The Multi-Talented Monsieur Zily

When Rojo and I walked into the bistro and ordered two bottles of ice-cold Three Horses Beer, the sun was still at the upper edge of the cracked window. It has been a sweltering day. We were thirsty.

The sun was half way down the window frame when we moved on to our fifth and sixth bottles. We were both a bit tipsy. We ordered some of the bistro signature zebu meatballs in hot peanut sauce, and some deep fried seafood fritters to nibble on. We wanted to sing but could not agree on a song. He only wanted to sing Mahaleo, I just wanted Lolo sy ny Tariny. So we just talked and argued.

By the time the sun had reached the lower sill of the window, we had finished four more bottles, ordered more meatballs, quarreled and made up twice, yelled at each other some more, and were politely asked by the charming barmaid to keep it down.

When we refused to lower our voices, she did what she was instructed to do. She went and called Monsieur Zily.

PART I

Monsieur Zily

His real name was Jules Ernest Randriantsoa. Although we were now buddies, Rojo and I have taken on the habit of calling him Monsieur Zily, just like his staff called him. Out of respect. Partly, out of love. Maybe, a bit out of fear. Very few people called him Jules.

The three of us have been classmates since elementary school. Even back then, Monsieur Zily already stood out. He rarely left you indifferent. Perhaps, it was because of the intensity in his gaze. Or, the confidence in his manners. Or, the energy in his gait. Or, the eloquence in his speech. Or, maybe it was his bright intelligent smile.

Whatever it was, there was something quite unique about him that either attracted you or intimidated you. While some kids at school looked up to him with reverence and admiration, others stayed away out of fear and hatred.

He was a straight shooter. What you saw was what you got. And what he said was what he meant — no ambiguities. If he liked you, he could be really nice and sweet: very helpful and even protective. But if you happened to be on his wrong side, then…. Let’s just say you did not want to be on his wrong side. He could be vicious. He could be malicious. He could make your life miserable.

In fact, he was not a big guy. He was about my height. Though he had a nice athletic built, there was nothing physically threatening about him. He was really just an average size guy. But he was much better than average looking. He was strikingly handsome and was always smartly and neatly dressed.

I still remember admiring and envying his brand new Stan Smith Adidas shoes, his blue and grey Lacoste sweater, or his imported Levi’s 501 blue jeans. In the period of scarcity that characterized our socialist revolution, these were considered luxury items that only the privileged elite could afford.

He actually came from a relatively modest, and not a privileged, background. He was the oldest of four siblings — three boys and one girl. His father, an engineer who was a mid-level technician at the national airline company, often travelled abroad and usually brought nice “voan-dalana” back for his kids. His mother occasionally taught high school English. They were decent, hard working, folks.

It is sometimes asserted that you can either respect and fear someone, or you can respect and love them, but you cannot both fear and love them at the same time. Monsieur Zily was an exception to that rule.

For as long as I can remember, I have always either admired, respected, loved, hated, or feared the guy. I have never been indifferent.

Most of the time, I was kind of scared of him. Especially after that afternoon when he beat the crap out of me for messing around with my ex-girlfriend.

Childhood Game

“Would you rather eat my booger or kiss old Jim on the mouth?”

When we were little, the three of us used to play a silly little game with the other kids in the neighborhood. One player would present the others with a dilemma: “Would you rather do A, or do B?” A and B would be two unpleasant (often gross) alternatives.

Old Jim was our neighborhood Sinoa — the Chinese convenience store keeper. Every neighborhood in the city had their own Sinoa. They were an integral part of the fabric of our society back then. That was where my sister Ketaka and I went to buy ginger candies or honey cakes with the change that our dad let us keep, after he asked us to get him some Gauloises cigarettes behind Mommy’s back.

After an excited chorus of yucks and other exaggerated expressions of disgust, we proceeded to the main part of the game: the unstructured free-for all discussion.

“Grown-ups kiss each other on the mouth all the time!” The young Monsieur Zily argued. He was usually the first one to speak. “It cannot be that bad.” When he spoke, people listened.

“Yeah!” another proponent of the mouth-to-mouth procedure chimed in, who was also a big fan of Monsieur Zily. “Mom and dad do that every day!” More yucks and some nose crumpling greeted his statement.

“I eat my own booger all the time!” A pro-booger friend retorted. “I am not afraid of eating yours!” More yucks and some giggles.

“My friend Ando once told me that boogers are good for you because they contain protein!” Ketaka, the youngest and only girl member of the group nervously but bravely contributed. Her testimony generated even more yucks than before. She looked at me, very proud of herself.

“What the hell is protein?” Monsieur Zily asked, by way of clarification. Ketaka blushed. She admired the guy, but at the same time, she could not stand his guts. She did not know the answer, and did not think that someone would challenge her on that point. Why was he picking on her? She looked around for help.

“It is a chemical that makes your body stronger,” I jumped in to support my little sister. Although I had no idea what I was talking about, I said it in such a confident manner that no other player even thought of asking any follow up questions. Ketaka and I looked at each other and smiled conspiratorially, as we often did whenever we outmaneuvered Monsieur Zily.

Back then, the only television station only started broadcasting at 6:00 PM. The game was a fun way to pass the time during those rainy vacation afternoons when our parents would not let us play “soamaroroka” — play tag in the rain. We would play while greedily munching on platefuls of sweet potatoes cooked in vanilla-infused milk, then sprinkled with ground peanuts and sugar.

None of us really understood the actual object of the game. The key strategy seemed to be to try to generate as much debate and as many yucks as possible. And then come up with solid, and preferably gross, arguments to defend your preferred option. The player who came up with the most yuck-worthy contribution was the winner.

We did not keep scores — if we had, Monsieur Zily would have surely won. He was good at everything.

Excelling-in-Everything

At school, Monsieur Zily excelled in everything. Whether in physics, in mathematics, in writing, in sports, in arts, he would consistently outperform us. Name any school-wide contests or even city wide competition: if his name was not at the top, then he would for sure be second or third. And, he made it all look so effortless and easy.

“Look at that lucky bastard!” Rojo would whisper as our multi-talented comrade accumulated awards after awards for academic, artistic, and athletic excellence.

“Is there anything that he sucks at?” I would sometimes wonder, not even trying to hide my bitterness.

Monsieur Zily was Mister Popular in high school. Teachers liked him for his academic skills. Girls were attracted to him for his good looks, for his intelligence and for being admired by other guys. And guys admired him for his athletic prowess and for his ability to attract girls.

He was the captain and the star player of the basketball team and president of the science club. Over the years, he had drawn quite an entourage, which consisted of a constellation of admiring geeks, jocks, nerds, and groupies.

All of that admiration and adoration naturally came with a degree of envy and jealousy; even resentment. We were living under a socialist regime back then, and a lot of emphasis was put on equality and uniformity — standing out too often would inevitably attract scorns and rebukes. Some of the staunchest revolutionaries even went as far as sabotaging those that dared to be too different.

I must confess there were occasions when I felt some strong hostility towards Monsieur Zily. Not because he was a bad guy, but because of his tendency to outshine and eclipse us in everything. I was among those who disliked show-offs.

Monsieur Zily was on the whole a decent and correct dude. Sometimes, however, he would assume a cocky, smug and arrogant attitude that, I believe, comes with excelling-in-everything. He would walk around with sheer confidence and would intimidate people. As far as I know, he was never really a full-fledged bully, of the violent variety. Still, his attitude — his vono vorona — often made me feel a bit uneasy. A bit scared.

My discomfort shot up a couple of notches after that episode where he gave me a bloody nose for hooking up with my ex-girlfriend.

Early Teens

When we were in our early teens, we used to play a modified version of the childhood dilemma game. Instead of two unattractive alternatives, the participants were invited to critically consider two rather pleasant options, and then to pick one.

“Would you rather play for AS Saint-Michel or for AC SOTEMA?” Tough question. These were everyone’s two favorite local soccer teams. Difficult choices.

Once again, the real goals of the game were unknown to anyone. But it was a fun way to kill some time. I really enjoyed the game. I was pretty good at it, as long as Monsieur Zily was not playing. My friends and I would usually play it on our way back from school, whenever we run out of important school gossips to share or to discuss.

The strategic approach to playing the game had evolved, just as our bodies and interests had. It had shifted from a defensive exercise to an offensive one. In lieu of trying to defend their choice (i.e., least gross alternative), players tried to attack, discredit and put down the other alternative.

“SOTEMA depends too much on Kiki and Alban, who are old guys and cannot last ninety minutes,” the resident Saint-Michel supporter asserted. “Any team would beat them once those two are out!”

“The golden years of Saint Michel are over. Especially since Taosy has retired and Dezy Monstre injured his tibia,” Rojo, a staunch SOTEMA fan immediately retorted. “There is nobody left but Mika. They have lost their last four games.”

The arguments were much more sophisticated and technical than in the previous version of the game. Although the debates were generally evidence based, it was extremely rare for anyone to actually change their minds.

The discussions would go on and on until one player decides it’s time to move on to the next dilemma.

“Would you rather kiss Sophie Marceau or Isabelle Adjani?”

As you can guess, playing for our favorite soccer teams and kissing cute French actresses were among the things that we, the bunch of teenagers that we were, considered appealing and important.

We were a long way from choosing between kissing the local Sinoa, and eating each other’s boogers. Without realizing it, we were rapidly becoming more and more aware and attracted to the other sex.

That shift in interest did, at least partly, trigger my infamous confrontation with Monsieur Zily — that time when he publicly humiliated me for messing around with Baholy, my ex-girlfriend.

Kisses

As time passed, the questions I faced and the dilemmas I encountered became increasingly challenging. And my answers — the choices I made — had real implications on my life.

“Would you rather go out with Zoely or with me?” Baholy asked me one Saturday afternoon as I was walking her home from Blanche Neige.

That was the question that fundamentally altered the course of this story. Had she not asked it, things would have gone differently and Monsieur Zily would not have beaten me up.

Baholy and I were both fifteen then. We had been seeing each other for about six months. This was the first serious “steady” liaison for both of us. We were both a bit insecure and did not really know a whole lot about the intricacies of love.

Our relationship consisted mainly of me meeting her after school, walking her home, holding her hand, telling her funny stories and carrying her backpack. Sometimes, if I was lucky, she would reward me by letting me kiss her on the mouth when we got to her house.

This was the real deal — not the imaginary kisses with old Jim or with Sophie Marceau. At night, I would lay in bed and would replay the kiss in my head until I fell asleep.

On Thursday afternoons when we didn’t have school, we would usually go to the cinema to watch the latest French or Soviet movies. In the darkness of the theater, she would let me put my arms around her, or put my sweaty hand on her leg. Sometimes we would cuddle and kiss.

Some Saturday afternoons, I would invite Baholy to the Blanche Neige, the local ice-cream parlor, where would order one “Coupe Nous-Deux” — two scoops of strawberry, one scoop of chocolate, and one scoop of vanilla, covered with a generous layer of Crème Chantilly and chocolate syrup, and with the proverbial cherry on top — to share. We enjoyed each other’s company, we would talk and laugh, and then we would hold hands. After I walked her home, she would usually let me kiss her.

Generally speaking, I was happy. The only issue was, she would systematically reject and resist any of my attempts to go beyond kissing her. Whenever I insisted, she would get mad. As a fifteen year old boy, I did not know much about life, but I knew for sure that there were much nicer things to be experienced beyond kisses (no matter how French they get).

“Would you rather go out with Zoely or with me?” Baholy repeated her question. She added: “I saw you talk to her yesterday.” It was in fact a rhetorical question, but I did not realize it at the time. She was not expecting a response. She was making a point. A very serious point. She was marking her territory and planting a flagpole, thereby establishing ownership, exclusivity, and possession.

I really liked Baholy. I really did. She was cute, funny, and smart. She wore nice imported clothes, and she smelled good. Even Ketaka and my mom liked her. But she would not let me go past the kissing point. For a teenager as I was, with raging testosterones, that could be a deal breaker. Six months can feel like an eternity when you are fifteen, especially if all you get was an occasional wet kiss.

Plus, I heard from the rumor mill that Zoely was a bit liberal and loose in the boudoir, if you know what I mean. I was all for an exclusive relationship, but only if it came with benefits. Was I missing some other opportunities here? Should I explore other options?

I never answered Baholy’s question. I did not have to. I did not want to make a scene. I just stopped meeting her and walking her home after school. She got the message loud and clear.

A couple of weeks later, I started dating Zoely. Much to my chagrin, the rumors about her proved to be completely wrong. She was even more parsimonious in giving away sweet tender favors than my now-ex-girlfriend. Our liaison was more platonic than physical. It did not last for more than a couple of weeks. She just was not ready to offer what I was after.

That was not all. Around that time, Baholy began hooking up with Monsieur Zily, who later bragged to whomever wanted to hear that, on their first date, she let him kiss and fondle her everywhere he wanted. I believed him. He excelled in everything. She had just been dumped and was extremely vulnerable. Good snatch, Monsieur Zily. Real good snatch.

Somehow, I think that things would have gone much better if I had stuck it out with Baholy for a little while longer. Instead, the lucky bastard, who just happened to be there to pick her up when she was on the rebound, got all the action!

Did I regret my decision to walk away? Sure. At that age though, you didn’t dwell on your mistakes. You picked up the pieces and you tried to move on. You still had a whole life, and a shitload of difficult choices to look forward to.

Messing around with my ex

I was an average — run of the mill — student in high school. I was never one to seek out or enjoy the limelight. I rather liked my position somewhere in the shadowy middle of the pack. Not too close to the front to be called a show-off. But not too far in the back to be called inept. In our beautiful town, it was frowned upon to stand out too much. We were in the middle of a socialist revolution: you needed to stay close to the pack. Being different was not really something that got rewarded.

There was something comforting and comfortable about the anonymity of being average. And I enjoyed that. Sometimes though, I craved for a bit of sunshine. Sometimes, I would get this urge to step out of the shade and get a bit of recognition — to find my own place in the sun. Those were the times when I resented Monsieur Zily comprehensive dominance.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to do everything well and become multi-skilled like him? Wouldn’t it be nice to kick his butt for once?” I would ask my friends wistfully, with a barely hidden amount of envy. How many times had I wished to eclipse the sun and spread my own warm and colorful rays over the world?

Back then, I had my own troupe de choc. We were just a group of “average” friends who shared the same background and enjoyed each other’s company. The five or six of us did not care much to mingle with Monsieur Zily’s “cool crowd.” We preferred to observe them from afar. I guess we did not want to get burned by flying too close to the sun.

I did get burnt. Badly. Not because I flew too close to the sun. But because I messed around with the sun’s favorite planet. In case you did not get the solar metaphor, I am talking about his new girlfriend — Baholy, who also happened to be my ex-girlfriend.

As they say in astronomy, what goes around, comes around. She was actually the one who messed with me. Maybe it was her way of getting back at me for dumping her. Life can be so complicated and so cruel when you are fifteen.

It all began one afternoon, after school. Monsieur Zily was not around that day. Baholy asked me if I could walk her home. I used to do that on a daily basis earlier time ago, before my ill-fated attempt to get some action with Zoely. There was no sun; it was dark and raining cats and dogs. Boy had an umbrella, girl did not. Just like in the movies. Romantic French movies with Sophie Marceau or Isabelle Adjani.

What was I supposed to do? Let this pretty girl (again, ex-girlfriend) walk home all by herself in the torrential rain? Technically, both of us were still on the rebound, so it was all fair game. But, did I think I was going to get away with it? Again, what was I thinking? Maybe I did it for the sake of old times. Maybe it was an attempt to see what I had been missing.

May be it was my own clumsy way to try to eclipse Monsieur Zily for a change. Big mistake. Major mistake.

Before judging me, please consider the context. I was fifteen then. I knew very little about girls. I had no idea how to control my raging hormones. Long story short, I got some serious thrashing when Monsieur Zily found out.

I did not hold grudges. Neither did he. But somehow, I still remember those beatings and those daroka until today. I still remember the humiliation of getting a bloody nose. In public. In front of Baholy, who smiled awkwardly and walked away.

That episode has left some physical and emotional scars. It taught me never to be on the wrong side of Monsieur Zily.

One silver lining to that miserable situation was the short longevity of their couple. They broke up three weeks later when Baholy pulled the “Would you rather go out with Zoely or with me?” routine on Monsieur Zily.

PART II

Doors and ladders

With hindsight, being in the same class as Monsieur Zily has led the rest of us to work harder. It was a challenge for us to do the best we could. For that, I am thankful. At the very least, our desire to be like him made us more aware of our limitations and our potentials.

“Let’s face it,” I tried to tell Rojo one day, after we watched Monsieur Zily lead our school basketball team to another regional championship. “We are not like that guy. If we try to excel in everything, we would simply end up sucking in a lot of things.”

“Would you rather be a one-trick pony or a jack-of-all-trade-but-master-of-none?“ I asked him, rhetorically.

Personally, I had long come to terms with the fact that I will never become like the multi-skilled Monsieur Zily. Instead, I would have to choose one single task or a line of work that I like and try to excel at it. No use trying to be mediocre in everything.

Mindful of my own limitations, I embarked on a personal quest for my “one-trick”. It has not been a smooth journey. After high school, I was not particularly proficient at anything. I tried many different trades to find my true calling.

I tried to be a farmer, but then I realized did not like rural lifestyle. I attempted to become a pilot — was not good enough to get through the rigorous entrance examination. For a while, I was even enrolled in the military academy, but had to drop out due to severe exhaustion and chronic fatigue.

I have met my share of setbacks and disappointment. Along the way, I have learned the value of persistence, and the virtue of hard work. And, I did work hard.

But hard work by itself would not have been enough. One day, my mother advised me to talk to her brother, Dadatoa Delacroix, who apparently knows a thing or two about a thing or two.

My uncle introduced me to some important people in the food service industry: wholesalers, food inspectors, suppliers, government officials, service providers, officials from the formerly ruling socialist party and even some questionable characters. They were either his friends or people who owed him a couple of favors. And the rest, as they say, was history.

The system was definitely biased to my advantage. I have come to realize that, in this city, who you know matters much more than what you know. Without the right contacts your talents will not take you very far. No connection, no promotion.

All of a sudden, doors closed to others were thrown wide open for me. Ladders not available to others were pushed under my feet, for me to climb on to the upper station. Though I strongly resented this aspect of our society, which I considered unfair and unjust, I took full advantage of these privileges without a second thought.

The stars were nicely aligned for me. I found my “one-trick.” I quickly became a successful restaurateur. I owned a high-end restaurant, “Le Kaly Tsara,” in the city’s Old Town neighborhood. We serve an eclectic selection of comfort food from a wide variety of cuisines. People seem to like it, especially the rice porridge with anana; served piping hot with deep-fried slices of fatty pork sausages; then washed down with a glass of our famous rhum arrangé, infused with vanilla and a spicy hint of cinnamon and cloves.

I was also in the process of starting a new Americano-Malagasy bistro in another chic neighborhood, up the hill, near the Queen’s Palace. It did not hurt that I had just inherited a nice piece of real estate from a wealthy but now — God bless her weak heart — dead childless grandaunt.

Long time no see

Things apparently were not going as well for Monsieur Zily. After the mandatory year long National Service, he went on to study physics and mathematics at the City University. But he could not decide what to do with his multiple talents and skills. No matter how hard he tried, he could not stick to one particular subject.

He had initially wanted to be an engineer like his father, but then he changed his mind. Then, he wanted to be a lawyer, but ended up not liking it. He studied management at INSCAE, the top local business school, but he found that boring. He took some courses at ISCAM, another business school. He learned different languages. He even became an accomplished oenologist, but could not stay away too long from the city. Each time, he felt that he was not living up to his full potential.

One Friday afternoon, he showed up at “Le Kaly Tsara.” He was working as a tour guide at the time, and brought in some of his vazaha clients to taste our world famous slow-cooked pigs feet and voanjo-bory.

He looked different. He had a mustache now. His curly hair has turned greyish. He has lost quite a bit of weight. His former confidence and self-assured posture were gone. His intense stare has softened significantly. He was wearing a clean but threadbare shirt under his khaki safari vest. He did not look so good.

“Long time no see!” I greeted him warmly with a firm handshake. “You are looking good!” What was I supposed to say? “What have you been up to?”

“Nice to see you too!” Monsieur Zily replied. “You seem to be doing really well!”

I offered him a drink — a lychee and guava cocktail spiked with Dzama Cuvée Noire, the special of the day. We got to talk. He told me about how he had spent almost five years wandering aimlessly from job to job.

The irony was not lost on me: His strengths — his versatility and his multiple talents — for which he was so admired, were now burdens and obstacles for him, and prevented him from thriving.

Honestly, I have always thought that among my school cohorts, he was easily the most likely to be successful in life. I guess I was wrong.

Would you rather return or forward favors?

For a moment, I remembered all those times when Monsieur Zily outshone us. There was in front of me someone who used to intimidate and scare me, someone who was always better than me, someone who snatched my ex-girlfriend, and then beat me up for fooling around with her while she was still (technically) on the rebound, someone who had once humiliated me in public.

Now, for once, it looked like I have been dealt a better hand (just like he always had the upper hand when we were kids). Right there, I could taste the sweet taste of revenge in my mouth. This was my chance to repay the tsindry aloka he had subjected me to years ago.

Then, I thought of my trajectory. I thought of Monsieur Zily’s. We have been through similar wandering journeys but arrived at very different destinations. Life works in odd ways sometimes.

Call it tody, lahatra, or karma. Perhaps, this was life’s built-in mechanism for evening things out.

I do not know if it was decency taking over, or if it was me trying to be a good person, but I began to feel empathy. Instead of feeling the urge to kick him while he was down — “tsindrio fa lavo” — I felt sad for him. I wanted to lend a hand.

The guy has obviously been working hard. But hard work and being multi-talented has only taken him so far. In this city of ours, there were some social rigidities, and even injustice, that you just could not overcome. To prosper, you needed to be part of the elite class. Even the socialist revolution could not alter that sad reality. You may disagree, but that was just the way things were.

Unlike him, I had the chance of having Dadatoa Delacroix and his network of friends — the city’s bourgeoisie — open doors for me to get to where I am. They offered me a ladder when I needed one. The system has been on my side. It has been good to me.

As part of the social contract, I am required to repay them at some point in the future. Such reciprocal atero-ka-alao or tit-for-tat has always been the norm in the city. Fair enough.

For the favors they have granted me, I will be forever grateful and I will surely return them. But not right now. To repay them back at that point would only perpetuate the social rigidities that are plaguing our society.

At that very moment, I just felt more comfortable paying the favors forward, by helping someone that really needed support. I decided that I would rather open a door and provide a ladder to someone who really needed a break. To someone who deserved help.

The Jack of All Trades

“Would you rather be a tour guide or be the manager of my new bistro?” I looked him in the eyes and made him the offer right there. Without overthinking the issue.

“Wow! Are you serious?” Monsieur Zily asked, visibly stunned. He had not seen that coming.

“I am dead serious.” I assured him. “I really need someone of your caliber. Someone versatile who excels in a lot of things. And I need someone that I can trust.” I have known him for a long time, we have had our differences, but I always believed that he was an honest and trustworthy guy.

Then I went on. “I have been given some breaks to get to where I am. I now feel like it is my turn to give someone else a break. You deserve it more than anyone else I know.”

Deep down, at a subconscious level, having the most popular guy in high school on my payroll, and in my debt, was a non-negligible factor behind the offer.

Even deeper in the darkest part of my soul: this was my opportunity to finally fulfill my dream of outshining the sun, and to leave an opening for the possibility of getting back to him for making my life miserable in high school.

We talked for about another ten minutes. Then, we shook hands: after setting out some conditions, he thanked me and gladly accepted my offer. We decided to name the bistro “The Jack of All Trades.”

That was probably one of the best impulsive decisions I have made as a businessman. Monsieur Zily is a great manager, with a knack for always getting things done. With a minimal amount of guidance and supervision, he now competently manages not only the administrative aspects of the whole operation, but also the culinary aspects of the bar and the kitchen.

Most importantly, he really loves the job since it allows him to showcase his multitude of talents and skills. He gets to speak Spanish and German to the customers. He gets to personally design the bistro’s wine selection. Sometimes, he even gets to entertain the patrons with his jazz ensemble.

Monsieur Zily and I have since become quite close. He is always a pleasure to have around. He is an excellent gourmet cook, a published novelist, a polyglot, and a competitive tennis player. Basically, he has become a well-rounded son of a gun. A true renaissance man.

A renaissance man that now works for me and owes me a favor.

EPILOGUE

Whenever Rojo is nervous or bored, he tells stupid jokes. He was telling me a joke about a priest and a president, which I did not find funny, when Monsieur Zily finally showed up at our table.

Per his instructions, the barmaid had refused to serve us any more beer. She was busy flirting with a couple of idiots at the bar. The happy-hour crowds were beginning to trickle in.

The sun was continuing its inexorable descent towards the horizon. My beer buzz had completely vanished now. I was thirsty. And I was as sober as an alligator.

“Why can’t you guys behave like normal people?” Monsieur Zily admonished Rojo and me.

He spoke very calmly, but you could see from his eyes that he was not happy. He had that intense gaze he had when he was pissed off. Just like when he beat me up for fooling around with my ex-girlfriend.

During business hours, the bistro was his kingdom and nobody has the right to mess with his kingdom. Nobody, not even the bistro owner. During operating hours, he was the seul maître à bord, the sole master of his domain. He was adamant about that. I have always tried to respect that special arrangement between the two of us.

“Sorry, dude,” I ventured to say. “Things just got out of control. One beer led to another, you know. It won’t happen again!” I knew better than making eye contact in such situation.

After all these years, he still makes me nervous and apprehensive. Don’t ask me why. He just does. It is a survival reflex. I didn’t want to be on his wrong side.

.“Let’s try to keep it down, guys. You are scaring away my customers! Why don’t you drink some water or some juice for a while.”

“Yes, Monsieur Zily,” we replied. Still subdued. We ordered some fresh tamarind juice and some spicy sambosas and masikita to munch on.

I watched Monsieur Zily as he walked briskly towards the bar to relay our orders to the barmaid.. Just before he stepped into his private office behind the bar, he turned around and our eyes met briefly. He smiled. Then, he was gone. We were cool. All was forgiven.

A few minutes later, the barmaid came with our orders.

“Thanks, Baholy! Good job!” I whispered to her as I looked her in the eye, and winked.

She smiled awkwardly and walked away.

The sun was now spreading its last bright red rays through the horizon. I always enjoyed watching those beautiful sunsets through the cracked windows of “The Jack of All Trades” balcony. In a couple of minutes, the sun would be gone. Soon, the moon and the stars would be up, it would be their turn to shine on this small city of ours.

Lost in the beauty of the sunset, Rojo began humming a Lolo sy ny Tariny song: “Angamba Angamba maty lolo / Matoa mbola niharitra an’izany / Ialahy ilay azo tsara kolokolo / Etsy akaiky aho bozaka mandady …” (I was perhaps intimidated / So I put up with it / You were the well grown tree / Next to you I was crawling grass). I softly joined him in a falsetto chorus.

(February 2015)