I’d raced down and up that staircase countless times since age six. At the bottom of the stairs, running down the middle of the alley that snakes back between the houses, there’s a gutter covered with concrete slabs. The slabs have fallen in over time and some are completely gone, revealing water that starts murky before turning brown, then grayish-green, and finally black, sweeping down foul-smelling rubbish from two drainpipes. In the dry season the current becomes too weak to carry the decaying carcasses that float on top, and the stench is so strong that it’s a nuisance to people inside their cars fifty meters away, stuck in traffic jams.
The deterioration of the staircase and alley progressed alongside my childhood and teenage years. The slab at the top of the slope cracked the year my father abandoned us and moved in with a radio producer. Dama and I were starting fifth year, and the slab buckled under high school kids who were goofing off, jumping from the top of the stairs and chasing each other through the twisting maze. Then the whole wall next to the old red-brick house at the first bend in the path collapsed one night, during the hot season’s flooding. We were just finishing junior high and my mother was recovering from her first seizure; she’d just been dumped by her latest man and had lost all hope of going to nursing school. That was also when I smoked my first cigarette. The wall had stopped at the utility pole where you’d turn right to get to Dama’s house; it got replaced with a lower wall of slapdash plaster cement, with bottle shards or barbed wire on top.
Wang Chung’s corner store, on the right as you came out of the alley, had once been the hangout spot for kids from Rainitovo, the protestant junior high, which has a gated courtyard facing the street. They’d eat achar sandwiches, samosas, shortbread cookies, and Hollywood chewing gum, drinking Coca-Cola and Bonbon Anglais limonade. Dama and I went to the public school, and we envied those students in their blue smock uniforms. Back then, my mother made hena baolina croquettes, fried chicken catless, and banana mofo akondros for Wang Chung’s customers. I’d bring two big fragrant baskets over in the morning before leaving for school and pick up the money on my way back in the evening. Dama and I would take full advantage of the opportunity to eat some chocolate-filled Chocoprinces, smoke a couple Melia Bleues that we’d nicked from my mother, and whistle at the teenage girls walking by. My mother never double-checked the amounts from the sales. The cigarettes made her seizures worse.
Besides the big brick house along the path, there had only been a few scattered houses and some trees, including one that hung its tousled head over the butcher’s place. But the wild, weed-strewn slopes where we’d played as children soon vanished. Over the years, the alley became covered in houses with pallid walls and corrugated metal roofs that ended up all rusty and dented. The butcher, who’d been with my mother at one point but had tossed her aside when she started talking of marriage, dismantled his little shack and cut down the tree to build a seedy restaurant-slash-bar. It was the year we first got piss-drunk. And also the first time I got the clap.
My pal Dama got hit with his first trip to the correctional facility just after the first prostitutes showed up in the alley. He’d punched the principal of his little sister’s school, because the principal had threatened to expel her for unpaid school fees. Dama had already built up his tough guy reputation by then. My clap wouldn’t go away ‘til I had two rounds of antibiotics from a neighbor, a young guy who was a medical student. The pain when I urinated was so bad it made me scream. I would go relieve myself a little further down the street behind a pole so it wouldn’t tip off my mother. Times like that, I would start to wish that a platoon of bulldozers would raze the whole neighborhood down to its foundations someday. Maybe something a little cleaner and less cruel could be born from it.
The area had actually almost been destroyed by a fire once already, when Wang Chung Sr. was killed by a gas canister that exploded in his kitchen. I remember exactly when it was, because my father had returned to try to get back together with my mother. The radio producer had left him to marry a police officer. But it ended with my old man shamefaced and fleeing below my mother’s diatribe. She was screaming like a madwoman: “Ten years! Ten years! How dare you?” Before he disappeared for good, I managed to hit him up for a little money, which Dama and I spent on the hookers. The fire spread to the garage next door and was contained only just before the Solima gas station. In the panic, thieves looted the store and garage.
With that fire, a page was turned, and my adolescence came to an end. It was just before the reader moved to the neighborhood.
Really, though, everything in the neighborhood had changed when Wang Chung started selling alcohol—much to the dismay of the butcher-turned-barman, who got himself elected president of the neighborhood’s fokontany to go on the counter-attack. The Rainitovo students relinquished their spots to mechanics with blackened hands and civil servants who knocked back shots of rum in the alley on their way home. The street was invaded by little punks in souped-up clunkers. They had sunken eyes and fat-greased cheeks, and they’d spend hours leaning back on their rides, nursing a THB and smoking Dunhills. The shop itself almost had to shut down when a postal worker got sloshed and tried to rape a high school girl in the back room.
Dama and I had been there that day. We were in second or first year. Wang Chung and his son Sam had gone to Star Brewing to load up their van, so it was the mother at the counter, an old half-deaf woman. We intervened just in time, Dama broke the postal worker’s nose, and we and the old Chinese woman tried to mollify the girl with chocolate and cheap perfume. She promised not to say anything to anyone but went and blabbed the next day anyway, and everyone got called before the crime squad. Luckily, Wang Chung greased the cops’ palms and paid the family a hefty compensation. But the gas canister still blew up in his face a month later. The neighbors—with the butcher at their head—said it was retribution for vice and intemperance, as they’d built up a reputation for him as a pervert who liked little girls. All anyone found of him was a blackened carcass.
Soon after that, the richer folks began to barricade themselves in their houses. Dama came back from the correctional facility with cannabis, which he taught me to break up and roll into different-sized joints. Bandits set up shop in the area after the fire and looting. Wrought-iron security bars appeared in most of the windows, outer walls were made higher, and properties were sealed shut by tall gates topped with spikes.
The only exception was the villa across from Wang Chung’s place. It stayed the way it was, open for all to see: a tidy yard with a dragon tree, a short cement walkway, and a small begonia garden. The owner was an older lady with thin lips and a rounded forehead. She was a newcomer to the neighborhood and it didn’t look like she had a husband or many visitors. This provoked curiosity, desire, and coveting, too—the butcher often set it up so he would run into her when she crossed the street to buy herself her Boston cigarettes. In the afternoons, she would sit out on her balcony in a wicker chair, cross-legged, reading a book and smoking. Weirdly, the burglars never bothered her.
Dama and I took hits of our weed in a recessed corner near the end of the alley, to the left of Wang Chung’s. No one could see us from the street, even in broad daylight, except for the woman in the villa. We’d give her a friendly wave as we pulled on our joints, and she’d reply with a subtle lift of the book in her hand. We got high off it. We called her the reader. To the right of the villa, a hairdresser had set up a stall next to Rainitovo Junior High, and it was swarmed with rank-and-file government staffers on Thursday and Friday evenings. To everyone’s great surprise, the reader came to get her hair done once a month. To the left of her house, between there and the Solima station, the street was full of destitute small-time entrepreneurs, including a charcoal vendor, and a stamp maker who also fixed lighters. Wang Chung’s son, Sam, added chaos to squalor by hanging an ever more motley assortment of things out front of his store, including multicolored fans, bird cages, and plastic commodes. In addition to all the made-in-China crap, he also ran a below-board watering hole out of his back room where we’d meet our friends to drink, smoke, and talk.
All the development attracted prostitutes from the neighborhoods above. They started venturing down the staircase to the mouth of the alley a few months after the reader arrived. They were girls, a little shy, some already mothers, who’d been thrown out on the streets by a lack of care, dearth of jobs, and steeply rising prices. They were looking for new turf, unable to elbow their way into the already saturated markets of Antaninarenina and Tsaralalàna. In the beginning, they tried to pass for a group of students at the corner store, sharing a cheap bottle of THB and a couple catlesses to buck up their courage, but they didn’t fool anybody.
We were their first clients, with the mechanics and government staffers and gangster wannabes. And they soon attracted others who peddled cigarettes, snacks, and condoms—which made old Wang Chung furious. But the greatest profiteer of the new business was the alcoholic bachelor owner of the old brick house along the way: He split his house into red-light rooms, separated only by plywood or oilcloth walls, available by the hour, any hour, day or night. He also had a sign hung over the entrance with a red zebu on a yellow background—it didn’t mean anything, but it was used as a landmark. Dama, who’d been hitting on the hairdresser’s daughter and managed to get her into The Red Zebu one night after giving her a joint to smoke, acquired some information about the reader: She was an heiress who’d always lived abroad, and she had lost the last two members of her family (her son and her elderly mother) in a shipwreck.
After the girls arrived, we noticed, the reader would move her wicker chair closer to the front of her balcony and remain at her observation post until very late. What did she feel seeing them all, clasping and clutching ‘til morning light? We invented theories about her life, how she got here, her lovers past and present. She was the subject of heated debates in the darkened alley at weed o’clock, and while we binged in the back room at Sam Chung’s. We’d picture her naked and trussed up, welcoming some passing lover into her embrace. And what was she reading, anyway? That thing, the book, was an intrusion in our neighborhood life, it threw us off. Dama claimed she was flipping voraciously through pornographic images and touching herself in the semi-darkness of her veranda. Claimed he’d caught her right as she was cumming. He brought supporting evidence with him, old lewd magazines that his fellow detainees had passed around at the correctional facility. One of the mechanics laughed and asked if it wasn’t actually him, Dama, who was jerking off watching her. Things escalated, Dama took out a knife, the other guy flashed a pipe wrench. We had to get help from the vendors and people passing by outside to prevent the worst.
But violence was on the rise in the neighborhood. By that point, my mother had joined an evangelical cult. She declared it was the devil’s work, that evil was flourishing. She hated the reader, while secretly envying her.
One night, one of the soup-up hooligans hit a prostitute over a financial matter. He smacked the girl so hard that she fell over backward, screaming. Her friends rushed to help her but were beat back by the gang of thugs, which led to a full-on brawl. The instigator was swearing up a storm and swinging into the crowd, rousing the whole neighborhood. The butcher poked his head out to teach them all some manners, but got a swift kick in the gut and crumpled behind his grate. Even Sam, who was a pretty deep sleeper, woke up and shouted things in Chinese from his window. When the muggers prowling the area pulled out makeshift swords, the rabble became utter chaos. Sam was beside himself—he stormed into his shop and came back out with an old hunting rifle.
At that moment, an iron gate banged open across the street. A shadow burst out of the darkness in a swaying rush of heels, studded with one glowing red dot. The reader advanced on the thugs with a Boston in her lips, wearing a satin robe that shimmered under the streetlight on the utility pole. She shoved the drunken assaulter, who fell flat on his back on the sidewalk. Sam lowered his rifle as snickers broke the tension. The crowd pressed in to squint at this strange woman, awaiting a potentially violent climax. The thugs scowled and picked up their buddy, but made no threatening moves. The muggers put away their swords. The girls came to help their friend, who was speechless and staring at the robe.
The reader waited, too, hands on her hips. She glared at the thugs, unspeaking and unwavering. They left.
That incident sparked extensive debates and enflamed our passions. What had compelled her to intervene? Wasn’t it a bit childish? Where had that unexpected bravado come from? That urge? That insolence? What was she trying to do? The girls had talked to her. She had a foreign accent and expressed herself like an educated person, like the women on TV. Sam saw it as the act of a desperate person. He’d started reading novels ever since she’d arrived, spouting off quotes while he served us rum in his back room. Our friend had changed. He talked about university, confessing that his father had always wanted him to go, but his mother was too old to run the business. He told us that he’d gone to the Chinese school for elementary and the Collège de France for secondary school, he could write both Mandarin and “the language of Molière,” and he’d gotten his French baccalaureate. In a burst of enlightenment, Dama cried, “You’ve got your eye on the lady across the street! She’d do just the trick for you, huh? She could run your shop and then you could talk books while you screw her!” Sam sputtered angrily and kicked us out, saying he had to close up early, which meant that Dama had hit the nail on the head.
The day after the clash with the thugs, two prostitutes rang the doorbell at the villa. Five minutes later, the mistress of the house walked them back to the gate, and they kissed her on both cheeks as they left, with a small wad of cash between them. That same day, the stamp maker waved down the reader on the street and presented her with a book which he had leather-bound himself. She took it and gave him some money. When he hesitated, she added a few more bills, which gave him a huge smile. The day after, he offered her sandals he’d cut out of old tires, which she also took for wearing to the market.
Watching the reader become the center of attention in the neighborhood made Dama and me optimistic, without quite knowing the reason why. Maybe we saw the possibility of redemption in it. We still waved to her while we smoked our joints in the alley, and she’d make the same reply with her book, sometimes granting us a smile. We’d sit with Sam and wonder if that was her way of judging us, if she was analyzing our lives and drawing her own conclusions from it. I was sure she wasn’t, but Sam didn’t agree: He said that educated folks were irredeemable, they couldn’t help but look down on everyone else, they were worse than rich folks. He told us about how his father had started out by running messages for a French lawyer, who, after finding out he could read and write, would always call him “Confucius” or the “Chinese scribe.” Dama asked him why he would want to be educated, then—was it so he could screw educated women? Sam just laughed.
Dama wanted to know more, so one day he took his turn to cross the street and knock at the gate of the villa, even though his eyes were still red from weed. The reader appeared on her balcony and asked what he wanted. Then she saw me across the way in the alley, waving in my normal friendly way, and it all clicked. She came downstairs, and I watched her talking to Dama. When he joined us back at the bar, he brandished a check at Sam:
“Look! She lent me money!”
“No, come on. A check? OK sure, but what does that prove? She gives everybody money!”
“No, she understands—I was asking her for money because I like her. Rich people don’t understand that.”
Sam burst out laughing again, but Dama kept daydreaming, staring at the door with his bloodshot eyes, as if he was expecting the lady from across the street to appear.
The reader did not show up on her balcony one day.
We’d already grown so accustomed to her that there were immediate reactions. The girls wore worry on their faces and didn’t talk much, watching the door of the veranda, which remained stubbornly shut. Sam sent one of his housekeepers over to inquire about a potential order of wine and Bostons. The butcher used some random uncompleted form as a pretext to knock at the gate, and went back three times, and even went so far as to throw pebbles at the windows—with no reply—which everyone found absurd. As for Dama and I, we spent more time than usual tucked away in our corner, smoking our joints. We’d only relent and leave once our brains were about to dissolve into hallucinations and smoke.
She didn’t turn back up until a month later.
She’d lost a lot of weight and was smoking much more than before, and didn’t read anymore. Now, she would just stare out at life on the street, her face expressionless. As for us, at first we all refused to go see her and ask how she was doing. Everyone tried to act like nothing had changed.
But rumors started to churn through the neighborhood like a frothing sea. Everyone made predictions about a rapid demise; her death was already accepted as fact. Something inevitable was occurring, a destiny being inscribed in stone. Her name had already been struck out. We ran rife with speculation, everyone puzzling over her unwonted presence and seemingly fatal progression. Some said that she’d brought us ill fortune, and that by leaving her world she’d broken a dike that had held back devastating floods. Some of the girls finally decided to visit her, but came from it even more despondent: She’d answered their questions in a flat voice, devoid of the curiosity that had once been hers. She’d been sick but said she was doing better—and everyone took that to mean she was doomed. One of the prostitutes broke down in tears telling us about it.
The months passed, and she got sicker, her body became emaciated. Burglars broke into her property for the first time. They nabbed an old radio set from a chair under the veranda, which the reader would sometimes turn on while she watered her begonias. But they didn’t go so far as to force open the door to her house; the macabre figure that haunted the balcony put them off of it. Perhaps they were scared by the thought of the living skeleton giving them a dressing down, even a smack. Nobody bothered calling the police. Sam claimed that she’d been right there on the veranda when the thieves burst in, and she’d just looked at them, unmoving, with her dull, lifeless eyes. Maybe, he speculated, she’d actually wished they would see her, and kill her. He got a little carried away, imagining the reader being attacked with a sword, mutilated by thieves, maybe even raped. Who would rape a skeleton?
Dama said that Sam was talking slander, to vindicate himself after his provisional plans evaporated. My pal had just gotten back from his latest stint, this time in the adult prison. Back when he’d borrowed money from the reader, the hairdresser’s daughter had gotten pregnant. He’d gotten her an abortion with the med student, at the Red Zebu. It had gone wrong and the girl hemorrhaged. She’d been saved, but her parents pressed charges. The med student had gotten slapped with a whole year, and Dama got three months, extended to six because he’d punched the hairdresser in a fight. I’d enrolled at the university in the meantime. My mother had more seizures.
The reader died two months after the burglars broke in and the old radio set vanished. We heard that she refused to go to the hospital up to the very end. A nurse had come regularly over the last two months to give her injections. A home aide had been constantly by her side, helping her vomit into a bucket and bringing her out to the balcony with help from the newly hired gardener. The day of her passing, a doctor came to make the official declaration of death, and her relatives made their appearance.
At first, it was a single car.
One man, older, well dressed, balding, came with the doctor. He gave orders to the domestic staff and left after thirty minutes, coming back an hour later with men in long coats who turned everyone out to prepare the body for the vigil. Then, a whole stream of cars, some fancy, others modest. Women in tailored suits and heels, their hair pulled back, men in dark jackets looking dismayed, some wearing ties, in stiff and silent reflection before the deceased, who looked paler now below the white tulle draped over the funeral bed.
Housekeepers bustled about, carrying provisions and drinks, bringing in ladles and saucepans; a cook put rice stew on to simmer and built up a fire under a pot of chicken broth; women rinsed out carafes for coffee and tea, filled plates with cookies and cakes. In the evening, a large canvas was stretched and hung above the front yard, and chairs were arranged on the walkway. A musician arrived late, with apologies, and set up an electric organ in the living room, which had been emptied of all furniture except for two rows of chairs and sofas set near the funeral bed where the family was receiving respects. Elderly women arranged flowers around the bier. A death announcement was pasted up on the left pillar next to the gate and a projector hung from the balcony, making the wicker chair vanish in the stark blue-white light.
Shortly after nightfall, the first visitors arrived, quickly forming a line in the yard. Their vehicles filled the sidewalks on both sides of the street, and even the poseurs in their souped-up clunkers fell back under the invasion. The girls stared for a moment at all the elegant women pouring out of the automobiles, whose laughter and shrill voices gave them a slight resemblance to the reader. Then, one by one, the prostitutes slipped away, reappearing three hours later in sober dress, but with lips and eyelids still too thickly painted. They elicited curious stares as they stood in the queue under the projector light. When it was their turn to go inside and offer the customary words of mourning, they had a moment of panic. A few of them laughed nervously upon seeing the reader on the funeral bed. The youngest stepped forward and handed an envelope to an old woman sitting beside the bier, who mumbled a reply. After a moment of indecision, they retreated to the backyard, where they ate heartily of the rice stew and chicken broth and peered curiously at the other visitors filing out.
Dama and I were part of the largest group of visitors, locals and neighbors, led by the butcher-slash-fokontany president. He turned out to be a moving speaker, stirring the audience to sighs of emotion with his poeticism and sorrowful soliloquies. Sam, who was sitting next to him in the first row, choked back a sob. The hookers, who’d rushed behind the couches to listen, burst into applause, but were silenced by stern looks from the old women. We didn’t know any of the people sitting in the seats reserved for family. As for them, they were visibly wondering who we were. Complete strangers, come to console them upon the death of a relative who was just as completely unknown to them. The balding man made the reply to the butcher’s marvelous speech. He thanked us solemnly on behalf of the family and affirmed that our presence and support eased their pain and suffering. The instant we’d fulfilled our duties, Dama made a beeline for the alcohol, and we started drinking whisky, beer, and other rich-folk drinks, while Sam explained to the butcher and other men in ties how the reader had influenced his tastes and way of thinking. I’d convinced my mother, who was prone to panic attacks and heart palpitations, not to come to the vigil.
As the first hymns rang out over the electric organ late into the evening, we crossed the street to smoke a few joints in our usual spot, stuffed with rice and chicken broth. “Aza manadino ahy, ry mpihaino vavaka…” The visitors started to climb back into their cars. Suddenly, Dama swore loudly: He saw a shadow behind the projector, on the wicker chair. His eyes rolled backward and he said he’d seen a silhouette of the reader. I shrugged and suggested we go back in the villa to drink, eat, and sing. A couple of the girls had joined the choir; they laughed and winked at us as we came in. At four in the morning, good and drunk, we realized there were only three of us left singing: me, Dama, and a toothless old woman. The girls were gone, men in shirtsleeves were slumped on the couches, their wives had retired upstairs, and even the organist had nodded off, right on the floor underneath his instrument.
On the morning of the burial, six men in green porters’ outfits and red caps carried the reader’s coffin to the hearse. Children at the head of the procession carried funeral wreaths banded with long white ribbons gilt with gold letters: “To my dear aunt, from your beloved…”; “Ma chérie, we will never forget you…” Dama and I watched from the alley. We were drinking, but we dared not smoke. The crowd of relatives and acquaintances lined up, waiting in silence for the wreaths to be placed in the hearse and for the family to take their places in the cars up front. The hearse pulled slowly out of the yard, hazards on, and turned up the street past Rainitovo Junior High. Car doors clacked shut, and the vehicles all filed off the sidewalks one after the other. The long procession of sedans and SUVs drove silently out of the neighborhood as bystanders and busybodies looked on, in a great blinking of hazard lights.
Shortly after the burial, the new heir—the balding man who’d made the reply to the butcher’s oration—had security grates installed at the villa. Sam sold the shop to another Chinese man and left to study in France.
The last concrete slab left in the alley that was fully intact broke the year I decided to drop out of university. My mother had had to be committed after several bouts of dementia. Area folks and passersby who took that route had to straddle the gutter like crabs, or jump from one side to the other to get by. Dama was arrested by the police over a failed robbery, and was beaten when he tried to run. I sold our house at the top of the stairs for a fistful of beans, and decided to try my luck somewhere else.