I wilted in the noon sun beating down on Goree Island while Clarissa haggled over a few francs like one of my clients chiseling an extra food stamp. Finally I threw the money down and dragged her off. “C’mon, only an hour to see the Maison des Esclaves before the boat returns to Dakar.”
"Hey,” she said, “you can’t just shove me along like your Cleveland welfare dependents.”
We stopped beneath an 18th century, New Orleans style terrace with black iron railings, part of the Hortala House that overlooked the Atlantic from the westernmost point of Africa. Workers on the third floor called to each other as a crane swung a large window in place. “I don’t, you know, just shove anyone.”
While Clarissa fumbled for a response, I looked over at the pock-marked wall of Fort D'Estrees in the distance, with cannon perched on top pointing out to the sea. I felt an eerie shiver in the 95 degree heat. "Look," I said, "that's where slaves were held until a ship was ready and then they left through what was called the 'door of no return'--about 20 million of them at least. But as your father might say, they were lucky. A free ticket, right?”
Clarissa ignored a raggedy child squatting in the dirt beside us, his hand reaching anxiously upwards. I gave him a few francs, and Clarissa grimaced. “Now they’ll never leave us alone,” she said, and thought for a moment. “Dad may be antediluvian, but he sure has your job pegged. Sit on your ass all day looking for welfare cheats.”
We’d gone half way ‘round the world to escape the daily battles, but somehow the old themes kept on comin’ on. “Right, like being a sales exec for a drug company is God’s calling.”
Clarissa’s features hardened, the narrow lips and deep ridges of her brow belying her usual prettiness. “Scared you might actually make some money?”
“Yeah, I need to reach the promised land, a Lexus and a four bedroom condo in Shaker Heights.”
Suddenly, a clatter, a shout from above, and a metal on metal whine as the arm of the crane lurched downwards. Thin, transparent sheets cut the air in front of us. The beggar fell screaming to the dirt, a long, scarlet gash across the elbow.
I froze, but Clarissa fell to her knees among the glass, ripping at her recently-purchased dress with her hands. She pressed one half into the child's wound, looped the other piece around his upper arm, and twisted the fabric around a large tube of lipstick from her purse to form a rudimentary tourniquet. She then cradled the child, whispering in his ear as the blood stopped seeping through the fabric. Finally she loosened the tourniquet and he stood up, holding his arm bent in front of him. He murmured “merci” and made his way back down the street.
Clarissa and I walked over to a café where I knelt to inspect a small cut on her knee. She bent over, kissed my cheek, and leaned against my shoulder. We felt the heat of each other’s body, awkward yet perfectly at rest, not thinking or speaking, until the whistle blew to return to Dakar and begin the long trek back.
William Shaw lives in Washington D. C. For the past two decades as an economist on international development issues, and plans to quit soon and devote more time to writing. This is his first published story.