Dec 26, 2014
Posted in: Miscellaneous
I wrote the following story overnight on Christmas Eve. It's grounded in reality, my reality and the reality of people I know, but it's entirely fictional. I hope it offers just the tiniest bit of perspective, or at the very least, some fun reading. It's not entirely cheerful though.
In any case, Merry Christmas :D Expect a series of posts about actual stuff that happened this semester over the next several days.
On Christmas Eve, I went to bed drunk. Or at least feeling drunk. I didn’t try anything too hard, you see; with an income like mine, there’s only so much spirit of adventure your liquor can take. I pulled out chicken from the microwave, sat by the small television in my room, pulled a six-pack to my chest. This was one of those rare nights with electricity, and SuperStory was on. It played every Wednesday night, and I never had any idea what was going on in the show—except that people seemed to cry or complain in every scene. You could tell they were sad. Their eyes were red and they screamed every word and they spent a lot of time biting their lips and staring at the floor and shaking their heads and gesticulating.
The images did nothing for me. Except, I suppose, their sound. The sound of the SuperStory folks filled the room with substance at least, and although my eyes barely ever found the TV, my ears picked up every syllable.
I took two bites of the chicken before realizing that it was bad, damn bad. Smelled like eggs left for weeks in a trashcan. Tasted worse. I ate all of it anyway—two wings and a lap, all of which showed red beneath the first layer of brown, greasy skin. Then I washed the taste down with beer…one, then two, then six. Nothing seemed to change, at least not for a while. Then I began to feel a little funny.
I thought I heard a sound from the only other room in the apartment, the one separated from me by a thin, wooden door. But I listened, long and hard and carefully. Nothing. I must have imagined the noise, or perhaps Papa had simply stopped stirring. Then there was a crackle in the dusty overhead bulb and the lights in the room went off. Power was gone again. This was the norm.
I made my way to the sink, able to navigate around the wooden stools and time-faded furniture even in the pitch-blackness. I rummaged around the drawer beneath the sink, pulled two candles and a box of matchsticks. I lit both candles, and took them to Papa’s room. It smelled in here, the mustiness of old clothes and sharp tang of cockroach insecticide losing their war to the smell of Papa himself. Half his body lay angled off the floor mattress and a spool of drool hung from his mouth. I thought of pushing him into place—if he slept with his head on the floor, he’d likely wake up with a raging headache and a mood fouler than usual. But I was long past the point of tending to inconveniences alongside necessities. I placed one of the candles on a table overlooking Papa, and retreated into the other room with the second.
I lay down on the floor-mat underneath the television. I watched the flickering imprint of my shadow on the cracked wall. With the way my legs were pulled up, knees resting together, I thought my shadow looked like a gaping mouth. Hungry somehow. Outside, the first wave of generators churned their obnoxious sounds. I was covered in sweat. It was a hot night, and the candle wasn’t making matters better, but I knew I needed it. I couldn’t have a repeat of the last time. Papa had woken up screaming, and lines of cold had seemed to burst onto my skin. I’d woken up, disoriented, lost in pitch blackness, had tripped over a row of glass cups I’d been yet to wash, had landed on one of them with the right side of my face. Let’s just say that it hadn’t been a good night for either Papa or me.
I thought of the weekend, aware that it was getting just a bit harder to think. I felt funny and tired and a little hiccup-y, and it didn’t seem like my thoughts were thoughts at all—but weird approximations, tangled sounds bouncing in all directions of my mind, vanishing deeper and deeper into velvety black. But I could still think of the weekend, and of Doctor Omezia.
He was a thin man, too thin, but his face had that wrinkled, unhappy expression of stress I associated with wisdom, and when he spoke, his words poured forth slowly, each one imbued with the power of his persona. Last time we had met, he had grimly explained that the hospital couldn’t be expected to keep attending to Papa, not with our months-due bill still making its merry way up a mountain.
“We have to draw the line somewhere,” he had said. “And I’m afraid this is the end of the road.”
But I was getting my December paycheck on Friday, and although it would barely make a dent in the monstrous fees demanding attention, most of it might be enough to appease Doctor Omezia for a little while. I’d stop by on Saturday morning and try to reason with him.
We have to draw the line somewhere.
I giggled. It was a bit of a funny thing to say. I stretched out my hand. On the wall, a shadowy finger traced a crooked line.
I think I slept before midnight, so I wasn’t awake when time flickered from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day, but barely three hours into the new day, I woke up to the sounds of Papa. My body was soaked in a sea of sweat, and the shadows on the wall were gone. The darkness around me was strange; my head was pounding, my eyes shivering in their sockets. And from nearby, there were cries…
I snapped to my feet at once, faintly aware of something important in my mind, something fast-vanishing. Whatever it was, I ignored it, and ran for the next room. Papa’s candle was still lit, and he was up against a wall. His mattress was covered in the yellow slime of puke, and from the pungent smell in the air, I could tell that he had unloaded his bowels on himself.
“Nwa m,” he mumbled, in a low unsteady voice. His left hand stretched out to me. “Biko, yere mu aka.”
I sidestepped the vomit, put his arm—which felt frailer than ever—around my shoulders. An open space where there should have been a door led into the toilet, where I washed Papa off. He had stopped coughing, and said nothing as I wiped his arms and beneath his armpit with a wet rag-like towel.
I motioned at his pants. He stared at me, doing nothing. The candle from near his mattress dispelled enough light into the room that I could make out the bend of his eyes. There was something broken in them. Once upon a time, that might have meant something to me. I unstrapped his belt and pulled down his pants. I went on wiping.
Papa went back to sleep afterward. I had used up all the water in the toilet buckets, and the taps still weren’t running. I led Papa to the living room, so that he could sleep on my mat. He lay down slowly, turned away from me.
I crouched, held his shoulder.
“How do you feel now?” I asked him.
He didn’t say anything. I heard his stomach pull in air and push it out, pull and push, pull and push. The pattern was profuse. I reached for his face, most of which was lost to the darkness. He flinched when I touched him, but only slightly. His cheeks were wet.
“I’ll be back soon,” I said. “I promise.”
I went back to the bathroom, grabbed one of the rusty iron buckets, and made my way out of the apartment, squinting to make out the shape of everything. In the corridor outside, the temperature was much cooler and the sound of neighbors’ generators much louder. The corridor ended in a flight of stairs that wound downward and led outside, in the direction of the water tanks. But I didn’t make it down the corridor. The rest of my senses seemed to be catching up with me. The same sense of weary frustration was now mixed with a thumping headache. I set the bucket on the floor. Sat down slowly.
I had managed a glance at the wall clock in Papa’s room before I had headed out here, and it was probably close to four a.m. right about now. This side of Lagos had a peculiar sound at four a.m. It was the sound of unfettered life, unformed chaos. The generators droned and droned at their differing frequencies. Vehicles blared and horned and buzzed. If I listened hard enough, I could hear the sound of bus conductors.
Not for the first time, I imagined waking up one day, and walking out the door with nothing at all. None of my belongings, not the faded-white sheets I had held since the long-gone days of glamorous Unilag, in the lifetime my complaints had revolved around the campus cafeteria spaghetti tasting like uncooked rice, around evil professors and exams I was certain I had failed. I wouldn’t take the sheets and I wouldn’t pack any bags. I wouldn’t take Papa, or my fears, my endless fears. I would just walk into one of those buses, ten naira squeezed in my fist, and vanish from this town, and into Apapa. Hit reset. Start anew.
I wasn’t sure why but I was thinking of Michael…had he, had he been in the dream? Was that what had vanished shortly after Papa’s burst of sound had woken me up? I hadn’t thought of him in so long. We had been close friends in Unilag, but in my mind, there had always been that road in the woods, the one never explored. Michael had definitely been in the dream. His face was luminescent, his skin textured like silk, his fingers serpentine on mine, and he had pulled me into something, into the radius of his body and the wrap of his arms, sturdy around my shoulders. The sensation, that air-ripping sensation of our chests colliding…it had been part of the dream, but it felt helplessly real. I could still imagine the heat that came with his hugs, his voice, his eyes crinkled in their usual look of impending mischief. And his fingers, which differed from the heat, because it was always cold, even when the sun blazed its most ferocious. Michael would sometimes grip me and those fingers would be cold, and I would be aware of their texture on mine, their feel on mine, like something burned into memory, never to be forgotten.
Papa’s distant cough snapped me out of my thoughts. It was like stepping into a new world; for a moment, I had no idea where I was. Then I realized I was out in the open, crouched against a wall, my arms crossed tightly around myself. My eyes were burning.
Quickly, I rose, headed down the corridor and toward the tanks. I needed to mop up the vomit in Papa’s room, and then I needed to prepare for work. My head still throbbed and I could still taste the chicken and alcohol in my breath, and I was so goddamn tired. But I knew I wasn’t going to bed anytime soon.
I didn’t realize it was Christmas until I got to work.
Quick Deli had a sign outside its entrance doors, reminding customers of the holiday specials and discounts. But we had no customers yet—Quick Deli didn’t open for another half-hour.
Ajegunle was a very different place at seven a.m. than it was at four a.m. The chaos was still there, but so much bigger. Outside Quick Deli, a congestion of traffic bellowed its trumpets—keke napeps hooted; their drivers cursed. Smoke from the exhaust pipes of a thousand cars rose and shimmered in the clear morning air. Roadside hawkers, many of them no older than six, raced after vehicles, showing their wares and screaming: “Gonu okpa, okpa di oku!” and “Gala meat, gala meat, twenty naira, gala meat!”
The morning bus I’d taken stopped on the other side of the road from Quick Deli, and as I crossed the street, treading an intersection of small unoccupied road segments in the byzantine maze of traffic, an okada driver nearly hit me. As his vehicle raced past me, he directed an entire right palm toward me in a familiar insult, his voice spewing the rest.
“Warka!” he screamed. “Your father is an idiot!”
I was far too tired from last night to scream back, but as I approached the doors of Quick Deli, spotting the chalkboards with their Christmas Special announcements, I imagined a different scenario—okada man races toward me, I elbow him off his vehicle, take the ballpoint pen out of my pocket and jam the entire thing into his throat.
Inside, Amaka and Ezenwa had already started sweeping.
“Chisom,” Amaka said. She was a big girl, stocky. Her hair was always folded in elaborate braids, and every step she took seemed to come with effort and heaving. It never stopped her voice from being loud and irritating. I especially didn’t like the way she said my name, in the same tone she might have used to chase off a rabid dog. “You’re late again.”
“Allow Chisom to rest joor,” said Ezenwa, glaring at Amaka. “She’s only five minutes late.” She turned to me. “You can help us clean the tables. We have to be fast. We have twenty-five minutes until—”
“I know,” I snapped. I walked into the backroom to put on one of Quick Deli’s apron-like uniforms and proceeded to work. None of the girls wished me a Merry Christmas. I didn’t wish them one either.
The next twelve hours were long and unending.
Customers trickled in, and I thought of Hydra. It was one of those stupid, foreign movies the people of obodo onyingbo seemed to make in their hundreds, about a several-headed monster that grew two heads each time one was cut off. The customers seemed like different parts of a single Hydra. Each time one of them left, more of them trickled in.
Village travel was big around Christmas, and I had been praying that most Lagosians that had any reason to stop at Quick Deli on a normal day would have been at their villages. This didn’t seem to be the case. I saw a lot of the regular customers—Chief Kalu and his mousy wife, Obinna Eze, the scruffy man who worked at a nearby pharmaceutical, the big woman they called Madam Esther, who always wore itchy-looking scarves that were bigger than her face. There were also hordes of others, a lot of them first- or second-timers. But it didn’t really matter. To them, I was the same. Faceless. Virtually unknown. I wasn’t the one that took their orders. I wasn’t the one that met them at the door with a favored smile, asking where they wanted to sit, and if their Christmas had been going great so far. I was the one with the broom and the mop, cleaning up every mess that was made so that the next customer found a clean eating space when he or she arrived.
There was something about holding a broom that made you so small until you vanished. Maybe it was the fact that you were bent over all the time, looking at all sorts of dirt etched on the floor instead of at the faces of people. But I had learned from experience that even if you looked at them, they didn’t look at you, at least not from anywhere else but the corners of their eyes. None of them talked to me. I just bent low and swept the bits of rice that had spilled over the table. As customers rose and left, I ran with my green Quick Deli rag to soak up bits of dried stew and chunks of half-eaten meat.
I had a half-hour break at two p.m. I took off the Quick Deli uniform, washed my hands in the kitchen sink, and vanished into one of the stalls in the employee bathroom. The toilet in this stall had a busted flush, and was clogged with flies and feces, but it was nothing I wasn’t already familiar with from home. I locked the door and leaned against a wall and exhaled. Let out a stream of air I didn’t realize I had been holding in. Then I cried. For several minutes, I held onto the wall and cried, until it was streaked with my tears.
It was a bit funny how the world worked, wasn’t it, in the cruelest way funny things often are. A year ago, I had been on track to graduating with my Unilag degree in Accounting. Between then and now, every good thing had vanished like smoke caught in the wind. I had missed yet another tuition bill. Mama and Papa had been caught in the accident on Awolowo Street, where only one of them had walked out alive, a mangled remnant of what had once been. I had left Unilag with a lot of debt and no degree. And a father who was by himself, who needed me every day. For the pettiest jobs, I had begged and pleaded and had letters of rejection shoved in my face. I didn’t know anyone. I had no “connections”. I had no way to get anywhere. Until about seven months ago, when I had landed this job at Quick Deli.
And for seven months, I had worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, cleaning toilets and tables, mopping floors, and only getting spoken to when a customer wanted to tell you that her table was dirty and that you were a fool if you thought that they wouldn’t get their money’s worth of quality service. Or when people like Amaka wanted to pull you aside during breaks, eager to share their stories. There was commiseration in the ultimate shared experience—the experience of being the lowest rung on the economic ladder, the thing people side-glanced and politely smiled at and heatedly insulted. It was commiseration in which I had never indulged, not with anyone but myself.
Seven months could be so long. Infinite.
At the beginning of my time at Quick Deli, I had still held on hope to my school friend, Michael, who had needed to take an extra year to complete his Mechanical Engineering degree, but who could at least afford everything, thanks to a father whose job involved routine association with the National House of Assembly. I had loved Michael; the sheer force of that love had frightened me, but we had been friends, the kind of friends that got together every other day in the library to trudge through schoolwork, or got together in his room to gasp over the new episodes of Game of Thrones he had gotten. And after I’d had to leave, he had promised me that we would keep in touch—we would text every day.
But every day had a way of becoming every week and then every month and then some months, and the messages of those sporadic moments often had words like “sorry” and “busy”.
In seven months, nothing really changed. Sure, the bills grew, but your job stayed the same, and your mostly sick father stayed the same and the same circle of acquaintances you saw every week stayed the same. But in seven months, I wilted. The big dreams I held onto slowly vanished. At first, they had been what pushed me through each day.
It’s just a stepping stone, I’d tell myself. Just get through this day, this hot, terrible day, and you’re one step closer to where you want to be.
But now, I got through each day, because I had no other option. I sweated the hours and the pain and a fracturing loneliness only to survive. But I had long stopped living. On Christmas Day, I was still the same. I watched the merry lives of people I’d never know, people I hated, people more fortunate than I could ever hope to be. I served at their feet. To them, today was a big day—filled with bright twinkling lights and presents and relatives. To me, it was another day caught as a small, unseen bug in the spectacle of a large screen.
My shift ended at seven p.m. Janice took over then. She was a part-time employee who did the same thing I did until midnight, when Quick Deli closed. I waved goodbye perfunctorily to Ezenwa and Amaka, and as I left the restaurant, a short, stout woman walked in, a little kid in a bright red T-shirt trailing after her. The woman smiled at me for a second, and said, “Merry Christmas.” She was out of my field of vision before I could reply. It was the only Christmas greeting I got that day.
The traffic had only marginally improved over the past twelve hours, and as my bus snaked its way down the road, I nearly passed out. It was usually easy to stay awake in any one of Lagos’s overcrowded buses. You were often squished in a row of seats that was designed to seat five, yet somehow managed to fit fifteen. Ajegunle Market was only a short stop from Quick Deli, and on the ride to the bus stop closest to my home, you could often see a lot of market-folk, a lot of who came with their bawling kids. Plus there was always the risk of pickpockets, who crawled the surface of Lagos. One meaningless bump into a random stranger, and you were suddenly missing five thousand naira.
Yet, I felt myself slipping farther and farther into sleep. I made no attempt to stay awake, until my eyes found something that snapped me right back up. I was cramped near the end of the bus’s length, and a few rows ahead of me, two people were huddled between a woman cradling her baby atop a bag of unsold vegetables and an old woman peering quietly out the window. These two were dressed in familiar matching outfits usually only worn by college graduates serving out the nation’s compulsory National Youth Service Corps program. One of them, a tall man whose head nearly scraped the roof of the bus, had headphones on, and an arm around the other—a light-skinned girl whose head was perched on his shoulder. His other arm was linked to one of hers.
For a moment, I was frozen, all my senses utterly aware, trained on the simple sight. I thought back to my dream, which had dredged up Michael, the sensations of Michael, the sensations of life, of love and loving, want and wanting. I looked away from the couple, suddenly and perversely certain that I had lost everything forever.
Papa was back in his room, asleep.
At least so I thought at first. I had cleaned up the vomit several hours ago, and before leaving for work, had left a plate of jollof rice in the microwave for Papa and another on the table in his room. He barely ate much lately. He claimed that it was because I’d uprooted him from the village where the meals were richer and more delicious.
“City food,” he sometimes said, in a voice usually reserved for talking about Satan, “is overcooked—too much salt, too much pepper, and nothing else.”
I hadn’t wanted to move him from the small family home in the village into my shoestring apartment in the city, but he had no one else to look after him, and I certainly wasn’t going to condemn myself to the village life yet again.
In any case, I knew his ramblings about the city food were really ramblings about the city. Before Mama died, she had suggested that they move several times, and Papa had always insisted that they couldn’t just abandon their ancestral roots and traditions. Once, while I had still been in Unilag, I’d come home for a short holiday and had overheard Papa telling Mama that the “white-man” methods were an abomination, that our ancestors alone knew the truth of the world. Unable to help myself, I had said, “Our ancestors believed in killing twins, that twins are evil. Is that right?” He’d glared at me, quipping in return, “Is that what they teach you girls in the city school, how to disrespect your elders?”
He had a natural grudge with the city life and its artifacts, but he usually ended up eating whatever meal I had prepared before leaving for work. But tonight, when I got back to the apartment, my bones still sore and aching, I noticed him motionless on his mattress…and I noticed the plate of food on the table above him.
There was no electrical power, and I was relying on my eyes, which hadn’t taken sight of the darkness long enough to make out shapes clearly, so I moved closer. I hadn’t seen wrong. He hadn’t eaten. I stared for a moment at the untouched plate, my heart playing drums in my throat, and then I turned to him.
“Papa,” I said.
He didn’t stir.
I bent low, placed my hand on his shoulder.
I don’t know how long I stood in that half-crouch, watching him, willing myself not to think, not to move, because I didn’t know what to think, what to do. I don’t know how long, but it felt like forever, and then Papa stirred. He mumbled words I didn’t hear, and turned to one side of the room, facing me. I could make out his closed eyes. I drew my fingers close to his nose, felt the faint puff of air on them. I let out a small breath. Inside me, something small and unfamiliar wilted.
“I’ll…I’ll get you a candle,” I whispered to him. “Merry Christmas, Papa.”
But I didn’t get a candle. At least not for a while. I went back to my small fridge, and dug out a six-pack. It was the last one. At least until tomorrow.
In the small corner of my room, where the TV and my floor mat lay, a small window looked out into the thicket of buildings and cars and people that made up this corner of Lagos. I sifted through my hair, pulled out the hairpin, and let my tufts fall to my shoulders. It didn’t make me feel free or empowered or anything, but it reminded me of tomorrow. Tomorrow, I would have to fold my hair back into a ball, would have to return to work, would have to survive. Nothing had changed.
I pulled up the window. Distant sounds were carried on a low wind and into my room. The faint hoot of a commercial train, the horns and the hoots of people and their vehicles, the song of the survivors. It seemed realer, louder; it filled the room. I sat by the window, listening, and drank the first of the six-pack.