A Kernel for a Fowl
By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo (Nigeria)
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As you drove home after that final unanswered call, tears of finality trickled down your eyes. Your heart broke into many pieces like a clay pot hit by a falling coconut. It wasn’t the first time an eagle like you ate a toad. But this toad might be too big to swallow.
Every mile away from Worcester, it seven steep hills fading behind, you imagined the undertakers preparing your first love for burial. This is one funeral you will not attend. You had waited for eternity for those tears to flow. Now you feared it would flood Lake Quinsigamond. But weeping was all your soul needed to be free.
At Tobin Bridge, across the Mystic River of Massachusetts, the spirits of those who could not bear heavy loads like this besieged you. They said, “Stop the car. Climb out. Take a jump off the bridge. Submerge your tired body into this cold water. It will cool your soul.” There were many voices. They were loud, cluttered and making eerie noise across the cantilever truss. You heard a voice like that of Charles Stuart. His murdered pregnant wife sobbed quietly in the background. You heard a splash as his body made the 115 ft plunge into the river, causing receding ripples just as Boston police circled his home.
You slowed down your car. You pulled up by the emergency lane. You gently clicked the door open with your tear-soaked hands. The night was chilly. You looked out and saw darkness as creepy as a monster’s claws. Suddenly, the voices stopped shouting and began to whisper in seductive tones. You put your energy-zapped foot out and it felt unsteady touching the frozen bridge.
From afar, you heard police sirens singing a dirge. They were hypnotically coming toward you. They were driving up - fast and furious. You ducked into the car like a scared snail burying its head in the shell. You started the car and drove off in panic. The voices jumped into the car with you and began to call you a coward. You assured them you were not a coward. You debated with them. They debased you. You continued to drive, fidgeting and frightened, until you got home.
It was 1.40 am when you got home. You had left friends who came together to celebrate your birthday to search for him. They have all gone now. As you lay on the bed, you unbuttoned your pants and took a wicked glance at your tattoo. You needed no one to tell you that you had become a different person.
You were not the kind who listened to the cry of ants. Your girlfriend, Ihuoma, had given up warning you about the potholes of your benevolence. Your response had been to ask her to watch the TV drama, Felicity. You wanted her to see the triumph of hope over cynicism. But she didn’t. Rather she insistently reminded you it is not necessary to inform the deaf that war had commenced.
After fruitless years of pursuing men, you believed in a man being dropped right into your arms. It was your publicly declared portion. It was the Almighty’s purpose for you. And that was how you met him. It validated your belief. It hardened your heart to everything else anyone was saying, including Ihuoma. From then on, everything else was undue disparagement of jaded people. And coming from Ihuoma who had not fared any better in the hands of men, you had no problem waving it aside. You had no fear that, like she said, you might be sanitarily cracking a kernel for a fowl, as Igbo proverb says.
You were a nurse, a degree holding Registered nurse. You never forgot that you ought to be rich. You worked round the clock. Every shift American nurses would not do, you would gladly accept. Holidays and all, you were available. In fact, you love the holidays because you get paid double the time. And at sixty dollars an hour, a double meant more than a new hairstyle. It meant a day at the spas, a visit to Bloomingdale's and another bottle of Agent Provocateur.
You drove a big BMW, SUV model. Most men who had the opportunity to get near you were intimidated by your confidence and your poise. Those who were not, who dared to approach you with brilliant pick up lines, you had doubts about their sincerity. You could not fathom if they were coming around because of your hard earned money or to take advantage of your residency status which you earned as a nurse?
It had taken you a long winding road to get here. But now you know there were opportunities that one missed in life that should be considered missed forever. You were the proof that bending over to reach it, many years after, was nothing but a waste of time. You have realized that the lessons in those missed opportunities were just to recognize new opportunities when they appear and to be prepared to grab them.
All your attempts to re-live the past were mere exercises in self-denial. If only you had said goodbye and picked up what remained of your dignity and dreamt new dreams, you would have found hope in the new dreams that were bigger and better.
For you, switching off the fantasy was like switching off the life support machine. That small hope that fantasy could yield, become real, and that life could be revived, might keep the heart alive. But it did not have the power to move the body an inch by itself. And that movement, even for an inch, was what differentiated the living from the dead.
Now that first love was dead, you hoped a second love would find the room in you to germinate and grow. Strange as it sounded, you thanked him for the tears - the tears of today. It cleansed you. And for the first time in four months, you, the African drama queen, could get off the stage and rest your feet. Hopefully, a new dance would not be very far away, for you die when there is no dance.
But for today, you chose to live with all the tattoos he etched on your body and soul.
It wasn’t long ago when he told you that you belonged to him. You assumed that it equally followed that he belonged to you. You were an African, but you now live in America. You cook with the microwave and you bathe inside the bathtub. You fetch no firewood and you draw no well water. You eat hamburger and not foofoo. You wear jeans and not buba. No proverbs were woven around computers, ipods and GPS systems. So you accepted that it equally followed that all proverbs were suspended. You had crossed seven seas and seven rivers. You had left behind the seven idioms of the seven shrines of your homeland. You were now in the land of the free and the home of the brave. All old things have passed away.
So you allowed him to etch a tattoo down your waistline. He tattooed you that first night he made love to you. You let him draw a big stop sign. He painted it red, too. When you wore a tank top, the red sign showed at your waistline. Your panties often split the sign into two. Further down, he wrote a special note. He ended it with an exclamation mark. His note says: Private property – do not trespass. Scorpions on guard, ready to sting objects as little as index fingers - men beware! Then you lay there for three hours as he drew a scorpion. You did not mind as he scraped off some pubic hair to find space for its tail.
He asked you to tattoo him too. But you were no tattoo artist. You were just a nurse. You told him not to worry. You did not need to draw your face around his phallus to be assured of his faithfulness. When he asked you what you would have drawn if you had wanted, you lied to him. You did not tell him you would have drawn a long stem of rose. Instead, you said to him, “I would have drawn a gun and simply written beside it, in capital letters, BANG.” You knew you were lying. But lying had become part of your life. Your true self had not taken you anywhere.
You were not always like this. In fact, when you came to America, you carried with you, like a little shell, all the norms you learnt at home. You dared not look a man deep in the eyes. Your Mama taught you to carry yourself with grace. Growing up in Enugu, you were able to resist the pressures of your peers. You still hear your mother’s voices. “Uzo, don’t be like those loose girls who are spoilt and are not good for marriage.” But her voice became faint as each day passed. You had managed to confine her voice to a small compartment where you place things of the past.
If only Mama could see you, she would not believe what you had become. You had become a grown up woman. A woman, ten times the woman she was. You knew what you wanted and how to get it. You did things that she could not imagine in this life and maybe, in the life to come. Somehow, you had learnt to please yourself. Sometimes you worry that you might be in a rush to recover the years you spent trying to please Mama. You did not regret those years. Without the restrictions, you probably would not have won the scholarship that brought you to America. But you were happy to fling away all inhibitions of the past.
He was the one who opened your eyes. He was the one who led you to places you did not know existed. In moments of bliss, you did not fail to remind him that he spoilt you. You liked to be spoilt. You liked to be pampered. You liked to be worshipped. You liked your man to think of nothing else but you. And you have succeeded with him. Like a tortoise, you had made him desire you. He desired you so much that he had agreed to lift the earth onto your head. Your only challenge was finding a place for him to stand as he did that.
You were not just a taker, you were also a giver. And that was how you met him. You were doing a graveyard shift at the trauma center of Union Hospital in Lynn, Massachusetts, when he was rushed into the hospital by paramedics. He had been shot by a Latino gang member right inside his barbershop/tattoo parlor. You were assigned to him after surgery to remove a bullet lodged in his thigh. A foot higher, the bullet would have shattered his manhood. When he came out of surgery, it was the first thing he said to you. And you laughed.
You cared for him that night. You cared for him as if he was your brother. You continued to care for him in days that followed. He had nobody around. His two brothers and sister all lived in London. You knew this because you were the one who bought the phone card and dialed the numbers for him as he informed them of his ordeal. They called. They sent him flowers. But they were too busy to fly to America. His parents in Nigeria were too busy with local politics to come, either. His friends came when time permitted. But you were the one who was always there.
When he was discharged, you continued to visit him at home. You cooked and baked. You made meals, soups, and porridge. You helped him clean his house. You dressed his wound. You even helped him run his barbershop before he finally sold it. The gun shot he said was just a warning. But for you, it was a sign you had wanted to see for so long. At first you did not know why you were doing those things. But you were sure they were the right things to do.
It had been a long time since you last did something because it was right. You had learned that, in America, because it was right wasn’t a cogent reason to do anything. In America, experience had shown you, people did things mainly because it felt good. You had paid a hefty price before you learnt this. The scars on your soul, the patches on your emotion and the wrinkles in your smiles were constant reminders.
Caring for him felt good. Considering where you came from, what you had been through, it did not make sense. But deep inside your heart, it felt good. That was how it started. That was from where it blossomed into a love affair.
Everything was going well until his mother came to visit. It was his mother who unmasked you. It was his mother who told him who you really were, that poor wawa girl whose mother sold akara in front of Chief Obiozo’s house. Yes, it was you. His father and Chief Obiozo were friends. And so it was that he was a friend of Chief Obiozo’s children. He did visit Chief Obiozo’s house many times. You were a secondary school student then, some seventeen years ago, and so was he. You admired him. From the boy’s quarters where you and your mother lived, you saw him drive in several times with Obiozo’s children. You were jealous when you saw gorgeous girls in his arms. You wished you were one of those lucky girls.
When they threw parties, you peeped through your little window and wondered how great their lives were. But you quickly remembered what Mama told you, that you were bestowed with a different destiny - whatever that meant. You knew that your place was lower than his, even though you were in the same class, but different schools. He was attending the elite College of Immaculate Conception, Enugu, while you were at the lowly Idaw River Girls Secondary School off Agbani Road, also in Enugu. In spite of your different stations in life, you knew about boundless goodness that surpassed all imaginations. You knew this because your father, a driver for Chief Obiozo, died in a car accident along Milliken Hill. Faced with a bleak future, Chief Obiozo took you and your Mama into his house. He contributed to your education and you were almost like his daughter.
Almost you would say, because you were not part of Chief Obiozo’s children’s parties. You were not friends with their friends. If you were, you would have been in his life before now.
And when Chief Obiozo was not at home, you were more of their children’s servant than their friend. You remembered one night, during one of the wild parties Chief Obiozo’s children threw, when Kenny, Obiozo’s first child, called you in to perform a chore for them. You could not remember what the chore was. But you remembered going into the kids’ wing of the big house and seeing a littered living room full of beer bottles and cigarette butts. Half –naked girls were lying on the carpet, exhausted. You remembered seeing him there. You remembered him because he came to your rescue when one of Obiozo’s children grabbed you and started fondling your breast. You did not like what he said that night. You did not forget it, either. But you were still grateful that he rescued you. In fact, you have rationalized what he said so much that you have convinced yourself that he only said it just to protect you.
“Leave that ngbeke alone,” he said. It had the same effect on you then that “leave that nigger alone” would have had on you today. Only that now, you knew you would be grateful to a white man if he said that and saved you from potential rape in the hands of another white man. That was how you rationalized it and compartmentalized it. You had packaged it and kept it where you kept things of the past.
And then, his mother came and unearthed them all.
You were kind to his mother, too. When she came, you took time off work. You drove her around and showed her places. You shopped for her. You bought her expensive jewelry and clothes. You took her to every mall and every outlet in New England. She only needed to look at an item twice before you picked it up for her. You took her to the museum. You took her to Faneuil Hall and New England Aquarium. At Boston Wang Theatre, you saw the Broadway show, Les Miserable. You rode on the Boston Duck Tour. You saw her laugh as the duck became a boat in the river and a bus on land. She marveled at that. She called it American wonder. You were glad she liked it because she did not like Salem, the Witch city. You gave her a good time.
You thought things went well. When she was leaving, you gave her money, too. Honestly, you were not trying to bribe her. You were not even acknowledging that the path to a man’s surname often started with the approval of his mother. You were doing it because, on so many levels, it felt right.
She seemed appreciative of all you did for her. After each outing, she gave you a little more crayfish. Then she gave you garri. By the time she gave you ogiri, you were sure you firmly had her in your camp. Not that it was your goal all the while. As you accompanied him to drop her off at the airport, she surprised you when she gave you some yards of lace and material for a wrapper. Even though it was the cheap aba na anya material, you were very grateful. As you hugged her for the last time, you called her Mama. It wasn’t the first time you called her Mama, but this time, it came out deeper.
By the time his mother visited, you had known him for over two years. You had seen him grow from nigger-wanna-be to a well balanced black man. It started with the gun shot wound but you had a lot to do with the final outcome. When he had the Barbershop, he also drove a cab. The two occupations placed him in direct contact with the most violent elements of society. You helped him in his transition. You bought him equipment he needed to become a DJ. It was what he wanted. He did that for a little while but business was not booming. He abandoned it.
You encouraged him to go into nursing. He resisted many times. He was afraid of math. He hated biology. You made him take the North Shore Community College LPN entrance examination. He failed. Thrice. He gave up.
He said he wanted to be a computer network administrator. You paid five thousand dollars for him to attend a training institute. He completed his courses. He studied hard and obtained his A+ certification. By the time he was all done, the computer boom had fizzled out. Those who were surviving were those who got in not for the money but for the love of computers. He got in for the money and when the money was not coming, he chucked away his chips.
Finally, he settled into real estate. He became a realtor. He wore suit and tie, expensive shoes and went about asking people to buy houses. He was good at it. He had sweet mouth. And it helped that he was disarmingly handsome. It swayed wives to encourage their husbands to listen. Many listened. He made many sells. You agreed with him that he had found his calling.
But then, all his friends and acquaintances who had good credit and could afford the down payments all bought houses. His options began to narrow. You helped him buy two houses. It was a buffer small business of renting for him. You also helped him start a staff recruiting agency that sent nurses and direct support staff to nursing homes and group homes. For a long while, you and your nurse friends were his core base of nurses.
As you helped gear him towards more stable and responsible career choices, you also noticed his general stabilization. It was gradual. He reduced the number of days he went to the gym and began to see himself beyond the puffiness of his muscles. You could see the changes from the nature of the hair cuts he was getting. You could also see it from the size of the pants he wore. As he slid from the hardcore hip hop worldview to a middleclass black outlook, the size of his pants reduced accordingly. His pants also climbed up his butt. You were glad that your man was coming home. You were hopeful that he was settling.
But as soon as his mother left, you noticed a change in him. He wasn’t as open and as embracing as he used to be. You asked him once what was the problem and he said he was being pressured by his mother to get married. You tried to console him. You tried to tell him all parents were designed to think like that. You tried to tell him that your mother had also been pushing you in the same direction.
You did not tell him, Hello? What’s the problem? You did not say I’m here! No. You encouraged him to listen to his mother and yet to make his own decision.
When he suddenly announced that he was going home and would stay for two months, you did not have any worries. After all, it had been a long time since he was home. You volunteered to help him run his businesses, but he refused. That surprised you because you had been helping him in the past. But you did not read too much into it. Not even when his agency stopped calling you for work. You did not care because you were never short of hours.
He went to Nigeria and called you once. You did not hear from him again. One month. Two months. Three months. You were worried. You sent him an email and he did not respond. You visited his house and there was no sign that he had come back. You visited his staffing agency office. It had been closed. You made enquiries. You spoke to his friends but nobody seemed to know anything.
Even though you missed him so much, you gave him his space. It was very painful as your birthday approached. Last year, you traveled with him to Disney World. It was there that you marked your thirty-fourth birthday and he celebrated his thirty-sixth, which was two months after yours. You missed him but you also knew in your heart that he was God’s gift to you. Agaracha, you told yourself, must come back.
Then four months after he disappeared, during your birthday party, someone gave you a strange gift. It was an envelope with a business card inside. You looked at the business card and it was his. It showed his name, his new address and phone number in Worcester. A note on the back of the card said he had returned from Nigeria with a nineteen year old wife and they both live in Worcester.
You stormed out of your own party like buttocks stung by a vicious ant. You entered your car and drove to Worcester. You could not recall stopping at any traffic light. You could not remember paying for toll at Tobin Bridge. The last time you were in Worcester, you had come with him to attend a pre-wedding party of a Kenyan friend at Lucky Dog nightclub.
You got to the address and saw his Mercedes car parked in the drive way – a car you made the down payment for. You perched outside his house and watched, while your blood boiled inside. From the window you could see two figures moving around the house. You called the home number on the card. You saw him walk towards what must be the phone. He paused at what must be the phone’s caller ID. He did not pick the phone. You waited for two minutes. You called his new cell phone number. He did not pick up the phone.
You sat in the car for a long time with your eyes focused on the house. As tears began to accumulate, you saw the two figures inside what looked like the living room area. He held her hand and they began to dance. The scene sent hot goose pimples across your skin. You called again, this time dialing * 87 first to conceal your phone number. He walked toward the phone but did not pick it up. You saw them swinging into what looked like the bedroom.
You wished you could be invisible. You wished your phone was a gun. You wished you had enough gas to pour round the house and set it ablaze. You wished you could invoke the tornado of 1952 on the house. You wetted your fingers with your saliva and rubbed your eyes. You were not dreaming. You called again. This time, the male figure did not walk toward the phone. He simply switched off the light as the two figures gently landed on what must be the bed. You knew exactly what would follow. You have been there.
You started your car and drove away as erratic as a sliced worm, wondering amongst other things if he had given her a tattoo too. And if so, what her tattoo might say; Scumbag?