Madi was eating dinner behind his table tonight after a day of serving others. Avenue de la Cathedrale was nearly empty, with cars and motorbikes passing but the stalls on either side shuttered. The inkjet printers and used computer cables would go back on sale tomorrow.
Only Madi was there, with his giant tin drum of riz all but empty. I walked up and made some noises to indicate, “I would like dinner, do you still have any?” It was 9:30 and only the proprietor was eating.
I looked under the lids and there wasn’t much left. He asked if I was hungry and I said yes and he asked me something else I didn’t understand. Then he walked back to his little booth and pulled out an egg. “Avec pan?”
I said sure. First though he scraped what was left of his rice, sauce, fish and other sauce and handed it to me in one of those shallow green plastic bowls with the tie-tied yellow stripes. “This will be fine,” I conveyed somehow.
Madi must be in his mid-20s and he wasn’t especially deterred by my complete inability to speak French. Finally, I communicated my hometown and current place of residence.
“I’ve seen you walking back and forth on this street,” he said using words and gestures I understood.
“La blanche,” I said, because I am indeed white and that was why he recognized me.
Madi wrote his name on a piece of paper because I thought he was saying “midi” which means half or noon or something. I wrote my name on the paper too and said I couldn’t come back for breakfast because I was meeting a friend but I would come back for lunch or half or noon or something.
Some people stopped by on their motorbikes to say hello or learn that all the food was gone and I picked out the bones from the piece of fish and dropped them on the bricks below the short, wooden bench we were sitting on.
When I said I spoke a little Spanish Madi grabbed a cookbook from his stall and flipped through the Spanish and French recipes so I could pronounce them in Spanish. He took out a notebook with names and addresses from Germany and France. He didn’t ask but I tried to tell him what Aix-en-Provence is like.
The notebook was also a photo album with a dozen 5x7s taken last year on an old film camera. In most of them Madi is in his stall cooking and smiling. Or he’s posing in front of different parts of the city or in formal clothes, maybe as part of a graduation. There was one of his two sisters posing around a new, small TV that I found strangely, powerfully heartbreaking.
Madi would have talked all night but I finally got up and asked how much. He charged me a little less than $.50. I asked if the mangoes on the table were for sale and he nodded but when I asked how much they were he refused the money. I put 12 cents on the bench and then, reconsidering, doubled it.
Under the dim, yellow-orange streetlights I walked close to the traffic along Avenue de la Cathedrale, so I could jump into the road if someone tried to mug me. I had my laptop in my bag which I could sell and eat all my meals at Madi’s stall for five years.
But no one bothered so I turned into the courtyard of the cathedral complex and walked towards my room in the convent. I’m alone now because the boys from The World by Road wanted to push on towards the south of Africa. They left too soon to meet Madi.