“A Country Where I Am Beautiful” by Patricia Smith

Evelyn met the men everywhere.  At school.  Getting her electricity and water turned on.  In the bank.  She met the men walking the dusty red streets on her way to market, swatting flies, staying clear of pigs who roamed freely.  She met the men driving cabs.  At the newspaper kiosques.

“Miss, I am wanting to know you,” they all said.  This time a dark, skinny man with glasses and bad teeth said it from behind the single window in the run-down post office where Evelyn had to pay bribes to pick up packages from the States.  “I am wanting to know you very much.”  He held Evelyn’s slip of yellow paper in his long slim fingers the color of dark roast.

Evelyn wasn’t expecting a package.  Not from Marta who had just sent two more remaindered novels.  Marta felt sorry for the writers and bought their books, gave them as gifts, and now sent them, weekly, to Evelyn.  Marta had recently begun sending cassettes, too—”Prairie Home Companion,” taped from the public radio station so Evelyn would feel at home.

“You are from States?” the man asked.

“I’m from Milwaukee,” Evelyn said.  She pronounced each syllable as if elongating the name would make clear where she was from.  “Wisconsin,” she added.

The man smiled and Evelyn could see gaping holes and blackened half teeth.  “Los Angeles?” he said.  He pronounced it Angelease.

It was what foreigners knew. California and New York.  The rest, what was in between, didn’t matter, didn’t exist.

“No,” Evelyn said, but the man looked away.  Evelyn waited, her leather backpack heavy on her shoulder.  Just thinking of Wisconsin here in this dingy post office where the paint peeled and the room smelled of mildew, where the one-eyed man sold stamps outside beneath a banyan tree in the courtyard, gave Evelyn the beginnings of a headache.

Angelease.  The endless heat.  A pig grunting somewhere outside.

“Sow,” the man said offering his last name and his hand.  His arm, smooth and black like onyx, extended from a bleached white shirt, threadbare but ironed.  Evelyn thought of a fashion tip she’d read in Cosmo or Elle or Seventeen: to lessen the effects of yellow teeth, you were never supposed to wear a shirt whiter than your enamel.

“Evelyn,” she said to the man.  Shaking his hand, she was conscious of the hair on her arm, all the freckles and moles.

“I meet you tomorrow at four o’clock.  Here,” the man said.  He glanced at the slip of paper.  “Evelyn,” he said, but he pronounced it Evleen.

I’m in a country where my name is beautiful.

Evelyn said, “Monsieur Sow.  My package?”  She pointed to the slip of paper he held creased between thumb and forefinger and she shifted her backpack to her other shoulder.

“Tomorrow,” he said.  “You will get it tomorrow.”  He slipped the paper into his back jean pocket and lay the crude cardboard sign on the counter:  Fermé.

 * * *

The following day, like all the days prior, began at five with the call to prayer, a human whinnying, high and shrill that made Evelyn want to weep beneath her mosquito netting.  There, under the thin cotton blanket, in that dark pre-morning coolness and blue-black air, Evelyn hoped for something like a spark of religious feeling.  She prayed for it.  Tried to feel something, anything that would remind her she was here in her real life and not in a dream.

Then the birds, their songs gentle and familiar.

At seven, the sun.  The first blast of heat.

Instead of snow days, we need hot days, Evelyn had written to Marta.  Today, she could already tell, was going to be one of those, the kind of day when the sky presses like an iron onto your skull and your eyes fry.  The kind of day that no matter how slowly you move, you are damp and wrinkled.

Thin people, Evelyn’s mother used to remind her while she was growing up, sweat less than bigger people.  And then: thin people get good jobs, make better first impressions, marry successful men.

While the water heated for the Nescafé, Evelyn made mental notes for her three English classes that day, then skipped directly to her afternoon meeting at the post office.  “Sow,” she said out loud.  “Sow.”  It was odd, this habit of introducing themselves by last names only, as if the entire country were a football team, jocks who hung out together in the locker room.  On the other hand, there were her American colleagues back home who called her “Ev,” or worse, “Evie,” but who never invited her anywhere or knew the first thing about her private life.

 * * *

Evelyn shifted her backpack, felt the sweat trickle and pushed her thick brownish bangs from her forehead.  The cotton shirt, where the leather strap had been, stuck to her shoulder.  Evelyn’s Vuarnets slipped down her nose.

The one-eyed man held court beneath the banyan tree.  He waved his hands in the air and looked wildly at each of the three men in front of him, skinny men, their clothes limp and pale.  The one-eyed man wore pointy elfin-like shoes beneath his white, billowing caftan.  He reminded Evelyn of a wizard.

“Bonjour, Evleen,” Sow said when Evelyn spotted him inside, leaning back against the peeling wall, one knee bent. He wore creased jeans and leather sandals, a batik print shirt.  To Evelyn, he looked cool and dry.  Crisp in his ironed clothes. He shook her hand. “You are fine?”

“Fine, yes,” she said.  “And you?  You have spent the night in peace?”

“Peace only, alhumdulilaay.”  He clasped his hands together.

Evelyn noticed a square box wrapped in brown paper on the floor next to Sow.  “Is that mine?”

Sow picked it up.  “Meal-woe-key,” he said, emphasizing the last syllable.  “You miss your family in Meal-woe-key, Evleen?”  He turned the box around, tore off the pretty stamps and pocketed them.  He put the box back on the floor.

“A little bit.”  Evelyn missed supermarkets more, and the sheer number of brands and products available in them.  She missed walking up and down the aisles, deciding between Progresso and Campbell’s.  You couldn’t explain that to a Senegalese though, someone who might only have rice and oil to eat at night.  You couldn’t talk about supermarkets to a man who could not afford to take good care of his teeth.

“Your family, they are fine?”

“Yes, fine, everyone is fine.”  Evelyn reached down to pick up her package.  Her backpack slipped and swung off her shoulder, thudded against the dusty floor.

“And your work?”  Sow crouched to help.  He slid the backpack up onto Evelyn’s shoulder.  “Your work, it is fine also?”  There they were, crouching like that, knees almost touching, Sow’s hand still holding the strap of her backpack, his face, the blackened half teeth much too close.  Evelyn stood.

“Fine, fine,” Evelyn repeated wiping her hands on her skirt. She tried to smile.  “Yes. All my family, me, my work—we are all fine.”  Evelyn was aware of the sweat under her arms and at the nape of her neck, her hair curling there.  “And you?” she asked.  “Your family?”

Sow stood too.  “Ça va,” he said.  And then he swooped down like a pelican and gathered up the box, swung it onto his head and walked out the post office door in two long strides.

Evelyn blinked, repositioned her backpack and followed into the glare and dust.

Sow walked erect, the package on his head like a crown. Evelyn followed. He reminded Evelyn of a children’s show she had watched, “Romper Room,” where the children balanced baskets on their heads and walked in a circle.  See me walk so straight and tall, they sand.  I won’t let my basket fall. The red and blue plastic baskets always fell and Evelyn had scorned them from her living room, a flat picture book on her head.

Sow swung his arms.  Walked with precise steps.

A few goats wandered the street, nibbled on tufts of dry grass that poked through cracks in the tarmac.  One baaed an anemic cry.  Far away, a rooster crowed.  Even the palm trees looked listless.

It was still hot.  Evelyn wanted to be soaking in her bathtub, listening to Garrison Keillor sing about Powdermilk Biscuits.  She wanted to hear his jokes about Minnesota, imagine the cool lakes.  It was hard being a white girl here in this foreign land where nobody else looked like her.  She was tired of it, and she was hot.

“Madame!”  A man appeared at Evelyn’s side as if from nowhere, his arms ringed with circles of cheap plastic beads.  “For you, nice price.  Moins cher.”  He raised his arms, colorful and beaded, like wings at his sides.  “Beautiful American woman,” he said through white teeth the color of a Minnesota winter.  He smiled.

Sow stopped and turned around.  Put one hand up to hold onto the wrapped box.  “Natta le?” he asked.

The men argued in Wolof about the price.  Evelyn knew that a “nice price” for her meant more than any Senegalese would pay.  “Deédet,” Sow said and shooed the jewelry salesman away.

Evelyn thought she might like to send a necklace to Marta. Beads from Africa, she would write.  She called the salesman back.  “How much?” she asked, pointing to the bead—green ones and red ones and swirls of yellow and green together.

Five hundred, he told her.

This was the part Evelyn hated, the bargaining, the winnowing down from the equivalent of two measly dollars to one.  But you had to do it.  “Two fifty,” she said.

They settled on 300 CFA, and Evelyn dug into her backpack for her wallet.  From the corner of her eye, she saw Sow, one arm curved up, holding onto her package.  Evelyn dropped the coins into the salesman’s upturned palm, and Sow spun and started to walk away.  Evelyn thought she heard him clicking in his throat.

Merci,” Evelyn said to the jewelry salesman.  “Merci beaucoup.”

“You are very nice, beautiful American woman.”

Evelyn blushed.

“I pay you coffee?”  The jewelry salesman wiggled his eyebrows and flashed those white teeth, flapped his arms loaded with bracelets.  “I should like very much to pay you coffee,” he said.

An exotic beaded bird. Veddy, veddy nice.  Beeooteeful beaded bird.

“Oh,” Evelyn said.  “I need to go.”  She waved to the salesman and hurried to catch up with Sow, wishing for sneakers instead of flip-flops.  He feet ached.  She was really sweating now.  She could feel the wet leaking through the back of her shirt, the dampness of her underwear, the heat and stickiness of her thighs as they rubbed together.

“Monsieur Sow,” she said, out of breath, to his back.  “Where are we going?”

He didn’t answer.  He kept walking in long, even strides, Evelyn’s mystery package balanced perfectly on his head.  One car, an old banged up black Renault, came from behind and passed them, horn honking.  They drove like that, the Senegalese, one hand on the horn at all times.

Evelyn noticed for the first time that a batik snake wrapped its way around Sow’s ironed shirt, from front to back, a garnet snake against the greenish brown of the cloth.  Evelyn hated snakes and thankfully hadn’t seen any in the months she had been in Senegal.  She woke several mornings to pale lizards creeping up her bedroom wall but they didn’t frighten her nearly as much as the possibility of seeing a snake.  Marta had written to be careful, that lizards were harmful in their own right.  Evelyn thought of them as exotic house pets, the African version of a cricket.

Evelyn half-walked, half-ran as best she could with her heavy backpack and flip-flops. She wiped the sweat from her forehead.  “Monsieur Sow?”

He turned to see her, the red body of the snake crawling across his shirt.

“Where are we going?”

“You will see,” he said.  “You will like very much.”

Evelyn started to say that she would like anything as long as she could get a drink and maybe something to eat, but she was interrupted by a man’s voice singing from a short distance.  “I love you!”  the voice sang, clear and lilting.

Both Sow and Evelyn turned to see the jewelry salesman still standing in the street, legs apart, his arms waving.  From this distance, it seemed as if the late afternoon sun drained away all color, the necklaces on his arms just circles of black and white.

Sow snorted.  “It is robbery,” he said and pointed to the glass beads Evelyn had looped around her wrist.  “Junk.”

Evelyn looked at them, swirls of green and red, African beads, present for Marta.  Veddy, veddy nice.

“Junk,” Sow said again.

Evelyn looked back to see the jewelry salesman waving, the snow angel not yet visible in the sky behind him.

 * * *

Evelyn followed Sow through dirt paths cut through the HLM (pronounced in the French way–Ahsh-el-em), a kind of neighborhood of its own, sprouted there on the edge of town just beyond the paved road.  The houses were earthen, pueblo-like town houses the color of dust, and there were no trees, no plants or gardens.  The streets did not have names, and the houses had no numbers.  Evelyn was certain she could not find her way out of there alone.

A parade of boys raced past laughing.  Some of them were shirtless, and their bellies stuck out round and swollen beneath their ribs.  Covered in chalky dust, the others wore limp gray shorts and ripped T-shirts. They ran barefoot, and the two taller boys in front lead the troupe, pushing tires along the ground with sticks.

Toubab!” one of the little boys yelled at Evelyn.

Toubab!  Toubab!‘ the others chanted.  The smallest, no more than three or four, stopped dead. At the first sight of Evelyn, he hid his face and bellowed.  Further on, the two leaders let the tires drop and turned around.

“Toubab,” the boys laughed, looking from the littlest boy to Evelyn.   They prodded the small one to look up, tugged his shoulders, but he wouldn’t.  He kept his face covered and cried louder.

“To him you are a ghost, Evleen,” Sow said, laughing a little.  “Viens,” he motioned.  “This way.”

Sow led Evelyn away from the children to a little bar, a small dark room with benches and rough, dirty tables.  Evelyn glanced back over her shoulder, the boys still huddled and pointing to the bar’s entrance.  They stood in the dust, their shorts threadbare and hanging, bony legs the color of ashes.  Inside, Evelyn could make out three other men hovering in the corner, and the bartender there behind the bar.  Outside, a child’s thin voice still wailed.  Laughter.  One face peered into the bar.  “Toubab,” the face said.

Viens,” Sow said and motioned Evelyn back outside through a rear doorway to a small, fenced-in yard.  “We sit here to talk, me and you.”  He pointed to one metal chair for Evelyn, and he sat facing her in another.  He placed the package next to him on the ground.

“Do you live in the HLM, Monsieur Sow?”  Evelyn asked, smoothing her skirt down, reaching in her backpack for a tissue to wipe her face.

“Call me Yousouf,” he said.  “We are friends, Evleen.”

“You live nearby, Yousouf?” she asked.

Yousouf sat with his legs crossed at the knee, delicate, like a long-legged model.  “Deux Flags,” he said to the bartender, an old black man who shuffled outside wearing a dirty white apron, his face covered with gray whiskers.  “You like beer, Evleen?

Yes, she told him.  Beer would be fine.  Evelyn didn’t normally drink beer, but here in Senegal, you had to drink what was available.  You had to live in a way you might never otherwise live—talking to men you had only just met, eating food with your hands.  You had to be prepared for anything, so what was having a beer in the courtyard of a bar with a man called Yousouf?  A man who wouldn’t give you the package that was yours, who tore off the airmail stamps right while you watched without asking first if it was OK?  These were things you might find strange if you were back in Milwaukee but not here in Senegal. No, here—Marta was surprised to hear you say in your letters—you went with the flow.  You followed men into a neighborhood where you were certain you could not leave without help, where the children thought you were a ghost.  You sat now across from a man with legs longer than any man had a right to have and you let him order you a beer while you tried to figure out a way to take your package and go home.  A polite way, after all, because Yousouf seemed nice enough.  It was just—


“I’m sorry?”

“I have been asking you, Evleen, to tell me about your family.  You have children?”

“No,” Evelyn laughed.  “I certainly don’t have children.”  The bartender carried out a round metal tray with two bottles of Senegalese beer.  He plunked them on the table.  Evelyn wondered if there was anything to eat.

Yousouf sat with his legs crossed and hands folded and waited for Evelyn to pay.  “But you are married, no?” he said in French when the bartender left, Evelyn’s coins jingling in his apron pocket.  Evelyn shook her head. “A beautiful woman like you who is not married?  How is that possible?”  Yousouf frowned and leaned forward.  “What is wrong with the men in America?”

That was a good one.  Evelyn laughed.  She wanted to call Marta and tell her immediately.  What was wrong with the men in America?  Ha.  The men in America!

“You are lovely and smart.”  Yousouf motioned to her with his arms as if he were presenting a prize on a game show.  “And, I am certain, a good daughter, yes?”

Evelyn, amused at the idea that the men in America had something wrong with them—that it wasn’t her fault she never had dates—well not never; that wasn’t accurate; she had some, just nothing much, nothing worth remembering—laughed some more.  What a funny question.  “You would have to ask my parents.”

At that, Yousouf looked alarmed.  He hadn’t touched his beer, but Evelyn had already finished half hers.  The beer was just cooler than lukewarm—good enough to feel satisfying but still, why couldn’t she ever have a cold drink?  Even the Orange Fanta she bought from the little wooden shops was always warm.  “You know, it isn’t the same in the States—”

Yousouf interrupted her.  “A good daughter, Evleen, that is everything.  We ask nothing more than that.”  He folded his arms.

Beeooteeful African man.  Veddy, veddy nice.  Evelyn finished her beer in two gulps.

“In America,” Yousouf asked, “parents are not important?”  He pressed his hands together, as if in prayer.  “You will not tell me, Evleen, that in the greatest country of the world, there is no respect for the parents?”

Evelyn looked around for the bartender.  The sun had dimmed but she was still sweating.  And thirsty.  She dug into her backpack for a tissue.  Evelyn disappointed her own parents, that was certain.  “Sometimes,” she said, “it is the parents who don’t respect the children.”

Yousouf said nothing.  He looked at Evelyn with his dark eyes and lashes.

She continued.  “Parents, they can be mean to their children.”  She shook her finger.  “They don’t respect their child’s wishes.  Their dreams.”  How many times had she and Marta had this conversation, about the way their parents misunderstood them?  Didn’t get them?

Yousouf snorted.

“They want their child to be someone else.  You know, someone more like them.”

In the distance, Evelyn heard the singsong voices of women preparing dinner.  Once in a village, Evelyn had watched the women pound manioc with their mortars and pestles.  The women sang while they pounded and tossed their pestles high into the air and clapped in rhythm.  It had seemed childish to Evelyn then, this sort of game they had created in order to make their work more bearable.  She had been on the verge of saying so to Marianne, one of the other white teachers at the lycée—a French math teacher who loved going into the bush to experience village life and who had invited Evelyn to go with her this last time–when Marianne spoke up first.  “Such joy,” she had said, “n’est-ce pas?”

Evelyn was aware that Yousouf was staring.  “Would you like another beer, Yousouf?”  She glanced to the table and saw his glass was still untouched.  She unstuck her legs from the metal chair, got up, and smoothed her cotton skirt.  “I’m going to get another.”

Inside the bar, it smelled like grilled beef.  Evelyn squinted.  Near the entranceway, the bartender stood leaning his elbows on the bar.  Evelyn smiled in his direction.  “Un flag,” she said, holding up one finger.  The three men still sat huddled in the corner, empty beer bottles standing like bowling pins on the table behind them.  One of the men gestured wildly with his hands and raised his voice.  Evelyn thought they were arguing in Wolof.

The bartender opened the beer for Evelyn.  “Merci, she said and put the coins on the bar.  He gave her a short little nod and Evelyn returned outside to Yousouf.  He had finished his beer and sat, swinging his upper leg, eyes dark and brooding.

“So Yousouf.  You haven’t told me.  Are you married?”  Evelyn put her beer on the table.

Yousouf said nothing.  Only the clanging of pots from the yard next door where the women cooked dinner.  A rooster in the distance.  Then: “Evleen, you are a surprise.  You are not the woman of my dreams.”

“You don’t even know me,” Evelyn said, giving a little laugh.

Yousouf ‘s tone was even and serious.  “You are not the woman I can marry.  Before you can be a good wife, you must be a good daughter.”  Evelyn shifted in her seat.  “I’m sorry.”  Yousouf stood and extended his had.  “Adieu.”  He added, “Insh’Allah,” and glanced at the sky, hands clasped.

Evelyn rose, unsteady.

Yousouf looked genuinely sad, like a child who first discovers that Santa Claus is a myth.  Without another word, he turned and walked away with even, deliberate steps though the bar and out into the street.

Evelyn sat back down.  The women’s voices still punctured the air, shrill and child-like.  Shade covered half the yard.  Just beyond the fence, a pig grunted.

The package.  Yousouf had left it on the ground next to his chair.  Evelyn picked it up.  The package wasn’t too heavy, and Evelyn juggled it while she slipped on her backpack.  She left her beer untouched on the table.

The street outside was empty.  No children.  No people walking home.  No goats or pigs.  The dust-colored houses could be almost pretty in the sunset, almost magical.  A mirage, if it weren’t for the voices rising from behind walled-in courtyards and the smell of cooking fire that made Evelyn’s mouth water.  She walked in one direction and turned where she thought she remembered turning on the way in.

Up ahead, a small boy sat in the middle of the road.  Evelyn heard music, too—not the pulsing rhythms of zoukous that they played on the cars rapides or the salsa and reggae her students favored—but a violin, sweet and singular, the notes familiar and melancholy.  Evelyn hurried on.  It was Vivaldi, she was sure.  A piece from Four Seasons.

Evelyn circled the boy and saw his eyes, milky white and clouded, his face tilted and dreamy.  Between bony knees, he held a cut-open tomato can, fishing line strung across the hole.  With his left hand, the boy pulled a sharpened stick back and forth, back and forth.  Evelyn thought she heard someone approach from behind and turned, half-expecting to see Yousouf, but the street was empty.  Still the notes were rising, rising—a crescendo of snow, a gift of winter in the midst of sand and dust.  Evelyn hesitated then placed her package on the ground at the boy’s feet.  She listened for a minute then turned and walked down the road.

Patricia (Patty) Smith is the author of the novel The Year of Needy Girls (Kaylie Jones Books, 2017), a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Her nonfiction has appeared most recently in the anthologies Older Queer Voices: The Intimacy of Survival and Nine Lives: A Life in Ten Minutes Anthology as well as Parhelion Literary Magazine, where it was nominated for Best of the Net. Her essay, “Border War,” which appeared in Broad Street Magazine, received a Special Mention by Pushcart. A teacher of American literature and Creative Writing at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School in Petersburg, she lives in Chester with her partner.




At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

Follow Us On Social

Masters Review, 2024 © All Rights Reserved