Christmas at the Boarding School

 

From the new anthology A Very French Christmas: The Greatest French Holiday Stories of All Time, out now from New Vessel Press

 

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This is an old story, a school story. I was in the third row and he was in the second, near the entrance. He had arrived in September and sometimes, when he wasn’t busy listening in class, sharpening a pencil or writing an assignment, he looked around looking a bit lost, as if he’d just gotten off an airplane and didn’t know where he was. Today, ages later, I think he would have struck me the same way. I surely wasn’t alone in thinking this. He was a bit bigger than us and definitely didn’t dress the same. I couldn’t say if his clothing cost more or less than ours. It didn’t matter. Just by looking at him, the new guy, one could tell that it wasn’t going to work out, that he wouldn’t stay long among us. He was called Black Jo.

He had a godmother here who was a secretary in a large international organization and she sometimes stopped by unexpectedly when she had the time. She was a big, imposing woman, she smiled with all her teeth, a woman like her inspired confidence in life. She carried a little Chanel purse and wore flat shoes, no doubt because she was very tall. Apart from rare weekends when he went to her place, Black Jo led the sad life of a somewhat abandoned child; his parents lived far away in Senegal. They had to send him to France because of “events,” he explained to us. From all over the world, “events” make it necessary for kids to be kept safe, apart from their family.

Black Jo knew the names of the players on the Africa Cup teams, and the African players on French teams, who according to him, scored three times as many goals as the whites. He had a fairly peremptory tone when he talked about soccer scores, or strategy, and, while I had little interest in the game and carefully avoided the ball, I remember that he would often score goals. But he was ridiculed. He fervently maintained that Africans were the original inventors of the bicycle, others contradicted him, and they almost came to blows about the bike story. The wheels were wooden, without a chain, but they rolled just fine. The others didn’t accept his view: one more reason for the loneliness of Black Jo, when his godmother couldn’t have him come for the weekend. Black Jo was of mixed race; he had light skin, he had freckles. He struggled in class. Believing it was the right thing, the teachers seated him next to the kid from Martinique, the pretentious son of a doctor. They didn’t get along.

Other students sometimes had to spend the weekend at the boarding school. Langinieux was among them, he asked to stay since his parents didn’t get along and he preferred to avoid them. Sometimes, there were other students who were kept back because of serious violations of the rules. Black Jo had to spend some weekends entirely alone, when even Callaghan, an English student far from his country, went to his godmother’s. These godmothers. I went home every weekend but mother sent me to my godmother as well, so as to get rid of me. Sometimes I thought about Black Jo alone in the boarding school. It wasn’t fun for him.

On Friday evenings the students, looking forward to wild weekends, put on their own clothes and packed their bags to take the express train. Joseph watched all this activity without any obvious sadness or bitterness. They went away in a group, beyond the fence and shouting, waving, passing through the second gate under the relieved watch of the teachers, because they too were, after all, prisoners here.  Black Jo had the dormitory to himself. He could go into the common room, to which he had the key for the weekend, and where there was a television in a cabinet; that was to watch soccer or rugby matches, and in the summer the French Open or Wimbledon. He had keys to the infirmary. He occasionally suffered from migraines, and he never had to worry about getting permission to lie down, with perhaps a dose of aspirin or just a bit of non-medical relief accorded to him by the nurse, a young pale woman with very light eyes devoid of sparkle, who wore stone washed jeans. When she arrived each morning, we saw her cross the courtyard looking a bit lost, weary, considering all this terrain around her as still foreign, as if she were sizing it up. Maryse Gentil. Her walk across the courtyard is one of the most vivid memories I’ve retained from those years.

Since his arrival Black Jo had spent several weekends roaming around the big school to discover the different spots; the cafeteria, the large industrial kitchen and the athletic facilities, the building reserved for priests, a few of whom taught here and others who’d returned from missions to Africa, congregations where the school distributed funds for families. It involved raising money and tax reductions were given to the largest donors. There was the library, where Joseph often went because in the end he found his classmates idiotic, devoid of curiosity. They didn’t understand that the world extended beyond the tip of their nose, the address of the rich kid’s vacation house or summer camp for the others … he went to get his meal tray at the guardians’ lodge, they lived in a small two-story house.

Langinieux was one of the only ones who came to get news from Jo on Monday, a little after the nurse had crossed the courtyard on her way to the infirmary or while Joseph was waiting for her return or dreaming of his family in Senegal, waiting for the time to pass and expecting that we classmates would continue to laugh in disbelief upon learning about all that the Africans discovered, well before the little French who ran like goats and who had red ears during the math tests. What surprised us, apart from the stories about Senegal, was his faith in God’s power; he volunteered to be a choirboy and got up for vigils. The vigils were a weird feature of the boarding school, there were hours of prayer during the night, since to carry away the sins of the world was no small matter and required a kind of marathon. For Joseph God was absolutely present in life, which bothered others who were more preoccupied by their grade point averages, sports scores or how to sneak into the nearby girls boarding school, playing the fox in the henhouse, not even in your dreams!

On Monday, I was coming back from the small suburban town where I had been bored all Sunday. I had hardly gone any farther than the Asnières station in one direction or the Tricycle Cinema in the other where I didn’t go often. Jo never asked what we did over the weekend, it was a painful question for him. On Monday he chattered non-stop, as if he needed to empty himself of all the words he’d kept in for two days, often he looked up at the sky. He described the clouds of his homeland, much more extraordinary than the tiny masses found in France. When he too had spent the weekend elsewhere, at his godmother’s, having had a meal surrounded by her lovers, friends, neighbors, indeterminate relatives talking in several languages, including French, it took him a week to reacclimatize, to discover as if for the first time the gray buildings of the school and the athletic facilities that weren’t a minor selling point of the institution. There he is again sitting in the second row, off to the side. It was now winter and Jo had made up his mind about this country, this school. Sometimes he looked out the windows to where the Seine flowed, about a mile in the distance. From there, he’d have had to ask the way to Orly Airport. Jo wore skimpy shirts and sandals, classmates gave him a sweater, shoes, so that he wouldn’t drop dead from the cold. He talked a bit more about the wonders of his country, the lions, tigers, the shape of the clouds, of all the hours playing soccer on the beach. He showed his friends a picture of his house, surrounded by a white wooden fence. As for his clothes, the priests at the school had noticed them; the headmaster, who we were afraid of, said to him, you don’t have any warm clothes, Joseph? Black Jo spent the evening in the common room, sitting on the radiator in his underpants, waiting for a classmate willing to be beaten at checkers because Africans are better than us at that game. Everyone told him he had to cover up now, this wasn’t the Africa of his childhood, the place where according to him his parents still lived in a house surrounded by a white fence. France isn’t my country, Black Jo would say, it’s awful to live here. The teachers are mean to those who don’t succeed and the French are selfish, that’s what he thought, sitting there on the radiator in the common room.

Joseph had been playing checkers since he was very little; he learned by watching grown ups at the market while his mother went shopping. We taught him to play cards. We didn’t have the same games here as down there, here we were beaten on the back of the hand, and sometimes the students ended up brawling. I recall Joseph with his fists clenched close to his body, his tears spilling out against his long eyelashes and how he began to tremble. The mocking students didn’t attack him directly, though. He said come on, I’m ready for you, to the boy who was after him, who did well not to go there. In any case, I recall from this dispute that the teacher in charge interrupted with an angry gesture, handing a tissue to Joseph, and then I found myself in the bed next to Black Jo, taking the place of the boy who used to sleep there, who called him a nigger and a faggot. Something must have happened since the next week he had new clothes, almost like ours, corduroy pants and a white long-sleeved shirt, but his outfits all had labels and were decorated with a print that evoked Africa … I suppose they had a certain appeal. He arranged them neatly, folded on the iron chair next to his bed.

He had truly been transplanted here. He had a kind of patience, each evening I saw him pray with extraordinary concentration. In Africa, he explained to us, people went to mass, not just old women like in France, but also young people like us and children. Then when he had finished he opened the drawer of his night table and inspected his treasures, the letters from his parents, he never spoke about them but with me, Langinieux and a few others he mentioned his godmother, the walks they took together, the museums, the friends to whose houses he accompanied her, she didn’t find it the least bit embarrassing to take him, the little light-skinned African from Senegal who had no hope of returning there for a long time, serious but somewhat lost in his schooling, to an evening of dancing. Once he picked up the handkerchief that fell out of a man’s vest and brought it back, a shiny piece of cloth he often fingered and kept as a treasure in the drawer of his night table, similar to fifty others in the dormitory. He also kept photos, his mother in traditional garb seemed very young in comparison to parents here; his father, about whom he never spoke, photographed near the Senegal River. He spoke to me several times about the Senegal River, it was much more than a river for him.

When the lights were turned off, he had the habit of closing his eyes as if for a yoga exercise or as if he wanted to stay awake to continue a conversation or to whisper in the middle of the night. One time, however, one of the idiots who couldn’t stand Black Jo went to open up his drawer and extract his treasures, I didn’t dare to alert him for fear of retaliation. But Jo sensed something and once he’d opened his eyes, under his long lashes, he threw himself on the boy and if the teacher hadn’t arrived in time he surely would have strangled him. As it was nighttime, the classmates didn’t talk about the incident, Joseph inspected all the objects from his drawer and afterward he kept an eye on every other bed until the sobbing student he’d almost strangled had closed his eyes again. He didn’t reply to my “good night.” We used to wish each other good night and to keep any eye out for one another at school; I was a kind of support, a pal to Black Jo, the mixed race African with freckles.

Things got worse for him from that night on. He was forced to stay in on a weekend when he’d been invited by his beautiful godmother from the international development organization. A few of us came to his defense and explained what had happened. He was only defending his territory. The dean of students just shook his head without replying. Since we insisted, he ended up saying he would make us stay the next weekend too, the crazier it got the more we laughed. We didn’t win but it helped bring us closer to Black Jo. After free time he wanted to go out with us to smoke a cigarette. He was homesick, he missed Africa in general and even if we tried to persuade him that it was worth giving it a try here, bit by bit Langinieux and I began to hope that he would tell us his stories about the wooden bicycle, animal races, canoeing up the Senegal River, without really being able to change things. To fight off loneliness Black Jo enveloped himself in his memories, while waiting for the end of classes, between two weekends at his godmother’s who was his only reason to hang on, and the masses he participated in as a choirboy.

It started snowing early that year and he returned from the lodge once he saw the first snowflakes of his life. There must have been three or four of us behind the big building and the gym toward the little house at the entrance. Jo was carrying a letter. Sometimes stamps covered half the envelope. He occasionally received blue aerograms and mail on letterhead. Look, snow! He couldn’t resist reaching out for the flakes, holding his letter in the other hand. Soon, sticking out his tongue and waddling like a fool, he put the letter in his pocket to enjoy the snow. He didn’t read it right away, he was no doubt waiting until he was by himself. In class Black Jo did his assignments carefully and when it was time to go to the dining hall he went toward the upper window of the classroom, the snow was still falling, there must have been already over an inch on the handball and basketball courts and on the asphalt in the courtyard.

The little sixth graders had already gone out to make snowballs or try to slide around, some students were talking about their upcoming vacation in Val d’Isère or Les Arcs. Jo took out his letter from underneath his pile of notebooks and went up toward the dormitory to get his hat and gloves, I’m sure that he hadn’t read his letter yet at that point. He put it on his bed and took out his gloves from the wardrobe that we shared, Langinieux was with us, then we went back down, all excited … He stopped on the middle of the stairs to look out the window again. From the side of the Saint Cucufat Forest a sort of fog had descended and the snow accumulated, as if it had decided to stick around longer this year, and not just two or three days as it often did in Paris. Yes, of course! He’d already seen snow in Africa! The world’s highest mountains were also there, and even if we gradually got tired of such comparisons, we pointed out for him the Alps, the Andes and Mt. Everest, but he didn’t sulk like he had before. We went out together. He had forgotten something in the dormitory.

Okay, Joseph, we’ll wait for you here. At the side of the yard there was nothing better to do than to smoke a cigarette while waiting. It was Thursday and the next evening, we’d take the train to go back to our families. There would be celebrations and gifts, we all took a puff from a shared cigarette. The kids from the younger section played in the courtyard. At age eleven you ended up in this place. They ran after each other, got into fights, and later at eighteen the big ones were full of hope for their lives and what it would be like when they left … We should have been in the dining hall but he still wasn’t there. We all had the same fear at the same time. We went up to the dormitory, we’re going to look for Joseph, M’sieur … He was at the window, standing still, looking out at the woods, his gaze directed farther than the gym or the pool for all the area residents, he was turned toward Paris, or perhaps toward the lost Africa of his parents.

Joseph, aren’t you coming to eat? … What’s the matter? We’re waiting for you! He just shrugged his shoulders like a moody child, without turning, he still held the letter in his hand. He surely carried the weight of the world on his shoulders at that moment. We got closer to him. Snow flew in the courtyard and the wind blew it back but if it continued like that the powder would cover the handball court and gradually hide the colored markings.

Bad news? Langi asked Jo, but he continued to look out the tall windows. Suddenly he crumpled up the letter in his hand and threw it into a ball. I bent down to take it. We glanced down, Langi and I. The fog was getting thicker around the little woods where people went running, with its stream still full, even at the end of year. Joseph finally told us he was coming down.

We’ll wait for you if you want.

Yes, we’ll wait, Langi repeated. I went to put his crumpled letter on the night table. When he turned toward us after he said he was going to join us, without wanting to we looked at the night table … He would not be going back to Senegal for Christmas, although his father had promised him that he could; he looked as if he was struggling to keep himself from howling. He spoke in a dull voice. This wasn’t home here, he wanted to go back to Africa, he didn’t want to study among whites … Langi put his arm around his shoulders. Black Jo shook his head as he pulled away. We heard a noise.

What are you doing here? the tadpole asked us. He was an old priest known only by his nickname, we called him the tadpole because of his wrinkly eyes and his fat jowls atop a gaunt neck.

I’m looking for my hat, Jo replied, adding a hint of the accent he had three months ago when he got angry over our incredulity about all the inventions we didn’t know had come from down there, where his parents lived and who had more or less abandoned him, in our view. He put the letter in his drawer. He had a few others but this one he put on top without the envelope. He also had an open package of cookies his godmother had given him last weekend at her place.

What are you going to do then for Christmas? we asked him while eating the cookies. He shrugged  his shoulders.

You think it’s going to snow for long?

Who knows? The snow never lasts long in Paris.

We’re not gonna let you down, Langinieux said to him.  It will get better some day, Jo, you’ll see.

It was really a special Christmas. There was a lot of snow, it swirled on the asphalt, the wind blew it to the side toward the low wall where we sat whenever we could. We smoked cigarettes there and sometimes set off firecrackers, Joseph never sat there with us but sometimes when he felt like it he walked on the edge of everything that had a rim, a summit, he climbed trees. He even won a contest against a guy named Descoubes, a jock with Greek parents who were sort of hippies, I remember all those useless details. Langinieux had gone back to his usual buddies and they were trying to run COBOL computer programs, that was all new then. He watched Black Jo, who didn’t seem too upset, except when he tried to climb up a basketball board, imitating monkeys, because he got angry at guys who made fun of him. It would be simpler not to live, sometimes. The snow had slowed and settled down, it was almost dry, it seemed. At the next recess Joseph went up to the dormitory, we watched him go up the stairs. He climbed them two at a time bending forward, perhaps he wanted to reread his letter? Joseph stayed up there a long time. Another guy named Martinet came down, he crossed paths with Jo but he didn’t say anything to him … he always wandered around in white trousers and let his bracelet dangle at the end of his wrist, he wore rings on all his fingers and carried a switchblade. Black Jo? Yes, my dears. He had a letter in his hands. He seemed upset. Just two more days and we’re out of here.

We went back up to see him. We weren’t sure he’d be there but he was. He held the letter against his heart and then changed his mind, he held it out so we could read it. The old sorrows of childhood last a lifetime. His parents couldn’t let him go to Paris because of “events,” they were sorry but … He took it from us. Joseph really had long eyelashes. His prominent shoulder blades, that way he had of sometimes dancing in the aisle when he was fed up and needed to let off steam.

I don’t want to stay here, he murmured. I can’t take living here.

Sometimes, when he was thinking or when he needed to pass the time, he bit a lock of his hair, he pulled on it and twirled it around his finger for several minutes with his eyes closed.

Can’t you call them on the phone?

Langinieux pulled out a cigarette from the pack and was about to light it when Joseph held out his hand, he’d never tried to smoke before.

Can I have a taste, please?

He spat out the smoke while making a face. We’d expected something worse but it didn’t happen. And it continued to snow. It was cold in the dormitory when we went to piss or brush our teeth. His mother had come with his godmother to accompany him at the start of the year. Here the only other black kid was the Martinican, and Jo was mixed race, there were quite a few Lebanese who stuck together and whose parents lived in the nicer areas of Paris. The next day,  a Christmas meal was served prior to the actual holiday. On the dais, the teachers were served a bottle of red wine, they all looked cheerful. We’d practically forgotten the story of Black Jo, who wouldn’t see his parents before the summer, if ever. It was a strange Christmas meal with chipped plates and Pyrex glasses, it was at that moment that Jo chose to break loose, in the hubbub of the dining room, the evening of the last day of classes.

The snow still hadn’t had the last word, in the morning from the dormitory window one saw an immaculately beautiful surface. It took a while for Langinieux and the others to notice his disappearance, had anybody seen him? When the bell rang to go back to class, his place was empty, the first teacher wasn’t concerned, nor the second, but Langinieux began to find it odd, Jo’s absence, where was he holed up?  At recess the students remained quiet in the yard, and there was something like an accelerated film shot and we all looked up at the same moment, toward the big open window at the top of the building where Joseph was standing, oh damn, Jo! Joseph, be careful, cut the crap! I felt my heart pounding, or leaping, really leaping inside my chest and knocking against the bones. The teacher on recess duty whistled, Joseph stepped into the void, with his big worried smile. Langi and I ended up at the bottom of the stairs at the same time as Descoubes who ran faster than the others. He arrived first. We heard those below who were afraid or laughed because they didn’t want to believe it. Descoubes took a breath with his arm on the large door. Black Jo danced on the ledge a good fifty feet above where all of us students were. The panicky teacher let out another whistle and got the students in a line so they perhaps would be shielded from the fall of the angel Black Jo, who was not going to see his parents again or the Senegal River, which caused him so much pain that he wanted to trash everything or put an end to his life.

Langi and I looked at one another. He came up behind Jo and Jo felt his presence, mine too. It was a difficult moment. At the side of his bed, he’d emptied his drawer of secrets, he had left his life in tatters and kept only sorrow. At one point, Langiniuex found himself facing Jo at the window, the students were all screaming down below, they refused to get in a line. Langi took Jo by the shoulders. As soon as they got down, Descoubes closed the window. I tried to organize his letters and his things while Joseph was crying and couldn’t stop. We stayed together. The principal arrived, out of breath since he wasn’t used to climbing stairs. We had to recount what we’d witnessed and we thought we wouldn’t see Jo again too soon. They didn’t like that too much, the administration, it was very bad publicity. Just then I took it upon myself to hide his letters, his handkerchief and the souvenirs of his life from before in Africa. That didn’t concern them, I thought.

They confined him to the infirmary. Maryse Gentil wasn’t there. There was  an attendant with him, he was sitting on the bench in the infirmary and the history teacher was there but was fed up with everything by that point. They turned on the radio. They listened to the news, to the hit parade where you were supposed to call in to the radio to vote for or against. Jo pulled his knees up under his chin. They were looking for his parents but then realized the problem when they opened his file. So they called his godmother in Paris. From the window we saw the large fir tree the younger kids had decorated with electric lights, red, blue and green near the entry gate, facing a bar called Chiquito. Sometimes the fragile snow cracked under our feet, but the footprints always turned around on themselves, they weren’t leading anywhere. The teacher indicated that we could sit with Jo while he waited for his godmother. He had nonetheless achieved his goal: he wasn’t far from exhausting himself. The teacher put a drop of brandy in a glass of cocoa. We talked about the vacation and Joseph hallucinated whenever Langinieux talked about how he loved skiing, the cold … It was a strange last evening, one could say. The attendant gave us a moment to stretch our legs around nine in the evening. When he came back up, he smiled at us again and pulled out his flask.

Another drop, guys?

Sure boss, why not?

We heard the steps of high-heeled shoes on the stairs. Black Jo was dumbstruck and couldn’t believe his ears. His godmother was there.

She carried her beautiful purse on a long gold chain, her high heels were a bit wet because she’d walked through the snow. When she arrived she smiled at us then she didn’t stop staring at him.

Joseph, do you know some place where we can talk, the two of us?

She had a beautiful, deep voice. She also carried a plastic shopping bag. Well, we’ll leave you, au revoir Madame! Yes, goodbye, she seemed nice in her big coat and the light-colored pants of an African woman from a good neighborhood. At the base of the building, Langi and I with the little that we’d drunk didn’t feel the cold. The others weren’t with us that evening. We had heard the noise in the lobby, when a soccer play didn’t pan out, it was still one of those matches from the French Cup, the cup of all cups, or the European Cup. We went to watch from above, toward the little window on the side of the dormitory, where he went with his godmother, it was an urgent situation if she’d come like this at night. We saw clearly the decorated Christmas tree near the exit gate. She must have gone through there, if she’d parked outside. Or perhaps she didn’t have a car and arrived by bus or taxi? We wanted to know if she had come to reproach him, or what?

After the match the students left the common room to go back to their own digs; we were about to leave here until next year. We went up the staircase silently, we wanted to go discretely past the little room where Jo and his godmother were talking. But she saw us, the door had remained open, I don’t know if she did that on purpose. She gave us a big, calm smile, he was in front of her, his elbows on his knees, like one did often while listening to others. She gave us a sign to come join them, with her big nice smile. She held out her hand, when he told her our first names.

She had rushed there as soon as she got the phone call. So, you’re okay? We told her yes, we’re fine, and since there wasn’t much more to say Langi suggested making tea. Do you want some? Jo remained silent. She nodded her head, yes, a tea, in this cold, merci! Not a problem. We’ll be right back. We went to borrow the kettle from the teacher and asked for teabags, as long as he had his flask and you didn’t forget to bring back the kettle all would be fine. The students had gone to bed, some of them had already closed their eyes. Don’t stay up too long, understand? He’d already taken out his history books because he worked a good part of the night after lights out. About him I recall only that he had the blue eyes of a Norman countryman and long nose hair. We went down to get Pyrex cups in the common room. Outside, the snow didn’t seem to be letting up. We’d brought everything. Your friends, here they are! She had a super beautiful smile, the godmother of Black Jo. We looked for the kettle stopper and while waiting for it to whistle we sat back down, we had even found some sugar. Jo watched all of this with a strange air, a bit dumbfounded. He’d been crying, I think.

From the shopping bag, she took out cakes that she’d wanted to give to him but since we were all drinking tea together … one could eat them now, no? She hadn’t spoken much with us. She often looked out the high window where it seemed to snow more and more, as if it was never going to stop. Jo didn’t speak anymore, he was perhaps very tired now, he ate the cakes she’d brought. The crumbs fell on his legs. After tea, I would have liked to go to sleep. I was used to sleeping at that hour, above all when it was snowing, there weren’t big hopes for the next day and even Santa Claus’s bag of gifts didn’t seem likely to be full to the brim. He lifted up his head occasionally to smile and we saw the great effort he tried to make since he wanted to leave with her.

No, Joseph, you can’t, not tonight. You know that well. It’s not possible …

She reasoned with him gently, with a serious voice. Then he shook his head as if he was thrown back into an inner void, there where he was truly in pain because of the Christmas vacation. In two days, Joseph. She had a beautiful voice with which to say Joseph to Black Jo. She yawned and looked at her watch.

It’s going to be okay, you’re going to sleep?

Langi and I we left the two of them. We brought back the kettle. Au revoir, et merci … She gave us her hand.

Langi read a page of a book with a flashlight before closing it and lying on his stomach. I hadn’t taken off either my shirt or my sweater, I was lying on my side. I was waiting for Black Jo. If he was in the next bed, would I have dreamed of lions and African bicycles without chains? It bothered us that he didn’t have his parents here, but only far away in Africa near the Senegal River. When the dormitory supervisor had finished his rounds, he drew his curtain and I saw him as if in a shadow box theater. His little table. His coat stand. His little shelf. His satchel. His life. My eyes stung when I saw at the end of corridor, he was going down the stairs with his godmother. Her purse hung at the top of her arm, he gave her his hand, as if the stairs were dangerous, but they weren’t. He wanted to get close to her, she didn’t let him. The shadow box theater of the supervisor; the flask on the small table. To your health, my friend, I told myself.

Joseph and his godmother at the edge of the field were looking toward the fence.

What terrible weather this country has, my Lord! she said. I hope I don’t slip on the road!

She held the two sides of her coat tightly in her hand. If he lived with her in Paris he wouldn’t take up too much room and wouldn’t cost her much money … Two days, Joseph, that’s not long … go, go back. He held her in his arms and I saw how much pleasure that gave him, she took his arms so she could free herself, laughing.

Stop, let me go now.

After passing the last lamppost of the field she looked back but couldn’t see Black Jo, he was crouching down a bit farther in the courtyard. He held his hands out toward the flakes, but didn’t catch any. They flew around him under the halo of the light. He could have stayed hours here, and died, I told myself. Well, okay. I came out from underneath the stairs.

Jo, you coming, let’s go up?

I have to piss, don’t you?

We looked toward the dormitory windows and it was all clear. We went toward the tree by the fence where his godmother had walked past, before driving off in her little Datsun Cherry. It was a big, old fir. The winter did it good, one could say. The colored lights shined brightly. I’d heard that you could cause a short circuit by pissing on the transformer, but apart from two or three sparks nothing happened. Joseph was completely numb now. He was probably hoping to find a place to live in Paris when school resumed in January. When he came of age, he would return to Dakar. His godmother would explain it to them. It was his Christmas present. That’s what he told me as he placed his feet in the same tracks that we made on the way there, he didn’t like snow too much, even if it was really beautiful, when no one has sullied it and it falls heavily for no reason.

Contributors

Dominique Fabre

Dominique Fabre born in 1960, writes about people living on society’s margins. He is a lifelong resident of Paris. Two of his novels have been translated into English, Guys Like Me and The Waitress Was New. The story "Christmas at the Boarding School" was written for a new anthology entitled A Very French Christmas: The Greatest French Holiday Stories of All Time, published by New Vessel Press.

Michael Z. Wise

Michael Z. Wise is cofounder of New Vessel Press.

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