Along the back alleys, between Santa Fe Avenue and 1st street, rain seeped through flimsy roofs, cracked pavements, and old floorboards. Furniture tarnished. Homes soddened. Mildew spread thick. Soggy, damp air sagged. It was, “over a thousand dollars worth of damage,” Mamadou said as he paced with angst through their cluttered hallways. In the garage that was transformed into a living room, his wife Aminata and their son Aboubakr watched the bleeding water that seemed to watch them back. Carpet ruined. They folded and rolled it, but it was too late. Cracks eroded the cold cement floor. To no avail Aminata wiped the water again and again. Abou didn’t quite understand what a thousand dollars actually meant. He knew how to write the number, but it was a far reality from the small change he kept in his piggy bank by his bedside. On the other hand, he knew what live apart meant, and though he didn’t understand why, he knew his father was leaving. He thought maybe it had something to do with the rain, but he wasn’t sure. He couldn’t recall the feel of a day without the rain; it was a far-off dream.
It had been over five weeks that the rain had fallen. No sunshine. Only clouds, rain, and mildew. PE had long been cancelled for Abou and his third grade peers. Though only December, Southern California hadn’t received this much rain since the 1920s and there was little end in sight, according to the weathermen on KCAL 9. Long Beach had long run out of dry sand to bag and stop the water from saturating homes. There was little to do, except wait for the ominous clouds to pass.
Mamadou and Aminata hardly had room to move furniture and carpets. Mamadou’s work files occupied the second floor spare-bedroom. Boxes and boxes of papers, mostly copies of taxes filed for his clients, that, “must be kept for at least a few more years, because you never know when Uncle Sam will come knocking,” Mamadou said. He held them in esteem as a young boy would his first trophy. In a way these boxes were his first trophy. They were the first evidence that this Senegalese man had made it in America: an African immigrant, graduate of UCLA, certified CPA, soon-to-be homeowner.
Waiting suffocated Abou. Mostly he sat in his room and watched the drizzle on the windowpane. He pondered why his father would leave and what his grandfather Idrissa in Senegal would think. Paap Idrissa, whom Abou remembered most fondly. His breath of butterscotch from the candy he always kept near him. The lone photo of his Grandpa Idrissa that Abou owned sat right next to his pink piggy bank, which held $36.42 and a few CFA blue bills, crinkled and dirty. Paap Idrissa’s right eye drooped mournfully, but the rest of his austere face was brilliant, perfect. A child’s grin. A wise man’s wrinkles. Voice velvety, like a griot’s. He was a tailor.
Abou was American. Mamadou was most proud of Abou for this. “They can never take away your citizenship,” he promised. “Never.” Mamadou had to work for his. Hard. Wiping toilet seats. Driving taxis. Washing dishes. Eating cereal three times a day. “This is the land of opportunity,” Mamadou explained. “Even if you don’t have a job, you’ll be taken care of. The Government is everyone’s Uncle.”
Abou spoke very little Wolof. Paap Idrissa spoke even less English, but understanding transcended their language barrier. They were from the same tribe, history, bloodline. They reinvented the same conversation every few months.
“Sama dom, nga def?” my child, how are you, Paap Idrissa asked.
“Maa ngi fii, Paap,” I am fine, grandfather.
“Good, good. Alhumdulilah,” thanks be to God. They passed greetings back and forth, again and again. They sat in silence, too, and just listened. Abou listened to the background sounds of his grandfather’s world. The TV blasting mbalax, children running and playing and yelling and singing, the voices clattering deep in debate and discussion.
And that was it. Abou smiled at the depth of Paap Idrissa’s voice. It told stories of the baobab, the lion, the long African summer nights. Abou had visited Senegal only three times during summer vacations when in Dakar the heat swelled and the rains washed the streets and the air clean. In Abou’s hometown of Long Beach that had many faces, one being the Aquatic Capital of the Nation, another being the home of West Side Longos street gang, the rain lingered and ached, like a sore tooth ready to be pulled. Abou stared at the puddles outside, waiting for the rain to stop. He yearned to return to where warm dirt and sand ruled the streets. He longed for the smells of the street sweat, for the boys that played soccer bare-footed in the street, for his grandfather and the width of his grandmother’s hips. “Nga def, Paap Seck,” Abou asked the still photo.
The night that Mamadou and Aminata broke the news to Abou, the Lakers were on TV. They were playing the Mavericks. During halftime Mamadou turned off the TV and sat in front of Abou, who was clad in a Kobe Bryant yellow jersey. When his mom said, “legally separated,” Abou offered not words, but a plain face. Was it the bedroom window he left open on the second floor, Abou wondered. It must have been. The carpet reeked and the rain seeped through the floor, staining the first floor ceiling. His parents argued for days after that, Abou recalled. It must have been the window, he thought. Abou asked if he could still talk to Paap Idrissa.
“Of course, my son. You can talk with grandfather Idrissa anytime you want,” Aminata said and stroked Abou’s chin.
Abou’s emotions passed like the seconds of the shot clock. His parents said he could watch until 8:15, but they wound up watching well past 10 pm. The Lakers won in overtime, but it wasn’t a pretty win. Howard missed 12 free throws and Kobe shot a measly fifteen percent from the field. They all sat and cheered on the Lakers, like a family, as if nothing had really been said. Later, while the rain still struck the rooftop, hard, like the rhythms of the Sabar drum, Abou cried. It was soft enough so that his parents wouldn’t hear, but loud enough to cry out to his Grandpa Idrissa, who was many lands away.
At school the days passed somberly. The rain had a leeching effect on teachers and students alike. Everyone was antsy. Ms. Beckett had all but given up trying to invent innovative and artistic ways to entertain her students, who longed for a day on the playground.
“Now class, you and I both know we’d rather be outside on the playground,” she would say and then ask the kids to take out their reading books and find a mat to lay on. She was sweet enough, and Abou rarely disappointed the teacher. He had a veritable phobia of his father’s stern African punishments, a deep respect for authority, and an enduring crush on Ms. Beckett. She was white, petite, and laughed, a stark contrast to Abou’s mother, who was like charcoal, stiff, and easy to stain. There were many days Abou wished Ms. Beckett could meet Paap Idrissa. They’d have much to discuss and Ms. Beckett would surely fall in love with his grandfather’s land, he thought.
James, Abou’s bestfriend, challenged Ms. Beckett any chance he got. “Excuse me, Miss B., I already read all them books. I can’t lay on no mat no more,” James said. “My momma said I might get head lice.”
“Oh, come on now, James Pullman, Jr., I know you can find at least one more book you can read. And, for your information, those mats are washed every afternoon.” Ms. Beckett referred to her students by their full names, especially when assertive.
“Oh, Miss! I want to go outside. I don’t even care if it’s raining,” James said.
Ms. Beckett was hardly amused. “I don’t think your mom and dad would like that, Mr. James Pullman, Jr. The cats and dogs are coming down. Let’s read for 30 minutes and then you all can have snack early.”
James was hardly content. “Then, I’m going to read my Bible, Miss.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Pullman, Jr., sir,” Ms. Beckett’s voice cracked and then ascended. “As long as you read something, I don’t care. Now, find a mat and let’s not disturb the other children trying to read.”
James was a preacher’s kid. He always carried his Bible. He showed it off every chance he had and tried to recite lines to his peers in a meaningful way, the way his father did. Once, when James was the last kid picked for kickball, he called out to no one in particular, “the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” No one really knew what to say; they didn’t understand righteous, wicked, or perish. James, round like a snowman, shuffled along to his teammates and the game began.
They were an odd pair, James and Abou. James, a Christian, was short and chubby, and Abou, a Muslim, was tall and muscular, even for a boy his age. Abou laughed at James’s proclamations, pranks, and quick pinches to the girls. James fell at ease with Abou’s shy and quiet demeanor; Abou was the ubiquitous audience for which James yearned.
Two weeks after Abou learned he would live with his mother, while his father would move to a house in Los Angeles, James invited Abou to a sleepover. Abou carried the money from his piggy bank with him. They were to visit the Lakewood Mall arcade after church on Sunday.
All day that Saturday the rain still fell. James and Abou played video games on the Pullman’s large screen TV, while gospel music blasted through the house. Abou noticed that James’s mother ended most sentences with, “Lord willing,” much like Paap Idrissa ended his sentences with, “inch’ Allah” or “Alhumdulilah.” Abou felt at ease, wanted even, in James’s house, although the rain still soaked the mood outside. Abou laughed away the rain and tapped his feet to Yolanda Adams’s “Victory.” That night the Pullman family and Abou watched the movie Madagascar and Abou fell into a deep sleep.
The next morning the rain continued to pour while Reverend Pullman delivered his sermon on repentance and salvation.
“And I command you all to repent to the Lord. That’s right, repent, and be saved. Saved. Saved! That’s what the good book say, Amen, I say, Amen,” he said.
Abou trembled, watching James’s father preach. Voice striking, searing. Gait pompous, proud. Abou, absorbed in his performance, was saturated in thought. He wasn’t necessarily afraid; he felt, rather, emancipated. Listening, it all made sense to Abou. He was responsible. It was his own fault, he realized.
Oh, the clairvoyance! Oh, the liberation! It was as if Reverend Pullman could see and hear all that was in his third grade head and heart and then asked why have you made it this way?
“For some of you, it will be too late,” Reverend Pullman continued. He paused often. His eyes met the congregation. “It will be too late, for some of you. For sure. But, I know where I’ll be. Someone say Amen.” The keyboardist played along with Reverend Pullman’s tone. “How about you? Do you know where you will be? Look outside. The floods are here. I repeat. The floods are here. The time is now. The Lord said, ‘and the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.’ Here we are, folks!”
The crowd cackled and crowed.
“We’re in the flood! What will you do? Just ask yourself. Just ask Jesus. There’s still hope! Lord Almighty, there’s still hope. Can I get an Amen?”
Amens and sobs. James’s father wiped his sweating forehead with a small white hand towel and took a sip of water from a green glass that sat on the clear, plexiglas podium. The congregation waited, eager to hear more. “Come on, preach it,” a tall and burly man cried from the middle of the pews.
“And, at this time, if you’re in that place, in that deep and dark and scary place,” the Reverend said, summoning the crowd. “That place where you know you shouldn’t be. That place that tells you, you know you should be somewhere higher, somewhere higher, somewhere higher. Then, brothers and sisters, don’t cower. I say, don’t cower, for the Lord’s power will tower. Come down, right now. Come down, right here and pray with us and give yourself to the Lord Almighty.”
Amens erupted with raised hands. The altar call began. The people called out and cried aloud. Some rushed to the altar at Reverend Pullman’s call. Others lingered, waiting for the right moment to join the others.
Abou stood and stared, spine tingling. James’s mother wrapped her arm around Abou. James clapped and yelled. “Preach it Daddy! Go Daddy,” he said. Kleenex passed through the air, like white flags waving surrender at war. Wailing wet the walls. Abou watched, wondering. Mesmerized. Touched. Abou whispered to himself, “I’m sorry, Grandpa Idrissa.” He took deep breaths and swallowed hard to stop the pain in his throat and the tears in his eyes. Abou wanted to rush through the crowd and hold the Reverend’s hand. He wanted to plead for a prayer and give whatever he needed to give to release the pain. He wanted to give himself to the Lord Almighty, as the Reverend suggested. That was the answer, Abou was convinced. But, he just stood and stayed by James’s side.
The ushers passed along a wicker basket to collect the offering. Abou took the $36.42 from his neatly ironed pants and dropped it in.
James stared in wonderment. “Abou, what you doing? You ain’t going to play videogames at the arcade today?” James’s mother mouthed, are you sure?
Abou smiled and nodded. I’ve never been more sure about anything, Abou thought. He prayed to Jesus, to God, and to Mohammad the Prophet: Mr. God, I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I didn’t mean to leave the upstairs window open. I’ll do anything if you just take away the rain. But first, please don’t let my Dad leave. Amen.
Abou remembered the sandy tiled floors of the mosque in Fas, deep in the neighborhoods of Dakar. It was green inside – a light green that made the room swell with tranquility. He watched Paap Idrissa bow to the floor, on his knees, reciting his prayers and rolling the 99 prayer beads in his wide hands. Allahu Akbar he repeated. Abou thought about Paap Idrissa’s reverence for God, his humility, the way he prostrated with great respect and faith.
Oh, yeah, Abou added. Watch over Grandpa and Grandma. I miss them. I love you, Grandpa. I love you, Mr. God. Amen.
And with that Abou felt refreshed. He raised his head and smiled, looking around at the faces fresh with forgiven hearts that surrounded him. Old women wobbled to their seats and waved hand fans. Young mothers sat with their children, dressed in their nicest clothes. Broad-shouldered men, dressed in crisp suits, stood and swayed with the sounds of the keyboard. Reverend Pullman made eye contact with each and every one there and said to them in his own silent way, “God loves you, too.” Then, Abou looked to James, chubby James, whom he envied. The rain still fell outside.
After church Abou wanted to return home. He longed to hear his grandfather Idrissa’s voice. He was anxious to call Senegal.
James was upset. “But, mom! I thought we were going to Lakewood Mall?”
“Next week, James. Next week, Lord willing,” she said.
On the way back home Abou apologized to James and said he would make it up to him soon enough. He said he would have him over to his house to spend time with his mom and dad.
James grumbled. “See you tomorrow.”
Abou entered the apartment. His mom was startled. She wasn’t expecting him until later in the afternoon. She was washing and wringing the small hand towels that they used to soak up the dampness in the living room. “What are you doing back so soon,” she said.
“Mom, can I call Grandpa?”
“Waaw, now, sama yaay. Can I?”
“Let’s call him a bit later, Abou.”
“A bit later,” I said.
Abou walked towards his room, but then turned back to his mom.
“Mom, where’s Dad?”
“He’s gone, son,” his mother said.
“What time is he coming back?”
“Abou, what, son?” Aminata frowned, impatient with her son’s confusion. “Abou, he’s not coming back here, son. You’re going to visit him in L.A. Remember what we talked to you about?”
Abou reached into his pant pockets and felt nothing. No money. No change. Only emptiness. He looked to the carpet. His socks were already damp. Abou thought about Alex, the lost lion, from the movie Madagascar.
“Abou,” his mother finally said.
“You do remember our conversation, right?”
“Yes, I do.”
“So, you know, your father and I aren’t going to be together anymore? You’ll stay in your school and you’ll be here with me. You’ll see your father on the weekend. Okay?”
Aminata went back to wringing the hand towels. The water dripped into a bucket that sat between her legs. She strangled the towels with ease and the water trickled, drop-by-drop.
Abou walked back to his room. He pictured Reverend Pullman preaching. He opened his pink piggy bank and put the crumpled blue CFA notes in his pocket. His pockets were no longer empty. Abou lay on his bed. He talked to the picture of his Grandpa Idrissa and cried himself to sleep.
When he woke the sun was shining on his face. Majestic and forgiving warmth. The rain stopped. Was it a dream? Abou squinted at the brightness, smiled, and looked to the framed picture of his grandfather. Nga def, Paap Seck?
About the Author: Bradford Philen has 10 tattoos and reads a lot of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Ngugi wa Thiong'o. He's the author of the novel Autumn Falls, and his short stories have appeared in places like scissors and spackle, Specter Magazine,Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, The Monarch Review, and Sentinel Literary Quarterly. He teaches high school English in Beijing, China.
Story Song: "Massamba" by Pape Diouf