And the man waiting for her at the entrance to the big concrete house—or who happened to be standing in the doorway—was bathed in a light so suddenly intense that it seemed to radiate from his whole body and his pale clothing: yet this short, thickset man before her, who’d just emerged from his enormous house and was glowing bright as a neon tube, no longer possessed, Norah straightaway realized, the stature, arrogance, and youthfulness once so mysteriously his own as to seem everlasting.
He held his hands crossed over his belly and his head tilted sideways; his hair was gray, and under his white shirt the belly sagged limply over the waistband of his cream trousers.
There he stood, bathed in cold light, looking as if he might have dropped to the threshold of his pretentious house from the branch of one of the poincianas with which the garden was filled, for—it had occurred to Norah—as she approached the house staring through the railings at the front door, she hadn’t seen it open to let her father out: and yet there he stood in the sunset, this glowing, shrunken man who at some point must have been dealt an enormous blow to the head that further reduced the harmonious proportions Norah remembered to those of a fat man, neckless with short, thick legs.
He stood there watching her as she approached; nothing in his rather lost, rather hesitant look indicated that he was expecting her, indeed that he’d asked, even begged, her to come and see him (insofar as a man like that, she thought, was capable of requesting help of any kind).
He was simply there, perhaps indeed having flitted down from the thick branch of a poinciana in whose yellow shade the house stood, to land heavily on the cracked concrete of the doorstep; and it was as if Norah had approached the railings at that instant by pure chance.
This man who could transform every entreaty on his part into an appeal made to him by someone else watched her opening the gate and entering the garden. He had the look of a host who was rather put out but trying to hide the fact; he was shading his eyes despite the fading of the light that had left the doorway in shadows but for his strange, shining, electric person.
“Well, well,” he said, “it’s you.” His speech was muffled and weak; despite his mastery of the language he was tentative in French, as if the unease he’d always felt over certain mistakes that were difficult to avoid now caused his voice to tremble.
Norah said nothing.
She gave him a quick hug but did not hold him tight: from the almost imperceptible way the flabby skin on her father’s arms shrank under her grasp she remembered how much he detested physical contact.
She thought she noticed a musty smell.
A smell emanating from the lush, wilting vegetation of the poinciana whose branches overhung the flat roof of the house and among whose leaves there perhaps nested this withdrawn and self-assured man ever on the alert—it pained Norah to imagine—for the slightest sound of footsteps approaching the gate at which he would take flight to land clumsily on the doorstep of his vast house with its rough concrete walls; or was it emanating—this smell—from her father’s body or his clothes or his old, wrinkled, ashen skin: she couldn’t say what it was, she’d no idea where it might be coming from.
At most she could say that this day he was wearing, and probably always wore now, a rumpled, sweat-stained shirt and trousers that were pale and shiny and hideously baggy at the knees, either the effect of his being too heavy a bird, one that fell over each time he landed, or—Norah reflected with rather weary compassion—of his having become after all another slovenly old man, indifferent or blind to lapses of hygiene while still clinging to the forms of conventional elegance, dressing as he’d always done in white and cream and never appearing on the threshold of his unfinished house without tightening the knot of his tie, whatever dusty room he’d emerged from, whatever poinciana, exhausted by flowering, he’d flown down from.
On landing at the airport Norah had taken a taxi, then walked in the heat for a long while because she’d forgotten her father’s exact address and only found her way after she’d recognized the house. She felt sticky, dirty, and spent.
She wore a sleeveless lime-green dress covered with little yellow flowers rather like those strewn over the doorstep under the poinciana, and flat sandals in the same soft green.
And she noticed with a start that her father wore plastic flip-flops, he who had always made a point, it seemed to her, of never appearing in anything other than polished shoes in off-white or beige.
Was it because this untidy man had lost the right to cast a stern or disapproving eye over her, or because, as a confident thirty-eight-year-old, she no longer worried above all else what people thought of her appearance? Whatever the case, fifteen years earlier—she knew—she would have felt mortified to have arrived tired and sweating before her father, whose own aspect and bearing never betrayed in those days the slightest sign of weakness or susceptibility during a heat wave, whereas now she couldn’t care less about showing him an un-made-up, shiny face that she hadn’t bothered to powder in the taxi. Telling herself, with a rather sour, rancorous cheer, He can think of me what he likes, she recalled the cruel casual insults of this superior male when as teenagers she and her sister came to see him: remarks that always turned on his daughters’ lack of elegance or want of lipstick.
She would have liked to say to him now, “You realize, don’t you, that you spoke to us as if we were women whose duty it was to make themselves attractive, whereas we were just kids, not to mention your own daughters.”
She would have liked to say this to him in a flippant, mildly reproachful way, as if all that had been just a rather crude form of humor on his part, and she’d have liked her father to show a little contrition, and for them to have laughed about it together now.
But seeing him standing there in his plastic flip-flops on the concrete doorstep strewn with rotting flowers perhaps knocked loose as he flew down from the poinciana on his tired, heavy wings, she realized that he no more would have understood or grasped the most insistent allusion to the nasty comments he used to make than he now cared to scrutinize her appearance and formulate a judgment about it.
He had a rather fixed, vacant, distant look.
She wondered then if he actually remembered having written asking her to come.
“Shall we go in?” she said, slipping her bag from one shoulder to the other.
“Masseck!” he shouted, clapping his hands.
The icy, bluish light seemed to shine more intensely from his misshapen body.
A barefoot old man in Bermudas and a torn polo shirt hurried forward.
“Take the bag,” Norah’s father ordered.
Then, turning to her, he said, “It’s Masseck, d’you recognize him?”
“I can carry my bag,” she said, immediately regretting her words, which could only have offended the servant, who, despite his age, was used to bearing the most awkward burdens, and so she passed it to him so impetuously that, being taken unawares, he tottered, before recovering his balance and tossing the bag onto his back, returned into the house with it, stooped over.
“When I last came,” she said, “it was Mansour. I don’t know Masseck.”
“What Mansour?” her father asked with a suddenly wild, almost dismayed look that she’d never seen before.
“I don’t know his surname, but that Mansour, he lived here for years and years,” said Norah, who felt herself slowly gripped by a nauseating, stifling feeling of discomfort.
“It was perhaps Masseck’s father, then.”
“Oh no,” she murmured, “Masseck is far too old to be Mansour’s son.”
And since her father seemed increasingly bewildered and even close to wondering whether she wasn’t deliberately trying to confuse him, she quickly added, “Oh, it really doesn’t matter.”
“You’re mistaken, I’ve never employed anyone called Mansour,” he said with a subtle, condescending smile that was the first manifestation of his former self: however irritating that tiny, scornful smile, it had always warmed Norah’s heart; it was as if, to this conceited man, it mattered less to be right than to have the last word.
For she was certain that a diligent, patient, efficient Mansour had been at her father’s side for years on end, and that even if she and her sister had come to this house scarcely three or four times since they were children, it was Mansour whom they’d seen here and not this Masseck, whose face she didn’t recognize.
Once inside, Norah noticed how empty the house was.
Outside, it was now quite dark.
The big living room was dark too, and silent.
Her father switched a lamp on, the kind that uses forty-watt bulbs and lights poorly. Nevertheless it revealed the middle of the room and its long, glass-topped table.
On the rough-plastered walls Norah recognized the framed photographs of the holiday village her father had owned and run and which had made him rich.
He took much pride in his success, and always allowed a large number of people to live in his house. Norah had always thought that this wasn’t so much because he was a generous man but because he was keen to show that he could provide his brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, and sundry other relatives with free board and lodging. As a result, whatever time of day she happened to be there, Norah had never seen the living room empty.
There were always children on the sofas, sprawling belly up like well-fed cats, men drinking tea and watching television, and women moving to-and-fro between the kitchen and the bedrooms.
But that evening the room was empty, harshly exposing the crude materials used in its construction, the shiny floor tiles, the cement rendering on the walls, the narrow window frames.
“Isn’t your wife here?” asked Norah.
He picked up two chairs from the big table, moved them closer to each other, then changed his mind and put them back again.
He switched on the television, and then turned it off before it had time to light up.
He moved about the room without lifting his feet, so that his flip-flops scraped the tiles.
His lips trembled slightly.
“She’s away traveling at the moment,” he mumbled finally.
Oh, Norah thought anxiously, he can’t admit she’s probably left him.
“And Sony? Where’s Sony?”
“Likewise,” he said, exhaling.
“Sony’s off traveling too?”
The thought that her father, who’d had so many wives and children, that this not particularly handsome but brilliant, clever, quick-witted, and ruthless man who’d been born into poverty but made his fortune, and had since then always lived surrounded by a grateful and submissive crowd, that this spoiled individual now found himself alone and perhaps abandoned, fed a hazy old grudge that Norah harbored in spite of herself.
It seemed to her that her father was at last being taught a lesson he should have learned much earlier.
But what sort of lesson?
It made her feel petty and base, thinking that.
For even if her father had always kept an open house to spongers, even if he’d never had any true friends, honest wives (with the exception, Norah thought, of her own mother), or loving children, and if now, old, ravaged, and probably much diminished, he wandered alone around his gloomy house—how was that justice served? What kind of satisfaction could that be for Norah, except that of a jealous daughter avenged at last for never having been welcomed into her father’s inner circle?
And feeling petty and cheap she now also felt ashamed of her hot, damp skin and her rumpled dress.
As if to atone for her spiteful thoughts, by confirming he wouldn’t be left alone for too long, she asked, “Will Sony be back soon?”
“He’ll tell you himself,” her father murmured.
“How can he, if he’s away?”
Her father clapped his hands and shouted, “Masseck!”
Small yellow poinciana flowers fluttered down from his neck and shoulders onto the tiled floor, and with a swift movement he crushed them under the toe of one of his flip-flops.
It gave Norah the intimation of his doing likewise to the flowers, rather similar, covering her dress.
Masseck came in pushing a cart laden with food, plates, and cutlery, and proceeded to lay the table.
“Sit down,” her father said, “and let’s eat.”
“I’m going to wash my hands first.”
She found herself adopting the tone of peremptory volubility that she never used with anyone but her father, the tone intended to forestall his attempt to have Masseck, and before Masseck Mansour, do what she insisted on doing herself, insisted out of an awareness that he so hated seeing his guests perform the slightest labor in his house, thereby casting doubt on the competence of his servants, that he was quite capable of saying to her, “Masseck will wash your hands for you,” without for a moment imagining that she would fail to obey him as those around him, young and old, had always done.
But her father had hardly heard her.
He’d taken a seat and was staring vacantly at what Masseck was doing.
She found that his skin was now blackish, less dark than before, and dull looking.
He yawned, his mouth wide open, not making a sound, just like a dog.
She now felt certain that the sweet fetid smell that she’d noticed at the threshold came both from the poinciana and from her father’s body; in fact his whole person seemed steeped in the slow putrefaction of the yellowy-orange flowers, this man who, she remembered, had worn none but the chicest of perfumes, this haughty and insecure man who’d never wished to give off an odor that was his own!
Poor soul, who’d have thought he’d wind up a plump old bird, clumsy flying and strong smelling?
She walked toward the kitchen along a concrete corridor lit imperfectly by a bulb covered in fly specks.
The kitchen was the least commodious room in this badly proportioned house, as Norah remembered, having added it to the inexhaustible list of the grievances against her father, though knowing full well that she would mention none of them, neither the serious ones nor the less serious, and that, face-to-face with this unfathomable man, she could never summon up the courage—which she possessed in abundance when far away from him—to express her disapproval; and as a result she was not at all pleased with herself but, rather, very disappointed, and all the angrier for bowing and daring to say nothing.
Excerpted from Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye. Copyright © 2012 by Marie NDiaye. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.