After she has emerged from the bathroom, she shuffles to the outdoor kitchen, chewing stick in mouth to the old kerosene stove in a corner, the pot of beans from yesterday’s supper perched precariously on it. She moves to the stove, uncovers the pot and sniffs deeply. Her nostrils are filled with the smell of burnt beans, and underneath, a different sourer tone. The beans have gone bad- Amina has not warmed it in spite of her several warnings last night. She lights the stove, stirs the beans and then makes her way to the bathroom in the corner, from where she can hear the splash of water on the rough concrete floor, thankful that her neighbours seem to still be asleep. She is tired of all the talking, all the scolding, and is ashamed that her neighbours will hear her raising her voice again, so early in the morning.
She takes a deep breath then raps obliquely on the corrugated metal door of the bathroom- in reality, an enclosure of three walls with a flimsy zinc door. Amina stops humming, and calls out:
“Who be dat?”
“Useless girl. Didn’t I tell you to warm that beans last night? What are we going to eat this morning?”
She is keen to keep her voice down, shamed by her poverty. She knows that her neighbours are often keen to know her business- that they resent the way that she always tries to keep to herself, but she finds that she has little in common with them. She marvels at her straitened circumstances- she who was once the toast of Lagos owambe parties, the subject of several songs by the juju maestro, Sunny Ade, the queen of Balogun market, reduced to living in a face me I face you compound, her neighbours ignorant brutish traders at the nearby market and their slatternly wives. That was such a long time ago.
“Oya when you finish your bath, go and grind the remaining pepper and add it to the beans, let’s see what we can make of it” she mutters and heads back to her room.
She enters the cramped space, taken up by her bed the small refrigerator and the large television that sit at one corner of the room. On top of the refrigerator, an array of cosmetics are laid out carefully Making her way to sit on the bed, she stumbles over the mat that Amina has shoved carelessly under the bed, causing her to curse the girl again. She reaches for the tub of Vaseline and begins to anoint her body, marvelling at the wrinkles, the sagging flesh.
Amina enters the room the blue and white checked dress that is her school uniform straining at the bosom and the hips. She is carrying a tray with a plastic plate with two scoops of beans on it, and beside it, a hunk of Agege bread. She balances the plate on top of the television, pulls out a small stool from the corner and places the plate on it. She opens the fridge, takes out a bottle of water and sets it by the stool.
“Food is ready, ma” she curtsies.
She looks up after carefully applying her eyeliner and notices that Amina still hovers at the door.
“What is it, eh? Haven’t you eaten?”
“Ma, remember I told you that the teacher asked us to bring our education levy today…”
Folashade fixes her with a stare, kisses her teeth and unleashes a tirade.
“Ungrateful girl. I should have left you to starve in that village. It’s not your fault. Because I brought you here and sent you to school, everyday it is money for this and money for that. Go and tell your teacher that I don’t have- if they want to send you home, let them, then maybe you can come and help me in my stall. Get away from here”
Amina shuffles out of the room, crestfallen, stooping to retrieve her schoolbag from behind the door.
Folashade takes a deep breath, and buries her head in her hands. It is not that she is uncaring, but life is so difficult. Business has been poor- today she is going to make the rounds again of all the people who have bought clothes from her stall on credit. But she already knows that she is likely to be unsuccessful. They are mostly civil servants and for the third month running, the government has failed to pay salaries.
She retrieves her handbag and searches for her mobile phone in its depths. Before she finds it, her hands close around a key ring, the type of tourist tat sold in shops all over the world. It is a fading gold, wrought in an imitation of neon lights and it reads “Fourteenth and Serenity, heart of the city”. She rubs at its worn surface and then removes her phone and begins the round of calls. There is really no point in rushing to open the stall today, her time will be better spent chasing up those who owe her. Perhaps she will go and visit Alhaji her ex-husband and see if he will agree to help. She hates the thought of having to beg him for anything, especially after the way he has treated her, but she is desperate. She opens her purse and counts the grimy notes nestled in it. If she walks all the way to Ojuelegba, she can just about afford a bus to CMS where Alhaji has his business.
As she locks her door, she sees that her neighbours are all getting ready for market. Mama Emeka, the rotund dark-skinned woman that is her nearest neighbour is serving up a heaped plate of steaming rice with rich beef stew, the smell and sight of the chunks of meat make her mouth water.
“Good morni Sister Shade” she calls, “come and eat, na Papa Emeka food I just dey dish”
“Morning my daughter, I don chop” she lies, even though her stomach is growling- the beans was still inedible in spite of Amina’s liberal use of pepper to mask the underlying sourness.
“You no dey go market today?” Mama Emeka asks, her curiosity piqued by the care that Folashade has taken over her dressing today.
“No, I dey go see person for Island.”
Go well, Mama Emeka urges and she steps out into the hustle and bustle of the now-livened street. She ignores the battered buses clustered around the junction, with the conductors screaming “Ojuelegba straaaaiiggght, enter with your change o” and begins the long trudge to Ojuelegba.
When she arrives at the six-storey building that is Alhaji’s office, she pauses outside, remembering how she once would have entered with all the dignity due to the boss’ wife. Now, she shuffles carefully, head down, hoping that no-one she knows recognizes her. She is surprised that Alhaji’s Mercedes is not parked in front as is usual and as she makes her way to the grimy staircase, she is struck by how quiet the building is.
Trudging up the stairs, she remembers when this office block was built, the party that they had to celebrate- the street closed, three cows killed, and the abundance of rice. She remembers dressing in the latest lace, Alhaji and their only son wearing matching outfits. It was the son that eventually drove them apart- Alhaji was always convinced that she spoilt him, indulged him too much. And so when she colluded to send him to America after he had spectacularly failed his School Certificate exams for the third time, buying him a visa through someone who knew someone who knew someone at the American Embassy, it was the last straw for Alhaji. When he packed up her things in five suitcases and threw her out, she thought that he was joking- after all she only wanted the best for their son, her only child. But Alhaji was serious, and not only refused to take her back but cut her off completely. Even after he reconciled with their son, he still refused to speak to her.
She is on the final floor and as she makes her way to the door, she sees Fatai, the old security man sitting in front of the door.
She greets him now, “Ekaaro o! Fatai”
He turns towards her and his face blanches.
“They told you? I’m very sorry ma, this is very very sad”
“Don’t worry Fatai, I am surviving- I have just come to discuss something very important with Alhaji”
Fatai lifts his ragged beret off his head scratches his sparse grey hair and then utters the words that stop her in her tracks
“Ah, Mama Toyosi, Alhaji is not coming to the office today. He is at home, making preparations – did you not get the message?”
Something in his voice forces her to look up and it is then that she notices the photograph of Toyosi placed on a table, swathed in black ribbon. It is the last thing she sees before she falls in a dead faint.
He saw her before she saw him. He knew that back anywhere, the curve of her spine, her black hair pulled back and twisted into that strange bun of hers. It had to be her, even though he had not seen her for more than ten years, he was sure it was her.
He reached out to touch her but then he hesitated…his hesitation meant the woman turned around before he could put his hand back to his side. For a moment or two, it seemed his hand would remain indefinitely in mid air…but it did not…it found its way back to his pocket and for that the man was glad, he did not want the woman to see his sweaty palm.
“So…there you have it…finally…what did you think?” he asked.
“It was beautiful, beautifully violent. You should be very proud”
“You did not think it was too much?
“Did you like the last scene? I keep thinking there was something missing…”
“Isn’t there always something?
“Yeah.I don’t know…”
There was a silence that had always been there, one that had always been theirs…ten years ago and Maureen would have tried to fill it with a joke or a witty comment but that night, she let it settle over them like a comfortable fog.
“So, I see you’re back huh?” she asked the question in that sneering way she adopted when she knew she was right…he knew she was saying “I won”. Her stare was unflinching as she draped a black shawl carelessly around her shoulders. She was the only woman he knew who could do this…stare at somebody so resolutely whilst performing another action.
“Yeah. I needed to get this done. I am surprised I am here…I never expected this…I just wanted to get it done”
“Well, I am not surprised. I believed in you”
“Yeah, you always did”
She looked down at her shoes before looking casually around, as if expecting someone.
“So, where’s Yvonne?”
“Oh….we are divorced now…almost five years”
“I see….did you ever get your team of little Macauleys?”
Joe laughed, he could see she was trying hard not to, he wanted her to laugh too, but she kept a straight face.
“Yeah, I did, twin boys and a little girl…they are with their mother…I am afraid I became that kind of dad…”
“The one you always detested becoming….Well...that’s life”
Again the silence enveloped them, as they starred at each other, each trying to assess the damage age had done or perhaps they were remembering the days of their youth, when optimism and a desire for change had made them embark on journeys that weren’t theirs. The days when they ate and breathed the street. Every life mattered; every story had to be told.
“I have been so proud of you Maureen, you’ve done well…I read the last book, it was great…many times I wanted to call you…and say that ”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I don’t know. I was not sure if you have forgiven me…have you?”
“So what happened with law? Was it all that you dreamed it would be?”
He knew she was avoiding the question….the question of forgiveness. That night, so many years ago, she had looked him straight in the eye and said “I will never forgive you!” It was a night he would never forget, a night that changed both their lives forever…he wished now, he had handled things differently.
“Law….it puts food on the table, bread and butter…but no, it was not all I dreamed it would be….and you, your writing?
“It is all I dreamed and more….much more than you can ever imagine”
“I am happy for you Maureen. Truly I am…I just wish…”
“I wish...no, forget it...nothing...well, congratulations....” he said, looking knowingly at her huge stomach.
“Yeah...due any day now...”
“Really? Wow! And what the hell are you doing here? You should be home, with your feet up”
“And miss your premier? Never!”
“I hoped you will come…I wanted you to be here…it is as much yours as it is mine”
“You did it Joe, your grandma would be proud”
“Will you ever forgive me Maureen?”
“I see you put a new scene in...the one with the pregnant woman...fits right in doesn’t it? You’ve always been good at that…reflecting fucking reality....”
“Maureen please! When you said you were pregnant…I thought of my dad… I was just sick of everything you know…the streets, the constant fighting…for what? To prevent what? Who the fuck did we help?...we were both young…hell…all we had was our youth…and to spend it fighting for a bunch of worthless junkies…and you…you were so beautiful…so young…I got scared. I did not want to become my father…and every day, no matter what I did…the street was taking its toll… all I thought of was becoming like my father…or ending up like my mother…I hate myself for what I did to you…everyday, I have hated myself”
“You are not your father, you never were and you never will be”
He just wanted her to say the words “I forgive you, Joe, I forgive you”....instead, she was now reaching into her bag and showing him a picture of her first son.
“How is he?”
“Joseph is fine. He is doing great”
“I am so sorry Maureen, so sorry”
“Like I said, I will never forgive you”
He watched her walk away; he watched the great love of his life disappear with the picture of his first child in her bag. He watched her kiss another man on the cheek and it was only then he noticed the piece of paper....
“Maybe, someday...” it said.
This is intended to be a multimedia experience so please open links in new tabs/windows. If reading at work please wear headphones or turn volume down (nothing raunchy, promise!). Purists ignore above and read on.
The history of these streets is my history for my story begins here. My mother was born on Friday June 13th 1969, the night of a full moon. My grandparents were both civil rights activists who came north with the Movement when Dr. King called for men and women to join him in his fight for equality in housing. Grandpa was a freshly minted lawyer from DC and his newly wed wife, a school teacher from Selma, Alabama. They marched, they organized and they bought a house, 1469 S Serenity Avenue, in this New Jerusalem alongside many other idealists. The neighborhood soon thrived with black owned homes and businesses including the club at the corner, Mississippi Moon. It was a favorite watering hole for the activists, featuring leading Blues and Jazz performers. It is rumored that MLK himself may have listened to Muddy Waters there. Unlike many other establishments, it survived the riots after the murder of Dr. King but barely. The neighborhood fractured after the murder of Robert F. Kennedy, seemingly surviving but with its pulse irregular, its soul scorched and weakened, much like the partially burnt buildings that bore testament to its anguish. My grandparents never considered moving away, to leave was to hand victory to the murderers of MLK and RFK.
My mother was born one month and one week before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin cavorted on the moon. The images of grown white men in oversize white suits floating across the lunar surface like dandelion puffs whilst ordinary folks struggled to rebuild did nothing to ease the pain in the neighborhood. Their wry resentment was expressed in the phrases “they can put a man on the moon but they can’t …”, and in music. The slow burn of resentment yielded to the raging flames of anger, and in anger they waited for the revolution that would not be televised. The revolution was not televised. The revolution was not televised because it did not happen. Instead our young were sent to be devoured in the napalm fueled fires of Vietnam.
They named her Amina Alcyone, after the Hausa warrior queen and the Greek goddess of Tranquility, for they envisioned for her the life of peace and tranquility that they were waging war to secure. Some said her names were pretentious but this was a time children were named for the aspirations they would carry like freshly thrown clay vessels into the kiln that is life. My grandparents were unrelenting marshals in the rebuilding effort and spared no time for distractions including raising my mother. Alcy, as she was called by everyone else, was raised by the neighborhood and in the early days this was a good thing. The neighborhood included the baker's shop over on East 14th Street, Sherita's soul food kitchen two blocks south on Serenity, the drugstore Meekhams adjacent to Christ the Avenger Church of the Purifying Conflagration which was opposite the square from Mississippi Moon. She walked to elementary school at our Lady of Serenity Chapel Parish school four blocks north, just past the train station on 10th Street.
Vietnam took our young men and those it did not send back in body bags it sent back as shells with battered bodies and tortured souls. They brought back their nightmares and the drugs to silence the demons that haunted them. Young men who should have learned how to build bridges and heal bodies had been trained to blow up villages and to maim people. They came back and were unleashed on our neighborhoods. Alcy came of age in the 80s as did the scourge of crack cocaine in the community. I believe they call it crack because it cracks everything it touches and in the summer of 1985 it touched Alcyone. My grandparents fought to keep drugs out of the neighborhood but could not keep them out of their daughter.
One of the few pictures I have of my mother is her High School freshman class photo. She is looking into the camera, bright eyed and full of promise, with lips that parted away from beautifully set teeth, her jaw thrust forward in a defiant pose I recognize as Grandma's. She seems to be saying to the world "bring it on!”. Ah, if only. She was captain of the debate team in her sophomore year, taking advance placement classes for college, destined for all the greatness her talent promised and her names demanded. Then she met D'Angelo. D'Angelo, or Smoke as he was known on the street, was everything Grandpa fought against. He started out selling weed in school, graduated to dope and dropped out just in time to claim the corners for the new drug-lords and the poison they sold. I do not know what the attraction was, if Grandma knew, she never said. Alcy was Smoke's girl until she got pregnant, a fact she hid from everyone until her belly's protrusion could no longer be disguised under sweaters and oversize coats.
On Friday June 13, 1986, her 17th birthday, she confronted him, begging him to come talk to her parents. He beat her until her waters broke and she lay on the street bleeding from her mouth and vagina. The force of her contractions tore her uterus expelling me onto the street. I was born on the corner of 14th and Serenity while she lay there hemorrhaging to death. My mother, Alcyone died on Friday June 13, 1986, killed by my father as he attempted to kill me. He would disappear from the neighborhood never to be seen again.
Tranquility died on Serenity Avenue and my grandparents were never the same again. Grandpa continued to practice law and to represent minorities and union workers in disputes across the state but he no longer had his heart in it. Grandma loved me with an all embracing love that squeezed out the world outside and almost let nothing including air in. Their friends and family urged them to return south but again they refused for they could not bear to leave behind their memories of Amina Alcyone. They hardly ever spoke to me about my mother but when they did a cloud would loom overhead resulting in precipitation from grandma's eyes. I had grown used to her eyes lighting up when I did something special. She would start to say how my mother used to …, and her voice would trail off, memories of my mother dissolving like clouds of dust into the boundless desert.
I grew up in this neighborhood but I never felt part of it. I viewed it from my cocoon much like a fish in a bowl sees the distorted images of the world behind the glass, content to live its confined life blissfully unaware of the lights and shades outside. Even as I grew older it never was for me the place my grandparents recalled. Mississippi Moon had closed down only to reopen years later as Castignalio’s. The Rialto Theatre where legends like Redd Foxx once performed was now a crack-house. The banks were gone, replaced by a currency exchange. The barber shop, the bakery, the hardware store all gone, the store fronts boarded up. What we had in their place were the liquor store and opposite it the fried catfish and chicken hut, for what was better to gulp down your Daniels than a good helping of grease, gristle and bone. And on every corner were the hustlers and hoppers, who like termites gnawed away at the very foundations of the community blind to their own self destruction.
I went away to college, to Grandpa’s alma mater, Georgetown and I still remember the look on his face the day they dropped me off. On his face were etched hope, loss, joy, and pain as his eyes brimmed with unshed tears. That would be the last time I would see him alive for he died that Fall, from a stroke. He was buried next to Alcyone an empty plot to his left. Grandma was alone in a house that was now full of ghosts, shattered dreams lurking in every corner whilst laughter had long departed. I decided to quit and return home but she would have none of it and insisted I remained at Georgetown. She decided to become a foster parent caring for children who were the detritus of the carnage crack and heroine, like Scylla and Charybdis, had wrought on the community. She did this through my first three years of college until she gave up because of her failing health. She still found the strength to visit me and cheered louder than any parent when I walked across the stage to receive my diploma.
We planned to go traveling together. She wanted to take me to Selma, to see where it had all begun for her, so I could understand the journey that was not only hers but mine as well. The morning we were supposed to meet up she did not call as she always did. I phoned her only friend in the neighborhood, another hold-out from the Movement but she had no news. I called Father Michael who hurried to the house and later confirmed my worst fears with a call as I waited to board a plane at Reagan National.
There is a hole inside me, bigger than that being filled with the clod and sod and my beloved Grandma as she is interred alongside her husband and her daughter, all that is good of me lying in those holes. I have returned to Serenity Avenue to bury my past, I wish I could so easily bury my sorrow.
I am 22 today and alone. I stand on the corner of 14th and Serenity where my story began and I wonder, now what?
The wind fluttered with a false start, but soon picked up pace. An empty plastic bag bounced down the street, as if a marionette controlled by an invisible string.
The dirty plastic bag was not the only thing that appeared controlled by strings. He looked out that rain stained window and could only think that his body, heart and his common sense were no longer under his control. As he watched the wind manifest its dominance, he noticed the clouds gather and darken. Through the corner of his eyes, he saw bodies hasten their step in an effort to seek shelter before the sky exploded into God's angry tears.
The water from the shower stopped and the silence riveted him back into reality. The first drum roll of thunder was unleashed on passersby.
For 2 months, he knew that something was wrong. She would clam up every time he asked her about her day. She was secretive in a way she had never been.
She's cheating on me!
He hired a private investigator who reported that something indeed was going on, but he didn't know what. The investigator handed him a sheet of paper that read, Hotel Phoenixia, Wednesdays @ 12pm. 639.
Apparently, his wife frequented a cheap, run down hole in the wall, perpetrating as a hotel on Wednesdays.
To meet her lover. That bitch!
So, he decided to put an end to her philandering. He took the train to 14th Street and walked with his umbrella the short distance to Serenity Avenue. That part of town was despicable. Haggard prostitutes on many a street corner. Aimless men spending their day with open containers of beer and hard liquor. He walked into the Hotel Phoenixia and quickly made his way up to the 6th floor.
I know she loves the excitement of danger, but this dump?
On the 6th floor, he witnessed what was nothing other than an omen. A raucous scene of a crying, screaming wife, a pleading, cheating husband, nosy, hotel customers enjoying the show and men in suits to witness the scene. There was even a haphazardly dressed, buxom red head screaming at some of the suits. He prayed that that would not be his portion.
Room 639. He rapped his knuckles on the door 3 times and announced, "Room Service! Compliments of Management."
He heard her voice. She always purred like that after a good one.
The door opened and time stood still. She looked at him with widened eyes. Her lips parted and her voice got stuck in her throat.
"Dapo! What? Uh?" she sounded shocked.
He rammed his way into the cheap hotel room. Clothes were strewn everywhere. His wife's underwear flung on a lamp shade. A man's pair of shoes, reminiscent of the Wale Adeyemi loafers that she commissioned specially for his last birthday, lay in a corner. He looked at his wife through dark eyes and felt absolute hatred.
"How could you?"
"Dapo," she looked bewildered and confused.
"You didn't think I would find out about your affair?"
"Affair? Dapo, please, I, I..."
"Is that all you have to say for yourself?" His voice was laced with pure venom.
She looked towards the bathroom and then stared at him. "Dapo?" She asked.
He looked around the room again and saw a half eaten slice of Devil's food cake next to an empty bottle of Veuve Cliquot. She had introduced him to the rich, chocolate delicacy and he had loved it immediately, just as he had loved her from the start.
How could she do this to me!!!!!!!!
She was whimpering and repeatedly mumbling, "What's going on?"
He grabbed the cake knife and rammed it into her stomach. Her eyes widened in shock and terror as she wrapped her hands around the knife.
"Baby..." she croaked.
"I am not your baby!" His voice was thunderous and competed with the roaring outside. He watched her slump to the floor. He felt nothing, just a dark, roaring anger. He stepped over her body and looked out the window, waiting to confront the person in the shower.
All that was barely 5 minutes ago, even though it seemed like years had passed. Then the shower stopped and he heard footsteps approach.
"Hey, sleeping beauty..." a man said.
Dapo turned around, looked down at his dead wife and raised his head slowly to see his own face and hear an evil cackle. It was a sound he had thought he would never hear again.
"Did you just kill your wife?" the man chuckled, "I always knew you would never get rid of your lust for killing family members."
Dapo stared into the face of his twin brother Kehinde.
"Kehinde???" He asked astonished. "What are you doing here? You were sleeping with my wife?" His voice raised to overcome the boom and rumbling from outside.
"Hahahaha. Taiye. Yes, I am..." Kehinde stopped mid sentence and glanced at the body on the floor. "Well, I was sleeping with your wife. I definitely understand why you married her."
Anger began to rumble and soar. "DO NOT CALL ME TAIYE!" He screamed.
"Why not?" Kehinde asked laughingly. "Oh please. You think you can send me to jail, move away with that miserable thing we had for a mother and change who you are?"
"Don't talk about my mother like that!"
"Why not? You and I both know what she did to me. She hated me! She treated me like an animal. She touched me in places and ways no mother should. And when YOU killed dad, she covered up for you and set me up for it. You didn't even protect me. I spent years in jail for a crime that you committed! Do you know what that place does to a person?"
"That was not my fault..."
"Really?" Kehinde cut him off. "You killed dad, that bitch let me take the blame because you were the golden child, the promise of the family, and my going to jail for you is not your fault?"
"Look K, all that doesn't change the fact that you were sleeping with my wife. Look what you caused? I just killed the girl."
"Ehen, so? Oh, that is not your fault either, is it? You are an absolute idiot!"
Dapo looked at his wife's body and turned back to the window.
How do I salvage this situation?
Kehinde was still talking. "Had you simply told your wife you had a twin, this would have not happened. I sat in jail thinking of what I could do to make your life as miserable as mine. And now I have done it."
Kehinde began to put on his clothes. "I have taken the one thing I know you have wanted for a long time, dear brother. Do you know that she was pregnant?"
Dapo's heart stopped. He turned around to look in the face of the person he had hated even since the womb.
"No, no, no....."
Dapo bent beside his wife, realizing that when she cried "Baby" she didn't mean him, she meant their children. For the first time in his life, he began to weep.
Kehinde was still talking. "Oh yes, she saw the doctor today. Don't worry, the twins weren't mine. She was 4 months pregnant and we have only been at this for 2 months. But, still I achieved what I wanted. Your complete destruction."
Kehinde slipped his feet into his loafers and walked over to the mirror to tighten his tie.
"By the time the world finds out that the rising political star, D. Roger Cole, murdered his wife and unborn twins! Oh! It will be rich!!!!! And to imagine, all I did was make her believe that her husband wanted some secret weekly rendezvous with her." Kehinde continued to laugh as he put on his hat and a black trench coat.
Dapo's mind was set. He knew what to do. He lifted himself off his knees slowly and as he stood still, watching his long lost twin, the god of thunder cracked his whip, and the lights in the room went out.
I must make my move, now!
He yanked the silver knife out of his wife's belly and moved with lightening fast speed in the direction of the mirror, where he last saw his brother. A bolt of lightening illuminated the darkened room and the glint of metal could be seen as it dove towards a body. The torrential rain got louder and thunder continued to roar. But within seconds there was nothing but silence.
30 minutes later, a man walked out of Hotel Phoenixia and walked down Serenity Avenue. He got to the intersection with 14th Street and on a lamp post, there was a flyer inviting all to a nearby church. The picture of the Reverend was a turnoff. The man's eyes looked too much like his own. He glanced up the street and saw a bar. He figured that he didn't need church. God was too busy answering Obama's prayers to give a damn about the likes of him. What he really needed was a stiff drink.
The ties that blind take me back
To the corner bar and first taste of crack
In a previous life on Fourteenth Street
At Castignalio's, where we used to meet
There, everything had a price in dollars
A lot of things went down for tenners
Sex, drugs or even cold blooded murder
And somebody died one way or another
I still mind travel to that time and place
The crime scenes of a previous phase
You never forget where you left your ex
Or the first time you ever paid for sex
After all that, you’d give up on love
When guilt fits the hands tighter than glove
Inside me was a god sized hole
Am breaking up but only love makes whole
The tears that blind made me see
I lost a better half of me
Can I forget the very first time?
We ordered gin and you added lime
I was ebony, you was my ivory
And together we both made poetry
We talked of you and me and stardom
And what we’d do with money if we had some
But I had no money so I got a job
The options were few when I joined the mob
Being a bartender was just a front
I knew if you knew that you’d say, “Don’t”
See, I made much more dough selling joint
So many lies added up to the tipping point
But your love was blind so you couldn’t see
The little changes that happened to me
Till gradually we drifted apart
I always had many secrets of the heart
The baby mother you didn’t know about
Or when cops had for me a warrant out
At least it won’t hurt if you don’t know
That I had a family in another town, now
I came less and less to Serenity Avenue
The price I paid; I had to lose you
If I tried to explain, will you understand?
It’s a tough road to being an African man
Dreamy eyed, I left a third world country
Came to yours, hurt, broke and hungry
Meeting you was magic, our love was surreal
New chapters of passion, you did reveal
Accepted me wholly, without issues
I, a jigsaw puzzle, with missing pieces
You didn’t ask and I didn’t tell
About my past. It served me well
You were bed, meals and a green card,
Full disclosure would end what we had
That was, till Meekhams’ offer came
He owned the street, and I was game
You dine with the devil; you pay the price
I was down for whatever, like a roll of dice
Then, as they say, it came to pass
The cops came looking for my ass
I cut a deal, served three years clear
Came back confused and a little bit queer
Good thing my lawyer found a way
To clear my records and get me a stay
And just when I thought I was free at last
You came knocking from the past
What did you want? To have me back?
It so easy now to color me black
And just like you, I have a question
Was what we had love or just after a fashion?
Was I your man or your Mandingo?
I’d never know since I let you go
But I’ve gone too far to come back now
And it’s no use explaining why or how
The ominous green glow of tornado skies foretold the impending tragedy that promised to arrive that day.
I woke up at 7:30--one full hour after my alarm clock started blasting Bone Thugs N’ Harmony on a continuous loop.
It’s the first of the month/wake up wake up wake up.
I rolled out of bed reluctantly and hit the floor with a loud thud.
‘What the hell happened last night?’ I thought, as I hoisted myself off the floor and onto the bed. Then I remembered; Toyosi…that bitch...and his poor wife, that's who I felt sorry for. What the fuck was he thinking, trying to make a pass at me? I would kill him again if I had the chance. I had been used all my life and I refused to let a little fag like him take advantage of me. And then there was the bar I went to afterwards. Shit, did I get drunk? I never remember things when I drink.
‘But did I get rid of the body?’ I suddenly thought, a short wave of panic paralyzing me for a moment. ‘Eh, whatever. That bitch got what he deserved. His brains can rot all over that fucking couch for all I care.’
Then just as suddenly as the thought had arrived, I was jolted back to the present by a deep but feminine voice that sleepily asked from the bed, “Baby, are you okay?”
I turned around quickly, first noticing the blue spider web-like veins that created a convoluted maze across his chest, and then the flat breast that weren’t quite breast. My eyes traveled across his body--completely ignoring his dick--all the way down to his feet, where I noticed not one, but two pairs of feet. There was no way that what I was seeing was real. There was no way that these two men had spent the night with me. I’m not fucking gay!
“Who the fuck are you and what the hell are you doing here?!” I yelled, ignoring the pounding headache that threatened to break my head apart. Then I reached under my pillow for my glock. “Why are you here and what did you do?” By now they were both very alert and the fear and confusion in their eyes made my blood curdle.
“What do you mea…baby please don’t, it’s us. Baby you always pick us up when you come to the bar,” one said. Then from the other, “Wait, please….please…you don’t remember last night? Maybe because you were drunk. You picked us up from the bar and…” But I never did give him the chance to complete his sentence. I blew two clean holes straight through their hearts, whispering to them, “I ain’t no fag.”
At that point, I was no longer on earth; I was now in a place beyond anyone’s comprehension. Cloud nine, or cloud ten, hell, even eleven. Either way, I was floating; I had reached my breaking point, which would explain why I gently tucked my glock away and began my morning regimen, completely ignoring the four dead eyes that seemed to follow my every step as I slowly and methodically got ready for work.
Of course I eventually decided not to go to work, but if you asked me that morning if I gave a shit I would have probably shone you the biggest grin ever and told you to fuck off. That’s how things were now; I could hardly give a fuck. I was on a natural high and I didn’t want it to go away.
I stepped out and onto Serenity Avenue. Looking down my street, it still amazed me how I ended up there, having grown up in three loveless foster “homes” on fourth street--not including that of my mother--Cece…Clara, or whatever the hell that crack whore calls herself. But I did it all by myself. No one was there when I, at the tender age of seven, suffered sleepless nights, those filled with nightmares that woke me up swimming in my own sweat and crying out for someone to care. I nursed myself when I was sick, only I controlled my life and the way I lived it. I put myself through school and fed and clothed myself. And I hustled until I was able to become manager of a CD shop. I put myself on Serenity. I control what happens to my life. But that was a story that I did not want to revisit today so I continued walking.
As I strolled down Serenity, past the CD shop, past the church, and past the beautifully lined trees and well manicured men and women walking their beautifully groomed and neutered dogs, I realized that non of them would never be like me; Free.
I reached the bar on the intersection of fourth and serenity and walked in without a second thought.
“Hey Carl,” yelled Tony the bartender from behind the counter. “How’s it going man? What do you want, the usual?” he asked. Tony and I had grown up together, supporting each other during the hard times. Gone through the same foster home bullshit and we both ran away from them all, refusing the abuse that often came with those places.
“Nah, give me a bottle of Jack, Tony. I feel like celebrating!” I exclaimed, with a big smile on my face. I knew he could sense that something was wrong but that’s what I’ve always loved about Tony; he never asked questions. He grabbed a bottle from the shelf, put it in a brown paper bag, and slid it across the counter. When I reached for the bottle, though, he pulled my arm, looked me in the eyes, and said, “It’s on me, but Carl, be careful man. You become someone else when you drink.”
“Sure thing Tony,” I said, as I walked out of the bar--my eyes glazing over in sudden realization of what he was implying--as I stepped once again into the odd amber-green glow of the sky. I walked about two blocks and entered the pharmacy. It wasn’t that big but it had been a part of the neighborhood for many years. In this store, were my true friends: Vicodin, Hydrocodone, and the sleeping pills… All of them, they took me away from my sorrows. Once again, I came to my old friends, in need of something that would keep my current state of bliss permanent. I perused all the aisles, oblivious to onlooker’s stares and concern.
I had a mission to complete.
When I found the perfect new friend I walked up to the check-out counter, where a sign begged, Please have your money ready. I fished in my pockets, suddenly aware of forgotten pennies and dimes; I was prepared, the conveyor belt sounding its familiar hum, making me dizzy.
“Six dollars,” Charlotte said, as I put the bottle of aspirin in my pocket; no need for a bag. She smiled, said, “Have a nice day sweetie!”
I responded, “Yea, that’s the plan,” then I walked out the door and made my way back to my house and into my car, with Jack Daniels and my bottle of sleeping pills promising to take me to heaven.
I was no longer thinking as I merged onto the highway and pried open the bottle of aspirin, emptying its contents down my throat. “Wash it down with a bit of Jack and Serenity will never escape,” I muttered to myself and laughed out loud.
There was already someone waiting at the station when he got there. The man asked him about the routes, he explained politely, in detail, as though it were quite an interest of his. Well, he didn’t know this man and no he wasn’t charmed by the man’s grey eyes and unnecessary smile. He nodded, smiled back and fell into a vague pensiveness, hands in pocket as he strode into the empty street. He himself was uncertain what the final outcome of the day might be, what really he might have to do, but the piece of iron in his pocket was there, cold and ready.
He crossed the intersection at 11th and went south. There was a dangerous quality to him, square-jawed, handsome, offering some unspecified challenge. He could have been an off duty soldier, nervily alone, counting on build, raw reckless strength and his close-cropped head.
When he first met Bell 2 weeks ago, she asked him “are you in the navy?” he said “no” with a guarded smile that irritated her. When she squinted and looked away he felt a tug in his heart. A certain something he had never felt before. He agreed with himself that this was Love beginning.
It was his first time at a Naming Ceremony. A colleague at the CD shop he worked in had begged him to come along. He had been feeling out of place until Bell came with her ‘Navy’ question and later introduced herself. Bell’s cousin Toyosi, who was father of the new born, sort of pranced about, forcing more drinks and food on the guests. Carl admired the fact that it was custom for them to throw a party for their 8-day-old babies. The fact that the baby is welcomed to the world with a bang and is named at a public party.
Carl had lived through 3 foster homes where home was really mere shelter, meagre meals and- for 2 of the homes- a hand that came to grope at night. He had learnt to fight it off by going to bed with a fork in hand.
Soaked in Campari and Vodka, He and Bell made out that night by the shade. He fingered her. That was what he did. He fingered her and she moaned and moaned till spit got caught in her throat and she began coughing. He chuckled mostly while she gave him a hand job. It was ticklish but besides that it didn’t do much for him, being a veteran wanker himself.
Now, however, he walked past the street that had the church in it. The church itself was tiny but the street was wide and clean and lined with trees that stood away from each other and waved with the indifference of rich neighbours. He had a recall of Father Michael saying, in a sermon, that God made the world Ex-nihilo (out of nothing). Something in him agreed that this was true, but the thought itself, at that moment, came unbidden and was of no relevance to him. The phone call too from Toyosi, two days after the ceremony, was unexpected.
“... to say thank you for ... Bell gave us your number before she left this morning....... yea, back to Lagos” the man was confident and sailed smoothly.
“So what do you say? You could come watch the game at my house..... Very glad to have you”
When Toyosi called again the next day Carl felt that something rotten was going on. Toyosi’s boldness startled him and later made him worry. People didn’t call to say things like that on a whim. Carl’s silence must have suggested consent, because the man went on: He had recently fallen into a little misfortune with his car, but it would be perfectly fine as Family would be going away at such and such a weekend. He could accommodate.
At 17, Carl had often been told he looked older, had been asked if he was in the military? One chick who wrote poems in school once called him a quiet animal. No one had ever called him gay. But here he was being propositioned, with careless certainty, by a man he barely knew. His ego, still young and unformed, wanted to know why. Zephyrs of thoughts and questions murmured in the background of his mind like thankless relatives.
He crossed the street and rang the bell at Toyosi’s door. It was a quiet afternoon even on Serenity Avenue. A police van crawled along toward the bar. Toyosi opened the door .
“Do I look gay.... do you think am gay?” Carl began to ask. It couldn’t have been obvious at all that he had come all the way just to ask this. Toyosi was enjoying the game already “no no... Not at all... I just have exceptional gaydar”
“You know I’ve often wondered, I mean, if the point of it is to fuck or love a man, whichever way you like to look at it, then why fuck one that looks and sounds like a woman. There s a pointlessness to it then don’t you think?” He asked. Then he noticed Carl was still standing, “....please sit down... yea..queens disgust me. Modern day abominations”
Carl on the couch thought it was ironic, this brand of bigotry. He picked the Ebony magazine on the coffee table and didn’t know what to make of Whitney Houston and Ray J as a couple. He wondered if there was a chance for a world where everyone thought alike and shared the same moral values and had the same tastes.
Toyosi may have been blinded by his own vanity. He admonished Carl to ‘loosen up’. As a joke, he told him he was celebrating his 30th and was marking it by doing several remarkable things. Then he winked at Carl “try anything once”. So "it isnt like I fancy blokes or anything ridiculous like that." Now he sat down beside Carl and said " But I do fancy you."
He asked Carl what he did, and Carl said he would start Uni in a month. He gave a little shout when Carl said he was 17 and he told Carl he looked like somebody who was really talented in something “ maybe a sniper... a genius sniper” then he got excited and said “there was this quote I read somewhere that, Homosexuality is God’s way of ensuring that the truly gifted aren’t burdened with children”. He paused to look at Carl’s face and began to laugh again “People write all kinds of shit. I swear.” Carl winced a bit, swallowed and bit his lips hard. He was aware he had begun to bleed but there was nothing he could do about it.
When he wacked Toyosi with the piece of iron from his pocket, although the first blow cracked his cranium, he didn’t stop there. He wacked him again and again and saw that it wasn’t, in itself, a very hard thing to do. Carl kept muttering “isn’t that what you want?.. Isn’t this what you want?” as he shoved a carved stick, the size of a man’s hand, into Toyosi’s asshole. He sodomized him with the stick again and again. Toyosi lay there, with half his brain splattered all over the place, twitching at intervals.
Siren from a police car blared on the street. It was not for him. His hands trembled, his heart stood away from him. In a twisted sort of way he yearned for the tranquillity, the quiet confidence.... the serenity of many years ago. When in school, he memorized psalms and sang cherry hymns. But in the light of the moment, even the idea of a prayer seemed ridiculous.