“Lessons” memoir by Stacey Alysa Dennick

Published in “More Bridges: The 2007 San Francisco Writers Conference Anthology”

Lessons

Yambo was wiry, quick, dark mahogany; always neatly dressed in button down shirts and khaki shorts. He had a handsome oval face, large round eyes, a fast mouth and mean hands. Yambo was just a little nine-year-old, but he was already big trouble. He didn’t do his homework, despite the fact that his father was a high-ranking governmental official here in West Africa. Worse, he was violent. Yambo would punch you or hurt you at the slightest provocation. One time he cut in front of me in line. I started to raise my arm in protest, whimpering for the teacher to witness this outrage of protocol. He challenged me in French.

“Did I do something?”

“Non, non.” I groveled, but he socked me hard in the stomach anyway.

My sister and I were in Africa because our mother’s former college sweetheart, who she hadn’t set eyes on in twenty years, had proposed in a letter. He was a diplomat who specialized in French-speaking Africa. Libreville, Gabon, exactly on the equator in West Africa, was our home from 1966-1968.  Boarding school was out of the question, so despite our two-year age difference, my sister and I were enrolled in the same class of École Mixte, the local public elementary school. About 95% of the student body consisted of black Africans, the rest (with the exception of a couple of American girls) were French. School was taught in French, and I was utterly lost. Since I was in a grade higher than I should have been in American school, I couldn’t even do the math. Only our tutor saved me from academic disaster. While I failed at school every day for the first year, my homework was always perfect.

Yambo sat in the back row of class with the older boys who had been repeatedly failed.  But when the teacher dropped her pencil, Yambo always rushed forward and picked it up before anyone else. He was even faster than the teacher’s pet Philippe, the goody-goody French boy who sat in the front row. All the kids had resented Philippe since the time the teacher’s ruler went missing, and she kept the entire class in from recess except for him.

One day, a burley African man dressed in a dark suit come to our class. The head teacher, an older French woman who never smiled, called Yambo to the front of the room. Strangely, he had none of his usual cockiness. He looked small and scared, then wild and frantic. The teacher explained that this was Yambo’s punishment for fighting and being disobedient. The grim man brandished an Indiana Jones style bullwhip as he led Yambo outside the classroom.  We heard muted thwacks, and sharp cries of pain. Yambo hobbled back to his desk, where he wept quietly, his head slumped over his unfinished work. Everyone avoided looking at him. I felt righteous vengeance, then pity, and then fear; someone would pay for this humiliation. Yambo would never accept punishment. Silent tension filled the room of sixty odd kids, each of us wondering if we were next.

I’d been unfairly reprimanded for innocent scholastic and linguistic errors. The African teacher my sister and I called “The Nasty Teacher,” because she always wore skimpy dresses that showed her bra straps, had taken away my Petit Larrousse French-English dictionary, implying (erroneously) that I planned to use it to cheat.  Another time, the entire class gapped in horror when I accidentally addressed the teacher as tu, the familiar form of “you” that I used all day long with my classmates. They didn’t understand that “you” was just “you” in English. Surely these offenses didn’t warrant a beating?

It was my nemesis, tough, mean Solange who was called forward.  She was an African girl who wore ugly old dresses and loved nothing more than making me cry.  During my African captivity Solange tormented and teased me daily, calling me la mouche tsé-tsé (“tsetse fly”) and grand cheval (“big horse”).  No scholar herself, she delighted in my language struggles, my hopeless battle with spelling. Now she’d get what she deserved.

The severe French teacher brought out a cat of nine tails, a wooden stick with leather strips. It struck Solange’s calves with a sickening whack, whack, whack. Solange danced vainly back and forth, sobbing and trying to escape the blows. My anger melted into pity and then empathy. After five minutes Solange was sent back to her desk where she sobbed hysterically, red welts rising on her legs. The class sat united in shock, fear and revulsion. While it was true that we were unusually sober and attentive that afternoon, I doubt that anyone learned much math or history. The main lesson that day was on the cruelty of authority.

The next day my sister and I learned that the man who had whipped Yambo was his very own father.

Perhaps Yambo had what we now call “learning disabilities.” Maybe he was dyslexic or had ADD or was just the kind of kinesthetic person who was doomed to fail in a system that only valued academic achievement. Whatever his problems were, giving Yambo a public beating was like treating a bad case of poison oak with a blow torch.

A month later Yambo disappeared from school. My girlfriend Natalie, a quiet French girl, was also missing. When she finally returned, she had a thick scar on the back of her right calf, from her ankle to her knee, like the seam of old-fashioned nylon hose.

“Yambo cut me and another girl with a piece of broken glass,” she told me in a flat voice.  The wound must have required fifty stitches.
“He is never coming back.”

 

©2012 Stacey Alysa Dennick, all rights reserved
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Car Karma, by Stacey A Dennick

A winner in the Pacific Sun’s annual “Freeway Fiction” contest. Entries had to be exactly 101 words in length (excluding title).

Car Karma

I stop at the yellow light as it turns red.  In the car behind me, hands are thrown up in disgust.  Turning onto Franklin Street enveloped in classical music the screech of a skidding car intrudes.  Thunk, crunch, whoah!  My Honda rotates in a gentle 180-degree arc on the rain slick pavement.  On the sidewalk a grey haired woman mouths, “Are you okay?”
My car points at traffic.  U-turn, parallel park, a crowd coagulates.  Concerned faces peer.
“Are you okay?”  Dazed, I let the other driver hug me.
“I’m okay.”
How can I explain the damage to my faith in justice?

 

© 2012 Stacey Alysa Dennick, all rights reserved.

Store to Store Sales, memoir by Stacey Alysa Dennick

Store to Store Sales

I stepped out of the van at the corner of Greenwich and Gough Streets, in San Francisco’s Marina district with my heart in my stomach. Although it was Monday and I had a brand new sales goal, I didn’t believe I’d achieve it. I’d never come close during the five weeks I’d worked for Post Street Sales Organization.

Ignoring the “no solicitors” sign, I knocked on the first door, took two steps back and waited. No one answered. I moved on to the next door, and the next, repeating this procedure until at last a door opened. A thirty-something woman with uncombed hair in a wrinkled housedress regarded me with annoyance. I heard children running around in the background of her modern flat, which smelled of toast. Maintaining trustworthy eye contact, I launched into my canned speech.

“Hello, I’m the Shaklee distributor in your area. I have some information on how you can cut down on pollution.”

I focused my gaze onto the floor behind her, and began to walk in. We’d been instructed not to wait until we were invited, just to “follow our intention” inside. The woman blocked the way with her body.

“No, thank you.”

I repeated variations on this scenario along Greenwich Street until, after about a dozen rejections, I sat down on a doorstep and wept. A box of Pepperidge Farm Lido cookies and a quart of milk made me feel slightly better. Stomach distended, I resumed my drudgery. After a few more nobody homes and door slams, an older man let me in. I sat on his faded couch and he joined me.

“This is our non-polluting all-purpose cleaning product,” I said, pointing to a photo in my presentation notebook. The profit margin on the cleaning products was so low it was barely worth selling them, but they justified our ecological spiel. The man listened politely while I expounded on Basic H’s super concentrated formula.

“You don’t want any, do you?”

“I’d like to try a quart,” he said.

Encouraged, I talked him into a ordering a bottle of multi-vitamins as well. Back on the beat, I endured a few additional rebuffs before treating myself to a sandwich. After a cookie stop, I followed a woman into her washed out industrial beige/grey/green apartment building. The odor of musty rugs, stale onions and ancient heating pipes hung in the air. I knocked on all of the doors on the first floor, then dragged my three hundred pound feet up to the second. When that floor yielded no results I had another cookie. The building seemed to suck my very life force. Climbing to the third floor was like scaling Mt. Everest. My head was so full of cotton that I was almost glad no one answered. Outside I gulped air, and finished my cookie stash.

Only one person answered the bell at the next building. She cut me off to say, “No, no, we don’t want any,” through the tinny speaker. Just next door a muscular black man invited me into his studio apartment. A king-sized bed, and what I thought was a religious altar, dominated the room. A zebra skin hung behind a low table. Elephant tusks formed an arch over it. But the table didn’t hold saintly images or incense, just two long, dark sex toys. Although we were supposed to pitch anyone who let us inside, I asked him if he intended to buy anything.

“I just want to get it on,” he said, wriggling his hips.

I made a hasty exit. I might have just turned eighteen, but I wasn’t completely stupid.
Finally a young woman invited me in. She wanted to lose weight, so I gave her my speech about maintaining blood sugar levels with protein drinks. The sugar buzz from all of the cookies I’d consumed had evaporated, leaving me in a hypoglycemic low. When the young woman ordered a can of vanilla protein powder I had to restrain myself from tearfully hugging her, or curling up on her couch for a nap.
I celebrated the sale with a bag of peanuts.

A few rejections later it was time to meet the van. Back at the office I wrote up my orders, and filled in various financial reports. I was way behind my goal, but hopefully I’d do better the next day.

On Tuesday I cried on doorsteps in the Haight. Wednesday, I ate my way across Noe Valley––from Just Desserts to Bud’s ice cream shop. Rain drenched me in the hills of Mill Valley on Thursday, where I had no luck finding customers or corner stores. By the afternoon I was so hungry I asked the first person who answered her door if she had any food I could have. Startled, she asked me to come in, which I interpreted as a “yes.” I opened her kitchen cabinets, frantically searching for snacks.

“What are you doing?” She asked, although I was obviously taking her up on her offer. I was flattered when she asked me who I worked for and wrote down the number, although it was kind of confusing since she hadn’t let me do my sales pitch, or given me so much as a cracker.

When I returned to headquarters the manager called me into her office. The Mill Valley woman had phoned.

“You can’t just ask people you food, you know,” the manager said.

“I know.”

“You can’t look through people’s cabinets.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, trying to look pitiful.

Unfortunately they didn’t fire me. It took six months and twenty pounds until I finally threw in the towel.

© 2012 Stacey Alysa Dennick, all rights reserved.