Art by Leonard Reibstein
Excerpted from the novel Go, Went, Gone, published by New Directions in 2017.
Translated by Susan Bernofsky
When Richard gets home that evening, he can’t remember how the conversation even started. He hadn’t wanted to knock on any more doors behind which men were sleeping. On his way downstairs, he saw the thin man with the broom, sweeping the uninhabited second floor as if he had all the time in the world. Richard’s conversation with him lasted far longer than any of the others, and Richard can’t really account for this.
I know why it is, the voice says. The thin man is still wearing the yellow sweatsuit pants with holes in them, still holding his broom. Sometimes he pauses for a moment, propping himself up on it with both hands, then he sweeps some more.
Or is it still not over yet?
I look in front of me and behind me and I see nothing.
This was the first sentence uttered by the man on the deserted second floor, and many, many sentences spiraled out from this one. Now Richard is home again and can still hear the man’s voice.
When I was eight or nine years old, my parents left me with my stepmother—my father’s first wife—and they moved to another village with my two brothers and my sister. When I was eleven, I got my first cutlass—a knife for working in the fields for thirty cents per hour. By the time I was eighteen, I’d earned enough to open a small kiosk. When I was nineteen, I sold the kiosk to go to Kumasi in Ghana.
Richard turns on the lights in the living room, library, and kitchen, just as he always does when he comes home at night.
I went to see my parents, my brothers, my sister, and said goodbye to them. I could only stay with them for one night, their room was too small.
I went to Kumasi and started working as a helper for two merchants who sold shoes on the street. I met a girl, but her parents wouldn’t give their permission for us to marry because I was so poor. Then the merchants I worked for went bankrupt.
I went back to my parents, my two brothers, and my sister, and I could only stay with them for one night, the room was too small.
I didn’t feel well in my body in that time.
Richard goes to the kitchen, opens the window facing the garden, looks out into the night, and thinks for a brief moment that everything is very quiet now. Then he hears behind him the sound of the broom sweeping the floor.
Something changed, but I didn’t know if it was a change for better or worse. I started to work on a farm. My job was to take care of the animals, the goats and pigs. I brought them their food, cut grass, twigs, and leaves. But the owner kept my pay, he said: It costs me this much to feed you.
Richard closes the window again and turns around. The man props himself with both hands on his broom, smiles, and says:
One night I had a dream. My father lay on the ground, I wanted to hold him, but I couldn’t grasp him, beneath my arms he was flat, and then he sank down into the ground.
The next night I had a dream again. Three women were washing the dead body of my father. I was supposed to help them, but I didn’t know how to do that.
The third night I saw my mother standing next to the body of my father, as if she were watching over him.
One day later I received a message from my village that my father was dead.
Where’d he get the broom, anyhow?
I knew that I didn’t have enough money to go to the big memorial ceremony for my father eight weeks later. But a son must come and mourn his father.
Now he goes back to sweeping with calm, broad strokes. Well, it can’t hurt, Richard thinks.
For the first week I worked. The second.
At the end of the fourth week, the owner said to me that it was only the probationary month and again he didn’t give me money.
I found work on another farm. I dug up the fields for planting yams. The first week I worked. From four in the morning until six-thirty in the evening.
The second week.
The third week.
But if a girl hadn’t given me food for free, even the money I earned there wouldn’t have been enough for me to travel for the ceremony and buy the goat I wanted to sacrifice.
Maybe a cold beer would be a good thing on such an evening, Richard thinks, and goes down to the basement.
I went with the goat in a share taxi to Nkawkaw.
Then I went with the goat in a bus to Kumasi.
I went with the goat in a share taxi from Kumasi to Tepa, then I went with the goat to Mim.
Richard remembers laughing when the man told him how hard it was to squeeze the live goat into a vehicle with all the other passengers.
I arrived on the exact day the ceremony for my father took place. We sacrificed the goat in the customary way. I could only stay with my family for one night, the room was too small. From then on, I alone had to provide for my mother and my three siblings.
In a nearby village I found work on a cocoa plantation.
After one year I decided to go to Accra with the money I earned. I went to my mother, my brothers, my sister, and said goodbye to them. I could only stay with them for one night, the room was too small.
While Richard is sitting on the sofa with his beer, the man in the yellow pants with holes in them sweeps the living-room rug.
I went to Accra and bought the first four pairs of shoes for my own business. By afternoon, I sold two pairs. I bought two new pairs, and that evening sold another pair. With the profit from the three pairs of shoes I sold, I could buy food, a sleeping mat, and a tarp for sleeping on the street. During the night someone stole the tarp.
Richard’s gaze comes to rest on the advent wreath that’s been standing on his living room table for five years now.
The rainy season had just started, so I went around in the city. Now I had eleven pairs of shoes total, I always showed one shoe, and another was in my backpack. At night I sometimes got wet if it rained through my new tarp. During the day I was sometimes so tired that I sat down and fell asleep. Finally I had wood cut for a counter. I found someone who would lock up my bag of shoes overnight for me. But I still slept on the street with the money in my pocket, and I was always afraid of being robbed. I gave five pairs of shoes on commission to a man who said he would help me sell them. But he took the shoes and didn’t come back.
Now the man in the yellow pants with holes turns the broom upside down and plucks the lint from the bristles, dropping it right back on the floor next to him. What does he think he’s doing? Richard wonders, but then thinks: Let him do what he wants.
I went to see my mother and siblings. I could only stay with them for one night, the room was too small.
I asked myself: What is wrong with me? I asked myself, and I also asked God.
It’s all right to have bad times. But if you never know where you’ll sleep and what you’ll eat? Was there really no place in the entire world where I could lie down to sleep?
I looked in front of me and behind me and saw nothing, but I told my mother things were good with me.
And my mother said to me that things were good with her.
But I knew: she didn’t own any land. If I didn’t give her money and if no one else ever gave her anything, she couldn’t cook anything for herself and my siblings.
My silence and her silence met when we looked at each other. Then I worked helping with the harvest on a plantation.
The first week.
The second week.
The third week.
He turns the broom around again, but remains standing there.
I thought: if I wasn’t there anymore, no one could ask me for anything else, and then I sat down at the edge of the field and cried. It’s like that, many people in Ghana are very desperate.
Some of them hang themselves.
Others take DDT. They drink water afterward, then they go into the house, close the door behind them—and die.
I sent a kid to the store where they have DDT. But the seller asked the kid who sent him. He looked for me, and then he talked to me for a long time and said I should think about it carefully. For three days after this conversation I sat in the mosque and thought about it.
Then I didn’t have the strength to do it anymore.
And after that I got sick.
Richard gets up and walks across the hall to the library. He sometimes sits in the armchair there to talk on the phone. Maybe he needs a book to clear his head before he goes to sleep.
If the DDT seller hadn’t talked to me then, I’d have died a long time ago.
Of course there’s plenty of dust in the library too. Richard watches the thin man for a while as he turns over the chairs surrounding the round table and lifts them to the tabletop. He’s leaned his broom against the bookshelf, the section devoted to German Classicism.
Then I went back to Accra. I hired a helper. At some point I had two and a half sacks of shoes, almost three hundred pairs. Now I almost had enough money for a room.
But then selling on the street was declared illegal.
I looked in front of me and behind me and saw nothing.
I carried five pairs of shoes around and sold them in secret. All day long I walked back and forth across the city. I let my helper have the last twenty or thirty pairs for cheap. With the profit I bought a sack of athfiadai; someone told me they make medicine out of it here in Europe. Paracetamol.
When Richard has a headache, he takes A.S.S., the aspirin product still favored by East Germans, but he doesn’t know if it contains the active ingredient paracetamol.
Then I went home to my mother and siblings. I stayed with them for just one night and told them what they should do to help me. All four of them went into the bush to collect this fruit that looks like a small apple, you dry it, then it splits open, you collect the seeds, the seeds are dried in the sun for two or three days, and then you grind them in a mortar. In the end it’s a black powder. The fruit is rare, and it’s a lot of work to get the powder; but finally a second sack was full, and my mother sent it to me in Accra.
Richard would like to turn out the light and go to bed. But he remains sitting until the thin man has finished sweeping under the sofa and the secretary, he waits until he’s taken the chairs back down from the table and put everything neatly in its place.
I went to the market with the two sacks.
On the first day, no one came to buy the powder.
Not on the second day either.
Not on the third day.
After that, I heard that the year before, some sellers put a powder that looked similar in sacks to cheat the buyers.
Now Richard turns out the light. The voice is waiting for him in the hallway.
I left the sacks with a friend and went to my mother and siblings to say goodbye. I could only stay one night, no longer, because the room was too small.
I gave my mother half of the last money I had, and with the other half I paid a smuggler to take me to Libya.
That was in the year 2010.
It’s nice, actually, Richard thinks, that sweeping doesn’t make any noise, and he wonders why, on the rare occasions he cleans, he always grabs the vacuum cleaner.
My money was only enough to get to Dakoro in Niger. The smuggler loaned me the rest. The others and I lay under the false bottom of a pickup truck squeezed in so tightly that we couldn’t even turn around. The smuggler kept us alive with pieces of watermelon that he shoved into our hiding place.
For the first eight months in Tripoli, I worked on a construction site just for the smuggler. When my debts were finally paid, the war broke out. We couldn’t leave the construction site. All around us we heard shooting. Eventually the man who always brought us our food and drink stopped coming. We held out for three days, and on the fourth day we had to go outside. The streets were completely empty. There were no foreigners left anywhere, but no Libyans either. No people at all. Finally we managed to get on a boat at night. A friend lent me the two hundred euros for the crossing to Europe.
When I called Accra from the camp in Sicily, the man I’d left the two sacks of powder with said that the stuff had gotten old.
Yes, I said, just dump it out, I said.
And now the thin man begins to sweep the stairs from bottom to top, the opposite of how Richard always saw his mother do it, moving upwards as he sweeps one step at a time, with the dust from each step falling on the one just below, the one he’s just cleaned.
For as long as I was in the camp in Italy, I received seventy-five euros a month, and I sent twenty or thirty of that to my mother.
But after a year the camp was closed. They gave us five hundred euros. With that, I stood on the street. I went to the train station to sleep there until a policeman woke me and sent me away because I didn’t have a train ticket.
Outside was a man from Cameroon. He said he had a brother in Finland. We called the brother. Yes, I could go to Finland and stay with him. I went to Finland, but the brother of the man from Cameroon didn’t answer the phone.
For two weeks I slept on the street in Finland. It was very, very cold. Then I went back to Italy. I walked around with my bag on my back. One day I threw away a pair of shoes and some pants, because the bag was so heavy.
I spent a total of one year and eight months in Italy.
Then I went to Germany.
All my money was gone, the ve hundred euros.
I looked in front of me and behind me and saw nothing.
The thin man has now reached the top of the stairs with his broom and seems to be heading in the direction of the guest bedroom, but when Richard follows him, carrying a volume by Edgar Lee Masters, and looks around on the upper floor, there’s no one there.