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NOTES FROM A
by Timothy Ogene
I was born and raised in O., Nigeria, east of Port Harcourt, south of the new Aba-PH highway, and west of the Imo River. From outer space, O. would look like an empty beer bottle discarded on the curbside. The bottle’s slim neck would be where the new highway crosses the Imo River, running east to the commercial city of Aba. From the river, the one lane Old Aba-PH road—left to rot since the construction of the new highway—runs south, stag gering west, and eventually reconnecting with the new highway at Iriebe. I grew up in a small settlement at the center of that empty bottle, trapped there by the river, the modern highway, and an abandoned road. If you held up a map of Nigeria, O. would be less than a speck on the curve that protrudes into the Bight of Biafra...
At O., nightfall was an outstretched hand that blanketed us from the rest of the world, shielding us from what we were: curious figures roaming our patch of the earth in search of nothing, removed and herded into rooms that may well be cubicles for bodies waiting for the knacker’s stretcher.
If my recollections are right, we did our best to resist those opaque nights, and if you were twelve as I was in ‘94, and if your parents were liberal enough to let you roam loose and free, you sat in groups at night, at a neighbor’s front porch, or at the foot of a useless electric pole. You shared stories, gig gled, with flickering kerosene lamps by the side. Those kerosene lamps, their flames fluttering in the wind, were violent incisions in the belly of darkness. Sometimes we carried them about, ripping the night apart from one end to the other.
There were nights I played the flâneur, stopping to peep into narrow doors leading to poorly lit and scantily furnished rooms. I once saw two silhouettes swaying and thrashing against the wall, glued together, dissolving into it. I lingered for a minute or two, wondering if it was a fight or a mere night dance.
There were nights the stars sag ged so low we could nearly reach them with the tips of our fingers; and nights they recoiled yonder, banished from the sky by the monstrous glow of gas flarings across the new highway. There were also nights the moon tore grim clouds apart, prolonging playtime for children.
We called them the blocks, twenty-six rectangular buildings of various lengths shaped like chocolate bars, each room a slim slice off that bar: block a, block b, block c,...block z. The letters were written in black and were slanted and skewed, with lines of dripping paint caked in dust.
From the old road and the entrance to the blocks, you could see the alphabets on each wall, running from z to a. The alphabets were curiosities in themselves: k was an emaciated r, b was a 6 with a straight back, and z—with lines of caked paint underneath—was a swastika. Some alphabets were gone, consumed by time; others were gradually fading into the walls.
If you were on a plane, or hovering above the blocks like a bat, you would see twenty-six aged roofs, brown and black, lying side-by-side like hastily built coffins waiting for a mass grave at the heart of a bottle-shaped space. You would also see flaying zincs, rusted and removed from the beams, ghastly, like holes between rotten teeth.
The blocks belonged to us, and if we were groceries, we would have labels that read: Boy, Aged 12, Made in the Blocks; Girl, 12, A Product of the Blocks. I often imagined our parents, knocked over by whatever they drank in those days, gyrating at the edge of block x, or between c and d, somewhere, gyrating until we were safely inserted, and thereafter birthed in a room around the blocks, with a midwife holding us up to face life for the first time, holding us up by the left leg, tossing us without care, until blood streamed to our brains to announce a world that is new and odd. And when we opened our eyes, we beheld the uncertain faces of our parents offering us our first smile. Then the strange odors, welcoming us from clog ged gutters and dumps, smacked our fragile nostrils awake.
In the years to come, we would walk those blocks sniffing our umbilical cords in the nearby bushes, where they had been hastily discarded for dogs or rats to consume. And when we finally left to face the world, to universities and city centers, we fought to forget those peculiar odors, but they lingered, reminding us that the past was as present as our flesh.
At the blocks...
Burst pipes were left unfixed. The zinc roofs leaked like loose baskets. When the walls or the floors cracked, they were patched with a mix of cement and sand. No one complained. My parents never complained.
The cardboard ceiling bulged with dirt and dust, including rat excrement collected over time. Septic tanks overflowed into clog ged drainages. And when it rained, the drainages surged and became rivulets that stopped at our doorsteps.
Resourceful tenants dug pit latrines with square slabs that had cylindrical holes at the top, where the toilet-goer squatted and went to work. Zinc shacks were erected around the holes, held steady by bamboo poles. Ten to twelve feet deep, they were shallow enough to release their contents as gas, and close enough for involuntary inhalation. Then the slabs aged, gave, and became death traps.
A boy once disappeared but was later found in an old latrine, dead. He was fished out and bathed. And buried in an unmarked grave. He was an only child, and was my age. God wanted him to die that way, they said. God’s sense of humor must be atrociously morbid, I thought.
We were our own comic relief.
There were frequent births with flamboyant naming parties, to which all were invited. The crying child would be passed from hand to hand, from aunt to cousin, from the tailor’s wife to the barber’s daughter, sometimes rocked and tossed in the air, pinched on both cheeks, tickled, whistled to, clapped to, sang to. The overwhelmed child, strug gling to breathe in the tight room with about ten persons, would often bleat in exhaustion. Some babies aimed vomits at the faces of their handlers who, disgusted but constrained by watching eyes, would offer thanks to God for showering his blessings via baby puke.
From block z to a...
...it was a convergence of tongues.
Somewhere between a salmagundi and a hodgepodge, but if Nigeria were a pan of pizza, the blocks would be a representative slice. Neighbors were not distant, ethnic brands, neither were they exotic curiosity on display. We were a collection of individuals stripped of tribe, united by a mutilated, foreign tongue that was spoken with the improvisational rush of jazz, notes skipped here and there, with convenient clichés added daily. It was our English. We owned it, and considered it the lingo of our birth, with all its ruthless rules. There were times that lingo gave in the face of deeper sentiments, and native tongues would be summoned to show that one’s ancestral roots were still alive.
Pa Suku lived two blocks away from us.
If you were a lazy stroller like myself, doing the ramble from block to block, you would find him sitting on a stool in front of his door, reflectively raptured into the squeal of his transistor radio. Whenever I paid him a visit, which was as frequent as the daily collapse of dawn, I would stand by his window admiring the copper wire that was the antennae of his radio, which he strung up at the top left corner of the window. I would watch him fiddle the dial through the frequencies until it settled where the BBC was gong clear. I remember wondering why the BBC commentators rattled like they had hot potatoes under their tongues.
Rwanda was in the news. Stories were read as they came from sources on the ground, from Tom Carver, Mark Doyle, and others I do not remember. Priests, Including Three Bishops, Slaughtered...Blood...The West is at Rest ... Intervention?
Pa Suku followed the reports every day, and would try to explain what was going on: the savagery, the obliteration of ancestral ties, the downward slide of the black man. I was more interested in the rattle of the radio voices; Rwanda was nothing but a name on the other side of the radio.
I was young.
Years later, I would be fed details of that genocide, after it had fizzled into conference talks and statistics on projector slides in cities where death could be detachedly discussed with several cups of fair-trade coffee.
After the news, I would say goodbye to Pa Suku, and would walk home in silence, lost in unclear thoughts, imagining what the world looked like, what the news reporters looked like with hot potatoes under their tongues.
We lived in block v room 7. Across from our living room was the backyard-cum-litter space of block w room 7, and all it offered:
unwashed pots scattered like mis-curated installations,
puddles collected over time, and
the enduring stench of stale urine levitating like mad ghosts.
When we had guests, mostly from the other blocks and neighboring clusters, they tiptoed across the puddles, as though their neck of the woods was much better.
We occupied two rooms, like most families around the blocks. The door between the back room and the living room was shut at 8 PM, separating us from our parents. I believe it was their way of taking a break from us, a way to detach themselves from the burden that we truly were.
The back room was theirs; the living room was ours.
There were nights we heard laughter from the other side, and nights when the silence was frightening, at which I would pray and hope my parents were not dead.
There was a rectangular table in the center of the living room, its shape a mockery of the shape of the blocks: long and uninteresting. Its varnish had vanished over time, leaving a grotesque surface we covered with a floral tablecloth. Three upholstered chairs—black—surrounded the table like combatant knights. The knights held a collection of bed bugs, which we fought with kerosene and petrol sprays to no avail. Bed bugs and mosquitoes will take over the world someday, Papa used to say. I believed him. I still do.
A bed the size and softness of a billiard board occupied the space between the table and the only window. A dust-covered mosquito net, with two cone-shaped holes on either side, hung over the window. The mosquito nets were more or less a novelty, at least they appeared so in those days, and that was the only reason my parents installed them. The conical holes, from where we reached out to pull and bolt the window, let the mosquitoes in before nightfall. The nets were useless.
During the day, the living room was a place for guests and all. At night it was a furniture-less sleeping space. A hovel. The upholstered knights were piled up in a corner, and the table placed on top. Then we took the floor, Kor and Leab flanking me on either side, snoring away. Pan, the oldest, had the bed to himself. Ricia was outside this mix; she slept in the back room with our parents. I would often ask her how it felt to sleep where the bed was soft and no one snored, and would remind her that I once occupied that position but was booted out by her unwanted presence (the way I ousted Kor who had ousted Leab who had ousted Pan). She would shrug, fall silent, and smile like grown-ups patronizing talkative kids. I was bothered by this attitude, which I thought was an affront on the rest of us who had been banished to the living room.
It especially bothered me that Ricia pretended not to have an idea or an opinion about anything. But as time would later reveal, she was of a different make, one of those who say little but mean every word. The older we got, the more I saw how her mind, tucked away behind that silence, ran two times the speed of light. If only she had lived to reap that mind, and had not been prematurely uprooted—at the tender age of thirteen—by the hands of an unknown illness.
The long walk to State School One, seven kilometers West of the blocks—under the burden of our bags, the mild morning sun behind us, crawling overhead to overtake and position itself in our faces—was a lesson in endurance. One of the ways I enjoyed the journey was to point and talk about the objects and people we saw each week day, which disinterested Ricia, but she indulged me:
The number of electric poles on either side of the road, how they stood erect like frozen policemen caught in the act of collecting bribes; the bean-cake woman and the man who sat behind her pounding black-eyed peas into thick paste; the preacher we saw every morning, a megaphone strapped to his left shoulder, his astonishingly big bible clutched under his armpit, his steps dramatically urgent, on his way to fish men for Christ; the motorbike that delivered meat to street-side restaurants, the bloody carcass tied to the passenger seat, denuded of its skin for flies to taste, its head (goat or cow) baring charred and clenched teeth, nodding as the bike sped along, leaving trails of senseless blood, ugly and horrendous; then there was the lumber yard, or what we called timber shed, about ten acres of logs in different stages of death, machines clacking away in open sheds, shirtless men hefting logs and planks unto waiting trucks.
At the Jumbo Gardens, or what was left of Mr. Jumbo Doku’s garden of herbs and tropical flowers, I would stop to watch bees fluttering atop overgrown flowers, and observe how they hop from one petal to another, careful not to perforate fragile anthers with their bee-strong thrusts.
Of all the flowers at the Jumbo Gardens, the blood lilies—round conflagrations contained in oval pots—were more inviting. I secretly wished I could pick them by the peduncle and sniff away like bees.
I would often stand for a few odd seconds staring at the brown, earthen pots scattered about, some empty and broken, others containing unpruned but lush gloriosas and scented herbs with petals aglow as flames, some drooping over the pots, or defying their poor states by holding up their necks.
It was rumored that Mr. Jumbo had lived alone for many years, and had taken care of his flowers like they were his kids. After an accident—I do not remember what it was—that left him half paralyzed, the flowers were abandoned to die or grow wild. There were days I spotted him crouched between pots, an unlit pipe dancing on a side of his lip, his ash-gray wigens hat tilted back, a pair of secateurs in his only working hand. And all he did was look at his flowers, unable to prune or move the pots. But there was always a wavering grin on his face. Whenever he was there, Ricia would run ahead and remain silent all the way to school.
“He looks dead, he is a dead man,” was all she could say.
The day old Jumbo died, a Thursday morning, Ricia stood and watched his body, stiff on a wooden stretcher, carried off to a waiting van. When the van reversed and headed east, she turned to see where it was going. And then, as if possessed by a demon, she jumped the gutter between the street and Jumbo’s garden, went straight to the pot of blood lilies, plucked two fiery heads, handed me one and inserted the other in her kinky hair. Then she broke into a trotting dance, offering me broad smiles as we wove our way through a group of mourners, mostly aged men, their faces drawn by what must have been a realization that they, too, were as close to the grave as their departed friend.
Ricia stopped dancing when we heard the hollow sound of the school bell in the distance, about two poles away from Jumbo’s garden. We were late. I could feel her stiffening in fear.
Each school day, the punctuality prefect picked someone to ring the bell, a terrible job it was, one I would not do for a bucket-load of cash. The bell itself was hideous: the wheel of a truck sliced in half and strung up an almond tree, where it dangled like the putrid remains of a lynched criminal, its jag ged edges evoking an image of bloodlust. To beat the bell with a short rod, the bell-ringer climbed a wobbly stool that was as old as the school. Many crashed from that stool, sometimes breaking a bone or two. I did wonder if the crash was by chance, or if the bell had some invisible powers with which it exerted vengeance.
The bell was significant in two ways. Officially, it signaled the start of the school day, when early comers stomped off to the great hall to sing from the hymnbook, pray, recite the national anthem, and listen to announcements. For latecomers, its sound at nine meant that punishment by the cane or whip was nigh.
On this particular day, the punctuality prefect, a bespectacled, lanky lad, had positioned himself at the gate, waiting for latecomers. There were a good number of us already kneeling before him. Ricia had her blood lily in her hands, the soft stalk between her thumb and index fingers, rolling it gently as the lily’s ball of fire dimmed in the morning sun. The prefect would occasionally pause to cast a careless glance. The gate was where he fed the despot I saw in him. He would look at us and, perhaps seeing us as hell-bound devils, cross himself, his rosary drooping on his right wrist. His whip, more of a slim cane, was on his left. He held it up, wag ged it, sniffed it, smiled, and began to pace up and down.
While we waited, he asked us to sing the punctuality song. We sang hesitantly like heretics forced to recite scriptures before facing the stake:
Punctuality and regularity is our motto,
punctuality and regularity is our motto.
Oh pun-tu-ah-li-ty and re-gul-ah-ri-ty is our m-o-o-o-to-o-o...
“Again and again,” he yelled.
We sang for him, he started from the far left. His first victim was a brittle teenager whose shirt was already wet with tears. I spat in front of me. When it was my turn to face his cane, I looked into his eyes, not to beg for pardon but to see if he was human. There was nothing to see but a pair of sharp eyes guarded by thick glasses. Behind those glasses I saw a boy who was weighed down by years of enduring similar punishments. By whipping us, I believe he was slowly relieving himself of his own pain.
While his whip worked, the voices of early comers came to us from the great hall, polyphonically rising from the vaults of the chapel, bearing Cecil Alexander’s “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” All things bright and beautiful, / All creatures great and small, /...The Lord God made them all, they sang, as if to remind the prefect that we were all equal, big or small. I hummed along, my eyes wet and shut. There were no specifics to my tears. I suppose it was the sting of his whip or the fact that I was a child.
We got fifteen strokes each. Our crime? We were late to school.
I opened my eyes, wiped the tears, and turned to Ricia. She was also wiping a tear, and brushing dirt from her knees. The blood lily was lying next to her, as helpless as we were. She looked at me with unreadable questions in her eyes. Did she expect me to do something? The more I looked at her, the more powerless I felt. She had sustained a cut. And was licking her own blood.
That same day, at recess, I saw the prefect running towards the football field with three other boys. There were no traces of the serious-faced, cane-wielding boy in the person I saw at noon. He rather looked vivacious and genuinely normal, as though that morning was from another time in history. Looking back, he was as bizarre as the old man in James Joyce's “An Encounter” who went from discussing girls and the weather to sharing how boys “ought to be whipped and well whipped.”
There were mornings when, having exhausted my routine stops and commentaries on the way to school, I would raise questions about the back room where Ricia slept. She would fall silent, smiling, making me feel like a failed comedian on a stage of straw.
In one instance, I retaliated by making fun of her wrinkled skirt and its undone hems, how it never fluttered, how it hung still like raffia palm baskets turned upside-down:
“See, it does not move at all. It is stiff. It is a bag. No, it is a basket.”
She paused, stepped back, pointed at the two conspicuous holes in my shorts, and asked:
“Are those eyeglasses or the headlights of a car? Oh, I see, they are rabbit holes. Careful before rabbits jump out of your shorts.”
“All the boys in my class have holes in their shorts," I cried in defense, more of a self-consolatory argument than a defense. She had hit a nerve.
I was not the only child with torn shorts, but the other boys did not care when jokes were spun around their tattered uniforms. I used to be that way, indifferent to what was said about my school uniform or my person, until Pa Suku said it was not normal to walk around in rags. He killed my ignorance. Thus, when the subject of torn shorts and shirts were raised, I would draw away from the conversation, or would note that there was nothing funny about the rags we wore to school. The other boys would hush for a bit, look me in the face with open mouths, and fall over, cackling. The seeds Pa Suku had sown became a torment. He made me see the holes for what they truly were: the degrading marks of poverty, the sheer face of indigence.
At the end of the school day, pupils from my school would walk on the left side of the old road, aware that the rich kids would flow out of their private school, which was not far from ours, and would walk on the other side. Their parents and teachers had warned them to stay away from us. And they did stay away from us. We were not told what to do; our parents and teachers did not care who we mixed with. However, we knew exactly where we belonged, and stuck to our side of the road, sweating and stomping home. They, on their side of the divide, walked gently, lightly exhausted, and quiet.
They were children of the new middle-class—auto spare-part dealers, oil company workers, and importers of used and new electronic gadgets, senior civil servants, and the like—whose parents had broken through the class line, and had sworn to pave a smooth path for their kids. So their kids were enrolled in expensive, private schools, flown abroad for holidays and summer camps, and taught how to ignore us.
They lived in flats, with multiple rooms and gated walls that rose to the roofs. They had houseboys and gatemen who sat outside waiting for cars to crawl in and out. I wondered why their houses were called flats. Not that the roofs were flat, anyway. But as Pa Suku said, theirs was a different world, where one could spontaneously, perhaps after several glasses of wine, invent and appropriate words at whim.
There were days I promenaded home alone from school, noting signposts and lintel signs on shop-fronts. At the intersection of the old road and Timber Shed Street, I would linger before the sign announcing Umezuoke and Sons International: Importers and Exporters, Dealers in Exquisite Hard and Software, General Merchants, and Consultants. Under the italicized and unspaced lettering was the sketch of a cellphone, followed by three different phone numbers. Written below the numbers was the name of the general merchant: Chief Umezuoke Onuoha, KSM. On the walls of Umezuoke’s shop, on both sides of the door, were illustrations of what the business offered: To the right, a ship perches warily, its mast disproportionately larger than the ship itself; next to the vessel, several bags of produce are stacked, high enough that they are the same size as the ship, perhaps waiting to be hauled abroad. On the other side of the door are paintings of spark plugs, car filters, motorcycle tires, and a portrait of the merchant beaming behind a pair of glasses that were so tiny they competed with his irises.
Across from Umezuoke and Sons International was the coffin place, with a more colorful signpost. Umezuoke had employed two colors for his signpost: white for the background and black for the letters. Meanwhile, the coffin dealer’s sign had blue, green, and a third color that seemed to change from orange to red. I once stopped to closely examine one of the coffins under construction. It was reasonably wide and long, with humps like the ridges on a camel. On the edges were gold glitters, and little protuberances that looked like fat horns.
“Is there someone in that box?” I asked the coffin maker. He looked surprised that I was there, but offered me a smile. “Is there a rich person in that box?” I pressed.
“Yes, there’s a man there.”
I was not convinced, so I asked to see.
“No, no. The man is asleep,” he said.
“But I want to see.”
“There is nothing much to see,” he said. “The man there is not only asleep, but also never smiles. You want to know why?”
“Because he wants to be left alone.”
“Because he is on a journey, one that requires solitude and silence. But the world keeps tug ging him here and there, including his wife and relatives.”
“Who knows? He never said a word before locking himself up in that box.“
Seeing the effect his little narrative had on me—that I was completely buying his story—he asked if I wanted to see what an empty coffin looked like, and said that he sometimes took naps in the one over there. I declined but accepted the Tom-Tom sweet he offered, and ran along. When I turned, I saw him grinning, both hands on his hips, a yellow 2B pencil sticking out of his overgrown hair.
I had a bad dream that night:
The coffin maker, cloaked in a white robe, astride a black coffin, with a whip, rode in the air, towards me, that ugly grin on his face. When he landed, he opened the coffin. It was painted white on the inside, and contained the decaying body of an unidentifiable animal, with mag gots swarming. He dipped his hands in the porridge of mag gots; they crawled and slid between his fingers like macaroni...
There was a story about the coffin dealer that I thought was instructive, and sordid. One Sunday in December, before Christmas, he went to church for Thanksgiving. With a fat envelope, two goats, and several tubers of yam as offerings, the church did not wait to ask who he was or what his testimony was about. They took his offerings and added him to the list. When it was his turn, he thanked the lord for improving his business, bringing him customers from far and near, including customers who, under the lord’s direction, showed up three to four times a year to purchase products for different loved ones embarking on a long journey. The church erupted in praises to the lord.
Moved by this testimony, the preacher called him forward, placed a hand on his shoulder and called on the church to pray for more blessings on “this grateful businessman.” The enthusiastic preacher, as bearers of this account contended, should have left it at that. But he was so moved that he asked the man what it was that he did: “What is this business of yours?”
The coffin maker, perhaps waiting for this moment, rose—they said he almost danced at this opportunity—brushed dirt off his knees, and started with what he called his favorite bible verse: “In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” Then he announced his trade, at which the church, caught off-guard, released a heavy gasp, which—as the story went—was heard several kilometers away, startling passersby and everyone within range.
Having thus accomplished his goal, the coffin maker—rolling his shoulders gleefully—walked through the church to the back row, where his two assistants were waiting with the goats, picked his bible, and disappeared. According to another version of the story, he had slowly broken wind on his way out, so loud and violent was his flatulence that it struck down a curious child trailing him from behind.
There was yet another bizarre story about the coffin maker. It was said that on several occasions where customers asked for discounts, he would tell them not to worry, that on a second visit, he would make it up, at which the mortified customer would either sprinkle the blood of Christ or flee from the scene before death overheard those words. I did not believe these accounts; nevertheless, they confirmed my suspicion that the coffin maker’s sense of humor bordered on the macabre.
It was on one of my lone walks from school that I first met Pa Suku. He was walking at the same pace as myself, on the other side of the road, both hands folded behind him, absorbed, picking his steps gingerly, as though the flat earth was plagued with invisible ditches.
A bit hunched, with broad shoulders that curved forward, it seemed he was being pulled back by an irregular weight strapped to his shoulders. I do not recall the color of his trousers, but I vividly remember how bright and tight they were, with a folded magazine rising from his back pocket. Jumped to the ankle, his trousers drew attention to his flat turquoise shoes.
He crossed to my side of the road and started a conversation. I am sure he knew I was from the blocks, and may have severally spotted me loafing alone, humming odd tunes, and stopping to draw abstract figures with my big toe. He, of course, was a conspicuous figure. Everyone knew him: the man who spoke to no one, except when spoken to; who, in his white singlet, would sit in front of his door, fiddling his radio or pensively reading a book, smoking a cigarette, and occasionally looking up to examine the immense heavens.
“Hello, my friend,” he greeted. “Do you mind if I walked with you?” I shook my head sideways, but was not sure what I meant.
We walked five poles in silence. I studied his feet. His flat shoes had a visible hole on the side of the left. He retrieved his hands from his back, shoved them in his pockets, and began to whistle. The sun positioned itself behind us, on its way west, and I could feel its departing scorch on my neck. The clouds resisted with a rumble, enveloping the sun in one quick swoop, thus validating the saying that in the Niger Delta, the weather changes without notice, like the parlous moods of a pregnant woman.
When we got to Uwana’s Calabar Kitchen, he paused and asked if I was hungry. I was not sure if I was hungry or not; I had been walking for nearly ninety minutes, half of which was past the intersection where I was supposed to head left and enter the blocks, but had not felt the need to hurry home for lunch. I nodded all the same. We turned right towards Uwana’s Kitchen, a street-side shed with benches arranged in no order. Three cauldrons were boiling over an open fire: one was heavy with tomato stew, with chicken feet peeking out like old rakes; the second cauldron had a metal lid, making it whistle and spit bubbles that reminded me of a kid who had convulsed and spat bubbles in school; the third cauldron was full to the brim with white rice, from which Umana—her bosom heaving over the steaming cauldron, sweat-beads threading down her breast path—scooped onto a stainless plate. Then she moved to the tomato stew, scooped three times, fetched two chicken feet and placed them atop the plate. The customer whose order was being filled had four empty bottles of Gulder beer before him, on a green plastic table that was missing a leg. When Uwana’s plate of rice and chicken landed on the table, it almost tipped. The customer uttered something incoherent, and wedged the tri-leg ged table with a knee. The bottles fell over but did not break.
We sat on a short bench. Behind us the cauldrons hissed. I could feel the steam, a little too warm for comfort, and I could hear the slow cry of burning wood. The sun beamed once more as the clouds gradually dispersed, perhaps off to the neighboring towns—Etchie on the north side, Imo River town on to the east, Umuebulu across the new highway. When Madame Uwana finally came to our table—the tray atop three cement blocks was not exactly a table—her eyes were bloodshot but mild. Her forehead shone with sweat. And there was something unrecognizably different about her skin: its ambiguous fairness, the unevenness of the blackness around her knuckles and elbows. I concluded she may have compromised her skin by standing too close to fire, or may have, as was the case with a man I knew, adulterated her blackness with some abrasive nonsense.
“The usual?” she asked Pa Suku, who had not said a word to me since we took our seats.
“Yes, please,” he answered, “and ask the young man what he wants.”
“Rice?” she asked.
“No,” I answered.
“What, then?” she asked.
She turned to Pa Suku, who simply shrug ged and said, “Get him water, thank you.”
To my surprise, the usual for Pa Suku was not a plate of rice and chicken, but a bowl of vegetables. As Uwana returned with this bizarre lunch, the other customers could not hide their disgust. The man next to us, vigorously crunching chicken bones, squinted at the bowl in front of us, and the lone cup of water. He shook his head and called out for a beer. Pa Suku, engrossed in his own thoughts, did not notice the man’s reaction.
“I do not come here for food,” he finally said, not exactly talking to me but merely speaking to the space we shared, within earshot of everyone in the small shed. In time, I would become accustomed to his manner of speaking, which at first struck me as impersonal, but became how I enjoyed being spoken to. “You see that house over there?” he asked.
I turned to see what was left of a razed bungalow. A part of the roof was gone, with sheets of zinc flapping or curled backwards. Half of the building was gradually collapsing, with a mound of rubble by the side, and two wide doors, shut tight as though they led to something important. One was painted black; the other was white. Perhaps for balance, maybe not, for the white one had a black poster with the drawing of a hollow-nosed skull.
“You know what that building is?” he asked.
I looked at the white door with the skull. I do not recall what or how I responded to his question, but I vaguely remember my thoughts about the building: a mortuary destroyed by ghosts, or something of that morbid nature.
Uwana returned to our table. She fished out a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her checkered combat shorts, offered Pa Suku a stick, and a matchbox. One of the customers called for a cup of water. Uwana was working alone that afternoon. The cauldrons demanded her attention. The feasting men demanded her attention. She betrayed no signs of exhaustion.
“That house reminds me of a house I used to know in Port Harcourt,” Pa Suku was saying, “a house that collapsed during the Biafran War, in the same month that Port Harcourt fell. I was too young to know what exactly happened. But I’m sure it wasn’t bombed. Neither was it shot at. It just collapsed. It was not the fall that stuck to my memory, or compels me to come here and stare at that crumbling building. You want to know why I come here?”
“That house, as insane as this may sound, tells me that the unresolved past is still with us, lurking: that war, those frightened soldiers, the massacre of Igbos at Elelenwo, that putrescence is still here, and will one day come to a head, at which, like the house I used to know, the present would implode without notice...”
Thus began my relationship with Pa Suku. He would later introduce me to his transistor radio, and share the importance of following the news: “You never know what would happen next.” He also introduced me to the books he read: “This one, Jackob von Guten, was written in German but, see here, this man, Christopher Middleton, translated it from the German. I will share a line from...,” he flipped the pages, “...from this book. Okay, here goes: There is no worse behavior than that which comes from disgust and ignorance.” And with that he closed the book and returned to his transistor radio.
Years later, in a university town, nettled by memories of him and the blocks, I could still see the sparse hair on his knuckles, and could still hear the thin drop of his voice reading me his favorite line from Auden’s The Age of Anxiety, “Numbers and nightmares have news value.” The words he shared—his and those he gleaned from reading—served, and continue to serve as my personal map, perhaps the only way I know how to make sense of the world. When news came that he had passed, and had left me a box of books, I took it as a sign to sever ties with the blocks; his death was the cue I needed.
His demise, however, heightened my recollections of the blocks, forcing me to regurgitate times and memories that were painful but instructive, sad but full of irreplaceable opportunities for seeing the world for what it is: a bivalent space we have been tossed into willy-nilly, and must—for our collective sanity—embrace.
These notes are tributes to the blocks, a place that I will never return to, and will never forget. There are times I wish I could forget the blocks, and times I wish I could remember more. The fall of night transports me to those early days when I strolled between walls, from z to a, a reminder that what I am, and what I will become, is a product of a childhood spent in the confines of a space the shape of an empty beer bottle.
Timothy Ogene was born and raised in Nigeria, but has since traveled and lived in Germany, Liberia, and the United States. He has published in literary journals and magazines, including: Poetry Quarterly, Kin Poetry Journal, 2Paragraphs, Mad Swirl, Blue Rock Review, Medulla Review, and other places. He is a contributing editor at aaduna, and edits New Literati, a journal of creative expressions at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas.