Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Summer 2017    poetry    all issues


Cover Marija Zaric

Mary Lucille Hays
Tribute in Black, White, and Gray

Anne McMillan

Faith Shearin

James Hanna
Tower Duty

Nektaria Petrou
Black Lace

Rebecca May Hope
Coyotes from Kazakhstan

John Maki
There Are No Angels Singing

Lisa Michelle
A Happy Birthday

Alison Turner
Actresses Auditioning

Brian Beard
Problems in Poultry Farming

Liz Bender
The Hypnotist

William C-F Long
Pet Hive

Wendy Dolber
Charlotte's Plan

Emily Holland
Something Cool

Brian Beard

Problems in Poultry Farming

I don’t say goodbye to my wife and daughters anymore when I leave the compound to look for work. I don’t greet the old basket weaver sitting in the haze of dawn beside the red dirt path. I don’t wave to the workers waiting to be picked up by the side of the highway. Not that I’ve let myself go completely. I still wear my lime-green suit. I still carry my agricultural school thesis in my briefcase. Still rev the engine of my motorcycle more than necessary before pulling on the highway to Allada.

I used to be the man in Allada who’d write out your receipt if you bought cement at the depot. I supplemented my salary by making minor errors in my calculations, eventually pocketing enough to purchase my motorcycle. But I wanted more. So, the year I turned forty, I had an ID made to say I was thirty-six, quit the job at the depot, and began classes at the agricultural school alongside classmates half my age. The idea was to get ahead, to make up for lost time, to put myself in a favorable position, but after these months since graduation of coming up empty, I’d happily take my old job back if it hadn’t been given to a tall woman from the north with a gap between her front teeth and a witchdoctor for a husband.

As I ride into Allada, the zemidjans are sitting beneath the miracle fruit tree waiting to take people from point A to point B. Even now, with hardly a CFA left to my name, when I pass the zemidjans in their yolk yellow shirts on their motorbikes, I am like a man passing night women on his way to see his bride—I don’t even look at them.

I park my motorcycle in front of the high wall of the farmer’s co-op, the last viable place in the entire subprefecture where I have not looked for work.

If they won’t hire me at the co-op, here is my plan: walk out beside the highway after the sun goes down with a bottle of sodabi, drink as much as I can, lie down on the highway, and wait for Death to come in the form of a bush taxi.

The co-op secretary looks up from behind her barred window when I enter. When I start to introduce myself, she interrupts me and tells me to take a seat. There are no spaces along the wooden bench crammed with farmers in ill-fitting suits from the Dead Yovo Market, their fingers trembling on their thighs like dried fish in hot oil.

I gather through the half-whispered conversations of the farmers that they are here to ask for loans from the co-op boss, Djenotin. After a while, the door of the office opens and a large man stands in the doorway wearing a bubu in a dark blue and bright orange cellphone motif. Djenotin. I look as meaningfully disinterested as I can, but he points at one of the farmers, who rises, squares his shoulders, and follows him into the office. One or two farmers throughout the day come out of the office looking pleased, but the rest are wincing like they have been hit in the nose. Finally, in the late afternoon, when Djenotin still hasn’t picked me, I decide I’ve waited long enough.

Before heading home, I stop at a bar across the highway from the cement depot and sit in a white plastic chair at a white plastic table. When the bargirl, who I don’t recognize, asks me what I’d like, I tell her nothing, thanks, I’m waiting for someone. Across the highway, a driver and his apprentice lie on mats beneath the engine of their truck and work on the engine. On the side of the truck have been painted the words: “I trust no one—not even you.” People pass in front of the bar from time to time: women carrying firewood; a man on a motorbike transporting a goat tied to the back; a small boy leaning on a stick, pretending to be an old man; a shirtless madman in stained blue shorts and a gray stubble beard who leans to one side and looks warily at me like I am the madman.

Djenotin enters the bar and takes a seat. He stretches his arm behind him as if he’s reaching onto a shelf for a knickknack and motions the bargirl over. When she approaches, he hammers his fingers against his palm to draw her closer. She bends down so that her face is almost touching his. He orders a large beer and a braised chicken. She straightens and smooths her wrapper before walking through the curtain separating the bar from the courtyard behind it.

The bargirl brings Djenotin his beer. He takes an enormous gulp and slaps his hand on his thigh and sighs with satisfaction. Instead of introducing myself to Djenotin, impressing him, gaining his confidence—as it would seem Destiny has arranged for me, I lean my head back on the wall behind me and listen to the waves of bush taxis on the highway, a wandering cobbler tapping his box to advertise his services, flip-flops on the cement floor, a closing door. Djenotin is on his second beer and almost done with his chicken and I still haven’t said anything when the speakers begin to blare a swirling, distorted Congolese dance hit full of chiming guitars, manic whistles, and a chorus of men shout-singing: “The dogs bark, the caravan passes.”

Djenotin puts 1000 CFA on the table and leaves without waiting for the change, and then it is just me and a drunkard dancing by himself in the dark corner of the bar.

The darkness is punctured by the headlights of passing bush taxis and the fires of vendors grilling corn and curtains backlit by fluorescence like the pale flags of ghosts. As I head out of town, I can see, beneath the miracle fruit tree, the glow of a cigarette as it moves from one invisible zemidjan to the next.

As soon as I cut the engine of my motorcycle, the compound is silent. By the moonlight through the torn mosquito netting I see my daughters lying on their mats, my oldest humming a tune with missing notes in her sleep.

I crawl onto the mattress beside my wife. I imagine she awakes and asks me if I have found work, and I imagine I tell her that I have.

In the morning, some last scrap of hope rouses me and again I drive my motorcycle down the highway to the depot. Again I wait all day for Djenotin to pick me. Finally, when the room is almost dark, Djenotin announces he will see one more person. The others will have to return tomorrow. When he points at me, I stand, trying my best to appear nonchalant. The others suck their teeth and walk outside, mumbling to themselves.

One buzzing tube of fluorescent light flickers in Djenotin’s office. A large couch is pushed against the wall beneath the barred, curtained window. Djenotin and I sit in chairs facing each other on either side of his desk, empty but for two stamps: “ACCEPTED” and “REFUSED.”

“How can I help?”

I open my briefcase, take out my thesis, and put it on the desk before him. Djenotin glances at the cover page.

“‘Problems in Poultry Farming.’ Why poultry?”

“I don’t know.”

“There must have been some reason you chose to study poultry.”

“It was mainly an academic exercise.”

“An academic exercise?” Djenotin grins as if at a private joke. “What does that mean anyway, ‘Problems in Poultry Farming’? What would an example of a ‘Problem in Poultry Farming’ be?”

I nod, but I can’t bring to mind any of the dozen problems in poultry farming in my thesis which I had copied shamelessly from a French agronomy textbook from pre-Independence.

“There are a number of diseases to which poultry are susceptible,” I say.

“Let’s cut to the chase,” Djenotin says. “How much do you want, what do you want it for, and when can you pay it back by?”

“I’m not looking for a loan. I’m looking for a job, like the one I had before at the cement depot.”

“So you were one of the crooks at the cement depot. I thought you looked familiar.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I am an honest man.”

I mean to infuse my words with the knowing intimacy of a private joke and thereby lay the foundation for a lucrative and long-lasting friendship. But Djenotin’s eyes narrow and he looks over in the direction of his secretary—although of course he can’t see her because she is in another room—as if to say, “Why did you let this one in?”

I look up for a moment, as if someone might be up there able to help me out, but all I see are water stains on the ceiling.

“The bottom line is we don’t need any cement people here. Or any chicken people.” He lets out a very slight guffaw.

“I can handle papers. I can type reports. I can keep books.”

Djenotin’s face assumes the look I myself gave many times at the depot. It is the look one gives when one has come to the conclusion that helping to solve another person’s problems is not in one’s own interest. The curled-down sides of the lips feign regret that one will not be able to help for factors more or less beyond one’s control.

I look at the binders on the shelves behind Djenotin and have the absurd thought that in one of those binders, if only I can find them, words are written, which, if I were to read them aloud to Djenotin, would cause him to change his mind. But finding those words, even if they existed, could take the rest of my life.

“Have you considered working as a zemidjan?”

There is a hint of gentleness in Djenotin’s voice now, as if he is trying to convince a child who has picked up a freshly sharpened knife to put it down before someone gets hurt.

I try to smile, unsuccessfully.

“Do you own a motorbike?”

“I own a motorcycle,” trying to sound modest.

“Do you?” he says, shrugging as if he has just solved my problem and that it wasn’t such a hard problem to solve.

He stands and I stand with him.

When I exit through the empty waiting room, he does not accompany me out.

Children in khaki uniforms are chasing a baby dust devil in front of the bar as I arrive on my motorcycle. Before I cut the engine, a scrawny man appears from around the corner of the building, his lips pressing into each other as if trying to eat each other without the aid of his teeth. He jabs me hard in the gut. I watch him, bent over, waiting for my breath to return, as he heads north on my motorcycle on the highway toward Abomey. As soon as I am able to stand, a zemidjan passes and I call out for it. I climb behind him and we speed off.

We head north but we don’t see the thief. Still we continue through the forest, arriving at dusk in some little town cut in half by the highway halfway to Abomey. The zemidjan stops in front of a table of pineapple vendors who are moving the pineapples they have not sold into cement sacks.

The zemidjan asks me to pay. I give him what I have left. Apparently it is not enough to return to Allada because, after he buys a pastis bottle’s worth of contraband Nigerian petrol, he leaves without me.

I walk down the highway until I can no longer see the tiny red dot of his taillight. Then I lie down in the middle of the highway and listen to the drumming of a ceremony far off in the bush. Above the trees, the moon appears, enormous and terrible.

The moon has made it to the other side of the sky and the newly-risen sun is glinting off the tin roofs of the cinderblock houses as I walk into Allada. Making my way along the dusty street, I hear, over the cinderblock wall of a compound, a woman calling for her children to wake up. A truck heading south toward Cotonou passes me without a proverb painted on it, at least not on the side I can see. Beneath the miracle fruit tree the zemidjans are arguing, but at my approach they become silent to witness what I cannot: myself, turning into one of them.

While serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Benin, West Africa, Brian Beard collected and translated fifty Beninese folktales with his Fon language teacher, Angelo Houndedji. His writing appears in Bellevue Literary Review, The New Guard, Poetry East, Quiddity, Red Rock Review, Translation Review, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and sons in Houston, where he teaches courses on happiness and “the good life” to high school seniors and leads service trips to Bolivia.

Dotted Line