The mother, in short tight clothes, smudgy-eyed and lank-haired, wasted from taking more than her usual count of men, and, smiling a wry smile, told her son that the streets were no longer safe.
She sat on a foam-bare cushion chair, lit cigarette in one hand, in the middle of her one-room apartment at 8, Uwelu Street, Benin-city. Her son leaned into the wall by the window, listening to the merry staccato of neighbors who returned from work. It was a rather cold, dark evening. Now it was that time of the year when harmattan crept out of nowhere, bearing airs of dust and gusts of biting cold, and although the windows were shut, her son could hear in this room, where the stench of sour groundnut soup and cigarette smoke suffocated the air, the paused breaths of his mother. He turned to look at her. Saffron rays from headlights of passing cars glinted off the windows, catching his mother puffing her cigarette.
“The police are everywhere,” she said, staring at the ceiling with that concentration one only finds in solitude. Her barely noticeable smile disappeared and was replaced with a frown.
“I know,” was all her son could say.
But he knew. A sudden wave of criminal activities had forced local government to take action. A few of his friends about his age, who had persisted, had been bounded off to cells that never saw daylight, now smelling of shit, now smelling of dead, decaying bodies.
But he knew. Thieving had been so good. Breaking into small shops and frightening handbags off of women in long dark alleys had proven less difficult for him. He narrowed his eyes, which grew darker and darker with each thought, and turning his face away, said, “I know.”
The world outside quieted down. Crickets, in their numbers, chirped all around the room and, each time, their stern chirps were accompanied by an owl’s hoots or the scratch-scratch of rats or the grinding hums of a generating set, bleating like an upset goat. These sounds annoyed him. Tired, with his eyes puffy and his limbs numb, he wished for sleep. He crossed to the far end of the room where a rolled-up mattress stood against the wall. He freed the thin cord binding the mattress, a stale scent of urine mixed with sweat hitting his nose in strong whiffs, his whole face wringing in disgust. He spread the mattress, with its torn lumpy side lining the wall. He beckoned to his mother to come to bed. She murmured, shifted in her chair, and just then did a heavy fist pound on their door.
“Pay me my money. Pay me my money,” shouted a loud, angry voice. It was the landlord. “Ahn ahn. You people cannot live in my house for free. Pay me my money. Pay me my money.”
The door shook against its frame, rattling its rusty hinges. The mother and her son froze. They both knew how kind and patient the landlord had been. But they had to have expected such anger in him. After all, who lives in a house, owing a two-year rent and hoping that, whenever he opens his door for the brilliant radiance of the morning sun, he will find his landlord standing there at his doorpost, bearing a gift of yellow carnations and offering his hand for a heartfelt handshake? And so they listened to the angry knocks on the door. They prayed that the door would not choose this moment to fall apart. The pounding stopped, and the next thing they heard was the heavy footfalls of the landlord as he walked away, promising to return with thugs the following day.
“What are we going to do?” the mother asked. She watched her son’s still figure, fidgeting, her dimming eyes searching his glazed eyes, wanting to know his thoughts, if he had any. But he inched closer and closer toward her, roped his arm round her swarthy back and eased her up, out of the chair. The chair, greatly depressed in the centre, creaked. Burning low on a wooden stool beside the chair was a candle, flickering in faint wind, throwing heavy shadows of the mother and her son about the room. “What are we going to do?” Her eyes moistened with fear and grief and years that died away on hopelessness. “Tamamwen. Tell me.”
He would not reply. Careful as to not burn her fingers, he took the cigarette stub and flicked it across the room, where it glowed a ruddy glow and extinguished in its ashes. Steadying his hold around her, they glided across the room in half-light and, on reaching the mattress, as if placing a delicate ware, he laid his mother on her back, a pillow propped beneath her head. Again she searched his eyes and thought she saw some light—not bright, not dull—wavering in his eyes. She knew that light, what it bore, felt what stood hovering above her was an unthinking son, maybe. When she closed her eyes, she felt him beside her, seemingly breathless.
What could he possibly tell her? He gazed at the shadows dancing high up on ceiling, thought them comical: a hand with seven fingers, no, a stretched comb with many teeth, a bird with no wings, two married trees. He watched them waltz across the ceiling, letting his guesses switch as slowly as each shadow’s sweep. The candle burnt its last wax, sputtered and went out forever, and his thoughts dissolved into the stifling darkness. Yet, in this pitch-dark room, he felt his mother’s eyes searing through him, demanding an answer. But a Jeep came, the fairly livable past came, everything merged and blurred, and he fell asleep.
By day, the son wheeled goods from New Benin main market to roadsides where customers parked their clean expensive cars. In the slanted streaks of morning light, under rusted roofs of wood-shack stalls, surrounded by a sea of people pouring in and out of the market and the air smelling of sun-baked dump, he jostled to get new customers. He worked so hard people in the market knew him. They called him Zikky.
Like the air they breathed, sellers needed him at all times to help customers move their goods, or for repairs. So they would say, “Zikky, come quick. Madam has bought three bags of rice and needs help lifting them to her car,” and “Zikky! Zikky! The pole behind my shed has shifted again. Can you help me fix it?” And whenever sales were low, he rounded the market to the provisions warehouse, around the back of which butchers fought with ruthless flies, and carted wares—cartons of Nasco biscuit, milk, gallons of groundnut oil—for a paltry sum.
It was one of such days. Wind blowing bitter dust, crows cawing high above sun-lit skies, the market lay almost empty. He sat under a cassia tree and watched cars roll by. He picked dried twigs, drew shapes in the soil, rested his head against the tree’s bark and listened to the soft rustles of leaves nestling leaves, the songs of nesting birds, branches swaying and shimmying in gentle breeze. He felt at peace here. His eyes drooped before they finally shut out sunlight pushing through shades of dry green.
“Zikky, my man.” A rough voice jolted him awake. “Zikky, my good man. How you dey?”
“Oh, it’s you, Osaro.” He yawned, rubbing away with the back of his palms a reverie that had only just began.
“Ah, my man. You dey sleep this hot afternoon. Hope all is well?”
“Yes. Just bad market.”
“Ah. Bad market?” Osaro’s eyes widened, caught by surprise. “Why you too dey suffer-suffer yourself like this? Abi street hustle no dey pay again?”
“Police dey everywhere now o.”
“Police? Them be God? Zikky, make you forget police matter.”
“Hmmm.” He sighed, more in exhaustion than an affirmation of his friend’s truth. He wanted to ask Osaro how he had been faring since they stopped stealing, wanted to know if, probably, there was an area in town untouched by the police. But he sighed again, squinting at the slivers of bright reflections bouncing off the windows of a bright red Mazda that barreled its way into the pot-holed market.
“My man, you never hear?”
“Na for campus big money dey now o.”
“How? Wetin you dey talk?”
Osaro edged closer to Zikky, face forward, lips protruding, as if to give him a light peck on the cheek. His breath reeked of beer and Zikky could tell by his swagger that he had been drinking all day. He told Zikky how he made money from stealing on the university campus. How he pretended to be a student and gained easy access to places where he could steal. How, after a week of keeping at it, he profited six laptops, ten mobile phones and three ATM cards.
Zikky gaped at Osaro, who fell in hoarse laughter, rolling in the knee-high grass, knife-like tufts of grass sticking all over his body. He sprang on his feet, sand and red ants caught in the folds of his crumpled shorts. He turned away and saw opportunities lost, months spent on fruitless thoughts. He wondered how Osaro had birthed such an idea, wanted to ask him but knew asking alone would make him appear more foolish than he already was. When he turned to look at Osaro muddied in red dust, he heard someone approaching in a distance, shouting his name.
“Zikky, come, come, come. My special customer has bought everything in my shop. What a lucky day it is for me.” It was Mama Twinee, a woman popular in the market for only giving birth to twins, whose two children Zikky had assisted in paying their term fees—the only secret he stowed away from his mother for the first time in six years since he dropped out of secondary school.
Zikky glanced at Mama Twinee pushing her way through the market, belly forward, hands flailing in mid-air. To save her the sweat of running up to him, he waved at her, shouted that he was coming over. Seeing Mama Twinee, one would think she had no other means of support given the manner she worked so hard to make money to raise her children. But what can a woman earn from a husband, whose only job is to buy beer with borrowed money, boasting to his talkative band of drinkers of how manly he is, producing twin after twin, like an automated machine?
He sped after Mama Twinee, caught up with her, pulled a reassuring plastic smile, and told her to slow down her movements, to take deep breaths. Didn’t she know she was heavy with babies?
“Zikky,” she said, “You talk as though I have any choice. If I lose this customer, where else will I get money to feed myself and my children? Don’t you know her money will save my life?”
He wasn’t listening to her. The day’s heat had grown into a stifling blanket, and even in the swirl of his thoughts and the dry wind wheezing past his ears and his feet slapping hot earth, he could really manage a smile. There was hope after all.
“Aha. You’re smiling,” said Mama Twinee.
“Yes. Yes,” he said, “A good day for you.”
“There she is. Ah, Zikky, where is your wheelbarrow?”
Zikky looked like someone lost. He disappeared around a bend and heard Mama Twinee hurling his name all over the place like massive pelts of rain. He heard her begging her customer to exercise a little patience, a little this, a little that: Would she like to have a drink? Perhaps, a stool to sit on? This patience, Zikky wondered, from experience, was like a needle-in-a-haystack virtue around here; and he prayed Mama Twinee wouldn’t lose her customer. He surfaced around the same bend, noisily tumbling through.
“Madam, I tell you,” said Mama Twinee, “Zikky is a very hardworking boy.”
He felt Mama Twinee’s eyes on him, knew she had only made such a proclamation to please the waiting customer. He arranged each ware carefully into his barrow—sack of tomatoes in the middle, unripe plantain sagging at the front, the rest by the sides. He asked the customer for directions to her car and then wheeled away happily.
What he did not know was that the customer whom he half noticed had, all the while, taken him in detailed measure; that in the flurry of activities outside the main market and din of honking horns, a woman almost twice his age really liked him.
“What is your name?” she asked, after tipping him double the usual amount.
He looked from the money to the smiling customer and back to the money. He repeated this, again and again, his eyes beaming, the hairs of his body raised, tingled with pleasant surprise. He could not believe that people, like this suited woman in black heels and straightened hair falling on her shoulders like a million dark brown butterflies, existed in this world.
“Isaac,” he said, “My name is Isaac. But people around here call me Zikky.”
“I like Isaac.” Her singsong voice reminded him of things smooth and glossy, like his mother’s storm blue blouse which she wore to church on Sundays, before she stopped believing in a God that existed in a world where misery and hardships and losses thrived.
“Thank you Ma. Big money. Big, big money. Thank you Ma.”
“It’s okay. And please don’t call me Ma. That makes me feel way older than I am. Call me Susan.”
Later, Isaac would learn that Susan was an unmarried investment banker who was in town, in a rented apartment, to spend her three months’ vacation, away from the meddling eyes of her family, away from places that reminded her of relationships that had come and gone and had scarred her heart so badly she had tried to kill herself, not once, not twice. It was during their bed affairs she would relate her stories to Isaac, and Isaac would listen and sometimes not listen, feigning attention, scheming to steal her gold jewelry and expensive watches and her electronic gadgets and her Italian leather heels. He would think of better lives for him and his mother.
He would not see Susan’s sudden departure.
When, on a bright Saturday morning he called at her house and was given a letter by Susan’s gardener, he did not read the letter but fed it to the brackish gutter, where it floated away and was drowned into a big drain by rain. He called himself a fool.
Had you walked across the tree-lined crescent where Susan lived, where the air smelled sharply of magnolias and bougainvilleas, had you seen a wiry-built man standing like a statue, frowning, looking as though he would pounce on any passerby in such a fine morning weather, had you picked the flowery envelope this man chose not to open but flung into an open gutter, you would have read Susan’s words:
My sweet Isaac, I’m sorry I have to leave without telling you, without at least seeing for the last time those eyes that held so much warmth and affection I felt I would one day choke on. But I have to go. I’m dying. The doctor says I have breast cancer. I can’t imagine a life without my two breasts. How terrible alone had it been when I had them healthy and firm. I’m going home to my family in Lagos, where I can leave this world breath by breath. Where my family will return from their holiday in America and find their daughter. I hope you find love elsewhere. Please, find love. Yours till we meet again, Susan.
Isaac donned his cheaply bought NY cap, squared his shoulders, and adjusted his dark-rimmed glasses until it sat askew on the bridge of his nose from too many adjustments. He looked into the cracked mirror, admiring his slow transformations, but did not see his tender arms jutting out from a cot east of the room. He did not see his mother in a white maternity gown standing by a table, preparing his baby meal of cereal and milk.
His mother sang, her warm mellowed voice drowning Isaac’s wah-wah-wahs. Her baby was hungry. She reached for the thermos flask, loosened its cap and poured, mixing, till the hot water dissolved the solid food and formed a paste, filling the cup to the brim. She felt the body of the cup with the back of her hand, distrusted the temperature, tasted the food, and screamed from the scalding hotness on her tongue. Isaac resumed his wah-wah-wahs, louder this time, as though stung by an ant.
And which is of course why when he raised his arm to extend his cap forward, over his hairline, the way he had seen some university students wear caps, he did not see his father walking hand-in-hand with him through the front door, their other hands bearing ice-cream. He ate into the ice-cream cone, the edges of his mouth stained, dribbling with melted vanilla at the sides onto his naked chest. His father bent over him, eyes closed, and licked the cream. He giggled, his father laughed. They hugged each other, tightly, their two bodies melding into one form in the afterglow, him filling the air around them with the smell of shampoo and boyhood, his father blanketing him with the scent of his aftershave. His mother stood in the doorway, eyes gleaming with affection for both, mouth stuffed with laughter, heart consumed with the glowing sensation of dreams every young woman hoped to see fulfilled in motherhood.
But when Isaac stared at the mirror, stroking his stubble, assessing his disguise, he did not see himself crying at the feet of his father who was leaving. His mother had not slept the previous night, then rolling from one side of the bed to the other, then getting up to say prayers and to read her bible. Her husband was leaving for France. He said that there was a fat chance of making money there. Times were hard; they could barely feed, without borrowing money from friends, which had inadvertently led to begging, without making credit purchases, without fighting. Why not America? Why not some other African country, like Ghana? She had asked him. She could not imagine raising a child on her own. Yes, she knew women who survived without husbands, women whose husbands left for white men’s lands and stayed there for many years and returned with foreign accent and foreign money and foreign everything, but the thing was: Didn’t her husband know that people got lost in big, big places, like France?
He promised on his life to return. He wrestled to get away that morning because he did not want to miss his flight. Other men did it, he could do it. He could ingest substances bagged in thick nylon and not eat or drink anything for forty-eight hours. He could hurdle past security checks at international airports. He could shit wrappers of the substances he ingested when he got to France. He could wait out in the cold in dark hideous places for dealers who would pay big money in exchange. He would return home to buy estates and own investments. He would be rich.
Twenty years now and Isaac’s father was like a twist of grey smoke ascending into a vast sky. And, maybe, this was why when Isaac strapped on his gold wristwatch—the only gift he got from Susan—and stood full-length in the mirror for a quick and final observation, his eyes did not catch the naivety written on his boyish face as he watched his mother share what used to be his father’s space with a stranger, in this room that had impressed on him first-hand the smell of cigarettes and alcohol and how colors translated to life.
It had been the Friday of his second week at school. Earlier, he was introduced to colors, and after four color lessons, he still found it difficult to understand why magenta wouldn’t just be red. Or, why he identified blue as blue, yet his teacher called it turquoise. What is crimson? What is violet? He hated the color lessons. Why didn’t colors stop count at red, blue, yellow, green, black and white? But when he walked in on his mother doing the grown-up thing with the male stranger—and there were many male strangers afterwards—he thought he saw the color brown, not like the kola-stained teeth of the man on top of his mother grinning at him. Brown. Like the dead leaves littering the floor of the playground at his school. Brown: a reminder of happy memories gone with the wind, a graceless transition into a life phase so peculiar and seething to grasp, like smoke. He would identify pink in the stars he saw in his mind’s eye after his mother beat him senseless with an iron rod and warned that he should never intrude upon her private affairs. He would realize that he could have made good grades in his color lessons, if only the colors had appeared to him in a purer, more innocent light.
And when, after he tried on his overpriced suede shoes and breathed in the familiar scent of the room and stole a last glance at his reflection, he slipped into the night, to the university campus, and would not see the pitch-black in his mother’s teary eyes as she loses yet another loved one to a world so unkind it would not hide its fangs even in broad daylight.
Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor is a Nigerian writer whose work has appeared in Open Road Review, No Tokens, Litro Magazine, Volume 1 Brooklyn, The Bombay Review, Aerodrome, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in Kweli Journal and Juked. An alumnus of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA)/Yusuf Ali Creative Writing Workshop and Short Story Day Africa (SSDA) Migrations Flow Workshop, and an MTN and Etisalat Merit Scholar, he has been shortlisted for the Annual Southern Pacific Review Short Story Prize(2016). He was longlisted for AMAB-HBF Flash Fiction Prize (2015), and he has just been longlisted for the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize. He is also a two-time recipient of Festus Iyayi Award for Excellence for Prose (2015/2016) and has won the Comptroller Charles Edike Prize for Outstanding Essays (2014). He is at work on a full-length debut novel.