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King by Nick Mwaluko

I take the basket outside to her front door. Knock. No answer though I think I saw the curtain move ever so slightly so someone has to be home, right? I knock again. Maybe she’s in. Nothing. Next time I ring the doorbell. Someone, a man I’ve never seen before, says “Who?” His voice is clipped, deep with nearly zero warmth compared to Paule’s but could be it’s because he’s speaking from behind the door and hasn’t opened yet for me to hear him clearly. “May I see Paule?” Silence. I wait.

“Hello?” Nothing. “Anyone there?”

“Go away.”

“Excuse me?”

Silence.

“I’m from downstairs. I live in the basement.” I wait. Zero. “Look, Paule’s my landlady. I bought her this basket of fruit.” Am I talking to myself? “It’s a surprise.” Is he gone? Did he leave me talking to myself at the door?

“May I see her?”

The door doesn’t open.

“No.”

“Excuse me?” I can’t take this anymore.

“Leave the basket outside.”

What for? What do you think will happen when you open the door? I’m right here on the porch out front near the sidewalk. Look, pedestrians, people walking up and down the street who look like they speak six languages. Cars parked, look!, in a garage outside a home with lots of light thanks to large windows, huge windows that let people see other people all the time. Everybody sees everybody, always. Wink, people see. Cough, people see. Sneeze, people see. So what could happen? And who do you think I am?

“Leave the basket outside.”

Why why why didn’t I wait? Why didn’t I listen for the difference in footsteps then knock when I heard Paule? Her steps are light. His heavier. She glides from room to room compared to his big, slow thump upon clunky thump. Had I listened harder, paid closer attention to the devil in the details, those tiny nuances that lead you to a soul, had I done that I would’ve heard Paule, her quickness, lightness, her warm, welcoming energy.

“Leave the basket outside.”

“Where?”

Asshole.

“On the porch. Like I said.”

I drop the basket of fruit—mangoes, apples, bananas, oranges—leave it right there outside by the front door, then stand awaiting my next set of instructions like I’m his fool.

“What’s your name again?”

I tell him. I say it clearly. Mine is a beautiful name with meaningful weight, especially if said with a rural tongue it’s a dance. But I say it like I’m zero, that dumb-dumb-nothing at the door with a fruit basket resting at my feet so he knows I mean nobody harm. Not Paule, not him, not the neighbors, nobody. I say it slow so there’s no reason to be afraid because I’m a person with a heart that holds nothing besides pure intentions. All I want is to see Paule face-to-face, hand her the surprise basket of fruit which I picked specially, share in her joy as it grows into a smile, turn round head straight back to that little basement apartment downstairs I call home. That’s it. That’s all I want. Let him hear it, my simple, harmless plan in each syllable as I say my name out loud with the porch and the front door and the curtain as a barrier between me, Paule and that moment of purity.

Open the fucken door.

“Paule’s not here.”

“Where is she?”

He won’t say.

“When is she coming back, do you know?”

Of course he won’t say. What he will do is tell her I stopped by while handing her the surprise basket I put together. “You can count on it. I’ll tell her.” Thanks, Bitch.

“What’s your name again?”

“When do you think she’ll be back?”

He wouldn’t tell me even if he knew the second within the exact hour.

I have to say it. I can’t hide or hold it in anymore, sorry but. If I were back home, in the village or city center doesn’t matter where, this could never ever happen in Africa. There. The truth.

You want me dead. Not in chains. Not invisible. Not obedient. Not your shadow. Not of service. Not to patronize or cheer or observe or empower. Not suffering. Not humiliated. Not free. Not silent zero nothing. But dead. Dead.

You you you.

You behind the door behind the curtain. You with your voice, with your careful words. What is it that I can’t see? What could be so unholy?

“’Kay now. Bye now.”

“Bye.” Nothing. “Thank you.” Nothing. Dead.

The door stays shut.

He won, true, but I defeated death.

I am more alive.

God in the basement.


Nick Mwaluko was born in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania but raised mostly in neighboring Kenya. Homelessness, shelter life, intense spiritual dislocation allowed Nick to renew efforts at writing. Nick hates pronouns.