By Attamah Ignatius Kelechi
Tell me, do the berks you know have it inscribed on their foreheads, or do they carry billboards around identifying their purported stupidity? It tells you there is wisdom in foolishness. At least it teaches you how not to be a fool.
The only time Maximus goes to bed is when there is no whore on his bed, or the cigarette industry gets shut down, or the Nigerian brewery receives a bomb blast. He will always tell me; “Look lawyer, we have one thing in common; we were both called to the bar”. I will answer him; “Always remember your lungs friend”, and we will laugh till he lights another stick of Benson. If ten teenagers around him are pregnant, he is responsible for nine. But seek his view on sex and guess his answer. “Life without sex is vitality”
Odenigwe has always been a comfort niche for all kinds of people; rogues, learned men, vagrants, and even Maximus and his likes who are the mafias of the Californian District; recently too, mushroom churches are imminent in winning souls for the devil. Anytime you want to pay me a visit and you must come with Okada, never mention any ‘K’ word. In Odenigwe, ‘K’ stands for ‘California’ ONLY. Its utterance therefore may make you trek.
California is that garden where the dignity of man was lost; it is almost the heart of the Lion’s Den, a mall for marijuana. California is a house for all, but a home for a strong few who have their ears to the ground. The slogan is; ‘igbo n’agbakwa mmadu ara’, yet there is buying and selling 24/7. Like Ptolemy in philosophy, Maximus is the god of marijuana and the man behind the scenes in Cali.
On this New Year eve, my abode was peopled by every descendant of Ugwokeja Ezea for our normal New Year Eve Fiesta. Even those who appeared to have been lost in the Abuja syndrome where forced to fly home, perhaps by the Boko Haram saga. The groove was second to none in the globe. It was the first after granny’s demise, so we were dining and quibbling over her occasional timid but interesting attitude, and her unreserved love for cartoons. For instance, in her presence, you do not sip your drinks with a straw. To her, only witches and wizards do that. “Soso mgbashi n’ami iye omimi”, she will say.
As God may have it, I was in charge of distributing the fresh palm wine, which has been bitten and charged by the Nsukka harmattan that it tasted like the breast milk of a young lass. It is a job I enjoyed most in yuletides because, ‘a n’gu ele oga enya n’eka’ (you do not observe the hands of the sharer), so I gulped down even more than I could carry.
We ate and drank until all had protruding stomach like a 5 months pregnant woman. Some could not differentiate white from black; some could not even say their names without stammering. For God’s sake, we were soaked.
Like a bird perched on a string, swinging and quavering like a pendulum, I staggered down the hill of California , passed in between De Cool Joint and St. Timothy Lodge, and headed towards St. Peters Chaplaincy, UNN, through Margret Cartwright Avenue, at least to thank God for covering my head when gun shots resounded throughout the year. If you live in a ghetto; that is the only thing you may thank God for.
In front of the church, I waddled through the crowd paying homage to the new born child in the thatched Bethlehem which stood beside the giant St. Peter’s monolith, holding the keys of heaven in his right palm, and a bible in the other.
With a feigned solemnity of angels in heaven, I matched into the church, sighted a pew in the second row, occupied by only one girl in pink gown, with ponytail on her back. She wore the resemblance of a damsel in whose eyes I once saw heaven. I moved forward to watch her closely. Mtchew! ‘she has no dimples’. I swiftly grimaced, sat eighteen yards behind her and straightened my face towards the altar.
Before I could do the sign of the cross for the prayer before mass, a silhouette of a short stout image on the adjacent wall was finding its way towards me. I tried to look back when a man tapped my right shoulder with the index finger of his left arm. Without saying a word, he signaled me to make space for him. He joined me in the pew, with hands in his pocket, stood eyes-front on the kneeler to have a clear view of the altar. I gazed upon his face for a while and my blurred vision cleared. ‘Maximus came to church’. On his pale dark face, hung unspeakable vagaries of ghastly look, his half-closed eyes were busy combing the church, his dark lips, burnt by numerous raps of marijuana had black moustache that perched on the upper lip like the whiskers of an old cat, his brown sun-dried skin, blown hard by the gale winds of Nsukka harmattan, hid under a faint black fur coat, flapping loosely on a dirty blue jeans which begged to touch on his dusty shoes. ‘He had been on the piss’.
I quickly stood up when Fr. Samson Asadu and the altar boys angelically matched into the church, including my cousin Leo who had bottles of this Bitter and Sweet Foreign Extra Stout in his belly. The solemnity of the procession made me think of the quietude in heaven. “It’s going to be hell for me and surely, Maximus”, I thought. In heaven, there shall be no marijuana and perhaps alcohol. “Escapee”, I whispered. “Happy New Year”.
He got this name after he evaded a police arrest in 2001 for allegedly inserting a stick of Benson in between the legs of a 10 year old girl. He took on the lam and crawled back to his shell. Since then he had not gone to the nick for any crime. His mother died two months after of HBP and the father demised the following year after being bed-ridden for five months. Quietly, he turned his scary face and gave me this you-don’t-talk-before-the-
During the homily, the priest asked, his voice echoing through the sound system, filling the void of the church, “Nwa Chukwu, what is your New Year resolution?” I had none and I was not sure if Maximus had any. I observed him as he forced a wry smile and blurted, “Only cowards do that”. “How?” I chipped in. “Na only them dey talk wetin dey no fit do”, he muttered. “Life goes on boy”. Amidst the nauseating smell of fermented palm wine oozing out of my deep-hard breath, I could smell the mixture of marijuana and incense as he talked. Google-eyed, I looked askance at him and gingerly focused again, at least to savour the word of God. I said nothing to him again; neither did he produce any sound until the mass ended.
Outside the church, he went majestically to the gaily Marian Grotto. “Perhaps the mass was not enough”, I thought. He knelt down and did the sign of the cross. I stood motionless under the whistling pine before the grotto like an apoplexy old man, as the freezing cold permeated through my pores, and got me shivering as if I had Parkinson disease, until he stood up and was on the move. We walked side-by-side towards Eze-nwa-Eze Street, through Ikejiani Avenue as if we were birds of a feather.
“How far na”, I began the conversation I longed for. “This one you come church today come dey pray like say you be Mbaka, wetin happen?” He forced a smile that was hardly noticed. “Lawyer, you never read about the apocalypse abi?” he said. “You’ve been wasting your life reading those avalanches of lies in your law reports and newspapers”, he continued. “There is more to life that is yet unknown”
In recent times of NLC strike and the saddening ASUU forceful holiday, Dan Brown’s Lost Symbol was my aide in enduring the harshness of the national imbroglio. Peter Solomon, the Worshipful Master of the Masons explained the December 21, 2012 apocalypse as “not the end of the world, but the end of the world as we know it”. That was the first time I came across this crazy concept. It sounded funny so I took it with a pinch of salt. Yet, this dipsomaniac is getting prepared and I had only been flippant about it. What could have opened up his mind this way? I was still trying to chew and digest this thought when he brought out a stick of Benson from his left breast pocket. “Haven’t you seen the straw in the wind?”, he asked, putting the cigar in between his dark lips, lighted its tip with a lighter of which colour I couldn’t decipher, and took a long puff as the smoke gushed out demonstratively through his nostrils. “The world as we know it is passing away”, he blurted.
“But Escapee”, I asked, “wetin make you think say the world go end soon, how you take believe am?” He puffed again, gasped for air, the smoke from his mouth and nostrils now occupying the air. “I no believe am lawyer”, he said. “But if it happens now, wetin you go tell God?” From the inner pocket of his coat, he brought out a dinky beanie made of pure wool and covered his bald head to feel cosy. “Stop the fucking clock and get ready”, he shouted. My stomach immediately began to churn as if I ate soured beans. He then took another long blast of smoke, threw the butt down and gently matched on it with his left foot.
We walked in dead silence, except for the resounding knockouts which covered the chirping of birds and insects, until we got to De Cool Joint, where a gang of street urchins were vibrating in Swahili, dancing in circular form around a blazing trailer tire, drinking whisky and burning weed. “They were clearing the memories of the past year”. We halted so I could pick a rap from a crony.
Like a man walking on sharp thorns barefooted, we climbed the rocky hill, passed Scopi’s Barbing Salon and paused at Ejima Junction. I bid him farewell as he crawled towards Federal House and then turned right to locate my ‘nest’. I walked past Doctor Ken’s Chemist Shop by one foot when a shrieking sound came from Emperor’s grotty club. I turned back to position very well. Shit! Maximus didn’t go home. “This is New Year boy, let’s do it the right way”, he shouted. “Escapee packs quiet a punch”, I thought.
Bereft of ideas, I stood under the withering orange tree before my crib and watched in wide-eyed amazement as he snapped a finger at me, crossed Ifeanyichukwu Hospital with a roguish gait and faded into the void darkness. ‘Surely, he was heading to Casablanca Pub’. I shrugged and sneaked in. The thought of ‘wetin I go tell God’ still lingered like a protracted court case until Morpheus blinded me.
An SMS from Chino woke me up at dawn. With a blurred view, I saw my dusty shoes still clutching my feet, a faint dirty black jean to match and it-was-white singlet that tightened my trunk. I pulled up, picked my phone from under my flattened pillow, raised my arms to stretch my whacked bones, but I quickly put them down because their pits smelled like dead shrew. “Is it true Escapee has passed on?”, it read. “NO”, I quickly told myself. “It can’t be” In a whisker, I slid into my pants and paced down to Aso Rock Villa to see for myself. My heart was now pounding heavily like a condemned man staring at the noose from the scaffold.
I pushed open his door with the force of a senseless soldier in a war front. He was swimming lifelessly in a pool of blood. At that point, this unusual silence came again, and with this deafening loudness. I started sobbing unceasingly as I ran back to my nest before the Judge wrongly hangs the noose around my neck. God knows better after all. But then I still ask; “If you die a second after reading this piece, ‘wetin you go tell God?”.
ATTAMAH IGNATIUS KELECHI
No 6 Odenigwe Lane, Nsukka.