You're a Bad Man
The writer recounts his run-in with an over-zealous fabric factory-owner in Senegal.
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Getting into the taxi, I thought, it's unfortunate that I have to go with S., but that's the way the world is, in some places, that a man has to accompany a woman. We were both English Language Fellows in the U.S. State Department's EFL Program, attending a mid-year meeting in Dakar, Senegal, and S., the day before the meeting began, wanted to go to the Marche HLM market, which is famous for its African fabrics, to buy some material for something she wanted to have made back in Ethiopia, where she was living, working with the Ministry of Education. I was teaching at a university in Zimbabwe.
The highway to the market runs along the coast, and as S. spoke to the driver in broken French, I looked out at the beach, which was crowded with Senegalese, many kicking a football around, others working out, doing pull-ups or lifting weights in places where the city had provided them with the equipment to do so. They all looked muscular and fit.
After poking along in the taxi for fifteen or twenty minutes the driver turned onto a street teeming with people, mostly men, dressed in the traditional Senegalese kaftan, a two-piece Muslim suit consisting of a pullover top that falls down to the wearer's knees and a pair of matching pants.
S. said to me, "He has a friend"--she meant the driver--"who has a shop."
I thought, I'm not surprised. What's his kickback? But I said nothing.
The driver stopped the taxi along the curb under a baobab tree, and a man in a gleaming green kaftan, wearing a fez and dark glasses, approached the taxi. I judged him to be in his fifties.
He opened the taxi door for me.
"Welcome," he said.
I said, "She's the one who's buying," nodding to S.
"Friends," S. said.
S. and I followed the man across the street and down an alley, then turned and went along another alley which was narrower than the first and became even narrower still, until I felt buildings pressing up against me.
"I have no idea where I am," S. said.
"I think that's the point," I said.
We entered a building where men were hunched over sewing machines, one bare light bulb dangling over their heads, and went up a flight of stairs, passing more men at sewing machines, before coming to a floor on which there were shops that were partitioned off, men in kaftans standing before each one.
"My shop!" the man exclaimed.
There were two men there, both young, with broad shoulders and menacing expressions. They, too, were wearing kaftans.
"We have many African fabrics," the shop owner said, making a sweeping motion with one arm, as if unveiling something meant to astonish us: stacks of fabrics on pallets and on shelves along the three walls.
"What interest you?" he asked me.
"Not me," I said, "her."
The two other men began to pull down bolts of fabrics from the shelves, laying them in front of us, all of the fabrics starting to look the same to me after a while, just a blur of bright colors and elaborate designs, all very exquisite and beautiful, with squarish or lightning bolt patterns on them.
"Which do you like?" S. asked me.
I pointed out two, but, really, they all looked beautiful.
S. studied the two for a few minutes, and as she was doing this, the man said to me, "I make good offer. Best offer to your wife."
"Friend," I said.
He seemed incredulous.
S. said, "That one. How much is two meters?"
"Very fine choice," the man said.
The two other men took the bolt of fabric and laid it on a table to measure and cut it.
The man quoted some outrageous amount, and S. made a counter offer. This went on for a few more minutes, the haggling, until they agreed on the amount S. had budgeted for herself, about twenty U.S. dollars, I think.
One of the men cut off two meters, put it in a black plastic bag, and handed it to me. I handed it to S.
The larger and more intimidating of the two men then said to me, "You need African shirt. For memory to coming here." He took some fabric and draped it over one of my shoulders. "Very good!" he said.
"Beautiful," the other young man said.
"Beautiful African shirt," the owner said.
"I don't need a shirt," I said.
"You need a shirt. For memory."
"I don't need a shirt for memory."
S. said, "Maybe we should go?"
"Yes," I said.
"Please take us back to the taxi," S. said to the owner.
"Your husband need African shirt!"
I took out my phone.
"Okay," the owner said. "I show you. Please."
As we were leaving the shop, one of the tough guys shouted, "You come to Africa, not buy African shirt! You bad man! Very bad man!"
S. and I continued to follow the shop owner back through the labyrinth of pathways and came out onto the alley, where there was a sliver of refreshing blue sky overhead.
On the way to the taxi I stopped to buy an African pattern fabric bookmark, for memory.
The story of how the lovable Mickey Mouse turns into Mickey Rat.
During the long winter months, wealthy Chinese from the country's north and west go south to the warm beaches of Sanya, a resort city on Hainan Island that is on about the same latitude as Jamaica. (The Chinese characters for hai and nan are 海 (sea) and 南 (south).) Before China's economic boom began in the eighties, Hainan was known as a malaria infested hideout for smugglers and pirates, but since then they have been pushed aside by condominium and resort developers who have the support of the Communist party. Mangrove swamps have been drained, replaced by luxury hotels and championship golf courses.
Sanya has two beaches, Sanya Wan and Dadong, meaning respectively Sanya Bay and Big East. They are separated by the city, through which the Sanya River flows, emptying into the South China Sea. Both beaches are patrolled by men and women wearing wide-brimmed straw hats and yellow vests who sweep up things like plastic bottles, wooden chopsticks, and cigarette butts, keeping the sands invitingly clean, a rarity in a country where many public spaces are burnished with a sheen of spit, baby piss, and spilt sodas. On Sanya's sidewalks there are, in addition to these everyday stains, splotches of red beetle juice which old, toothless women who sell the leaves have spat out. The beetle juice spots appear at one's feet like Rorschach blots.
I had come to Sanya to spend a few days with B.D., a Chinese woman in her mid-forties who is petite, tempestuous, and sexually uninhibited. She lived and worked in Sanya. I taught at a university in Shenzhen, about an hour's flight away.
B.D. and I spent our first morning together catching up on what we couldn't do while sleeping separately and left our hotel—a cheap one across from the Sanya River—at around one, heading for Big East Beach. We began to search for a spot of sand, all the time dodging volleyballs and errant, screaming children, finally arriving at the far end where some waves were breaking on rocks just off shore. There were only a few people here, and they were all clustered together near a seawall, tanned as brown and black as seals. I sensed something odd about them, but I didn't know what. And then it struck me. There was no color around their waists. They were all men and naked. I thought, this has to be Sanya's gay beach. When I told B.D. this, she was incredulous. “For oil, I am thinking,” she said. She, like other Chinese, tows the party line that there are no gays in China.
We watched them frolicking in the waves and rubbing oil onto a ‘friend's’ back until one of them roared and spat, in a marking his territory kind of way. B.D. I then decided to head back in the direction we had come. Not far off I saw the incongruous figure of someone in a Mickey Mouse outfit. This Mickey was wearing a black evening coat, red pants, white shirt, and yellow tie. Our paths crossed with his, and Mickey approached B.D., offering his hand. She accepted it, and they danced a few steps, swaying back and forth in the warm afternoon sun. She was, I thought, recalling the time she had spent with her son at the Hong Kong Disneyland a couple of years before. She was divorced; her son was living with her parents in Chongqing, in Szechuan province. He was in middle school.
As B.D. and Mickey danced, she had me take photos of them, which I did, though with considerable suspicion about what was going to happen next. Soon, like a child, Mickey tired of B.D. and dropped her hand. She started to walk over to me. But after she'd taken only a few steps Mickey shouted at her, a roar coming from the cavernous black hole that was his mouth, clearly not Disney style. She marched back to him, pushed herself up against his red pants, and shouted something into his mouth in return. Then she stepped back a few paces and, in the spirit of a baseball manager protesting an umpire's call, kicked sand onto his shoes. By now, she and Mickey had attracted onlookers.
“He want ten yuan!” she said to me.
“It's okay,” I said. Ten yuan was at that time about $1.50. I had expected him to ask for much more.
B.D. and I walked off and came to a line of palms against a seawall. I unrolled a straw mat we had brought along, and we sat on it. B.D. was now mumbling to herself in Chinese. Every so often she would give Mickey the finger and shout, “Fuck you!”
“He's not Mickey Mouse,” I said, “He's Mickey Rat.”
Sanya was infested with rats, large ones that would terrify a cat. Every night they skittered along in the gutters and climbed into trashcans, sorting through shrimp heads, fish skeletons, and charcoal-grilled pork on a stick. (Like the tourists, rats in Sanya eat well.)
“What?” B.D. Asked.
She hadn't understood, and so I had to explain to her the difference between a mouse and a rat.
She laughed. “Yes, Mickey Rat he.”
Just then a young girl came up to Mickey, and he began to dance with her as her mother took photos.
James Roth writes fiction and nonfiction in most genres but leans toward noirish stories and creative nonfiction. His stories have appeared, or are forthcoming in, several journals. He has a novel that is set in Meiji era Japan coming out in late 2022 and has just finished a modern detective novel/love story set in Tokyo. www.jamesroth.org