Note from the author: The excerpt below is not from Héléna and the Missing Papaya. This is adult Abou reminiscing about events from his childhood.
For the first two weeks of my ninth summer, I went to sleep at night and woke up in the morning to the image of Nguida pulling out rotten eggs from a tattered fedora, throwing them at Papa’s store sign and yelling: “You’re a thief, Aboubacar Mbaye!” One morning, my friend Kirikou and I sat on the front porch to Papa’s store, hatching various entrepreneurial schemes, when I confessed:
“I don’t know how I’m going to make enough money to repay Nguida.”
Kirikou swiveled on the stool on which he was sitting, and removed from his mouth the end of the twig on which he had been chewing.
“ I see what you’re doing, Kirikou Diop!” I hopped from my stool and jumped up and down while pointing at Kirikou’s mouth. “You, trickster! You’ve been collecting spit in the guise of cleaning your teeth!”
Kirikou turned to me, his eyes beaming with glee. He motioned me to follow him off the cement porch. Our ashy sandaled feet landed in the dirt, raising a cloud of dust. We both knew the ritual: we lined up with our backs to Papa’s store and waited for a lull in the flow of shoppers and merchants. Women in colorful wrappers and scarves, and others in dark abayas sat at their produce stalls, little outposts made of wooden beams and thatched hay roofs. A herder was coming down the street, maneuvering three goats with a long stick. He poked and prodded them at various intervals to keep them on a trajectory that only he could see.
“After the goats,” I told Kirikou, who still kept his mouth shut. As soon as the herdsman and his animals had cleared the way, Kirikou and I released two jets of saliva into the dust.
“I won! I won!” Kirikou danced as I used my feet to measure how far each of us had scored.
“Yeah, you won,” I conceded. “But you cheated.”
“Wah…Wah…” Kirikou said, rubbing his balled up fists over his closed eyes. “You’re just a sore loser.”
I did not respond. I was looking behind Kirikou at Mr. Diallo, the tailor whose shop was next to Papa’s.
“Kirikou,” I whispered, tugging at my friend’s Djampa shirt, “look at Dada Diallo!”
Kirikou turned and glanced towards the tailor who was sitting at his shop’s entrance with his chin in his hand.
“What should I look for?” Kirikou asked after a few seconds.
“Look at Dada Diallo, and then look at the street.”
Kirikou obeyed, bouncing his eyes back and forth between the tailor and the bustling street for a minute.
“I still don’t get it,” he admitted. “Just tell me what you’re thinking.”
“He has no customers!!! That’s what it is! It is 11:00 in the morning, and the market is busy but his store is empty and he is sitting idle. An idle tailor!!!”
“Hmmm,” Kirikou said, shaking his head in agreement. “Yes, no one is coming to buy the clothes he has made and he is not sewing new clothes. Business must be bad.”
“Yes! And that’s where we come in!” I said with a wide grin.
Kirikou shifted from one leg to the other, put both hands into his shorts pockets and hunched his back.
“The failed business affair with Nguida was different, OK?” I said, brimming with conviction. “Science failed us, not business skills.”
“Haa…Abou, science, business skills, promises, nonsense! Whatever it is, he’s going to make you feel guilty about the eggs and bully you until you get his money back.” Kirikou paused and then added: “I don’t know why you agreed to repay him. Now you can’t break your word!”
“He ambushed me in front of my dad’s store!” I grumbled. “He was going to cause me trouble if I did not promise to reimburse his money.”
“What about business risks? Huh?” Kirikou asked. “There is zero guarantee that things will work out. As long as everyone was honest, no one should be blamed.”
“Yeah, try reasoning with a mad boy with rotten eggs. I reminded him that he had agreed to the business risks, but he was too angry to listen.”
Kirikou frowned and looked down. Using the tip of his sandals, he drew random symbols in the dust while I remained quiet. After a moment, he looked up and said:
“Let’s run whatever idea you have through Dada Mbaye before we approach Dada Diallo.”
“Kirikou…you don’t know my dad.” I groaned. “I’d rather go to him after we’ve succeeded.”
“And what if we mess up again? Dada Diallo is a reputed businessman, not a boy like Nguida. We don’t want to risk angering a big man! We could end up in even more trouble than we are now. I won’t do it unless Dada Mbaye approves.”
“OK then,” I said, shrugging. “I’ll do it alone.” I set my shoulders squarely, held my head high, and set off with big strides towards Mr. Diallo’s shop. For a moment, it was all silence behind me. Then I heard Kirikou’s sandals flop-flop-flop in the dust as he ran to catch up, and I knew: we were in business.