|Jan/Feb 2013 Fiction|
Ladoju remembered the joy on his mother's face the last time he went home. The joy registered itself in her voice, how she hollered for anyone with ears to hear the news that her son had returned.
"Ladoju has come from America, o," she cheered as her friends poured into her house to see his bright face. Some of them marveled at the robust Ladoju and prayed that one day God would provide that they, too, could send their children across the ocean to Yankee, to come back fresh.
"It's the work of God's own country," Ladoju's mother told her guests. Those who did not respond with cries of joy, she wailed curses on them for their silence.
"Enemies! See the people praying for my son's downfall. They will not succeed," and with that pronouncement, the enemies were ushered from the house.
Then there were the family members who, with Ladoju's appearance, suddenly developed problems only money could solve. His mother invited them in and promised her son would "take care" of their problems. With hearty laughter they shared in the joy that Ladoju was back home, and then they told him how much it would cost for their problems to go away.
But that was a long time ago.
Ladoju had not been back in the ten years since. His mother had no idea that he had borrowed the money he brought to Nigeria—every single dollar, including what he used to solve his family members' problems and to buy a piece of land for his mother. Ten long years, and he was still paying back what he had borrowed to go home the last time. And now, his mother was demanding his presence again.
Ladoju had always thought of himself as his mother's pride. Ever since his father died, he had taken over his father's responsibilities. In return, his mother promoted him to the head of the household, causing a war between him and his older brother, who had stayed in Nigeria. Ladoju knew that in his mother's eyes, he had successfully won that war. First, he bought her the land, then proceeded with plans to build a house on it. After that, he started a business for her so she could make some money on the side. And when his mother started complaining that the shop "bore too much on her life," he divided his weekly wages and sent one half home so his mother would never have to work as long as he was in America. In return, all he asked was for her to pray good fortune would come his way.
"When will you come?" she asked, continuing the question like a chorus in a song when he tried to change the topic.
"Soon, Mama. Just pray that all I came to this land to get, I get," he said as calmly as possible.
"Well, as far as I'm concerned, you've worked enough. I was at Tiwani's mother's house. You remember him, don't you? That boy you went to secondary school with? Anyway, his mother said he's coming back from Switzerland to settle down finally. I told her my son, too, will be doing the same soon. I even reminded her that you've been abroad longer than her son. You know these people, always trying to brag..." This phone call was dragging on for more than an hour.
Ladoju listened patiently and tried stopping himself from thinking what his mother would say if she ever found out about the kind of life he was living in America. Every time he spoke with her, he wanted to tell her the things he did in the name of making her happy. How since he had been laid off, he had taken out a new loan to keep paying her weekly wages. How he had stopped speaking with her nephews in America because she had ordered him to do so, no questions asked.
"...old and my back still doesn't know how heavy the seeds of your loins are," his mother's words broke his reverie.
"Ehn?" he asked, not sure of the train of thought.
"I'm saying, when will you marry? It is only your older brother who has given me children in this house. And he is even having too many children to take care of with that salary he earns."
"Does he still work at that bank?"
"I'm asking you about children, you are asking me about your brother's job. What concerns God with the devil?"
"I'm just asking after his well being. And Mama, he is my brother, remember?"
"Am I not the one who pushed both of you into this world? Please, tell me when you will be coming home to marry a young woman among the many I've been eying for you. Mama Janlo's daughter is fresh and ripe for plucking. She has full breasts that will milk your children. And Mama Ojo's twins—I can't tell the difference these days—have a great shape, the way you like them. Don't forget I caught you eying one of them when you were both in school..."
Ladoju's mind again began to wander. This marriage talk had started about four years ago when his older brother had had his first child. By the second year when his brother had twins, the talk increased in intensity. In the third year when his brother's wife became pregnant again, his mother expanded her demands to include children. Each time, he promised to do her will and find a mate. But when his brother's wife was once again with child, Ladoju's mother began picking out specific women for him.
"Mama, I have to go. It's time to go to work."
He dropped the call without saying goodbye and laid down, thinking of the things his mother had said. He really wanted to go home. He had been hearing reports of others who had returned from abroad: the houses they bought, how they spent money like water. He wanted to join them, but he couldn't go home in shame, ever.
As he sank deeper in his thoughts, an idea sparked in him like lightning in a dark sky. He wondered how such a demonic thought could disguise itself as heavenly and brilliant, but try as he did to extinguish its light, the idea continued to possess him. And so, giving up, he resolved to speak to Ajuwaya, the greatest success story to ever come out of Yankee.
He and Ajuwaya came into the country together. Unlike Ladoju, educated and with a clear vision of his future, Ajuwaya had had to start at the bottom of the ladder, earning minimum wage to make ends meet. If there was any menial job that he, Ladoju, would not do at home for any amount of money, Ajuwaya did it in America for the littlest amount of pay. But now, he was a success story who served as inspiration for those who came to America in rags. Tragedy had struck Ajuwaya, but like a phoenix, he had risen with new life, and penury was no longer his problem. In fact, Ajuwaya was known these days to preach the gospel of wealth like it was something he had been familiar with all his life. By the time the embers of the morning sun began to fill his room, Ladoju knew without a doubt that he was going to ask Ajuwaya to meet with him.
"A finger? That's too small. They'll reattach it if they find it and only pay for hospital bills. Come on," Ajuwaya told Ladoju.
The coffeehouse they met in was Ladoju's idea. He wanted something sophisticated to show Ajuwaya that he also thought like a big man. Ever since he got to America, he noticed that one of the condiments of the rich was coffee; they drank it like water and varied it in different tastes to suit their needs. His need today was a Cafe au Lait, something French, therefore exotic. He had never had it before, but when Ajuwaya walked in with the smell of cologne announcing his presence, Ladoju shouted his order loud enough for the lady behind the counter to look at him from the corners of her eyes.
"Tell me of your experience," Ladoju said, picking up his drink and blowing lightly into it like it was a whistle.
"When it happened to me, I was lucky. I had people who fought for me tooth and nail. And when I did it, I lacked experience, not that you can be experienced in such," he laughed, slapping Ladoju, jump-starting him to join the laugh.
False chuckles emerged from Ladoju and disappeared as soon as Ajuwaya stopped laughing.
"Seriously, this is no laughing matter. Have you thought of what they will say at home when they hear what has happened to you? Don't look only at how I bought five houses and maintain ten cars. It's all part of the price I've paid. Think carefully."
Ladoju nodded. In his mind, the only thought he had given to anything was the dollars he would spend at parties, the houses—rather, mansions—he would buy, the countless girls he would sleep with, and more than anything, a mother who would be satisfied. Dollars would shut her lips, and if words did come out of them, Ladoju would muffle their sound and lighten their weight with the dollars that would flow from his pocket. He knew those at home would talk, just like they did for Ajuwaya when it initially happened to him, but the money would shut them up. All of them. Especially his mother.
"I've given it serious thought," he said to Ajuwaya.
"I don't think you understand what I'm saying. Look here," Ajuwaya wiggled his left hand. "Now look here." Even expecting it, the empty air where Ajuwaya's right hand used to be was still a shock to Ladoju. Ajuwaya placed his plastic hand on the table and positioned his tree stump of an arm for Ladoju to observe. Ladoju felt his own fingers, digits that served the purpose of making him whole—unlike Ajuwaya, the greatest success story to come out of America, the only complete incomplete man.
"Only real men can lose and still gain in their loss," Ajuwaya continued.
Ladoju continued to stare, imagining the eel-like motions that Ajuwaya's fingers would make if they were there. The smell of warm roast in the air, though, reminded Ladoju of the sophistication he was supposed to be showing Ajuwaya. He forced himself not to look at the phantom hand.
"When it happened, I thought it was the end of everything for me. But as fate will have it, America—God bless this country—made sure that I will never have to work for the rest of my life..."
"And that is why I've come to you. Tell me what I can do to share your fate."
"I miss it, you know?"
"Hmmm," Ladoju said, wondering what Ajuwaya, the most complete incomplete man, could be missing.
"Seriously. Sometimes I feel it there, and it pains me," Ajuwaya stared at his stump. It clubbed the air as waved it. But Ladoju knew that since Ajuwaya had come into money, he had spent it in a way that deepened the eternal desire of those around him. And this desire he quelled in those of his inner circle by buying houses for some, cars for others. Ladoju, overpowered by Ajuwaya's aura of wealth, knew he would follow whatever path led to this greatness. He had it in his mind to lose a finger, or two if the occasion called for it. He wouldn't really miss digits that didn't bring anything for him in the first place. And he would lose his dignity and place in his home if he didn't do something about his lack of money. Ajuwaya's knowledge was going to save him.
"I'm ready to part with my forefinger. It is important, and it should fetch a lot of money," Ladoju said as Ajuwaya worked to affix his plastic hand.
Ajuwaya paused. His eyes were clear, the nostalgia that was once there having disappeared. His laughter was sudden and startling.
"You really think that is how it's done? First of all, like I told you, if they find the finger, they will just reattach it. Any compensation they pay you will be flimsy indeed. You should know more. You are not ready for money."
"I did not come here to be insulted. Can you help me?"
Ajuwaya looked at him for some time, then finally spoke. His words brought a smile to Ladoju, who was already picturing a better life.
Ladoju's cries brought people to his aid. He had followed Ajuwaya's instructions to the letter. Four fingers couldn't be reattached so easily, and even if they were, Ladoju won't be able to function with them properly. Money guaranteed. His hand squirted blood like a geyser and sprayed the air. People stayed back as they pitied Ladoju in his agony. Phones were slapped on ears as they called for help.
"Someone call 911!"
"I'm on it!"
"Is there a doctor here?"
Ladoju's target had to be a store that assured its customers safety in their products. Fix-it's slogan was, "If you can't fix it, we'll pay for it." He had entered the large store, home to the solutions to all household problems. He felt like a bird under the wide sky as aisles lined up in front of him and stretched for great distances. The drone of whirring machines filled the air. Televisions hung from the ceiling advertising the items being sold. A lady wielded a saw, cutting wood effortlessly enough for Ladoju to be sure of his chances.
"How can I help you?" an attendant asked. Lodoju stared at the television.
"I want one of those."
"We can do that. Come this way please." The apron-clad attendant led him to a display of saws with teeth that bit the air. Each one looked like it was going to be the one to slice his fingers off and still want more after that. He thought of his mother.
"Can I test it?" he asked, pointing to one he suspected would do the job and still leave him human.
"Of course. Give me a minute to get some wood," the attendant said, and disappeared.
Ajuwaya's instructions had been clear. He was to make sure no one saw him when it happened and raise his voice as much as possible to bring witnesses to his plight. "Once they pity you, they will say anything for your defense," Ajuwaya had told him.
As soon as the attendant disappeared, he switched on the saw. The teeth of the blade moved and fuzed with the air so that one could see through them. Ladoju felt the drumming of his heart as he slid his left hand close. He put aside his fear of being incomplete; money would soon cure all that. He would be like Ajuwaya, only better because he would reattach his fingers and still get paid. He stopped just when he was about to touch the blade and switched to his right hand. Ajuwaya had warned him, "You have to show the lawyers that you use that part of your body a lot, or else you won't get as much money." He took a deep breath, and his fingers dropped like sausages on the floor. Next, he screamed.
"Hold still, sir, the ambulance is on its way," one of his witnesses said.
He could hear the piercing noise of the siren approaching. One of the store attendants wore gloves to pick his fingers, the four of them. He was still going to keep his thumb. He was crowded around by everyone.
The lady's voice came on the television again, advertising saws. Ladoju looked to the ceiling, the heaven that answered his prayers. He was thankful that most of his troubles would be over now. "We promise you, this will be the easiest thing you've ever done," the lady's voice said, and she sounded so happy. Ladoju looked at her, and then screamed when he saw, inconspicuously placed beside the television, an eye that saw everything from its seat in heaven: the camera designed to prevent thievery. He closed his eyes and wished aloud that he might die. He could hear the voices of some saying he was acting crazy due to loss of blood, while others said it was shock from losing so many fingers.