SEPTEMBER 5, 2018
This short story appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 19, Romance
“And another thing. Benedicta and her husband had their wedding yesterday. Very big music band came.”
“Wedding? But they’re already married.”
“In the church I mean.”
“Is that?” Somto said. “They’re doing just like you and Pa.”
“Me and your father had a small wedding. Benedicta’s own was big like this. See food, see big cake, see balloons like this. And the music band had two big drums, even dancers in skirts and T-shirts. Three different types of rice. White rice, jollof rice, fried rice. I sat quietly in a corner and was looking. I was saying to myself, what does an old couple need all this for?”
“Their children are grown up now. Let them spend their money.”
“What money? They have money but they’re renting a flat above my own? Ha.” “But everyone wants a big wedding these days, Ma.”
“So we see. Then it was not so. All that was needed in my day was to collect the bride price and drink the palm wine over a woman’s head. But now, everyone says we have to marry in the church or we won’t go to heaven and see Jesus.”
“Which has confused both us and Jesus because he isn’t familiar with our ways.” “Don’t make it look like Jesus is just an ordinary human being.”
“He was born and he died.”
“Is this now what comes out of being in America?”
Somto sighed. “Ibidola, Ma?”
“I’m not starting anything. You’re the one starting something.”
So to unstart things and return their phone conversation to a theme mother and daughter could mutually appreciate, Somto told Ma of the pet frog she was tending for an out-of-town neighbor. It was 18-years-old, chubby, and the color of fluted pumpkin. His name was Champ.
“Frog?” Ma said. “What’s someone doing with a frog?” “It’s a pet. Like a dog.”
Ma started laughing. “These people are suffering from their full stomachs! There’s nothing I won’t hear. Can a frog know who owns it? Of all the things in the world!”
Somto laughed. “Well I just feed it…”
“Feed it what?”
“Just make sure you wash your hands. Frogs. God deliver us. Let me sell them the ones in my backyard as well. Do the frogs wear socks and shoes too? Or a big man’s coat?”
The women screeched with laughter. The backyard garden at home came to Somto’s mind, gleaming in its lush greenery, stretching canvas-like from one end of the concrete fence to the decking steps. The steps led up to the frazzled screen door, which oozed the aromas of whatever was cooking in the kitchen. The garden held rows of pumpkin greens and tomatoes; a few okra and pepper in spots here and there. Basil shrubs wrestled with weeds along the edges of the fence, looking forever thirsty no matter how hard it rained.
In the dry harmattan months, it was Somto’s brother, Ugo, who had the task of watering the garden with a spout pail and sieve. Then the tomatoes would drown in their wet pockets while the okra grew so tall they had to be uprooted. Okra was not to grow taller than its owner. It was an adage — Ma didn’t invent the saying — meaning one was never to usurp the authority of elders; never ever, just don’t try it. And Ma told this first to the okra, then to Somto and Ugo seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days of every immoral, teenage year.
Now Ma was saying in Somto’s ears: “Rosa is building a house in the village. With upstairs and swimming pool too.”
“You didn’t tell me it had a swimming pool before,” Somto said.
“I just thought she was making a joke at first, to mock me in my tiny flat. The things she does. Why not an ordinary house? That swimming pool of hers will chase the men away.”
“Aunty Rosa will marry when the time is right.”
“At fortysomething going on fiftysomething-and-something? Is she still a baby? When I was newly married, Rosa was old enough to receive her own suitors. Now see, still single. Let her go on. Let her keep building swimming pools and fountains instead of praying for a husband. The other day when she came to see your father, I spotted two gray hairs behind her ear, very close to her neck. But I just looked away. If I talk, she’ll say I’m the cause of her problems.”
“I watched her legs meant for swimming instead. Woo! My eyes shall not go blind.” Somto’s Ma stopped. The line went dead. Then a hiss.
Somto said, “Ma, are you there?”
“I can hear you. I can hear you!”
“Somto? Oh. What happened? I was just talking to myself.” “Must be network.”
“Yes, yes. I was saying, do you know what your father said after Rosa showed him a copy of the swimming pool plan and left?”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘fuck up.’”
Somto began to say something but heard a sudden clatter, like pebbles at the window. It was rain on the roof. She remembered her washing on the line outside. “Wait,” she said to her mother as she ran to the door. She shoved her feet into a pair of flip-flops by the entrance mat, then paused, confused, and blinking at the red petals brushing against her big toes. These were not the flip-flops she expected to see, not the blue Styrofoam pair with white stripes around the instep. But of course, this was her studio apartment in America and not her room in Lagos.
Somto leaned against the door, kneading her temples with her thumbs. This was where she was. Here. Now. Flip-flops by the door, a frog tank on a stack of her land- lady’s old directories of the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hardwood floors, a full bed with one lumpy pillow. Half-eaten bowl of ramen noodles on the bed. Two mis- matched hardback chairs, an ancient dropleaf table obtained for free on Craigslist. On the table, a mix — of books, frog pellets, makeup brushes, and the latest addition: a discreetly addressed delivery box with top flaps recently slit along the middle — her business just before Ma’s call came through. Inside the box lay a pinkish packet of Passion Rabbit, safe to use in the bath. But there was no bath in this apartment. Only a shower booth. Little space to move around in this apartment.
Champ croaked in his tank.
This was not her room in Lagos. There were no clothes outside. She stepped out of her flip flops and picked up the phone after five slow paces. “Ma?”
“Are you doing something busy? I know you’re doing something busy.”
“No, no.” Somto sat in one of the chairs. “Pa said fuck up?”
“He has learned a new word in his old age. I told him not to say that thing around me.”
“But you just said it yourself, Ma.”
“I was only saying what your father said.”
“But then, what has that got to do with Rosa’s swimming pool?”
“Of course he’s angry that his younger sister has built a house and he hasn’t. Now it has dawned on him what I was saying all those years about us buying land. Today he is retired, no money, no car, no anything for anything except to sit and say feck up.”
“And you said it —”
“Sorry, my dear.”
They could hear the amusement in one another’s voices. It was thin, almost crackly.
For a beat, both women were silent at their ends of the line, taking in the lull of inactivity as it passed back and forth in slow sweet waves. The lull broke, and then something familiar rose like the beginning vapors of freshly burning wood. Her mother’s labored breathing came with the rush of words: “All the bad things he has done, that man.”
“All the bad, bad things. All those women he carried, spending his money on them…”
“Then I’m the one he turns to in old age. Drunk all the time. But I have to be the good wife.”
“Why will I not have a big wedding like Benedicta? Why will I not have a person to drive me around in a fine car? But I jump from taxi to taxi. I walk with these knees. My arthritis is killing me.”
“Take your omega 3. I bought you good ones.”
“And how many times will I tell you that they don’t work? Did I not tell you of the prophet who came to me with a vision?”
“He just wants your money.”
“My money how? He had never seen my face before. I was just sitting in my stall in the market, minding my business and selling my smoked fish when he walked in saying, ‘Madam, are your knees painful? Madam, does your stomach have plenty gas all the time? It’s someone in your husband’s family that wants to destroy your health.’ Then the prophet gave me his phone number for special prayers.”
“Don’t waste time calling any —”
“His healing prayers are to the point. He sees this, he sees that. God shows him everything. The man says, ‘Madam, God will fight for you.’ And I believe him. Tomor- row, I’ll write that check for 7,777 naira. The prophet says that seven is God’s number of perfection.”
“Ma, what’s this? You’re giving him money now?”
“You children. What do you know? He even saw a vision for you.”
“What vision? Another story on why I’m not yet married?”
“Why you don’t talk to men.”
“Who says I don’t talk to men?”
“Okay. Why the men don’t talk to you.”
“Ha. You make me laugh, Ma.”
“Laugh. Laugh all you want. But a woman must have someone before her breasts start to fall. Or she’ll hear the men say behind her back: ‘No. Not that one with water-bag breasts. Shua … shua…’” “Was that how you met Pa?”
“Are you making fun? I’m talking serious things here.”
Somto rubbed her chin with a thumb. After a moment she asked, “What was the man’s vision?”
“I won’t tell you now. If I do it’ll be very bad. First let the prayer work and I’ll tell you.”
“Tell me a little.”
“Now you’re interested?”
“Don’t tell any strange man anything about me, Ma. Not even my name.”
“He already knows. I told you he talks to God. He’s seen it all and says you’re invisible.” Ma paused. “I shouldn’t have told you that.”
“Invisible?” Somto asked.
Her mother said nothing.
“What did he mean by invisible?”
Her mother remained silent.
“I’m asking you a question.”
Somto’s Ma resumed speaking like a courier reporting a secret mission. “He said, ‘It’s like when the men see you but don’t want to be with you.’” Ma paused. “And it’s not water breasts.”
“After my school, I’ll come back.” Somto’s lips were now crushing the phone. “What else do you want, Ma?”
“You come back to watch me grow old. And who will you have to watch you when your time comes?” Ma’s voice was rising. It stalled and went flat.
Somto flicked the flaps of the delivery box in her fingers, batting them left and right in absentminded play. She reached past the flaps to retrieve the pink box. It said along the side: “Two AAA batteries not included.” It said along the front: “Thrusting Stimulator.” It said another thing she hadn’t noticed when she was ordering online: “Beginner-friendly.”
Her room was freezing up from the rain.
“Prophet said there’s a spiritual curtain thrown over you. That’s why the men by- pass you the way they’ve bypassed Rosa all these years. Rosa’s curtain is too thick now, but yours can still be lifted. You’re the same age Rosa was when I first married your father … That’s why I’m paying that money. It’ll break your shyness.”
Somto verified that the quality seal on the pack was intact. With her phone-free hand she spread the receipt on the pile of makeup brushes, and read the customer’s name, the price, the state tax, the coupon code offered for the next purchase. She looked up to study her unmade bed. On the bed was the pillow. The bed, the pillow, the noodles.
If you were having a hard time with it, a health expert on a Google forum said, the best place to start could be with yourself; doing it with yourself. So what did it take? Cyberskin, not latex or silicone, because Cyberskin felt closer to real skin, the others could irritate. Rabbit-models because they licked then plunged at the same time. But what if one had nothing to be licked in the first place, Somto wanted to ask the expert, then another expert, then the doctor at the health center who wrote Somto a referral to a cosmetic surgeon who could rework her scar tissue. Somto wiped a drink spill on the bus seat with the referral, then tossed the paper in the bin as she alighted at her stop.
“It’s best to catch these things early. If someone had seen a vision in time for Rosa. If someone had seen a vision before your father started going after those women. If someone had seen a vision before your brother had that car accident.”
Somto cranked the knob on her thermostat. Sixty degrees.
“Are you listening to me, Somto?”
“And you forget Ma, that it was through that car accident that Ugo met his future wife.”
“And what sort of wife? A nurse twice divorced before they met? Please don’t even talk about that woman now.”
The heating panel began to crackle. Her mother was saying, “Hopeless. So hopeless.”
She took the knob to 65 degrees.
“Somto look, call your brother. Ask him what I’ve done to him.”
“If you don’t start liking his wife, he won’t listen to me.”
“Ah. Now the okra has grown taller than its owner. Is this how God is rewarding me for being a good mother?”
“I’ll come back after my school. What else do you want, Ma?”
“Don’t come back! There are no good men here. Like father, like son. The brain is in the penis. No sense for anything except women left to roam wild in their uncut state. If you were like one of them, I’d be unsure of you in that immoral country —”
“I’m bringing the phone close so you’ll hear the frog croaking — don’t speak or you’ll startle it.”
“— immoral, walk-walking from man to man. A cut woman should only have one man, the way God planned it … that’s why I believe you’ll find your man. Plus, when I paid that money —”
At 70 degrees, the air from the panel spread about Somto’s ankles. The pattering of rain receded outside, then picked up, then merged with the thrumming of the things surrounding her in that single-roomed cave. She’d only been with two men in the 33 years of her existence. First was G. Bode, her former boss at the mineral bottling plant in Lagos, with his quirky laughter coming through the rain, his obese naked chest and pimply armpits. He’d scoffed at her after their third time on the conference desk in the general office, afterhours. “How can a woman your age keep lying still like a log of wood? When will you start moving like a big girl?” And Somto had sought an answer to that question ever since. She thought this over again more recently, after an experience with Taylor, her neighbor who owned Champ.
Taylor had showed up at her door two days ago, frog tank in hand. They had al- ways been good with neighborly rapport and words passed easily between them. First he explained Champ’s feeding routine — a sprinkle of pellets in the morning and evening, with a mid-day treat of bloodworms if Champ got restless. Next he offered a $50 bill as thanks, but Somto waved it away, so he folded his wispy frame to give her a hug instead. Then came a quick drink at her cluttered table, conversation about his weekend trip to his grandmother in Alaska, some laughter, an impassioned talk on why he’d never look up the life expectancy of frogs. He said he’d always wondered what her afro felt like, then leaned over to bury one hand in the thickness of her hair, both of them no longer laughing now. He lowered her to the bed with the lumpy pil- low, but that was as far as it went. As soon as her underwear fell to her spread ankles, he noticed the fright in her eyes, her pupils pulsating like she’d seen a presence. He sprang back, apologized; he had not meant it like that. He backed out like an android in reverse gear, arms outstretched and head twisting side to side. He probably would have continued that way to his car if she hadn’t stopped him at the door with, “Careful, careful,” which made him pause at the exit long enough to have her observe that his blue eyes had taken up a peculiar glint of curiosity. And it was this curiosity that made her rethink that doctor’s referral to the surgeon; that online guru and that Cyberskin.
Static hissed through the line.
“Hello? I say, hello?” Ma’s voice boomed. “Oh this wicked network … Can you, I’m saying, hear, you, Somto?”
Somto was plucking a chin pimple with a thumb and index finger. Wet autumn leaves danced at the window: orange, yellow, brown, red; all frantically flaking them- selves against the slick glass pane. Ma came again, this time like an echo at the mouth of an airless, hollow tunnel. “Why aren’t you talking, this child? If you’re tired of our nkori just say so.” Her voice became a whisper. “Your father is back, drunk again. But see here, the prophet asked me for your favorite number. He says it’s a good idea to quote it to God for faster results.”
In the background, Somto picked up sounds of that old kitchen door slamming against the screen, followed by a shout so casual it sounded like a stage actor gustily throwing his voice to rouse an audience from sleep: “Woman! Where you? Report!”
Champ was croaking a low concerto. Soon it would be time to thaw some snack worms.
“Look, I have to take your father’s food to him.” Ma’s voice was almost inaudible. “You say you’ll not talk to your brother for me?”
“If that prophet had asked you to pick a number even Aunty Rosa could count on, what would you pick, Ma?”
“Okay, you can tell me your number tomorrow, you hear? Kodi echi.” “Tell the man he’s not seeing the real problem, Ma.”
Her mother paused to think.
“Woman! At the count of five —”
Static hissed. The line went dead.
Somto’s gaze remained on the stalkless, thrashing leaves meeting leaves. A fragmentary, half-done mosaic. What was missing? The phone was still held to her ear. Her heart was overflowing at Champ’s serenades wafting from the corner.
At length, Somto said into the mouthpiece, “Kodi echi, Ma.”
Till tomorrow, mother.
The air from the panel, warm and fierce, swirled around her ankles.
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