Babar: A Retelling

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is a modern day adaptation of Babar, set in my hometown, New York City.
Though I focus on Babar, I was strongly influenced by Rudyard Kipling’s poem the White Man’s Burden which revolves around the concepts of doling out control and a self righteous sense of importance that is masked by acting as if one is completing a duty in an almost saint-like manner, helping the other party when they in fact may not need help. It talks about the control that the white man had during the period of imperialism, which they feel entitled to because of an inherently taught superiority. Nothing can ever be left as it is, because if something enters our world that could be perceived as different, it is automatically barbaric or in need of fixing.

Submitted: September 27, 2011

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Submitted: September 27, 2011




The air was a tight-lipped ice queen whistling through his teeth as his dry, dark hands jittered around sausages frying and glistening. He would watch them rotating for mesmerized hours at a time, escaping into the sizzling heat and the popping fire, teasing the edges of his cold hands.  When the turning links hypnotized him it was a thankful escape from this mysterious, obscure land. His land was thought to be the incomprehensible, the obscured, the puzzling. That with which one could never quite grasp. But this land was just as confounding, if not more. He saw a small portion of New York City each day, for many hours at a time.  It was a bustling street on Central Park East. The minutes sliced through his mind like shredded glass until it was numbed by the cold and the sadness. He was a hot dog vendor. He had his materials, the things he cooked with, and his food, and the little paper boats to put the buns in. He was very clean about his work, and always provided the best customer service. No matter to who it was. He found the variety of people that passed by to be interesting, but not exactly what you’d call diverse. Mainly rich and porcelain in hue, he made a fair amount of cash. But the purpose of the transaction didn’t always quite seem to be about the hot dog. It was a sort of bartering system for forgotten birthdays, or lost art class projects, or weeks missed at a time, spent with a nanny. This distance, this human isolation was something that Jelani did not understand; everyone was always very close at home. Knit together like little mice at their mother’s teat since birth: even when the mother wasn’t there anymore. Especially then. Jelani’s mama was robbed when her sons were out fishing one day. A man broke into their house, and smashed their things with a carved wooden bat. Most were fragile, and homemade, so they shattered easily. The man tried to steal Mama’s wedding jewels, but papa passed years ago so she held on to them viciously, passionately, with purpose. She would not let them go, she held them next to her thumping, fruitful heart. They smashed the sharp vase and pushed it upright into her gut, like a fish. She bled out before her sons got home.

He was too scared after that. Jelani took care of his brothers and sisters, but they had dreams of their own. Some even wanted to go to America to make their dreams come true. But he was the only one who made it here. He did not have a home, but it was better than the broken, weeping, mourning one back home. He worked on the edge of a park so he slept on benches, on soft patches of grass, if they were provided. They felt like the softness of the downy fur on his baby sister’s head, like a little black duckling.  Somehow he hid his cart so craftily that he hadn’t suffered a theft, yet. In the winter, the sky was white and the air was more biting than it was now. He froze and searched for scraps of fabric to cover his cracking, frostbitten bones. He would go to shelters sometimes, mainly trying to find generous patrons who allowed him to sleep in their cars for the night, or their basements.  They were good Samaritans, providing him with the bare minimum. He was in no debt to them; he cost them a small amount of space and was practically invisible. He still fended for himself. All these things came to Jelani’s thoughts as he stared at the turning links absentmindedly. This is why he did not hear the woman in front of him persisting that he takes her order.  He looked up with his blank eyes and shot out the automatic phrase, a staple in his broken English, how could he help her? One hot dog, she replied. With sauerkraut and ketchup, echoing the shout of the small boy at her hip. Jelani prepared the order, sprinkling the sausage with toppings. He recognized that the hot dog was not for the woman. Her skin, her body, her face, her statute, the quality of her attire and jewels, the perfection of the strawberry blond bun piled neatly atop her smooth white scalp all contradicted the crass food. It was all too perfect and eloquent to be tainted by something as flawed and greasy. She reminded him of a pale gazelle. He probably reminded her of a brooding black beast, fumbling around with dirty food that she would feed to her uncultured, crass small son.  But when he looked up to greet her gaze, he found that she saw something in his face that others didn’t. Little did he know, this was just the experienced and observant gaze that models are taught from a young age to imitate some inference of intelligence activity in the otherwise vain subject’s mind. She thanked him, and their fingers slightly touched in the exchange of the paper boat.  The little boy’s eyes landed on their fingers (the woman was so beautiful that Jelani’s hands started to shake a bit as he tried to penetrate the brightness behind her eyes.) She complimented him on the smoothness of his skin, the aesthetically pleasing factor that his chiseled arms, just visible beneath his boxy button-down, presented to hungry eyes. She asks him if he models. He did not quite understand, so she took out several pictures from her wallet. It was undoubtedly the same woman, a mere decade younger, on the cover of a glamour magazine. Now he understood. Her appearance made sense, as did the luscious fur coat and sparkling hands and earlobes. She was the editor of a fashion magazine, she explained, an ex-model. Even her scent begins to make sense, a carefully designed floral subtlety meant to magnetize men to her soft ivory skin. The little boy tugged on his mother’s hand, rambling about how he wants to go to the zoo, to which she tugged back a little too roughly, reinstating that the nanny would take him in a moment. She averted her eyes to Jelani, asking him what his dinner plans are. He was confused, and she asked again. He simply said, hot dogs. He only ate hot dogs, he didn’t have the money for much else, and it saved what he could to one day send back home to his brothers and sisters. He thought about home, and in the back of his mind the blond woman kept asking if he would allow her to take him to dinner. He’d rather be left alone, but this woman was so beautiful and mesmerizing, more than fat brown rotating links, so he accepted. They agreed to meet in front of a building several blocks from his work.

When Jelani got out off work, he hid his cart, took off his cooking gloves and walked to the woman’s building. He stilled smell like hot dogs, dirt, and a day of labor. He glances towards the door, and a whirl of blue satin catches his eye. The woman from earlier descended the stairs with a blue train behind her. Her apparel was flawless. Her beauty from before was brought out and silhouetted in the light; she looked like a doll. She looked at his outfit, somewhat disapprovingly, and exclaimed that she must take him to a friend’s to get dressed properly for dinner. She explained that he had to appear dashing and presentable, but did not clarify for whom. He assumed that they would walk into another apartment building, but evidently, ‘a friend’s’ was a men’s formal boutique nearby. The suits were impeccable. A man measured him, prodded his limbs, poked him like a farm animal, and ultimately wriggled him into a suit that contained him stiffly like a straightjacket, like ropes holding his arms back, holding them in place.

Jelani did not look like himself. He did not feel like himself. He felt like a little boy playing dress up. As the woman (Ms. Bartley, as she has introduced herself as) prepped him for dinner, he feels as though he is being presented as a performing animal. She told him to make sure to flatter the others (he did not know who the others were, or how to flatter), she instructed him carefully on how to act and how to mask his foreignness, but kept him entirely in the dark as to what this whole debacle was really about; the purpose of the event.

They approached a restaurant that looked more like an elaborate opera house than an eatery. He felt more like a foreigner in this apparel, in this wealth-swaddled and bejeweled place, than he had any other time in America. They approached a large, circular mahogany table where six or seven men and women were seated.  They were all as impeccable as their blond recruiter, flashing smiles that were, to say the least, less authentic than the jewels that adorned their bodies. Jelani was not sure why these individuals seemed so eager to interact with him, or help him. He didn’t understand what he was in need of. What needed to be fixed? They all introduced themselves. They worked with Ms. Bartley and had other high and mighty positions at the fashion magazine. They casually inferred that Jelani could be a good contribution to the magazine, which he was baffled by. He had no knowledge of the fashion world. They explained that he could slowly build his way up; they fought over who could possibly own his rights as a model. Well, it’s not definite as to whether he could be a model or not. At least yet. He might have to be the coffee boy, or the receptionist, or complete other demeaning tasks for other statuesque blonds that can’t fit anything in their schedule besides work and rich men to whom they could be concubines of. They all offered him these menial tasks. They offered him long stays in their guest bedrooms. They offered to let him tag along on their monthly yachting adventure upstate. They offered him other jobs; their daughter’s tutors, jobs cleaning their house, mowing their lawns. He tried to explain that America was temporary, he had to go back to help his poor family. This comment was instantly shot back at: they offered to get his sisters and brothers similar jobs. Anyone could live in America; they could be extras on movie sets, they could…the possibilities were endless. Yet Jelani knew the hard reality was that they didn’t speak any English, they could not afford these fine clothes that he had been provided for that night. They would live the sad vendor life that he did, if not worse. And if somehow him and his siblings did manage to live this supposedly glamorous life, their minds would be corrupted and controlled by the same principles as the greedy men that robbed and killed his sweet mother. No, he would not act as a maid to the society that doled out pity and shelter and false caring to bolster their own images of themselves as saintly, Herculean individuals.  He would do them no favor by letting them supposedly service him. All these thoughts raced through Jelani’s mind as one of the woman eagerly offered to give him a free makeover so he’d appear a little more cleaned up; that would definitely better his chances in finding a possible, legitimate career (not a shameful one like his current job.) One of them offered to pay for night classes, so he could brush up on his English.  All these offers on educating and beautifying him bombarded him from every side of the table, consuming him like a whirlwind. He began to nod by habit, absorbing the information slowly. He realized that he had continued nodding and pretending to acknowledge their offers when they began talking about him in third person, joking around. A flamboyant man to his right jokes that if modeling or finding some other job fails, he was sure Jelani would be more than qualified as a high class escort. They joke about how single, older patricians were always looking for a challenging romp in the sack. What they’d pay for a time with this gorgeous black creature. They flattered him as if it were their duty, but it just made him feel as if they were praising a handsome racing horse, holding back their desire to pet his mysteriously black hide.

 He courteously excused himself to go to the bathroom, and hurried towards the back of the restaurant. He heard their indistinct giggling in the background, mumbling jokes about someone named Brangelina, and how one of them would have the right to take him on as their philanthropic project.  He didn’t know these words and he didn’t care. He rushed past the bathroom door and ran out the back. He didn’t want all these new, glamorous things that they offered. He didn’t want to be anybody’s project. He saw a payphone nearby and thought about hearing his sister’s voice on the other end. He thought about why he moved here and why he works as hard as he does. He decided to work in America for a bit longer, and take those savings, sending it back to Africa along with himself. Even if he were living in poverty, in Africa, there would be no surrounding glitter to deceive him. He’d live a pure, genuine life, around people that understood him and only helped out of the good of their hearts because they loved him. Outside the restaurant with heated marble floors, the air was twice as freezing as it was during his working hours. He shuffled back to the park to find his cart, and a corner free of wind. In a country where intentions were so corrupt, a sliver of nature was the only solace that Jelani could hide in.


© Copyright 2019 naima karp. All rights reserved.

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