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Oct/Nov 2003 fiction

The Miracle Worker

by Sefi Atta


Photo-Art by Tara Gilbert-Brever

 

Makinde's only contention with his new wife, Bisi, was that she gave too much in tithes to her church. Ten percent was not enough for Bisi. She had to prove just how born-again she was, and each time she visited the Abundant Life Tabernacle, she placed a little extra on the collection tray for the married women's fellowship, a haven for gossips as far as Makinde was concerned.

Makinde was a panel beater. He worked on a lot on the corner of a Lagos street. Bisi sold bread and boiled eggs to bus passengers at a nearby depot. When she abandoned her colorful up-and-downs for black dresses, Makinde didn't object. When she stopped speaking to his non-Christian friends because they were sinners, he didn't say a word. He broke his hand after a motorcycle taxi almost ran over him (Makinde dived into a nearby gutter and held his head for protection. The slime in the gutter was masking a bed of rocks). Bisi fasted two weeks for his hand to heal. He ate her share of meals and recovered with his small finger permanently bent at a right angle. Bisi was prone to zeal, he thought, so on that afternoon when she came to his lot with his usual lunch of bread and boiled egg, and she saw the windscreen of an old car that had been sitting there for years and fell on her knees saying it was a vision of the Virgin Mary, Makinde barely raised his head from his sandwich to acknowledge her. He had cleaned the windscreen with an oily rag to get rid of some bird droppings that offended him. The rain had fallen lightly that morning, and Bisi wasn't even a Catholic.

She ran to the bus depot to tell passengers she'd seen a vision. About a dozen of them came back to confirm. A few, men mostly, walked away joking about Nigerian women and their pious ways. The rest, women mostly, stayed to stare at the dirty windscreen. They trembled and burst into tears. It was a miracle, they said. There was a clear figure all right: one small circle over a bigger mound and hues of rainbow colors around the small circle. More bus passengers joined the onlookers as word of the vision spread. Soon there were enough to make his work impossible. Makinde drove them away.

All his life he had worked, at least from the time his mother had stopped hand-feeding him. He started off by selling oranges on a tray, never attended school. At age ten he began his apprenticeship with his father, a self-taught mechanic. Makinde pumped tires, plucked nails from tires and patched them up, before graduating to changing spark plugs. He was not the best mechanic in Lagos, but he was one of the few whom people could leave their vehicles with, without fear that spare parts would go missing. He was amazed by some of the clients he encountered—Mercedes owners, who had access to his country's elusive oil money. Yet, these wealthy people were frugal when it came to paying for work. They handed Makinde small change with soft, plump palms, while Makinde couldn't even remember the color of his own fingernails. He had black oil under them and cleaned his hands with petrol dabbed on rags like the one he'd used on the windscreen. He ate Zero-One-Zero to save money: nothing for breakfast, one big lunch, nothing for dinner. This was the real miracle: he was still poor.

"My wife," he said, after the visitors had left. "I don't care if you choose to waste your earnings on your church—actually I do, but nothing I say will change your mind. What I won't tolerate is you having a church service here, on my lot, and getting in the way of my work."

"Why?" Bisi asked.

"Your people will scare my customers away with their wailing and shaking."

"How?" Bisi asked.

This was her style of arguing. She wouldn't challenge him, but she asked enough questions to drive him to distraction and hopefully have her way.

"All I'm saying is that it must never happen again," Makinde answered.

He was known as a patient man because he didn't like talking; talking took his energy. Bisi called him a stubborn man. He refused to attend church services with her.

 

The next day when Makinde arrived at work, a group of about twenty people were waiting in his lot, men, women and children included. They wore white robes and were barefoot despite the ground, a black surface of oil and dirt.

"We have come to see the vision," an old man said.

"In the name of God," Makinde muttered.

It was about five-thirty in the morning. Bisi couldn't have told them. He had not bargained on this, those people from yesterday spreading the news.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I can't have you praying on my lot."

"Unfortunately, that is out of your control," the old man said. "Celestial forces have chosen this place. You'd do best to submit yourself to their will, rather than try to stand in the way."

The old man was smiling, but Makinde was afraid anyway. He believed in a celestial force. He just didn't believe the celestial force considered him special enough to deliver unto him.

"Over there," he said.

He pointed at the old car, incidentally once a beige Peugeot 405. Now it resembled a carcass. The seats and steering wheel were gone, removed by robbers. The barefooted group walked towards the windscreen. The old man saw the vision first and fell on his knees. His troupe followed, and then they hummed. Makinde beat a panel loud enough to drown out their noise. At most, he hoped, five groups might visit his lot. Three that day, and maybe two the next. He'd heard about such visions on dirty glasses in poor districts. He could not read, so he didn't know that, in Lagos, these visions actually drew what newspaper reporters called Throngs, and these throngs Flocked. Throngs Flock to Vision of Mary on Latrine Window. Throngs Flock to Vision of Mary on Popcorn and Groundnut Seller's Glass Cubicle.

Makinde's prediction of five groups of twenty people was underrated. Two hundred and fifty people visited his lot in the morning. By afternoon, about five hundred had been to his lot. Makinde stopped showing them the windscreen of the Peugeot. A tall thin woman stayed from her morning visit to act as a guide. She told the story to a reporter; how Makinde and his wife were newlyweds, Bisi was born-again, and Makinde didn't attend church. This vision had occurred on his lot nonetheless, and it was a clear sign that God's mercy could manifest just about anywhere.

Bisi came at lunchtime with Makinde's usual lunch of bread and boiled egg. She saw the crowds and immediately denied she was responsible: "It wasn't me!"

"Don't worry, I believe you," Makinde said. The situation was out of her control.

The guide woman approached her. "God's blessings to you, my sister."

"To you, too," Bisi said.

"We've been here all morning, without pay, showing the people where to pray for miracles."

"Yes?"

"Yes, and we are getting quite hungry now, so please can you go back to your stall and get bread and eggs for us to eat?"

The guide was referring to herself alone. The miracle she'd prayed for was for others to stop saying she was insane. She knew her calling was to do God's work. Anywhere else in the world, she would be a street preacher. Here, she was sent to a hospital, where the doctors injected her while the nurses held her down and later beat her up.

Makinde told Bisi to get her bread and a boiled egg, and then as both women left to carry out their respective tasks, the thought came to his mind. Without pay, the guide had said. The people were standing on his lot, getting in the way of his work. Why not charge them? They paid to attend church. He calculated his lost earnings, net of transportation. He divided that by the number of visitors who came to the lot. He rounded down, taking poverty into consideration, and ended up with a fee of one naira per person.

In front of his lot was the gutter he had dived into to save his life. There was a wide plank over this gutter, tough enough to support vehicles. He stood on the plank and announced, "Excuse me? I am Makinde. Yes, em, the owner of this lot. I have decided I will not get in the way of your worship today. But... I... I am a man of small means, as you can see, and my business is, em, suffering from the constant traffic in and out. Yes, what I'm suggesting is that... can you... can you please...?"

Talking was exhausting him. Hardly anyone was listening anyway. They were praying, singing, rocking. Makinde raised his voice. "My name in Makinde. I'm the owner or this lot, and I'm telling you now, if you wish to continue to see your vision, I suggest you pay me one naira now, each, or else I will take a rag and wipe the vision off."

A hush fell on his lot. One or two people were asking what he was talking about and why he was getting angry. The guide woman was explaining this to them when another visitor appeared. Makinde stretched his hand out without looking at her face.

"It's one naira to enter, please," he said.

"Since when?"

It was Bisi. She had returned with the bread and boiled egg for the guide, and so fast.

 

Makinde earned money that month from the visitors to his lot. He was even in the Sunday newspapers. Throngs Flock to Miracle at Mechanics. People came to pray for cures, scholarships, school examinations, job applications, job promotions, and money mostly. There were visitors in wheelchairs, on crutches, blind visitors, insane, evicted, heartbroken, abandoned, bitter, barren visitors. Beggars and gossips, too, including the women of his wife's fellowship. Some people complained about the one naira fee. A few refused and walked away. One was a priest. "H-how can you do this?" he asked Makinde. "C-capitalize on people's s-sorrows and-and woes?" Makinde waived his fee as he secretly did for beggars and sick children. The priest still refused to walk into his lot. "D-did Jesus charge for miracles? How do you sleep at night k-knowing you do this for a living?"

Quite well, when he wasn't making love to Bisi, who was now talking about having a child and perhaps taking a break from her work. She conceived one night during a thunderstorm. Hearing the rain on his roof, Makinde worried about the fate of his Virgin Mary, though he'd protected the Peugeot's windscreen with a tarpaulin sheet and secured its edges with rocks. Had he known the wind was strong enough to shift one of the rocks, and that the rock would roll off the roof of the Peugeot, free an edge of the tarpaulin, and the tarpaulin would flop over the bonnet of the Peugeot, and the raindrops would fall on the windscreen and wipe the vision away, he would have worried more.

He arrived at work the next morning and there were only two people in his lot. One was a vagrant who normally came to look for scraps of food, the second was the guide woman. "Our vision is no more," she said.

The ground in his lot had turned to mud, and the gutter in front was overflowing with slime. Makinde could see only the clean windscreen of the Peugeot. He was thinking about how to get back to panel beating.

The guide continued. "It appears the storm last night is the cause. Our work here is done, then. We don't expect you'll have visitors anymore, and as you know, the Lord giveth and the..."

"Quiet!" Makinde shouted, so loud she ran out of his lot. What kind of Lord gaveth, and then taketh and taketh and taketh? He kicked the Peugeot, which appeared to be grinning, with enough force to dent it. Then he boxed it with just as much force, and the impact straightened his bent little finger.

 

He did have one visitor that day. A tax assessor, who seemed to be studying the sweat on his own nose. "Mr. Makinde," he began. "Eh, I read about you in the papers. You've been getting a lot of attention here recently, eh? Since you can't call this a church, nor yourself a priest, it means that you are liable for taxes."

Makinde had not paid taxes before. Tax was for people who wore shirts and ties, people who received checks regularly. He thought the tax assessor was a con man.

"From where are you?" he asked.

"I represent the government."

"Couldn't they give you a clean shirt?"

"You're practically in tatters yourself. What have you done with your money?"

Makinde stroked his bandaged finger, feeling exhausted. Perhaps the man really was a tax assessor, and if so, why didn't he go back to the people he represented, those who had access to his country's oil money, and assess them?

"This is my lot," he said.

"Where is your title?" the tax assessor asked.

"What?"

"Your title deed. To show that the lot belongs to you."

Makinde trembled with anger. How dare the tax assessor question his ownership of the lot. "My father left me this lot," he said. "My father found this lot. He cleared this lot. He worked on this lot." The lot had been in Makinde's family long before that part of Lagos had been deemed a slum district.

"So it's yours," the tax assessor said. "Then you must show me evidence, at least, that you've paid ground rent on the property from the time you inherited it. Don't look so vexed. That is another department's business, but I will make sure I alert them after I have finished my assessment of your taxable earnings, eh?"

Makinde removed his shirt. His earnings were hidden under his mattress at home. He slept on them. He wasn't about to let this messenger of wealthy men have access to them.

"What is this?" the tax assessor asked, expecting a blow.

"Here I am," Makinde said, unzipping his trousers. "Tax my head, my arms, my broken finger included. Tax my legs. See. My foot is sprained, tax that. Here, tax my balls, and when you finish with them..." He turned his backside to the tax assessor. "Tax my ass."

 

The tax assessor promised he would return with henchmen. "You will pay," he said. "Or they will help themselves to your wife."

A wife who wouldn't even allow Makinde access to her. She was nauseous and eating dirt now that she was pregnant. Dirt. "I can't help it," she said. "The sight of it makes me want to touch it. The feel makes me want to sniff it. The smell makes me want to eat it."

Makinde watched as she scooped up soil and licked it. He tried to stop her by reminding her of worm eggs. He couldn't afford to take her to a doctor. He couldn't go to work for fear the tax assessor returned with henchmen. They argued. She eventually packed a portmanteau and said she was going to her mother in the village for a week.

Makinde decided to seek counsel from Rasaki, a local man known as the Duke of Downtown. Rasaki, whose work included playing the pools and brokering assault contracts. People said he was personable with thugs and armed robbers in Lagos, that he smoked marijuana, drank ogogoro, and called out to Lagos chicks, "Baby, I've got a big one." And they replied, "Bet it's the size of a Bic biro." That sort of Duke. But he was also known as a person who helped those who were in trouble with the authorities—the police, the mobile squad known as Kill-and-Go, customs and excise and taxmen. He knew exactly whom to bribe.

Rasaki was smoking a Bicycle cigarette as Makinde talked. His fingers were as black as his lips, and his teeth were the color of curry. "My friend," he rasped. "What is wrong with your head? You don't insult a tax assessor."

Makinde mumbled, "It's too late for that advice."

Rasaki scratched his armpit. He had just woken up. On his wall was a calendar. The girl of the month, Miss February, had one breast pointing east, the other pointing west. Her teeth had a center parting. Her name was Dolly.

"You should have kept your mouth shut," Rasaki said. "Or else you want to offer your wife?"

"My wife," Makinde said. "She smells of boiled egg most days. Right now she eats dirt. I love her. I would not offer my wife to the president if he wanted her."

Rasaki coughed and smacked his chest. "I thought not, and I'm telling you, these tax men are not normal human beings. They have a lot of hatred in their hearts, and they are vengeful. It is how they get their jobs in the first place. I suggest— and you don't have to take my advice, I'm only suggesting— that you pay him the money he asked for."

"Pay?"

"Yes, because right now he's offended, humiliated. He's a small man psychologically, and nothing you do will pacify him. From my experience, he may probably ask you to pay enough to buy the whole lot."

"How will I ever do that?"

"How much money do you have now?"

"It's here in my pocket."

"Place it on my table, my friend."

Makinde did. Rasaki studied the naira notes. He tilted his head to one side and then he smiled. "You got this by duping believers?"

Rasaki was a Moslem by birth. The last time he visited a mosque was to marry his only wife, who later divorced him.

"I didn't dupe anyone," Makinde answered. "It was an admission fee."

"Call it whatever you want. You were in the game of chances, and you were master of it. People trusted you, and you spat on their faith. I'm not blaming you. They were fucking fanatics and deserved it. Who knows what Mary looked like? Do you?"

Makinde was getting impatient. Rasaki seemed to have a lot of knowledge, except about how to help him out of paying the taxman.

"What can you do for me?" he asked.

"My friend," Rasaki said. "Do you play pools?"

 

He was an expert. How else would he have survived without a job for years? Playing the pools was not a risk, he said, and only those who played the pools long enough knew this. They studied odds and they beat odds. Those who lost were outsiders, like believers looking for miracles in lots. "Give me your money, and I will return it ten-fold," he said.

"How?" Makinde asked.

"Ah-ah? Will I tell you what has taken me decades to learn?"

"Why should I give you what has taken me a month to earn?"

"It's up to you."

"My choices are limited."

"The possibilities are endless."

"You know a lot. How come you're not a rich man, yourself?"

"I choose not to be."

"Why?"

"Where else will I be a Duke?"

Makinde had to concede that he did not know one person like Rasaki, who, despite his appearance, skinny with a rash on his neck, walked around downtown as if he were royalty. He wore trousers that were long and flared. "Keep-Lagos-Clean," that fashion was called. His gray hair was cut high on his crown. "Girls-Follow-Me," that hairstyle was called. His girlfriends were prostitutes, he lived in one room, and people knew his wife had divorced him because he was incapable of fathering children, and yet he was extremely sure of himself.

"I came to you because you're a man with connections," Makinde said. "I was hoping for something not so out of the ordinary. A name to slip a bribe perhaps? Let me think about this."

 

At home, Makinde considered his options. On the one hand was his lot, and in his hand with the broken finger was the money he hadn't earned from working. Free money. It seemed to him that Rasaki was right. He had become master of one game, unwittingly. Who from his lot left with a miracle? Who walked out with more money in their pockets, except him? Those who came on crutches hobbled away, those who came blind shuffled off without seeing. He had not heard from the guide woman, but he was certain she had found another place to preach. Not one of the visitors to his lot was a Mercedes owner—none of them the big masters in his country, so masterful they were actually called "master" and "madam." The masters were as huge as gods. No matter how long he worked, circumstances remained according to their design. Never his. Never his.

He sweated and salivated. He drifted into that most powerful of mental states—totally dissatisfied. He went back to Rasaki with the money. Rasaki promised a return within a week.

 

How did Makinde hear about his money? He kept going to Rasaki's place, and Rasaki was not to be found. He asked about Rasaki's whereabouts. People said Rasaki had traveled up north. He hovered around the row of collapsing bungalows in which the Duke had a room. No Rasaki. The Duke had completely disappeared downtown.

It wasn't until Bisi returned, full of her mother's vegetable stews and no longer craving dirt, that he heard from her. She had heard from her friend at her married women's fellowship, who'd heard from her husband, who'd heard from his colleague that Rasaki had taken money from someone to play the pools, lost the money, and this person was unlikely to ask for his money back, because this person was in big trouble with the tax men, and Rasaki knew exactly who to approach to make sure this person ended up ruined, and this person was Makinde.

"Is it true?" Bisi asked him.

"Apparently," Makinde said.

"In the short time I've been away?"

"Yes."

"How could you?"

"I had little choice."

"Well, I am disgusted."

"Why?" he asked, as she would. After all, it was not his fault. She saw the vision on the dirty windscreen. She told people and they came, which stopped him from doing his work and got his name mentioned in the papers and attracted the tax men's attention. "This would never have happened," he said. "But for your vision."

"On the contrary," she said, and honestly. "It is you who went wrong, being tempted by a man like Rasaki. We were blessed with that money. You lost it the moment you thought you could multiply it by other means."

"How else could it have been multiplied?"

"You should have taken it to church."

"For what?"

"To give as tithes. Your fruit would have been abundant."

"My dear wife, when has my fruit ever been abundant?"

Bisi had to think. Becoming a father was one blessing, even though Makinde might not want to hear that. She couldn't think of another.

"I give tithes," she said. "My prayers are answered."

"The miracle you prayed for on my lot, was that answered?"

"No."

"Ah, well."

"It will be! I know it will!"

"Tell me when that happens. Me, I feel as if I've been fighting a will stronger than mine. A mischievous will. It wreaks havoc, and I'm done fighting it."

She had a solution to their problem, meanwhile. She was entitled to support from the Married Women's Crisis Fund. "On condition you join my church family."

Makinde was truly exhausted. "For God's sake..."

"It's stipulated. You want this help or not?"

"It's not as though I have several options."

 

The following Sunday he attended Abundant Life Tabernacle with Bisi. There Bisi told him his presence in her church was the miracle she had prayed for. "I'm so glad you found your way," she said.

 

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