The King of Xandria
Mr. Attah thinks of this exiled place as Xandria because Alex is the name of his only son, his last best hope. The boy is thirteen, still in junior middle, but Mr. Attah has a daughter as well. Jasmeen works double shifts at the paper store, leaving their flat in drab trousers and polished loafers as if she were a man. Whenever Mr. Attah sees her, a hummingbird quivers in his throat. His baby girl mired in that lowly job, and yet her job has grown superior to his, because Mr. Attah has lost his—although he must not let his children know.
Back on the Gulf of Guinea, before his wife was torn from the earth, when Jasmeen still covered her hair in bright fabric and Alex donned his school uniform, Mr. Attah was patriarch. He would arrive at work barrel-chested and angle in behind his polished mahogany desk. He remembers the potted geranium near the window, the one Mrs. Lyons would water before bringing his tea. He mourns all of it, the squeak of the window-fan even, his oscillating view of ocean. Now he and his children are stranded here in Xandria, here in this new and baffling place. Jasmeen has grown as petulant and fat as steer; whenever she surveys him, Mr. Attah feels weak beneath her gaze.
But there is still Alex, his son.
Alex shot up in the summer and Mr. Attah cannot help but admire this fine, new lankness. A line of pimples dot the boy’s perfect brown skull where his ball cap perches like a crown. “Switchback, Papi,” Alex corrects. “Not ball cap—switchback.” The boy’s lilting accent is fast fading, his new stories peppered with adages Mr. Attah cannot decipher. Still, if Alex can manage to shine here, then perhaps Mr. Attah can reclaim some glimmer of dignity, and become the man he’d once imagined himself to be.
Now Alex attends W. E. B. Du Bois Middle, a school situated in a flock of trees, not far from the highway. Today Mr. Attah stands in the office still waiting to be seen. The secretary eyes him, perhaps because he’s twice refused the low, sinking chair urged into a corner. Instead he paces, pausing to study the framed faces of former principals—men captured in stark photographs with placards underneath declaring the sequential dates of their tenures. Mr. Attah brings his hand to his chin and peers at the current principal’s closed door.
The office is a harried place, and soon yet another American mother strolls into it, one of those haughty working types, who wears her authority like a badge. The pink-faced secretary chirps welcome, hands over a ledger without delay. The woman kisses her boy’s sand-colored hair and Mr. Attah realizes he has halted in order to stare at this mother and child, this solemn union, the frantic dry fluttering alive in his throat again.
The current principal must have opened the office door, silently, while his guard was down, because now she stands framed within it. All those old bordered men but the current principal is a woman, Ms. Vasquez, whose surname breaks high in his throat, like a birdcall.
Too skinny, that’s what he always notices first: someone ought to cook and feed her thick and hearty stews. She wears a suit—a skirted one—along with narrow-heeled shoes. Her face glows a bright tan color and her hair is suitably long; today she wears it in a spiraled bun like a conch shell.
“Come in. Please. Sit.”
He knows she will not close her door because of what occurred the last time he was here. Last time they’d met along with some pale ponytailed teacher, a young woman who’d claimed a grand concern for his son. But when they’d finally gotten to the substance of the matter, the raw pink meat of it, there may have been raised voices. Ms. Vasquez might have accused him of behaving “irrationally”—or was it “rashly”? At one point she’d threatened to call the authorities, eyeing him that day as if he was not a man but rather a wild monkey in the bush. If he’d shouted before, if by chance his fists had pummeled themselves onto a stray bit of shelving—it was only because no one understood what he’d been trying to say…
At any rate, today he will control himself, he’s promised to. Even if they’ve had him wait and wait, languishing under the row of frames, the whole office reeking of some cheap industrial cleaning agent that makes his eyes water.
Ms. Vasquez composes herself at her desk, crosses her naked ankles. “So,” she says, “have you given any thought to Alex? About what we discussed last time?”
Mr. Attah cannot help it—his mind rushes off at this invocation of his son’s given name. He sees Alex, back in Lagos, four or five years old, the edge of the boy’s sailor shorts darkened from ocean spray. Then Alex again, on the precipice of eleven, cowering in the courtyard after being informed that his mother had been killed. She’d been up in the country, visiting her people, and only by chance in the crowded market when a child detonated a crude explosive strapped to his chest.
In the months that followed his wife’s death, Mr. Attah found himself hot every morning, unable to take his tea at noon, still boiling in the evenings when the world had cooled and plunged into careless slumber. To rest his own eyes invited mangled visions: he’d catapult upright, breathless and blinking into the dark. Even the ordinary objects of his room betrayed him—the bedside table, the matching bureau, his wife’s dressing mirror. She’d been a stately woman, but some evenings, at that mirror, she would hum to herself, a tune as thick and sweet as nectar. She was gone, Mr. Attah knew, but he found he could not bear it. He had to do something, get away, but where to? He had a cousin studying in the States, a place called Alexandria, which might as well have been named for his own boy.
It took all of his connections, his savings, family property leveraged, and eighteen months before the three of them were boarding a jumbo airliner aimed toward Europe, en route to America. In his attaché case, he carried their papers, all in order. Almost all of those coveted papers. As soon as they arrived, just as soon as he found work to tide them, Mr. Attah would wrestle with those longer applications and their quicksand boxes. Ms. Lyons had printed the necessary forms, her last official act. It was only after the plane had lifted that Mr. Attah realized it was Alex’s first time in the air. “We fly away over the water like bitterns, Papi,” his son had said, sounding too young when he said it, pressing his forehead against the plane’s circular window.
Now Mr. Attah realizes that Ms. Vasquez is still speaking; she speaks and has been speaking and his visions of Alex fall sadly away. He only catches the slithering tail end of what she is saying. “… allowing Alex the educational services he would so clearly benefit from…”
“Yes, yes,” he cuts in, voice lifted. “My son, Alex, is special. And brave, is he not? And strong—”
“I’m sure, but if you’d just look here, at this assessment…” She extends a folder, which he promptly waves away.
“You people suggest that my son is not learning, but if he is not—IF!—then perhaps you are not competent to teach. What you don’t seem to recognize is that, in conjunction with everything, this boy, this young man, might, quite possibly be brill—”
Mr. Attah looks up to discover that Ms. Vasquez is wearing that look again, fear along with something else. Her delicate ankles have come uncrossed and her hands waver upward like those tragic traffic-men back at home who try and fail at intersections to slow motorbikes and overcrowded shuttles.
Also, he is standing. It is a problem, this inability toward stillness. He was briefly sitting but now he’s on his feet, his hands wrung together, the hummingbird ululating inside his Adam’s apple.
“You people—” Mr. Attah begins again, but then cannot find a fitting next phrase. “I will go, I must go…” he murmurs.
Then he is through the office.
Then he is outside again.
Only October here in Xandria and already the temperature has plummeted. Mr. Attah hurries away from the school, the cold burning the exposed skin of his face. The sky, slate gray, presses in around him. When he tries to catch his breath, the icy air sets him into a fit of needless coughing. At his Hyundai he fishes for keys only to realize, with a bitter laugh, that it is raining! A god-awful drizzle, even though it’s so cold the rain ought to be translated into snow.
He slots the key in, and demands that engine turn over. It whines, catches, but when he jabs the button clearly marked “heat,” frigid air streams from the vent. He jabs again, instructively—“Heat, damn-it, heat!”—toggling the lever for the windshield wiper for good measure. The frail arms of the wipers screech across his view. A meager quarter tank of petrol left on the meter. Leaning into the passenger side, he unlatches the glove box.
Two weeks ago Mr. Attah brought a collection of his most important papers out to the Hyundai, relocating them from a hidden drawer in the apartment. This transfer happened one evening-time. His daughter had burst into the front door trilling a pop song he recognized from back home. At once, his head began to ache with the birth of some large and terrible notion. He rushed from the room and out the front door, only realizing afterward that he was clasping a profusion of papers to his chest—travel documents and unfinished petitions. His cousin had sworn to help with their completion, but all that imbecile had managed was to lure Mr. Attah to a gathering of Nigerians only to keep recalling his dead wife’s name, along with the gruesome circumstances of her passing. That and suggesting he apply for work at his former place of employment. Outside of the apartment, cradling his papers, the original idea buried itself in Mr. Attah’s mind, and he could not recover it, although he sat in the Hyundai a long while trying.
Ever since that night Mr. Attah has kept certain papers, along with a thinning book of traveler’s checks, locked in the glove box as if this automobile were his office. He shuffles through them now, locating a printout of his daughter’s work schedule, which he collects from her each Sunday morning.
Right now he would like nothing more than to return to the apartment and try to rest his eyes, but after consulting the papers, he knows he cannot. Jasmeen’s shift starts in the late afternoon, so likely she is still there, occupying the sofa, quarreling with the television, her feet propped up like a sovereign.
Before it became so bitterly cold, Mr. Attah might have gone to the pond at Royal Suites, where his old job was. He used to travel to the water each morning after a brisk but fruitless regimen of scouring the area for work, driving from hotel to hotel (or some days it was the computers at the public library, twenty-minute slots at the terminals between homeless men with sick, hopeless eyes). The pond sits across from a parking installation, and a guest pass is required for entry. But the guard in the booth was born on the continent of home, and this man, although otherwise a stranger, always waved Mr. Attah and his Hyundai in, even after his dis-employment. Almost daily Mr. Attah would follow the black, paved path down to the water, where no one ever seemed to venture but him. None of the hotel’s tourists or businessmen ever went there; none of the receptionists, and certainly not any of the pathetic individuals he’d been forced to work beside in “hospitality.” What was remotely hospitable, he’d once questioned the shift manager, about scrubbing a thick smear of excrement from gleaming white porcelain? Mr. Attah would sit on a bench at the pond for hours and watch the fountain gush water futilely like a drowning man flailing. The last time he went, he’d spotted, near the far edge, a brood of tundra swans. In their great migration, they must have gotten lost and mistakenly roosted themselves there. Aloof, they floated, their bright snowy plumage breaking the pond’s scummy skin.
But now it has grown too cold, and the fountain has been turned off for the season. Last time he drove by he could no longer even see the birds. He imagines they’ve flown onward in their own tight wedge toward warmer locales, or else been collected, disposed of.
The absence of the swans makes Mr. Attah imagine doing something rash, or irrational.
The place of his daughter’s employment is large like a warehouse, lined up between a Chinese take-out place and a beauty parlor. Mr. Attah parks at the far end of the lot, not having the petrol to waste. This is technically a store that sells paper, but here in Xandria every retailer brims with indecision. Paper, yes, in all shades and stacked in high reams, but here too are balls of rubber bands tangled into grapefruit-sized masses. And clear vats of hard pretzels for no occasion Mr. Attah can fathom.
He saunters up and down each aisle; in this way he can and has killed hours.
At the farthest row, he pauses to examine the tiny sets of pillows, for under one’s wrists, For Extreme Comfort While Typing! Or so the packaging suggests.
“Ah, Mr. Attah! I thought that was you!”
He recognizes the voice at once and turns toward the hearty handshake that will surely accompany it.
“Mr. Kosta!” he answers, his hands already within the warmth of the manager’s grasp. The men shake vigorously, almost—Mr. Attah feels certain—in anticipation of a brotherly embrace.
Mr. Kosta is not tall in stature, but broad with a king’s belly. His face is the translucent yellow of onionskin. On one occasion, Mr. Kosta invited Mr. Attah to lunch—just next door in the Chinese take-out, but still! The two talked easily of politics and business, Mr. Kosta harping on the woes of Athens where he was born. All the while they sipped tea so scalding Mr. Attah could sense it warping the Styrofoam it waited within.
Mr. Kosta brings his hand to his face, nodding. “Let’s see: ergonomics? We have more workplace solutions on aisle seven-A. Depending on what you’re looking for…”
Mr. Attah feels his top lip perch happily on his gums. His chin dips into a nod. “Yes, yes!” he hears himself saying, even though the term “ergonomics” escapes him. “I am finding everything!” he says, hoping that Mr. Kosta will not ask more about what he seeks. Mr. Attah leans in closer. “Is the girl, Jasmeen, working out?” he says. “Does she continue to perform… passably?”
For six months Jasmeen has worked regular hours at the paper store. Still Mr. Attah asks this question as if his daughter’s tenure is probationary—as if he and Mr. Kosta together will complete her evaluation. Even so he feels a flush of fatherly pride when Mr. Kosta confirms that Jasmeen is responsible beyond rebuke. “Hard-working young woman you’ve raised!” Mr. Kosta claps him on the shoulder.
“Good man,” Mr. Attah answers, his voice going highish like a youth’s. “I think I may be able to procure the rest of the morning off, through lunch I mean. Would you like—how do they say it here—to grab a bite?” As soon as Mr. Attah says this, cold pearls of sweat erupt around his hairline. What was he thinking? He can barely afford lunch for himself. Or maybe it would be worth it, to sit and talk and eat like a man…
But Mr. Kosta waves him off, smiling but firm. This refusal makes Mr. Attah doubt all of the man’s earlier magnanimity: all this time, has Mr. Kosta, in fact, been humoring him? Then Mr. Kosta clasps his hands again, a warm shake like kinship.
“Another time, Mr. Attah,” his daughter’s boss says.
Some days there is the in-between time when Jasmeen is most likely on her way to work and Alex is perhaps not home yet from school when Mr. Attah isn’t sure if he can go back to the apartment or not. This is because he told the boy—and only the boy—that his shift at work changed. This mis-clarification was only to explain why he might be home in the early evenings. But after he said this he realized that, for almost every hour on the clock, at least one of his children expected his absence. Now he cannot stay at the store nor go back to the apartment. He commandeers the store phone to call Alex’s school again.
By the time he’s traveled back, dismissal is looming. A wall of yellow buses domineers the front loop. This time the secretary greets him promptly— “Oh, they’re waiting for,” she says. She rounds her desk, parading away from the principal’s office, and Mr. Attah tracks her through a maze of hallways. He keeps an eye out for, but never once sees, his own son. He does catch a glimpse of the sandy-haired boy, the one whose mother marked him so lavishly with her kiss.
The secretary finally stops at a door, pushing it open slowly so that the room beyond it hushes.
“Ah, Mr. Attah,” a woman’s voice trumpets.
Now he can see Principal Vasquez, standing at the center of a conference room, flanked by the same young ponytailed teacher. But in fact this room is crowded with people. They edge around a long oval table. Here is counselor Lydan and nurse Calhoun. Here is his son’s homeroom teacher, whose name flits past his ear like shrapnel flying. Here is Alexandria City’s Parent-Peer Mediator, along with a school-sited police officer, whom Ms. Vasquez admits she has invited.
An impressive number of people have gathered. For me, Mr. Attah thinks, his chest puffed up with the memory of pride.
But no, he soon realizes, these Xandrians—with their badges and titles—have more likely come to intimidate, to diminish. Mr. Attah squints fiercely at each person present, as if, through this exercise, he will be able to discern their true hearts.
Ms. Vasquez clears her throat. “Take a seat.”
He answers in his most decorous voice. “I prefer to stand.”
Then in quick succession, the staff delivers its impatient presentation. They allege that Alex is “immature,” “unfocused,” “withdrawn.” The boy needs support and further evaluation, at the end of which he may receive a special designation on his permanent record of “Learning Disabled.” They take turns at the screeching white board, their sidelong glances mocking his devotion to the boy.
“Of course this all means,” Ms. Vasquez concludes, “that Alex is at least of normal intelligence.”
“Of course! Of course!” they all chime.
But Mr. Attah is coughing now, struggling to breath. The room has grown unbearably hot, so hot he squeezes his eyes closed against it. In the darkness that follows, a long mournful note invades his body. Not a tune so much, more like the absence of music: the eerie ringing silence that chases after an obscene and brutal clamor.
“THIS is what you have to say to me?!” he hears his own voice rise and shimmer. “You dimwits! You mutton-headed fools! Don’t you even know who I am?”
He blinks his eyes open and the uniformed officer has stepped closer, but he will not be silenced.
“You mean to demean me…” Mr. Attah bellows, “just because a few backstabbing malingerers find me difficult? Who does a thing like this…a child blowing up a mother! No… do not touch me… No, you listen: My son is perfect just as he stands!”
Shaking, Mr. Attah realizes he has drawn in all the air in the room. As he expels it, slowly, his heart a bit less weary, a knock trembles the door.
He opens his eyes and suddenly, here is Alex—his Alex—thrust into the room.
The boy wears his backpack hanging limply from one shoulder. His new school jacket puffs around him, cardinal red although he’d wanted black. Also he must have heard the yelling; he peers down at his Nike Air Pegasus-ed feet.
Before Mr. Attah can say more, Ms. Vasquez swoops in. She hovers near the boy’s ear, speaking gingerly as if to a frightened animal. Now Mr. Attah understands that earlier look she’d given him, the one that came alongside her fear—it was pity. “You know why your father is here—what we’ve been speaking to Miss Mann about…”
Alex looks up at the ponytailed teacher and nods.
“Tell your father,” Ms. Vasquez instructs, and Mr. Attah feels the tender stab of Alex’s dark eyes.
“Let me do it, Papi,” Alex says. “I’m a failure at reading. Math is worse. My head’s all messed up. Jasmeen’s always been the smart one, but for now, she says, it’s up to me.”
Now everyone is watching, but all Mr. Attah can do is stare at his son. Alex with his backpack half unzipped and papers erupting willy-nilly from its gape. Alex whose shoes are untied, both of them, who has his mother’s heart-shaped face. Mr. Attah clasps his own hands at his chest to keep himself from reaching out to touch the boy’s uncapped head.
“Then I can have seventh period with Miss Mann. But first you have to say okay.”
Now Mr. Attah does sit, backing into a cushioned rolling chair, which squeaks and wobbles beneath him. Out in the hall a bell dings. A chain of students’ shadows blows past the frosted windows. For once, Mr. Attah does not feel able to speak, although he manages one low word: “Okay.”
Mr. Attah follows his son through a throng of students funneling toward the buses. Out front, he tries to hug his boy but it comes out all wrong, like a dance for which they no longer have the rhythm. Alex backs away, red-faced, and Mr. Attah announces he will drive them home.
“How come you aren’t at work?” Alex says, a tuft of cold escaping from his mouth. “Ever, Papi,” he adds under silver breath.
“Ride with me,” Mr. Attah says again, but his voice falters, and he cannot meet his son’s gaze.
“It’s true then,” Alex whispers, shaking his head. “What’s going to happen to us?” For a moment the boy’s eyes flash with panic, but then they fix into a shaky resoluteness Mr. Attah all but misses. “You brought us here,” the boy declares. “I’ll get home on my own.”
Hearing this, Mr. Attah’s limbs grow heavy. The place behind his sternum throbs with shame.
By the time he looks up, his son is shuffling toward the buses, his narrow shoulders stiffened, his jaw clinched. Mr. Attah watches fervently as Alex falls in with a group of young men whose profiles he cannot recognize.
Back at the Hyundai, Mr. Attah needles the key in. His heart vibrates in his chest like a jet turbine. He backs out of the space, tires shrieking, and veers blindly onto the highway. No matter the lane, red taillights pierce the grayness, and twice he has to swerve to avoid collision. Accelerating, he remembers his papers, there in the glove box where only he can reach them. If they no longer need him, what must he do—drive and keep on until the road ends in black? He leans hard into the gas. But then, by chance, he passes the turn to Royal Suites—a flicker of brightness catching his eye. Braking, he cranes to peer down the embankment. He’d thought they were gone, he’d been quite certain, but now he sees them cleaved together, still waiting on top of the water, their fat white bodies and sloped hungry grace, as if they will persist at least through spring.