and some other things as well (his father had just wired some money, perhaps for the last time). It was more of a punishment than a responsibility, he knew, because anyone in his uncle’s or father’s cousin’s family could have kept an eye on them, and even if both families had packed up and gone back to the village, his sister and brother would have still been fine with the neighbors to look after for them.
In response to his punishment, Moustapha might have estimated how long his mother would be gone and abandoned his brother and sister during her absence, returning just in time to appear the dutiful son, which had been a successful stratagem in the past. In reality, he was a mostly dutiful son, in sentiment if not always in practice, and he didn’t wish to disobey his mother, not ever. (Of course he did frequently disobey her, but such are the paradoxes of life.) On this day, however, he accepted his mother’s discipline, bitter as it was, and, for once, his obedience was rewarded.
He had been sitting across from the yawning gap in the front wall of their compound, playing in the red, sandy earth, pushing a twig about, scratching signs and letters in the dirt, his eyes downcast, his mind wandering. Suddenly a creeping darkness had appeared in the margins of his vision; he sensed a blotting in the street, and he immediately looked up and saw a sharp and pointy shadow, two shadows, really, approaching. They were long, ridiculously long and getting longer still, and his breath caught a little. Then the American appeared with the dog at his side, and they moved simultaneously, with slow, even steps, and Moustapha remembered how red and long the dog’s tongue was, hanging from its mouth.
It returned his gaze for several strides, and he was rapt, he didn’t realize he was already on his feet, ready to run away. It really did look like a wolf, it was enormous, twice the size of any dog in the neighborhood, and in spite of its soft, stupid eyes and grinning pant, it terrified Moustapha, rooted him to the spot. He didn’t even notice the man beside it, not until a voice penetrated his fear, barking “Bonjour ,” in an odd, husky way, so that he wasn’t at first certain what had been said. But when Moustapha looked to him, to the American, the man’s hand was extended in a wave, and Moustapha realized that the man had been greeting him, and so he waved back enthusiastically and shouted “Bonjour!” But the American and the beast had already passed and were out of sight again.
He ran into the street. They walked on, not looking back. The American himself seemed part giant, towering over that enormous dog. He was broad-shouldered too, projecting a robustness and health that was foreign to the neighborhood. Moustapha stood mute for a moment and then cried out “ Ça va?” at the man’s back. The American turned his head slowly, a slight smile on his lips, and sizing Moustapha up said, “ Oui, ça va,” in that strange husky voice. They continued on, the man and the dog, and Moustapha watched them all the way to the gate. He hoped that as they turned to enter, the American would see him out of the corner of his eye and would look back, but he didn’t.
Moustapha saw the American perhaps once a week after that, usually from a distance, generally in passing, and their interactions were limited to an exchange of waves, with one exception. On that evening Moustapha and Abdoulaye saw the American walking near the wall of the Nigerian Embassy, at the bottom of their street. The dog was, uncharacteristically, off-leash, chasing something among the dust-grimed milkweed and garbage, and Abdoulaye immediately ran down to them, Moustapha cautiously trailing. When Abdoulaye got within eyeshot, the dog rushed him, and they both stopped dead in the middle of the street, the dog holding Abdoulaye in its stare. The American grabbed the dog by the collar and quickly snapped on its leash.
“Il est gentil ,” he told the boys, he’s friendly, but they didn’t believe it for a second, and they were too frightened and awed to say anything at all.
Moustapha began asking Mahamadou and Boubé for more information about the American, casually at first, attempting, in his childish way, to maintain a façade of indifference. And Mahamadou and Boubé were so eager to divulge all they had seen and heard and learned, that they didn’t notice that Moustapha listened with reverence to everything they had to say. They told him the American spoke French like he had just finished maternelle , that he talked to his dog, whose name was Rundi or Rendi or maybe Wandi, more than he talked to them, that the dog would do anything the American told it, even shit when he wanted it to, that they walked with the dog, holding the leash, and the dog was stronger than a bull. The American’s wife had been seen on occasion too, and she wore pants and didn’t wear a hijab and spoke better French than him but even less frequently. Moustapha asked what she looked like, having only seen her that one time in a car, and they both confirmed that she was beautiful but unhealthy—very thin and pale, and she seemed to sweat a lot.
“So what does he say?” he asked them one afternoon as they roamed the streets of the neighborhood, hurling rocks at goats and trying to shove one another into the big puddles that had overtaken the street after the previous night’s rain.
Boubé and Mahamadou just shrugged. “Nothing.”
“You told me he doesn’t speak French very well, so he has to say something.”
“He just says stuff,” Mahamadou said. Moustapha caught him square with his shoulder and managed to force him to hop right into a puddle to avoid falling over completely. Mahamadou picked up a handful of mud and flung it at Moustapha with a little angry cry.
“Nothing, really,” Boubé said, laughing. “It’s hard to understand him. Why do you care?”
“I don’t,” Moustapha said. “I just thought maybe he told you something.”
“He just says ‘Bonsoir,' 'Ça va?' ' Comment t’appele tu?' Basic things like that,” Mahamadou piped in.
“Or maybe those are the only things that you understand,” Moustapha suggested.
“No, my French is better than his,” Mahamadou shot back. “He makes all kinds of easy mistakes, like he always says ma chien instead of mon chien.”
“Yeah,” Boubé giggled, “Remember when you tried to give him some sugar cane, and he said, ‘No thank you, I’m pregnant?’” They both laughed heartily at this.
Moustapha was dismayed. How would he ingratiate himself into the American’s universe without a shared language? How could he coax what he wanted from the American, whatever that was?
“What does his house look like, then?” Moustapha asked, downcast.
“Never seen it,” Boubé answered.
“Mahamadou, what does it look like?”
Mahamadou shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“What? How come?”
“Every time I go with him to the gate, he stops outside and waits for the guard to unlock it, and the guard shoos me away before he does. I hate that jerk.” Boubé nodded his assent.
“You’ve never seen anything?” Moustapha asked.
“Once or twice the guard was inside when we arrived, and the American knocked hard on the gate, and when the guard came out, you could see inside a little bit, but not the house,” Mahamadou said.
“So what did you see?”
“Just some trees and stuff,” Boubé interjected.
“And there’s a white thing,” Mahamadou said.
“No there’s not. You just made that up,” Boubé said. “There’s no white thing.”
“There is too! You weren’t there, so how would you know?”
“Okay, I don’t care,” Moustapha said. “Who cares? It’s not worth listening to you anyway.”
“You care,” Boubé said. “You’re the one asking all the questions.”
“It’s like a building,” Mahamadou said, “but not a house. Small. And it’s all green in there. All you can see is green.”
“And a white thing?” Moustapha asked.
“No,” Boubé said.
“Yes!” Mahamadou interjected, shoving Boubé. “Go see for yourself.”
Moustapha began permanently forgoing his freedom during those last precious minutes of daylight in order to wait and watch for the American. Even under the best of circumstances, waiting is never easy for a boy of six or seven. He felt the cost of it, the heaviness of missed fun in his gut, roiling him, but he also felt, perhaps unaccountably, that the American possessed a promise that was worth this forbearance, this renunciation of the fleeting satisfaction of known things.
And so he began to join Mahamadou and Boubé on their walks with the American and his dog, whose name he soon learned was Rudy. Even Abdoulaye, who was scared of nothing in the world but the dog, would join them from time to time, as would others from the neighborhood, young and old. There were usually at least four in the group orbiting the man, with some dropping off and others joining en route, a constant flux of them.
And for what, exactly? The novelty of it, to be sure, the sheer strangeness. They’d never seen anything like it. For as long as they could remember, there had been white people in Kouara Kano, which housed much of the city’s diplomatic community. But in their experience, white people moved only in hermetic bubbles, rushing past in air-conditioned cars, barely acknowledging others’ existence. Those who occasioned to step outside of their gates on foot, in their shorts and expensive, colorful shoes, seemed even less accessible, less open, more at pains even, to ignore the neighborhood’s residents. A blanc who moved among them, at their own pace, who responded to their greetings, who was approachable, was something new. And there was the dog, too, who was murderousness tamed, a reliable thrill.
Mahamadou and Boubé had been right about one thing—the American didn’t speak French well at all, and perhaps that’s why he seldom spoke, except to the dog. Some days he barely acknowledged his coterie, but on others he seemed glad to engage, exhorting them, targeting individuals with friendly taunts comprehensible by gesture alone. He had close-shorn dark hair that was fairer than their own, it was like a Touareg’s they agreed, and close-set eyes that were lighter than theirs, too. They were always active, his eyes, he never seemed to stare or allow them any vacancy, to permit them to relax, although sometimes they were concealed by sunglasses, and sometimes they were ringed with shadowy half-circles. His face seemed perpetually scruffed with whiskers; he wore t-shirts and jeans and sneakers.
His forearms bristled with thick, curly hair, darker for the pallor of his skin, and the boys had never seen anyone quite so bestial in that regard. Secretly they called him Loup-garou, wolfman, a character they had seen on television once. His arms were thick with muscle, in stark contrast to the men the boys knew in their neighborhood. Moustapha had often fancied his own father the strongest man in Koura Kano, wondering at his labor-chiseled arms and torso, but in comparison to the American he was just wiry, lacking heft, a little reedbuck in the shadow of a roan antelope.
When he wanted, the American hoisted the smaller boys (and that included Moustapha) into the air with a single hand, as if they were empty jerry cans. It was simultaneously a joy and a terror to be singled out by him for this privilege, if it was a privilege, and once he had almost dropped Raissa, falling to a knee to just keep Moustapha’s friend from hitting the ground. No one wanted to be lifted up by the American for a while after that, which seemed to frustrate him somehow.
His voice, normally a hoarse, diffident rustling of the air that transported, in a halting fashion, his rudimentary French, could turn booming and terrible in an instant, particularly if anything went amiss with Rudy. The boys grew anxious if the dog ventured too far from the invisible path that the American had in his head, or if it managed to locate a piece of garbage, old bone, or shit (all of which were in abundance on the street sides of the neighborhood) for a furtive taste. A gale of abuse was certain to follow.
Moustapha knew all of this intimately, he studied the American with diligence on their walks, but really he knew nothing about him. They didn’t interact, Moustapha was never even the subject of his taunts. Once he had asked Moustapha’s name, and Moustapha had told him. The American had repeated it stumblingly a couple of times, but afterward he never used it. Moustapha didn’t know the American’s name either, had never heard it. They walked together, with the others, mostly in silence. On occasion the man did offer Moustapha the dog’s leash, and he would walk obediently with it for a few terrified minutes before handing it back or to another boy. On occasion, Moustapha asked the American a question that seemed relevant or interesting without being too familiar, questions he had formulated in the many hours of boredom that came with nightfall on their street, on those evenings when he was forbidden television. Do you have children? he asked him in French. What is your job? He was childless, Moustapha knew. But for most questions, he was better served getting second-hand, half-fabricated information from others.
Moustapha began to feel as if the real goods, the true secret knowledge, lay not in the man but in whatever was behind his gate, what remained hidden. He refused to believe that nothing was to come of this juxtaposition of his life and the American’s, and so he transposed his expectations, frustrated by the man and his inarticulate blandness, from the American onto the American’s home. But even that remained elusive. No matter how many times the gang of boys accompanied the man and his dog to the gate, they never got more than a sliver of a peek at what lay beyond.
The guards were perfect models of rigidity and intolerance. In spite of the indulgence the American might show the boys from time to time, the guards remained unmoved. The door would not be opened without first the boys’ retreat to a safe distance in the middle of the street, as if they were each potential pint-sized kamikazes, capable of wreaking any kind of death and destruction. From the middle of the street, not much could be seen; the American made the dog sit, and then the dog entered first, the man after, and those ridiculously wide shoulders of his, like the span of a bridge, blocked all but the penumbra of a view, a green penumbra they noted, always green.
Moustapha grew a bit deranged by their exclusion from this world, conspiracies swirled in his head. To his thinking, there had to be a reason for it, they must stand to gain by the view, that was why they were barred, unfairly so. After all they were just kids from the neighborhood with next to nothing, and what threat did they pose? It was just like adults to keep them on the outside of something, to keep everything for themselves, but somehow this was worse, because there was more than television-watching or football-playing at stake here, there was…he didn’t know, the possibility of anything and everything. Such was the line of his thought.
And then he won Abdoulaye over to his way of thinking, Abdoulaye who was bold and assertive where Moustapha was not. Even though Abdoulaye had been only an occasional participant in the walks and wasn’t as much invested in their potential as the other boys, once Moustapha had him burning with the fires of this perceived injustice, it was nearly impossible to prevent him from acting. Of course, this was precisely what Moustapha had intended in bringing it up to him. So they made a plan, a rash one in retrospect, but ultimately effective, if not in the manner envisioned.
The next evening, the boys sat outside of the American’s gate. They made no pretense of playing, of being there for any reason other than to see the American, but they kept a respectful distance from his gate so as not to provoke the ire of the guard and invite future scrutiny. Moustapha would recall few details of the walk that followed, only his fervid anticipation of its conclusion.
At its end, the two boys had prepared only a simple diversion, a cartoon gambit, just another thing they had unconsciously absorbed from television, like Zidane’s elegant passing or the magnetic cleavage of Brazilian telenovela stars. When the guard turned his back to the small group of boys, who had all retreated dutifully to the street, Abdoulaye rushed forward, aiming himself for the narrow space between guard and gate, even as the gate began its slow grind inward. The idea was that Abdoulaye should be grabbed, he would struggle, occupy the guard while Moustapha, the second wave, would sweep in to throw the gate wide to the world, revealing the wonders beyond.
It began well enough. Abdoulaye surged past the guard and reached the gate with both hands. But in this moment of initial success was also the unraveling of the plan as first conceived, for Abdoulaye’s swiftness, his furtiveness, his blurry passage towards the American’s home, activated some instinct in Rudy, who lunged hard at him, jaws open, catching the American unawares. The resulting mish-mash of bodies—Abdoulaye’s, the guard’s, Rudy’s, and the American attempting with great effort to restrain his dog—was a better diversion than the boys could have hoped for. Yet Moustapha stood paralyzed.
He was supposed to count to three, and then run for the gate on Abdoulaye’s heels. But when Rudy lunged, Moustapha was perhaps only midway there, and he managed only a step or two more before stopping dead. The door was partially ajar, admitting a narrow view of a tile walkway arrowing through grass—he had come for this view, to see it in full, but he could no longer move. His legs didn’t work. He feared the dog, he feared for Abdoulaye, and now given pause, he feared the consequences of the act. The gate, once opened, couldn’t be unopened.
In all, the struggle among the four bodies was brief, lasting only seconds. The guard, having just laid hands on Abdoulaye, released him, instinctively assuming a defensive posture, protecting himself and also Abdoulaye from the dog’s furious lunging. While Abdoulaye cowered momentarily, the American’s massive forearms bulged with the effort of keeping Rudy away from the pair. The guard took his baton from his belt and raised it as if to strike, which seemed to enrage the dog further. He leaped at the guard’s arm at the same time that two other things happened: Abdoulaye decided to make a break for it, and the American tried to intervene to stop the guard from hitting his dog. But in the process the American lost control of the leash; Rudy missed the guard’s arm but found himself back on solid ground unrestrained, a young boy, object of his wrath, fleeing before him. He gave chase.
Meanwhile, from up the street, a car came barreling. Rudy chased Abdoulaye, and the American chased Rudy. Abdoulaye saw the dog springing after him in pursuit, and stopped short in fear. Rudy, overeager, bounded past. Abdoulaye ran back in the other direction, downhill, toward the other boys, who scattered, while the car crested the small rise just above the dividing line between Moustapha’s family’s compound and the American’s. It was going fast. The American, eyes on his dog, ran up the street, while Abdoulaye and Rudy and the car came down. For a brief instant, it seemed they might all converge simultaneously, but Abdoulaye, seeing the American near, suddenly stopped, his arms extending outward as if in embrace.
But the American didn’t stop, he flattened Abdoulaye, who fell like a millet stalk before the scythe. In the same movement, without so much as a glance downward, the American grabbed Rudy’s collar in one hand and his undercarriage in the other and half hoisted, half heaved the massive dog, mid-bound, out of the path of the car, which skidded dangerously, throwing up a cloud of dust. The cloud hovered for a moment, enveloping everything, then settled in that impossibly slow way that dust does on a breezeless day.
When everything had cleared, Moustapha was at the threshold of the gate, looking out. The American seemed to be comforting the dog, kneeling, his hand on its head, speaking in its ear. Behind him, Abdoulaye lay in the dust crying pitifully. The other boys watched him and then slowly made their way over. The guard stood frozen, his hand still raised, the baton still in it. Moustapha looked inside the half-open gate. There was something ostentatiously paradisiacal about this other viewpoint—green grass, and young fruit trees, and a white pathway leading to a white tile house with a beautiful arcaded verandah. And a swimming pool, burbling impossibly blue behind a slatted fence.
Abdoulaye continued to cry in the street. Moustapha could see him, through the bodies of the other boys, holding his wrist, his hand hanging limply. Moustapha turned from the gate and sat down with his back straight against a corner of the guardhouse. The American and his dog quickly left the scene, as if they had been waiting for Moustapha to move. They walked straight by him and into the yard, never once turning back—Moustapha thought he even saw a hint of a smirk on the American’s face. The American shut the gate, which produced an especially exaggerated groan, and at the sound, the guard seemed to awaken from his stupor.
He went over to the group gathered around Abdoulaye and spoke some quiet words to the boy, who was still supine. Then, extending a hand downward, he helped Abdoulaye to his feet. Abdoulaye and the other boys made their way up the street and past Moustapha. Abdoulaye, limping, still held his wrist in his hand, his body shuddering with silent sobs. Moustapha remembered feeling invisible, immaterial, as if he had ceased to exist in that moment.
He felt, also, as if it were up to him to choose the time, the place, the circumstances of his return to the world, his breaking with the moment. And a part of him didn’t want to go back. He didn’t want to trudge up the street behind his broken and defeated friend to face questions of what he had done, what he had seen, to be pressed to share. The moment held importance, and he wanted to hang on to it. Something had happened. The American had revealed himself, certainly, but it was more than that. Moustapha wanted time to think about it, to turn it all over in his head.
He thought of his father then, away in Côte d’Ivoire, and wondered when he would send money again, or return home. Even with the money he had sent previously, life seemed more precarious in his absence. Moustapha felt vulnerable to all sorts of things he had never worried about before. His mother seemed worn with fretting, beaten down by the constant squabbling in the compound. His sisters, formerly jovial, were withdrawn. Everyone was waiting for something to happen.
The spell broke. Soon Moustapha was telling everyone the story from his perspective, describing what he had witnessed, joining with the others in denouncing the American, his selfishness, his menace of a dog, Rudy. The American was persona non grata in the neighborhood after that, none of the boys joined him on his walks, which grew increasingly infrequent, and no one returned his greetings, which soon ceased altogether, replaced by a glowering, aggressive silence.
Then Niger had a coup, mostly bloodless, and most of the Americans left, including the neighbor and his wife and the dog, and the house stood empty, although the guards remained, and Moustapha thought often about how he might escape into those walls. At one point he even began to dig a hole beneath their shared wall, a game of a few hours, swiftly abandoned.
The next school year, Moustapha did exceptionally well. He improved light years from his previous efforts, and this was important, because with his father no longer wiring cash, calling, or otherwise acknowledging his family’s existence. Moustapha’s mother only had enough money to pay the school fees for one of the kids. Moustapha’s sudden distinction made the choice straightforward. As the years passed, he easily progressed through the Nigerien school system. He learned English (won awards in English, in fact), passed the baccalaureate exam, and earned a scholarship to Abdou Moumouni University, where he soon graduated with a multi-disciplinary degree.
After graduation, he won a fellowship to study and carry out research in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he worked to compile the oral histories of immigrants from Francophone Africa. Moustapha often puzzled over his coming to live in the American’s country, his hard-earned facility with the man’s language. Was this an irony or an inevitability? The question ate at him. What lesson had the incident with the American taught him, after all? Everything got muddied with time, it seemed. He felt inescapably homesick and conflicted.
Speaking with West and Central African immigrants, including many Nigeriens, helped, for they shared a great deal, no matter what countries they came from. Of course they were better educated than most of their compatriots, but it went much deeper. They had a steeliness about them, a toughness that extended to their adopted country, as well as a rootedness in home that couldn’t be dug out. They felt keenly what they had given up, and in spite of the much-improved material conditions of their lives, many questioned if they had made the right decision. They struggled, as was common, with no longer feeling fully of their countries of origin, while questioning whether they would ever be accepted as citizens of their new homeland. He found the interviews salved his pain, his remorse at leaving.
Because for Moustapha, once the opportunity of the fellowship presented itself, staying was not an option. And once he had arrived in the States, returning, giving up his new life, seemed an impossibility. He cried when he spoke on the phone with his mother each month, he cried at the emails his younger brother sent, encouraging as they were. He was consumed by guilt and longing for a world he no longer wanted to be a part of. He thought of his father, of his abandonment, but most of all, it was the specter of the American that haunted him.
In the last year of his fellowship, he applied to PhD programs in sociology, and received two acceptances. He couldn’t stay, he thought, it was too much, the guilt, the feelings of betrayal, and yet he couldn’t possibly go. He saw the white path snaking through the grass to the gleaming house, the pool, the luxuriant grass. He imagined himself entering the gate, treading on the tile, breathing the sweet scent of mango and papaya. He deserved it; he was filled with revulsion. After all this time, he was still stuck there, on the threshold, looking back into the street. But he had already made his decision those many years before, hadn’t he? He was walking in.