by Enyeribe Ibegwam
“What are we eating tonight?” JV asked, scratching his bearded chin, “you know I came to stay.”
He was talking to my big sister, Uzumma. He was our mother’s older brother, our uncle, although we called him JV. There was never a time he wanted to be called uncle—none of that respect for elder procedure with him.
“My boy,” he would say to me, “does Uncle put any money in my bank account?” he asked.
When I say I only knew that the J in his initials was for Joachim, nothing about the V, people flinch at me as though I have no front teeth. “Call me JV,” he said, his voice honed by years of smoking Benson and Hedges. There must have been a time when he was called by his name, and not by initials, but I’m not sure. Back then, all I wanted to do was assure him that there was nothing wrong with living like a teenager. What was wrong if he lived in my parents’ house, with no job or personal responsibility? I never wanted him to feel a slight shame for himself, even though I was ashamed.
“Sure, this is our house, you can do eat whatever you like,” Uzumma answered him. I just wish she hid the sarcasm in her voice, I saw it as her eyes lit up. Covering her mouth with her right palm, she controlled her giggles at his retreating back. He turned, tossed M&M’s at me and said I could give Uzumma some, if I felt like it. It didn’t take much to entice Uzumma and me in those days. Painted sepulcher, as my father used to refer to things he had no interest in. And if there was something JV had mastered, it was lavishing us with treats. Chocolate bars, wafers, cone ice-cream, éclairs, colored popcorns, meat-pies and scotch eggs.
JV came to live with us the Easter Sunday of my seventh birthday; it would be four years later, before I started having hair on my armpits. Not thick black hair, but hair anyway. From my earliest memory of him moving into our house, my father never seemed interested in him, not just because they merely tolerated each other, which was really because they never liked each other, but because back in the days; before my parents got married, JV had said my father was no good for my mother.
Years earlier my father had used lyrics from Rex Lawson’s "Love Mu Adure," to serenade my mother. When all he had was his engineering degree which fetched him a job teaching mathematics at the community secondary school in Emekuku, while my mother was running her housemanship at the Federal Medical Center in Owerri. But all that was a long time ago, maybe three years, before Uzumma who is two years older than me, was born. If family ground-talks are something to go by, then in defense, JV was just looking out so his sister—my mother—wouldn’t marry a low-life engineer. But also, family hearsay insisted JV had no means of livelihood after graduating from university, years before his medical doctor sister, and still squeezed money from her. But this is about JV and me, not about JV and them.
In those years when he still lived with us, he idled at home all day and stepped out in the evenings when my parents returned from work, so he could play draught, drink beer and eat peppered-snails with the allowance my mother gave him every week.
“Of what use is a rich in-law?” he always asked his drinking buddies in his tipsy state that made his voice rumble. It was in one of his rumbling voiced moments that he announced to my parents one night that he wanted to go to America. It must have been a Friday because Uzumma and I were still up watching reruns of The Jeffersons, some of those episodes that our parents considered age-appropriate for us. He wanted to study at the University of Mississippi, he said. A friend of his already studying there had been sending him pictures and catalogues.
My mother rolled her eyes and sighed. “But come to think of it, is it reasonable to school in the American south?” my father said, to no one in particular.
“Ole Miss is the Harvard of the American south,” JV said, it sounded like something he had memorized with great care. In my life, I cannot remember a day that JV kept a job, and there he was looking my parents in the face, between alcohol belches, insisting he wanted them to fund his American dream. My mother sucked her teeth, it was barely audible, but the disinterest lay in her eyes. My father acted like none of it concerned him, what he really wanted was for JV to go to somewhere he thought of as less superficial.
Many years later, I would have a chilling recollection of my mother’s face that Friday night as JV addressed her and my father in the dining area of my parents’ house in Aladinma estate. The way my mother pursed her lips, her eyes became solid beads as she nodded yes in agreement with JV. A lie, so good that JV believed it, but I saw through it for what it was. My father was, and still is a man of few words; he didn’t say much that night, beyond small suggestions, of which he looked at my mother through the top gaze of his reading glasses as though it was she he was speaking to. For some childish reason, Uzumma and I pretended we couldn’t hear what they were discussing, even though for years to come we had our annoying-cousin, Dominic, play the role of JV as we reenacted that scene until we were so good we could have won acting awards for our performances. JV stopped speaking to both my parents and lived as though he was a tenant in our house. So, my father agreed to sponsor his brother-in-law. I learned about this when I listened in on my father telling my mother—this used to be a habit of mine—that all JV was doing was guilt-treat her. Need I tell you that JV travelled that year? To America, not England where my father had at one time suggested was better for him. After all, my father, already a senior engineer with Shell Exploration Company had no reason not to cough out seven thousand five hundred dollars for JV’s entire tuition and upkeep, which back in ’81 was little competition to the Naira. I remember the night he left.
People were still allowed to accompany passengers past customs and straight to the boarding airplane (sounds impossible now right?) Anyway, that night Uzumma cried herself to a vomit. I couldn’t make sense of it, why did she have to make Mommy run around, looking for a sink to rinse her mouth and wash her face, and napkins to dry her up. Uzumma cried about how she was going to miss him, how the house would be boring without JV. I watched her in mild irritation. Did Mommy really deserve the stares those airport workers gave for bringing what looked like a sick child to the airport. I tried to distance myself, as though I wasn’t part of their party. I inherited from my father this tendency, as I did his brown eyes. It’s the same disinterest I feel towards the evening news these days; I never watch them, because they starve me of knowledge. As we exchanged hugs, he promised to always remember us, and that we shouldn’t forget him. Amongst everyone, I was the only one he gave a kiss on the forehead and then whispered into my ears.
“If you wait for me, I will come for you. Just be a good boy, JV will come back for you.” I looked him full in the face; he tried to conceal his facial expression, of the uncertainty that his life was to take. Truth be told, in that moment he looked like a cornered house rat. Yes, a frightened rat, as he boarded that airplane headed for New York and from there he would find his way to Jackson, and finally to Oxford, Mississippi.
JV did keep in touch in those early years while he studied for an MBA, he wrote letters and sent postcards. In the beginning, he complained about Mississippi. His professors didn’t want him there, a letter I found in my mother’s drawer revealed, although his claim he couldn’t backup.
“Can you believe that where I live,” he wrote in another letter, “they don’t sell ordinary alcohol on Sunday.” So, he wanted to leave and continue school in Washington, DC, but it wasn’t because of the alcohol thing, he insisted. My father would have none of his tales, “he chose to go there and started there, he must finish there.”
He must have settled into that kind of being, because those complaints ceased. On one of our family vacations when we visited New York, twice, my mother tried to contact him, he never responded. It was during these visits that it started to dawn on me that most of the black people I saw in America were nothing like The Jeffersons or The Huxtables from a new sitcom that year.
Anyway, even when my father was conferred the Okaa Omee 1 of Emekuku and my mother, Ugo Nwa Chinamere, I expected JV to surprise me by coming. I can’t explain why I hoped too much. I was already an acne-faced teenager then, and there was a girl I was infatuated with in school, occupying my mind, but I still remember the shirtless drummers, their bodies glistening with sweat. I watched closely the masquerades dance at the ceremony; one was about the height of JV. I watched the way its ankle swerved with rhythm, the twist and turns of its arm, as though I expected some act of trickery to make the occupant take off the costume and reveal itself as JV. Of course, that never happened; JV did not attend my parents’ chieftaincy celebration.
He used to call us when we had land phone, my mother was the one who took it upon herself to ask him to visit home. Then his calls ceased, and he never answered ours. He surely graduated, because I remember seeing a picture of him in his graduation robe. There was the story my mother told her friend, that he had taken up teaching at a community college, but maybe she was lying because once or twice I recall her telling my father that JV had allowed himself to be carried away my American-wonders. With his span of incommunicado, we were handed down tales about him. A community college professor in Tennessee, contract worker for the South-Carolina state government, a door-to-door insurance salesman in Atlanta, Georgia, then a job working with a lawn mowing company in Houston, Texas; he was a supervisor at Walmart in Baltimore, Maryland; then drove trucks for a furniture company in Washington, DC. With these stories, our hearts broke many times over—except of course, my father.
“They say he was seen sweat-soaked at the Million Man March in Washington DC,” my mother said almost in tears one evening, as we watched the news. JV turned fifty in Washington DC, doing whatever odd job it was he was doing in a populated American city. He was married, we heard. No, he wasn’t, he just had a domestic partner—whatever that meant. Then he was divorced, then remarried, then divorced again. With all these, we set out to forget him, it was easy. We never mentioned his name and tried hard never to mention America; although the latter was impossible, seeing how America put itself in every television screen.
All these years, if I have learnt something, it’s that life will reward each person. I didn’t see JV until I began living in Houston, Texas as a thirty-year-old. I had two master’s degree from England, and had worked for a few years at British Petroleum, London before I was transferred to work in Houston. From Texas, I found my way to DC.
In DC it wasn’t long before JV and I met. I looked him up, just to know how things turned out for him, mostly because my curiosity was kite-high. I heard from a family friend that it seemed he lived in Northeast part of the city. But when I reached out to my few Nigerian connections, they mostly shook their heads as though trying to explain his lot, no one really knew where he was.
“It was that time when taxi drivers were being killed all around DC that I stopped seeing JV ride his taxi.” A woman also from Emekuku like me, who thought she meant well, informed me. Before then, I never knew that JV drove taxis for a living. I hired a private investigator, and it didn’t take long before I found out where he lived.
“Anacostia kwa?” a man I called Uncle Aloysius out of civility, enunciated over the phone when I informed him of my findings.
“Do you really want to go there? The only good thing there is the name of a neighborhood. Good Hope Road is what they call it,” he finished. For days afterwards, I thought about all the warnings I heard, from just about everyone I spoke to about going to Southeast as I stared at JV’s address on my phone.
I got on the Metro, plowed through morning commuters; stiff-looking men in solid color suits and their briefcases. Women in business-style high heel shoes, bold colored lipsticks and impatience in every stride. I stopped at the nearest train station to his house and got into a taxi. We drove through dozens of houses, some three-storied, others one, most two-storied, all painted in gloom. Grayish, reddish-brown or razed clay. Variety was limited. The pedestrians we drove past, moved with an apprehension, they seemed burdened with knowledge of what they had become. I thought about my childhood in Aladinma, of when we returned from some of our holidays in New York, how some of the children from another neighborhood used to beg Uzumma and I to tell them about America. How they wanted us never to exhaust our American stories. To pinch at our mountain of stories. How much they, even as children idealized America. If only they knew then what they know now; since most of them, like me, left home. Some to countries whose names they previously never heard, countries too far and so cold their ears numb in the winter. In places that promise, yet fail them many things over, still they continue to stay. We like and comment on each other’s pictures on Facebook. When we Skype each other, we talk about small things: how the government back home has failed us, how home is only good for retirement. Never do we talk about our life. Never looking each other long enough in the eyes; perhaps the mirrors there will only show us ourselves. Selves that we left at home, because as the saying goes: to travel is to see.
From the corner of my eyes, I saw people jaywalk past as though they had all the time in the world, yet in the string of their feet, was the calculating agility of a cat. The private investigator said that on the building he lived were the words: LOVE YOUR BLACK NATION in orange graffiti style writing.
The old three storied brownstone on 3rd Street in Southeast DC was nondescript, like a park chair; unworthy of a second glance. The only things that attracted glances were the fluttering pigeons that homed in the dark spaces under the eaves of the brownstone next to his. A man the complexion of ginger-clove stood by the steps of the brownstone blowing cigarette smoke upwards, so his tattooed neck was bare for me to see. He noticed me approaching, studied me swiftly, as if to see what trouble I would be, calculated that in my button long-sleeve shirt and blue-jeans I was no threat, then ditched up his droopy jeans and grabbed his crotch. I swept past the porch into the hallway. It smelt of wet dog and fried onions and soap. A teenage girl with flowing assorted color hair, wearing black harem trousers and a yellow top that bared her midriff, racing through the stairs behind me stopped to flash me a letter. Before I could look at it, she screamed, “I got accepted,” and continued swiftly past me with tears, slick on her brown face.
That morning I had no mental picture of what I expected JV to look like, but the girl’s vanilla scent took me back to the tint of vanilla in JV’s shaving powder as I remember it.
I recall JV sitting in the backyard of our Aladinma house—back when houses in Aladinma still had just flower hedges and wire fences demarcating them—he sat out on a fold-up chair and hummed Jim Reeves' "Railroad Bum." His lips curled as he sang.
I never seemed to have a dime, but I had myself a ball
Singing hi le hi lo, he li le li lo
I used to be a railroad bum
But I'm not anymore
Thinking about that song these days still gives me the shivers. Maybe it’s the lyrics of a once-upon-a-time-drifter, or the vision I have conceived of the song, not of Jim Reeves, but of JV in shorts and shirtless, soft tapping his feet in glee, and his beard fully covered in vanilla-scented shaving paste as my mother handed him his weekly allowance. That vision of him still visits me, sometimes it’s as clear as water, other times the water is rippled, and his image fragmented.
After multiple knocks, I sensed the presence of someone on the other side of the door; someone was watching me from the peephole. I heard the click and jangle of locks. The person that cracked open the door of the apartment was far from my wildest imagination of what JV would look like. Between the crack that the door chain allowed, his eyes narrowed in on me.
“Kemoye?” he said, once, as if making sure I hadn’t appeared there by some trick. I stood dumbfounded. He called my name again, “Kemoye,” and I could see the film of tears in his eyes.
I have had quite a few disappointments in my life; my friends have betrayed me, my secrets have been revealed, people had promised what they couldn’t keep, I have had unfaithful girlfriends, and disappointing jobs, but none could compare to seeing JV. They say that black doesn’t crack, but if you have seen poverty, then that becomes a different saying. When I greeted him, a disbelieving light appeared in his eyes.
“Your cheeks are an evidence of good living,” his Aladinma friends used to say. If only they could see how hollow and shrunken those cheeks were. The edges of his eyes and mouth crinkled, his tired skin bore evidence to years of hard living. Those lips had been battered by smoking, and fast paced life. His hair had faded to the color of cigarette ash, I couldn’t tell what brand of cigarettes this brown bag of a man smoked, but he smelt of lavender soap. The room he led me to, was cramped and small, Jimi Hendrix’s poster was big on the wall, the bed was high and fluffy, and beside it sat a worn caramel velvet loveseat, facing a striped armchair and a coffee table with Edward P. Jones’ All Aunt Hagar’s Children turned open to the table.
How was I to begin a conversation with someone I hadn’t seen in over twenty years? I watched him with a child’s wonder, checking for signs of the JV I knew; his periodic humming, his sweet-talks and larger than life attitude. Our conversations treaded within the space of civility, I asked questions, and tried to fill the awkward pauses with casual phrases and gestures, that masked my disappointment. But in-between I lost track of the phrases, because I was focusing on his facial expressions. “It’s a tight country,” he said, his naked voice as if from a not distance memory with a naked voice.
Removing the cluster of clothes from the back rest of his armchair to make space so he could lean back. I called the cabdriver to be back in thirty minutes. I knew what he wanted to say before he spoke, “Let the cab go. We will find our way. This place isn’t as bad as some people make it seem, we virtually live behind the president.” I called back the cabdriver before I even thought of what I had done. I looked around the room, the ashtray with cigarette stubs by the window, the clothes tossed around, and the harsh scent of tobacco and air freshener that hung in the air. He must have noticed me staring because he started, "It’s a country of ambitions, but it’s hard.” He grunted, spat into a paper towel, folded it, and continued, “Don’t get me wrong, there are opportunities; I have seen plenty, yet no matter how promising they are, once I try them out, they start to fizzle out, almost like trying to grip air. It amounts to nothing.” He finished, shoulders slouched, head bowed as he poured himself and me a glass of cheap liquor. I wanted to counter him, to tell him that it was never late. He must have seen the apprehension in my eyes, because he silenced me with questions.
“Do you know how many times I have tried? You think it’s about me? Then ask my roommate,” there was no joy in his voice. It was one of those slow-motion moments of life, where anything could have happened. Love could triumph, or hate, solidify, I watched JV cry. I was quiet because what I saw in his eyes was what he thought of himself; a failure twice over.
“You were raised preppy, nothing wrong with that, but here we are like dry bones in the valley, in time you will realize this. It’s a small realization, but it will go far.”
Never had I felt so slapped in my life. I wanted to tell him that I too had come upon that realization; that once, during a Christmas party at work, my boss already tipsy, nudged me and said, “Kemoye, you mean to tell me that you cannot dance. Dude, even the president can do the dougie.” Beneath nervous hard smiles, I saw the flick of disappointment in my boss’ eyes, because beyond my awkward side-to-side movement, I couldn’t dance as was expected of a black person. I wanted to tell him of an acquaintance who watched me rub my itchy nose and asked whether my drugs had finished. Those were the sort of things that remained indelible in my mind. But I knew that those were small compared to what JV was living. I wanted to comfort him, to give something impossible to his sixtyish self, a certainty, like one would a child. He went on about his chain of failed marriages, a son in military training, the only redemption to keep him off the streets. There was a daughter on a scholarship at Juilliard, another daughter: a teenager living with her own mother. He hadn’t remarried for years and now treated women with varying degrees of disinterest.
“I have longed stopped suffering my heart,” he said, “bu. . . . but—” JV continued, searching the ceiling for words. “Anyway, my life hasn’t been a complete hell, I have been lucky enough to be black on a Saturday night.” His words sank into me, ‘lucky to be black on a Saturday night,’ I must have read that somewhere.
“How about moving back to Nigeria? You can always start a business or teach at the university.” He looked at me as though I was a stranger; he started to speak but stopped before his string of words made any sense.
“This is my country now, I’m my own progenitor. I’m here now,” his voice seemed to come out of nowhere. “But if you hope to go back, start planning your exit now. Unless this place will sink its teeth into you, then going back home will be impossible, because then you will realize that the place you left as home is no more and instead, all that is left is that which is inside you. Within you, you carry your own home.”
We talked and talked that whole day that I didn’t even realize when we both finished the bottle of liquor. I wondered what he did for a living. Did he still drive a taxi as the fellow said he did several years ago?
By early evening we had nothing left to ask to each other, I had scanned through all his photo albums, when my eyes caught something under his coffee table; in between thick books. It was a photo album I hadn’t gone through. I flipped through it; the first photo was of me in a blue denim pinafore and green shirt holding a small plastic green samurai sword. My teeth flashed in a smile at the camera. Tucked between the photo and its transparent protective cover were these words, “favorite nephew in the world,” he wrote in cursive, “looks just like me, could have as well been my Son.” I continued flipping through, all were of me, some of us and even pictures of me as an adult, which he must have found on the internet. Something crushed inside me. I knew he was fond of me as a boy, but I always thought it was because everyone said I looked like him. The same clear umber complexion. How was I to know that he saw me as his son? I wondered why he never wrote to me all these years, why he never tried to single me out and keep a relationship with me.
Then it hit me, the promise he made to me at the airport when he kissed me on the forehead, that he would come back for me. But JV missed my childhood; I had grown up without waiting for him to fulfill his promise. “I wrote personal letters to you,” he said, “but you never wrote back, maybe your mother never wanted you to see them” he finished. I said nothing. For it’s an eerie realization, that two quiet people like us were better off quiet alone, and never asking questions, pretending as if all those absent years never happened.
“You still like peppery chicken, right?” His voice boomed from the kitchenette, as if he hadn’t asked the previous question.
I heard the clanks of knives and spoons, there was the harsh aroma of onions being sliced and my eyes started to water. The aroma of sliced onions could have been a perfect excuse if JV had seen by tears.
“Out of peppers, I better go buy some,” he said. My eyes must have shown my protest, because he added, “you know you will spend the night with me Mister.” I nodded a yes; there I sat, a child to him again.
“Will you move with me to Texas?” I asked, it felt like the right thing to ask. To show love to this man who saw himself in me.
A quiet reserve fell over him; his movement stopped, eyes still and unblinking, a half-peeled ginger in his hands dropped into the sink, his lips cracked open but didn’t form words, even though I was sure he heard the question. I didn’t ask again. I waited for him to stumble out a yes, but I know now that change will never come.
Outside the graying evening, as we walked to the bodega by the street corner, a boy who looked no older than twelve, walked up to us. It was really JV he walked up to.
“My man,” JV called out, his accent and persona, different. Their handshake was swift, peppered with finger snapping.
“Hey Uncle, can I try you today?” the boy asked JV. Before I could comprehend their conversation, they started.
In the air, one palm strikes the other swiftly: left palm to right palm. Pause, then jerk hands at their sides before wobbling and palm strikes again. The handclapping game involved sudden pauses, surprising slaps, all laced with mischief for who could outwit the other. As they went on, I watched a small cluster of men in front of a rowhouse, no more than twenty feet from the sidewalk where we stood, they were hunched over as they rolled a die and waited on its uncertainty.
Hands to the side with no jerking or wobbling, JV burst out laughing, the game was done. The boy must have lost in his own game, because in no time he said, “I will get you tomorrow Big JV. Tomorrow!” JV chuckled, as the boy walked up a small flight of stairs and into the house he came out from. It seemed like a quick rain had passed.
Enyeribe Ibegwam was raised in Lagos, Nigeria. He has been a finalist for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and has recieved writing fellowships from Kimbilio Fiction. His fiction is forthcoming from Kweli Journal. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina.