7 Seconds

In Issue 65 by Patty Somlo

Image
Photo by Jesper Christiansen on Unsplash

His first name was Mohammed but everyone who knew the lanky African with the irrepressible smile called him Mo. The nickname fit the man who seemed more a whirlwind of energy or a beam of fierce light than a serious grown-up. Three blocks away from the flat he shared with his girlfriend, Katherine, Mo was tossing pasta in a large silver pan, over a high flame in the open kitchen of Tomato. The second syllable of the brightly lit bistro’s name was pronounced mah. When describing diners’ reaction to the fare in its ads, the Market Street restaurant played on the pronunciation. Ahhhh. As Mo flipped fresh tomatoes and diced garlic, then tossed in linguini or capellini, he kept up a lively banter with the customers, perched atop high-backed stools, on the other side of the counter. Mo’s personality and stories made the counter the most desirable place to sit. Stools couldn’t be reserved, so eager customers started forming a ragged line at the door, a little before five o’clock.

More often than not, these bar customers were women. Even though Mo had lived with Katherine for over a year, he couldn’t help but flirt with the ladies, and even some of the men.

He had immigrated to America from Senegal four years before, leaving behind eight siblings, a mother, and as he liked to say, so many aunts, uncles and cousins he couldn’t recall half their names. He often started stories this way. “You see in my country,” or “Back home in Senegal.” The tales he told frequently involved the petty corruption in the country he had left behind. But every story was told with a mocking humor, something, if anyone asked, Mo would have said was his way to cope, and perhaps, escape.

Although it was a weeknight, Tomato was packed, with a line stretching down the block. The restaurant plied free house wine to customers waiting to come in, which made Tomato even more popular.

Like much of the City of San Francisco, the workers at Tomato were a global mix of nationalities, religions, languages and cultures. Along with Mo, there were two other pasta chefs working that night – Alex from Jamaica and Manny from Mexico. All three had been hired for their cooking skills and experience but also because they were fun, friendly guys. Manny was as short and pudgy as Mo was slender and tall and sang what he called corridos, love songs in Spanish that were popular in rural Michoacán, where he was from. While Manny was singing, Alex would sometimes break in with a Bob Marley tune people at the counter knew and encourage them to sing along.

Not to be outdone, Mo would start dancing to the reggae beat, stepping up and back and from side to side, flipping pasta in the air over the high flame, at the same time. After sliding the finished dish onto a white porcelain plate and setting it before a customer, Mo would jog out from the kitchen area, grab a female patron’s hand and pull her up to dance.

On this night, Mo was in his usual form, making the customers smile, talking nonstop, not giving a bit of thought to anything, but being totally in the moment at Tomato.

***

By the end of Mo’s shift, the fog had blown in white and thick. When Mo walked out Tomato’s front door, just after eleven o’clock, traffic was still heavy across all four lanes of Market. Mist softened the headlights’ glare. Mo fingered the bills he’d stuffed into his right pants pocket, tips from customers at the counter.

He was tempted to take a walk in the cool air, after spending hours sweating in front of a hot stove. Mo loved everything about living in San Francisco, but he especially adored the fog. Early on, after he first met Katherine out dancing at a club and they went walking late on a foggy night, he told her the fog felt magical to him.

“There’s nothing magical about it,” Katherine said and laughed. “It’s caused by warm air meeting the cool air that blows in from the ocean.”

It was Mo’s turn to laugh now.

“Oh, that may be the scientific explanation,” he said. “And I suppose you can tell me what the scientists say about love. But here is what I say. Love is magical. It cannot be explained. And the fog. It is a whisper. A mystery. A softness. No scientist can tell me any different.”

Mo watched the drops swirling under the streetlight. Couples passed, holding hands or arm in arm. As he often did, Mo reminded himself of where he’d ended up.

“I am in America,” he whispered. “In San Francisco. The most beautiful city in the world.”

Mo had dreamed of this very thing years ago. An uncle of his left Senegal to study in America when Mo was still a boy. Mo remembered as a teenager when his uncle came back to Senegal for a visit. He brought gifts for everyone – televisions and stereos, dresses and purses, shoes, and even microwave ovens. Everyone in the family said that Uncle Saeed had made it. They believed he had made it because he took a chance and went to America.

***

Mo retraced his steps on Market Street, walking past the now-darkened windows of Tomato. As he prepared to turn onto Church Street and make his way down the three blocks to the flat he shared with his girlfriend on Eighteenth, Katherine was sitting in the wooden rocking chair, close to the front window, watching and waiting for him. She had gotten home a half hour before, from a rehearsal for the new play in which she’d nabbed a starring role. She was tempted to rip open the letter she’d pulled from the mailbox before heading upstairs, but it was addressed to Mo. As much as she tried reassuring herself that everything would be all right, she feared what the envelope from some government agency with Immigration in the name might contain.

It had to be bad news, she assumed, without knowing what was inside. But what?

Early on, when she and Mo were first dating, Katherine asked if he was in the country legally and had a permit to work.

“Of course,” he said, and laughed. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve heard it’s hard to get green cards, unless you have family living here.”

“I have family here,” Mo said. “My Uncle Saeed.”

Following that conversation, Katherine brushed any worries about Mo’s immigration status from her mind. Now that this envelope had arrived, she couldn’t help but wonder if what Mo had told her was a lie.

And wasn’t this her luck, just when things were starting to go well for her? She was finally getting recognition for her acting. Of course, something had to barge in and ruin her life.

As Katherine started to slide down into despair, she forced herself to put her mind on a different track.

“Mo,” she whispered.

Just saying his name brought up a picture of him, that sly grin brightening his face. Mo’s smile could make her happy, even when she was mad at him.

***

The moment Mo turned onto Church Street, he was startled by the sound of screeching tires. He leapt across the sidewalk, as far from the street as he could get. He scurried into the entryway of a darkened shop, crouching next to the front door. His heart rattled in his chest, breath coming in short, ragged pants.

“What the hell?” he whispered, braced for the sound of crashing metal, as he turned and squinted, hoping for a better look.

Shouts followed, which he couldn’t understand, and more tires screeched. Red and blue lights flashed, practically blinding him.

Mo turned away from the lights but for several seconds still saw faint throbbing echoes in the dark. When he turned back around, he could make out police cars, jammed every which way on the block.

“This is something bad,” Mo said, as if talking to an invisible friend. “This is something bad.”

***

Katherine lifted the envelope up from the coffee table and stared at the return address. As she did, the question repeated in her mind. What could this mean?

She wished Mo would walk in the door. He was normally home by now. No matter what the situation, Mo always made things better and calmed her down.

She closed her eyes and rested her head against the back of the wooden rocker. She pictured Mo leaning down toward her, the night they met, his teeth gleaming in the flickering light from the candle set in round red glass.

“Good evening, ladies,” Mo said, to Katherine and her friend, Laura, that night.

Even now, Katherine remembered what she thought then. Oh, please let him ask me, and not Laura, to dance.

Katherine had heard about the club from the Nigerian guy who played drums in her African dance class.

“Only on Saturday,” he explained. “Af-ri-can music. And the Africans all dolled up go there. The place is packed-packed with people. Nothing gets going until late. After eleven.”

The guy with the dazzling smile didn’t ask either Katherine or Laura to dance. He offered to buy them drinks. Katherine told him what they were drinking, then felt her hopes drain away, when he left.

Moments later he returned, carrying a chair, and followed by a waitress, balancing a small round tray above her head. He stood to the side, as the waitress set three glasses down on the table. Katherine realized that one of the drinks, and the chair, were for him. He handed some bills to the server and set the chair he’d been holding down at Katherine’s side, then picked up his drink.

“To new friends,” he toasted.

Katherine lifted her glass and echoed, “To new friends.”

All evening, he alternated between dancing with Katherine and with Laura. Katherine warned herself not to fall for this guy. Studying the man who introduced himself as Mo from Senegal, Katherine sensed he might be a womanizer, too good-looking and charming to be trusted. Yet, dancing with Mo, their feet and hips in sync, Katherine was lifted to a place where all she felt was a bubbling joy.

***

Mo suddenly recognized that he might be a witness to something, he didn’t yet know what. He felt in his side pocket for his cellphone, slid the phone out and held it for a moment next to his thigh. His right hand clutching the phone was trembling, so he pressed the phone to his chest, hoping that would help calm him down.

The air was filled with what Mo now believed were rapid-fire commands from the police officers. It was like everything he’d seen in the movies and on TV. And here he was, a Black man from Africa, stuck in a doorway. He had a terrible need to piss but was too afraid to move or even breathe.

One part of him thought he should try and make a run for it, heading the opposite direction from where the officers were focused. You been here before, Mo, and you know what can happen. Best to be moving along home.

A different voice told him he should become one of those citizen heroes, step out of the safety of the doorway and start filming. If something happened, maybe an officer shot and killed an innocent man, then Mo’s video might be the evidence needed to convict.

That guy there could be you, Mo.

Mo’s knees were killing him. He didn’t know what he was going to do, except that he couldn’t stay in that crouching position any longer. He pressed his free left hand against the door and gradually straightened up.

***

Katherine checked her watch for what seemed like the twentieth time. Where was Mo? Normally, he would have been home for a good hour by now. Or he would have called. She tried his number but got voicemail. She texted, Where R U? Then she stared at the screen, waiting for a reply. But it didn’t come. She tried convincing herself there was nothing wrong, but then dark thoughts, from Mo lying in the middle of Market Street after being struck by a car to Mo in bed with another woman, not caring about Katherine at all, bubbled up and festered in her mind. Those anxious thoughts leaped ahead, to question what she would do if, say, by sunrise, Mo hadn’t come home. Could she file a missing person’s report with the police then?

Oh, how she hated to get swallowed up by her own mind. This was the part of loving someone she could have done without. Before meeting Mo, when she was a single, childless woman, all she had to worry about was herself. Now, the thought of losing the man she adored could throw her into a tailspin.

And there was that envelope, sitting on the coffee table. What if Mo had been picked up by ICE agents and carted off to some horrid detention center? What if she never saw him again?

***

“Oh, shit,” Mo said, in a low whisper.

Glaring lights lit up the middle of the street on a spot outlined by all those police cars. If Mo had come upon this scene in the middle of the day, he would naturally have assumed they were shooting a TV show or movie, since San Francisco, with its steep streets, iconic views and Victorians, often served as an alluring backdrop. In the daytime, he could have looked around and spotted the film crew and the trailers that always popped up on the set. This scene, he feared, was all too real.

In the spotlight, surrounded by black and white cars flashing their blue and red lights and facing a squad of officers, several using their cars as shields to crouch behind, a brown-skinned man with wild hair was waving an object in his right hand and dancing around. Mo had lived in the neighborhood long enough to know this poor soul was probably one of the sad street denizens Mo spotted wandering around, shouting to no one in particular, draped in a dirty, ragged blanket. These folks slept in the doorways of restaurants and shops, all up and down the block. Even though some might appear threatening at times, Mo assumed most were harmless.

The guy, Mo could tell, didn’t have a clue about the danger he was in. Every time one of the officers shouted, the poor chap grew more animated, furiously waving his hand, and jumping back and forth, at times edging perilously close to the crowd of police, who Mo could see had their guns drawn. Mo was unable to tell what the guy was waving, but he knew one thing. That long thin object wasn’t a gun.

How many times had he heard that line, He wasn’t carrying a gun, after an innocent person ended up dead on the ground? Would this messed-up fool get shot, when what he probably needed was care, and afterwards the police would claim he had a gun? How could this scrawny fellow who looked like he hadn’t eaten a good meal in months be a threat to this crowd of heavily armed police officers?

With that thought, Mo suddenly found himself outside the doorway. He slipped along the inner edge of the sidewalk, filming as he went, softly narrating his location and describing the scene, at least how it felt to be watching, while he moved closer and closer to where the wild-haired guy might very well be taking his last steps.

Mo was mesmerized by the scene in front of him. Later, when he recalled the event and relived those tense moments for Katherine and his friends at Tomato, he would say it was like sitting in a darkened theater, on the edge of his seat. The fatigue he had felt earlier from eight hours of work, standing on his feet over the hot stove, was gone. He felt energized and alive, almost as if he’d taken drugs.

It was a standoff playing out in front and all around him. Mo prayed the battery in his phone wouldn’t die, but he didn’t want to quit filming long enough to check and see how much juice he had left.

At the first crack of gunfire, Mo jumped back toward the glass-fronted window of Taqueria Pacifico. His head dropped. A rapid round of gunfire followed, tat-tat-tat-tat-tat, then more joined in, sounding like a fierce battle in war. Mo forced himself to lift his head and hold the phone steady. The man was no longer dancing now. His body lay in a heap, on the ground.

Distant at first, whining sirens grew close, piercing the air that had grown eerily silent when the shots stopped. Mo quit filming, slid the phone into his pants pocket, and pressed both hands against his ears.

More flashing lights transformed the center of the street into a jagged, jerky dance, like back home in the clubs Mo and his friends frequented, under a revolving ball of mirrors.

“Maybe he is still alive,” Mo announced, in hopes that the arrival of an ambulance was a good sign.

Mo waited until the siren went off, then decided it might be safe to leave. He crept close to the shops and restaurants, all closed and dark now. After what had just taken place, Mo felt he was seeing the city he loved in an entirely new way.

Once he reached Market Street, he breathed a bit easier. He passed the bright red Tomato sign above what he normally liked to think of as his restaurant, though he was a mere employee.

When Mo got to the corner where Dolores Avenue started, his mood shifted again. Here was the city he loved, on this elegant avenue of tall palms, lining the center divide. At dusk, the palm trees drew flocks of wild parrots, their blue and red wings flapping against the backdrop of a soft pastel sky.

Fog danced through the air, mysterious and comforting, familiar and safe, predictable in its timing. It blew in late nearly every day, and burned off sometime in the morning, letting in sunlight that later would reflect off the golden dome atop Mission Dolores, which Mo admired from across the street, when he stepped out of his building and headed to work.

As he started to turn onto Eighteenth Street, Mo thought about the little spat he’d had with Manny, when they were prepping before Tomato opened that night. It started with Manny blasting some grating Mexican rap he’d been turned onto by his cousin in L.A.

“That shit makes my ears hurt,” Mo shouted to Manny, as he furiously chopped tomatoes. “The beat is boring. Ta-da, ta-da, ta-da, ta-da. It has no heart.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Manny yelled back. “This is the sound of the streets, man. The barrio. Not that old stuff what you like.”

“I can’t understand anything they are saying,” Mo struck back. “It’s all words, no music. The words do not make sense. They’re all a jumble.”

“That is just what you think,” was Manny’s response. “It is because you had a soft life.”

At those words, Mo stopped his violent chopping, the sharp blade suspended over the cutting board. Mo was tempted to throw the knife down, rip off his apron and stomp out the door. Manny had no right, no right at all, to say such a thing. To think he knew Mo.

Instead, Mo took a deep breath and reminded himself that this was his friend, Manny, who meant no harm.

“You don’t know anything, Manny,” Mo said at first.

Then he went on.

“It is all right, Manny, my friend. I will learn to like your music.”

He laughed and added, “Even if the beat is off.”

***

Mo couldn’t have said how he came up with his means of coping. He just knew it worked. Each morning when the guards entered his cell, he laughed.

“Good morning,” he said to them, exhibiting a mood as cheerful as if they were about to release him, back to the carefree life he’d lived before ending up in that cramped, filthy cell. “So nice to see you again.”

He asked about their health, their wives and children, while they dragged him down the hall, to the inevitable day’s torture. They were bent on beating the joy out of him, to make him as miserable as they must have felt.

Mo hadn’t been part of the demonstration against the government. The truth was, Mo wouldn’t have bothered. The election, the demonstrators claimed, had been stolen from their candidate. If anyone asked Mo’s opinion, he would have said, “Of course this has happened. It always does. This is Senegal. What country do you think you are living in?”

He needed to get to work that day, to the job Uncle Saeed had used his connections and a small bribe to get Mo, in a drab office, where he shuffled papers from one side of his desk to the other. Demonstrators were massed in front of the government building, where he worked on the seventh floor. There was no avoiding the crowd.

The police moved in, just as Mo was trying to push through and reach the building’s front door. Heavily armed officers barreled through the crowd, pummeling protestors with their batons, and hauling them off.

Mo didn’t even see the baton before he felt a sharp stabbing pain at the back of his neck, and everything went dark.

***

There was no point trying to sleep before Mo arrived home. Katherine would just lie in bed, staring into the dark. Every imaginable disaster had run through her mind. Even worse, she’d let herself recall the lonely life she’d lived before Mo said, “I need to dance with you again.”

Before Mo, Katherine believed she wasn’t attractive enough for any man to love her. Sure, she’d had her share of lovers, but none stayed. If asked, Katherine would have said that she had weight in all the wrong places – small breasts, a fat butt and thick thighs. Her skin, she thought, was too pale. Though her green eyes were a nice color, Katherine knew they took up too much of her narrow face. She’d begged her parents for braces when she was young, but they refused, claiming they couldn’t afford the expense. Katherine ended up with a gap between her two top front teeth.

Mo loved that gap, along with her eyes. He especially adored Katherine’s wide, fleshy butt.

“You are like an African woman,” he told her. “We African men do not care for these skinny American girls. Nothing to hold onto.”

***

One morning when the guards came into Mo’s cell, he sensed a change. They didn’t seem in a hurry to grab him, slide the black hood over his head, and drag his body out.

At first, neither of the burly men said a word. This worried Mo. Today just might be his last.

Day after day, they had beaten him, and burned the skin on his chest and arms with the tips of their cigarettes, demanding that he give them names. Names of the others in his movement. Mo explained that he wasn’t in any movement, so he had no names.

They must be tired of me, he thought. And so today they will end my life.

Mo’s agitation propelled him to chatter more than usual.

“So, how are you gentlemen on this fine morning?” Mo asked, not giving them a chance to respond but just rattling on. “We are fine, in case you would like to know. Slept very well and am looking forward to another day.”

Only one of the guards grabbed hold of his arm. Mo readied himself for the dark suffocating sensation when the hood would be yanked down past his neck. Instead, he was pulled to his feet, which had never happened on any other morning. Now Mo felt afraid, too anxious to speak. Once he was standing, the guard who hadn’t grabbed hold of his arm said, “It is your lucky day.”

***

Katherine thought she heard footsteps coming toward the front door. She chided herself that this was wishful thinking. A moment later, though, there was no denying the sound. Mo’s key was turning in the lock.

The door opened, and that wonderful man strode into the room. She watched him, as if needing to convince herself he was real.

“Oh, Katherine, what a night it has been,” he said, before she had a chance to ask what had happened.

He began by explaining that he’d just wanted to take a walk in the cool, foggy night air.

“You know how much I love that fog,” he said.

Then Mo set the scene of the police standoff, bit by bit, in the excruciatingly detailed way he had of telling a story. Once he had made everything clear, Mo turned on the video.

Katherine felt relieved at seeing Mo, and then was drawn into the story. For a time, she forgot about the envelope, sitting unopened on the table.

***

Unlike all those other mornings, Mo walked down the hall on his own power, instead of being dragged against his will. He could see the stained, yellowing walls between cells and the dirty concrete floor since the guards hadn’t bothered with the hood. As if these differences weren’t enough to convince Mo, this morning was unlike any he’d spent since finding himself locked in a small dark cell, he knew from sensations he’d memorized that the guards usually hauled his body to the right. Today, they had turned and started walking him left.

Mo’s mood soared and plummeted, one moment fearing they were taking him outside to be shot, and the next, joyfully anticipating what he’d been too afraid to hope – that he was going to get out of this place alive.

***

Katherine had still not mentioned the envelope when Mo said, “I do not yet know what I will do with the video.”

Katherine didn’t need to think before saying, “You need to turn it over to someone, I don’t know who. Especially if that guy dies.”

Mo nodded in agreement, but then turned his head from side to side, apparently changing his mind.

“It is complicated,” he said.

Then he began to tell Katherine a story she had never heard before about his life.

***

“You are very quiet this morning,” the guard Mo thought of as Big Eyes said. “Why is that?”

Mo knew the answer but wouldn’t say. He was afraid. Yes, he had been scared every morning and most of his waking moments since being brought to this place. That fear, though, had not been about death. He’d feared losing his mind, escaping into another world to endure the torture, the hours alone, the food crawling with bugs, the bitter cold, and the long dark nights. For the first time, he feared he was going to die.

By the time they reached the end of the hall, Mo’s anxiety had climbed to such a pitch, he had to force himself to keep walking. He’d lost considerable weight and the strength in his legs was gone. In the time since Mo had first been locked up, this short walk down the hall was the most exercise he’d gotten.

His breath came in hard, short gasps as they neared the locked door. Finally, Mo couldn’t stand the suspense any longer and turned to the guard holding his arm.

“Where are you taking me?” he asked, his voice barely rising above a whisper.

The other guard opened the heavy metal door. The sound was deafening to Mo’s ears, grown accustomed to hours of silence.

Big Eyes helped Mo get to the other side of the door. Sun streaming through windows on both sides lit up the room. The light was painful to Mo, who had dwelled in that darkened space for too long. He was forced to close his eyes.

The guard still hadn’t answered Mo’s question.

***

Katherine listened to Mo tell the story of being arrested at the demonstration and imprisoned. It was hard to believe she had lived with Mo for over a year, and he had kept such important information to himself. Yet, here was an explanation for the terrible nightmares he sometimes suffered. Even before Mo got to the end of the story, Katherine realized this might explain what the envelope waiting on the coffee table contained.

***

The guard pulled a large ring of silver keys from the side pants pocket of his uniform. He flicked through the keys, as Mo wondered how the man could possibly know which key fit in what lock. Within seconds, he selected one and slid it into the lock, pulling the door open and flooding the space with more light.

“We will miss you, Mo,” the guard said, patting Mo’s shoulder.

Mo looked at the guard, then out past the door, to the bare dirt yard. Thoughts collided in his mind, fighting one another to the surface, his emotions battling as well.

“You are free to go,” was all Big Eyes said, before giving Mo the slightest little shove.

Mo was now outside the door, which he watched Big Eyes close. Then he listened as a key was turned in the lock.

***

“So, how did you get out?” Katherine asked Mo, who was using his right hand to wipe away tears that had formed in his eyes.

“Uncle Saeed. Uncle Saeed had a brother-in-law high up in the government. There was money exchanged, of course.”

“And then you left Senegal?”

“Yes,” Mo said. “Uncle Saeed had taken care of everything. I came to America two days later.”

That’s when Katherine remembered the envelope. She reached down and handed it to Mo.

***

Mo took his time to unfold the letter, while a silent prayer slipped through his mind. He had tried to pray in prison, but faith abandoned him. Mo had never been devout, unlike his cousins, for whom prayer and reading the Koran gave their lives meaning and hope. Mo’s release from prison and escape to America had shown him there might be something to all that.

“They said yes,” Mo shouted, waving the letter in the air, as he leapt from the sofa, and pulled Katherine out of her chair. “They said yes. I am approved. My asylum application. I am allowed to stay.”

With that, he drew Katherine close and kissed her. And then he started to dance.

***

Initial reports did not identify the victim, referring to him only as a transient. Mo found the news the next morning in the digital edition of the Examiner. As they said on TV, the man had non-life-threatening injuries. Mo gratefully assumed that meant the poor guy wouldn’t die.

Mo walked down the hall from the kitchen. As he stepped into the bedroom and over to the closet, he asked himself, If you hadn’t gotten that letter, would you still turn over the video? At the moment, Mo couldn’t decide.

He opened the closet door and started sliding hangers, until coming to the one suit he owned. He had been talked into the dark olive-green suit by an attractive Asian clerk at Nordstrom. She convinced Mo if he bought the suit, which he couldn’t afford, he would ace the interview at the tech firm for a position that would pay him enough to buy an entire new wardrobe.

As it turned out, the young white guy who interviewed Mo was wearing faded jeans and a wrinkled, ill-fitting tee shirt. Everybody Mo spotted in the place looked ten years younger than him, were shabbily dressed, and yes, all white. Mo wasn’t called back for a second interview. In fact, he wasn’t called at all. He learned his fate several weeks later, from a crisp form letter, still owing money on his credit card for the beautiful suit.

***

The District Attorney’s office was in the same building as the criminal court. Mo emptied his pockets into the tray before stepping past the metal detector. The whole setup made him feel guilty, though he had done nothing wrong.

The building was old, but looking around, Mo could tell it had probably once been beautiful. The doors were made of a golden-hued wood, with smoked glass above. The words he planned to say, as he handed over the disk containing the video, repeated in his mind.

It only took a moment, as the receptionist said the attorneys were too busy to see him, but she would pass the disk and Mo’s contact information along. He felt disappointed as he stepped out of the office in the elegant suit that made him look like he ought to have been an attorney, working behind one of those beautiful oak doors.

***

Mo had told Manny and Alex along with Keiko and the other servers working at Tomato that night, plus the busboys, José and Ali, that they should plan to stick around for a few minutes after closing for a celebration. When Manny asked Mo what they were celebrating, he said, “You’ll see.”

He asked Katie, the cute red-haired server he harmlessly flirted with, to bring enough champagne glasses for everyone, even Ali, though he knew the devout Muslim didn’t drink.

“Ali doesn’t need to take a sip,” Mo said to Katie. “He’ll just hold the glass up for a toast.”

***

“Okay. Since this is my celebration, I get to choose the music. That is only right,” Mo said, his smile wider than the staff had ever seen it. “We will listen to Youssou N’Dour’s 7 Seconds.

“Why that song?” Manny asked.

“Because Youssou N’Dour is from Senegal. Because I love the song. And because the song is against violence and racism, and for love.”

“So, what are we celebrating, Mo?” Manny asked for the second time.

“We are celebrating freedom. And hope. And love.”

***

Mo was a little tipsy when he stepped out of Tomato after the party. That song Mo loved kept running through his mind. So she wouldn’t worry, Mo had told Katherine he would be late that night. There was something else, though, he hadn’t told her. He wanted to walk, to think about everything that was changing in his life.

He made a right turn and headed toward Dolores Avenue. When he reached the street, he turned right and stood for a moment, admiring the majestic palms.

“I am here,” he said. “I am here in San Francisco. The most beautiful city in the world.”

Mo brushed his fingers across the small box he was carrying in his pocket, making sure it was still there.

“Safe,” he said. “And free.”

The delicious taste of that last word filled his mouth, as he prepared to walk home and ask the woman he loved to marry him.

About the Author

Patty Somlo

Facebook Twitter Website Instagram LinkedIn

Patty Somlo’s most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, was published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a Black-owned press committed to literary activism. Hairway was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Two of Somlo’s previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were Finalists in several book contests. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, Under the Sun, the Los Angeles Review, and The Nassau Review, among others, and in over 30 anthologies. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in the Parks and Points Essay Contest and in the J.F. Powers Short Fiction Contest, had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize multiple times, as well as to Best of the Net.