Storm

     Chika Onyenezi

 

     The weather forecast said a storm was coming— I turned off the television and went to work anyway. When you work for these retail cheats, every day of the year is a workday. There isn’t any escaping. You are paid enough to only come back the next day and waste youth and spontaneity on the desirous whims of a rich capitalist dude you would never meet, always work for, bleed for, even die for, and probably go to your grave with little or nothing, and yet at the end of it all, you mean nothing to him, you only exist as a number – number of employees.  When they need you to lift thirty pounds, there is no corporate policy, but when you break your hand or need help or something, these guys will find a way to get rid of you and declare you a liability. They hate liabilities, and I tried not to be one. I stood outside the store smoking and thinking about the difference between medieval and today's labor. The day-in-day-out routine constantly burned me away.

     The sliding door automatically pushed open, and I walked in. Right by the door was glass cases protecting expensive cosmetics, perfumes, key chains, battery chargers, phone chargers, umbrellas, and sunshades. We left sales items in a big basket right before the counter so that customers could pick one or two before leaving. The manager's door was open. I saw her head bent over papers and files. I hated working with Iren, she screamed all the time if the lines weren’t going fast enough. James was fun to work with. He was a great boss, and constantly found a way to make that shit easy on me. He always came down to help me out with long lines instead of trying to teach me from a telephone. Iren saw me. I waved at her and she waved back at me. 

     Few people were working in the store today. Mary was on the counter. She asked me out last month, but I was already going out with someone else, and then, the someone I was going out with was very unstable, but I liked her anyway. Loved her I mean, and that was why I stayed longer in the relationship than I should have. I saw Mary talking to John recently; the Spanish boy that worked night. His hair was always heavy with pomade and had a lot of coils. He smelled like cherry all the time. I guess it would be nice for both of them to get along fine, even though I was now considering dating her because I recently broke up with my girlfriend a few days ago. My girlfriend’s demons or my demons had decided to wake in the early morning of our relationship and box everything to pieces like Wreck-it-Ralph. I mean, I tried to apologize to her, but it didn’t work. I bought her flowers and cards and sent them to her house, but none of these could even get her to reply to my text messages. She accused me of dating an African student somewhere in Asia, but that wasn’t the case. The person in question was a long-time acquaintance of mine who decided to call in the middle of the night because she couldn’t tell the time difference. She also saw a message she sent and said they were outrageous. Outrageous!

 

“How are you brother? I miss our good old days.” = Outrageous!

 

     I checked “outrageous” twice in the dictionary and googled: “What does it mean when your girlfriend says you are outrageous” twice, just to get a hint of other people’s view on it. Everything that comes out of a girl’s mouth is a kind of code, a code that must be interpreted with artificial intelligence. When I got tired of trying to figure out why she wasn’t picking my call, I took it as fate. I guess that was the third stage of my realization, right after denying, googling, then you get fate. Fate means time to fade away, time to look beyond your Ex. You can now comfortably address her as Ex. Fate could also mean eating ice-cream every day and going to parks just to help you purge the thoughts of her like a food the body deemed unwanted. It could mean driving fast on the highway for those that have felt that rush of lingering between death and life.

     The fluorescent tubes focused on my eyes and momentarily blinded me as I walked towards the computer in the pharmacy area at the back of the store, to sign in for the day. The pharmacist waved at me. A good man. I heard he earned the biggest salary around here. No wonder every Nigerian I knew was in the medical field. I could have gone into the medical field a long time ago like my fellow compatriots and have a chance at a good life, but I choose to focus on my dream of becoming a painter. Assuming I could put food on the table with painting. Some dreams fester and rot in the night and stand in my living room like a Calabar masquerade, and reminded me of the horrors of my own choices. The computer turned on, and I began to punch away. My good man, whom I always shared books with whispered my name from the counter. I turned and saw him. Rodriguez. He was a student at Houston University completing his internship at the pharmaceutical store. We often talked in between breaks or anytime we could, and it was mostly about books. He had a smarter plan for himself than I. He loves to write and still went for a pharmacy degree, while all my life has been one attempt or another to paint something worthy of display. Shame on me, somehow. Shame on these festering dreams.  Rodriquez quickly ate a slice of apple while attending to the next customer.

     “Did you finish the book yet?” he asked me while punching the keyboard and scanning a customer’s items.

     “Almost there, thank you for that book. I have new ones coming in this week, I will share them with you too.”

     “Me too, I have some more coming in this week. All Salman Rushdie’s. I have long heard about that man, and I think it’s time to put that feeling to bed. Hey, I will send it your way after I am done.”

     “No problem, I will do the same too,” I said and waved at him and walked to the front counter to take my position. 

     Mary smiled at me and cuddled the strand of hair in front of her face and gently brushed it back. Then she beat the back of her head trice as if something was biting her. She smiled and asked me if I was ready to take over, and I said yes, and smiled back. I wanted to ask her what she was doing for the weekend, then I saw a customer coming and quickly logged in and began to check him out. Pepperoni, chips, wine, beer, and table tennis balls.

     “Looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day for you,” I said.

     “The storm is coming down brother. There is nothing to do other than drink and play games.  I hope you guys are closing early?” he asked.

     “Yea, even if they don’t close early, I will be out before it starts,” I said. 

     He put his credit card in the slit and paid for his items.

     “Alright man, have a good day. Stay warm,” he said and walked out of the door.

     “Thanks, man,” I replied.

     Time passed me by as people came up to my counter and walked in and out of the door. When I got tired of scanning, I leaned on the shelf beside me and watched the streets. I always kept a book underneath the counter so that when the store was less busy, I would read a couple of pages, but today I just wasn’t feeling like it. I preferred to watch the wind fluttering Margret restaurant’s awning and about to reap it apart. A raggedy man wearing a thick winter jacket walk into the store. His hat and pants were both reaped and dirty. He walked with urgency and couldn’t keep his eyes on me for a second.  I thought he was going to the pharmacy, but I noticed he didn’t even go close to the area, rather he went to the aisle with electronics and pocketed something quickly. I had seen this scene play out many times and understood exactly what it meant. I walked to the door and waited for him while pretending to be stocking phone chargers. A few seconds later, he walked close to the far end of the wall and tried to sneak out, but I was ready for him.

     “Stop right there,” I said and blocked his way.

     “What do you mean? Why are you embarrassing me?” he asked.

     “Let me have it,” I said in a quiet voice, my eyes unwavering, my body stiff, soldier like. 

     He brought out a radio, yogurt, perfumes, from his jacket and laid down on the floor.

     “Please let me go, I won’t do it again,” he said.

     “Do you know I can call the police for you? Do you know that if my manager sees you right now you are going to jail?” I asked.

     “Yes, yes,” he said, his voice broken and words almost meant nothing to me.

     “Go,” I said and looked at the counter. I saw two customers already waiting for me. I knew the second person and hadn’t seen him in a long time. I called him Big Brother. He was my schoolmate in secondary school, a couple of classes ahead of me back then, and also a lawyer for an oil firm in downtown Houston. One of the best in what he does. He owned a house in downtown Houston and always invited me over.

     “Brother,” I said and we shook hands. I rushed to counter and checked the first customer out, before shaking hands with him again, like sealing our comradeship and embracing our common struggle.

     “Men, when do you get off today?” he asked and dropped a bottle of Vodka for me to scan.

     “Soon, brother. Like in an hour.  What the time now?” I asked and looked at the clock while scanning his item too. It was almost six-thirty in the evening, and yes, I would be getting off in an hour’s time.

     “Correct, come to my end after this,” he said.

     “No problem brother, I am right behind you,” I said.

     I totally forgot about the storm and focused on hanging out with him. Well, I did think about the storm in-between scanning a few items, but what good would it do me to miss a chance at hanging out with Big Brother. Moreover, I could sleep over if I wanted. I scanned a few more and talked to a few faces whom I knew visited the store often. At six on the dot, I called my manager, clocked out and left. Like always, I saw John hunched like chimp by the electric pole at the back exit.  I took out a cigarette and smoked with him.

     “I knew you would be here, John,” I said. We shook hands while the cigarette burned on my lips.

     “Yea, I am late today. I don’t even feel like coming in today. I have to stay through the storm in this place,” John said.

     “Well, at least it will be just you and people won’t come in that much, so all you have to do is sleep,” I said and tapped his shoulder and he laughed.

     “Yes, you are right. So right. I know what to do once I clock in, lock the door and sleep. Sleep through the storm,” John said and laughed. His left hand made an O sign across his mouth as he tried to suppress staccato of laughter wailing deep inside.

     “Alright, man. I will see you tomorrow,” I said, laughing, and walked towards the parking lot. I walked on the sidewalk and stopped. When the light turned green, I crossed the walkway. Someone walked past me, and I could tell it was Vera, Maria’s white friend. We all hung out all the time and I wondered why she didn’t recognize me. Maybe I was too dark to be seen in the dark. Vera. The girl that called me her friend many times and we laughed and drank bourbon shots in upscale bars downtown Houston. We mostly barhopped and I tried to carry everyone along, and whenever I invited Mary, she always came with Vera. If she knew it was me, she would have stopped though, but that’s the problem, not recognizing your friend in the dark is the problem. I sighed and continued walking. The sky squeezed its face like a child that was about to cry, and heavy dark clouds rolled past the starless sky. The wind was getting stronger and stronger, and if I wasn’t up a hundred and eighty pounds, it would have dragged me north against my intention of going south. I got in my car and drove over to Big Brother's place. I pulled in by the trees and parked right in-between them. I ran across the tarmac and moved quickly, I ran up the little staircase leading inside the house, stopped at his doorstep, and knocked. If I was to be rich, I would buy a place like this. Cozy looking townhouse with beautiful facades and polished wood in the interior. Everything about it gives this air of something natural, utterly peaceful. I could feel the raw energy around the house, it felt like a place I wanted to be in. I waited and gazed at the roundedness of the light above me and watch tailed insects flutter around. Margret opened the door and hugged me. She was his wife, an African-American woman from Nebraska, and they had a child together. The smell of cashew nuts filled the air and something was boiling in the kitchen.

     “You will eat my egusi today,” Margret said as I settled in a chair.

     “Jesus who taught you how to cook egusi?” I asked, “I wouldn’t want to miss it at all.”

     “I learned it in Nigeria last year when we were there,” Margret said and her pretty face beamed with a smile.  She stood almost my height, five foot nine and I guess Big Brother was shorter than her but their love was so strong that none of it mattered. He strolled casually into the living room with Ayo by his side, barely talking, playing with his toy like he always did. I had never seen that boy cry. He was always alright and eager to start school. Ayo walked up to me and embraced my wet pants.

     “Men, welcome. Ayo hasn’t seen you in a long while, na why him dey gum your body,” he said and sat down on the opposite chair.

     “Hello Ayo,” I said, and the little boy smiled and ran away almost immediately.

     “O boy, you teach our wife how to make Egusi already?” I asked.

     “My man, na my mother teach her oh. Me, I get the time? The only time wey I get na to make money, everything else na las las,” he said.

     Naturally, we switched to pidgin English, the language of our struggles, spoken by our grandfathers in an attempt to mimic the white man, but rich in our sounds and manners.

     “Make I hail madam finish, I will be back,” I said following Ayo behind, knowing that he was rushing to be with his mother.

     “How is work?” I asked Margret.

     “Thank you for asking, good so far. I got promoted last week to Attorney general’s office,” Margret said.  She was also a lawyer, and they met during law school and had been together ever since. She carried Ayo in one arm and stirred the pot with another.

     “Congratulations, I need to come on a different day for the celebration. Today, I just came by chance. I will need a proper invitation to the promotion party. Your husband is Yoruba and you understand what that means. Plenty Party,” I said and we started laughing.

     “Chukwu, I can almost recall, the last time I went there, we had a party almost every day. I used to think Americans knew how to party, but I thought wrong. Partying belongs to the Yoruba’s, indeed,” she said.

     “Now you know better,” I said.

     “How is your work going?”

     “So far so good.”

     “Hey beautiful, can we go to the garage?” Big Brother said.

     “You don’t need permission to be there! Unless you guys plan on doing something I don’t know,” Margret said and laughed.

     “A little of it,” Big Brother said and kissed Margret on the lips, and pecked Ayo on the cheek. I followed him to the garage. He decorated it far more than his living room with fancy cushions, painting of Fela, and Arabian lush rug with tiny blue materials fluttering in the air-conditioned garage. His car was parked on the other side. He sat down and laughed while staring at nothing, then stopped and laughed again, and looked at me and said “I remember when you dey Junior Secondary One, men. I was in Senior Secondary two, your brother asked me to take care of you.”

     Memories filled my head and flashed around my mind like shooting stars.

     “Men, if not for you those days, they would have eaten me raw,” I said.

     “That’s the language of Thomas College,” he said and this time stared at a clock and said: “eat you raw,” in a very dreamy manner.  

     “Senior Ochonglakwu, AkA Ekwensu. Oji Ukwu Aga Aba, men them. They would have eaten me raw indeed. I remember the day Ochonglakwu shut down the school because the principal suspended him,” I said.

     “I remember that day, clearly. One man Squad. He stood on that front gate and declared school closed, shot two bullets in the air, and everyone ran away,” he said.

     “Why didn’t you guys do anything?” I asked.

     “The game was the game, my brother. It didn’t make any sense declaring war on him at the time. Even though we were already having problems with him,” he said.

     “I remember the day you slapped the physics teacher right by the hibiscus flowers,” I said and we started laughing. 

     “That was the last straw man and I later apologized. My parents heard about it, and my dad didn’t take it lightly,” he started rolling weed, “that man beat me and I had to go apologies to my teacher in his house. I give problem then now, no be now. Man don calm down,” he put the weed in his mouth, light it and took two puffs before giving it to me, “men, that school was rough. Men were coming to school with a machete. Who are you? Any day that blood didn’t flow wasn’t a good school day. A good school day na fight all through.”

     “True. Very true. I still wonder how I survived that amount of violence. It changes you inside you know?” I said.

     “Yes now. You know you will never be the same. That’s for sure, but you do better,” he said.

     We smoked for sometimes in silence and the heavy fumes circulated around the room and we coughed briefly. The room constantly changed colors in my eyes. We were high.

     “My father called me after secondary school and told me that he was sending me abroad. I was happy when I heard that. I got admitted to the University of Illinois to study Law. When I got there, the kind of winter that I met eh, my eyes opened. My father only paid for one semester, he called me and said ‘you are on your own, and if you can’t survive on your own, then fail.’ After that call, he never sent me a dime, again. I got a job on campus, and also a part-time job outside of campus. That was how I survived. That was how I was able to pay my own school fees. I struggled from month to month. I started putting much effort into my studies and after, I decided to go to Law School. I applied and got a scholarship. Somehow, coming to America changed me. I don’t know what my fate would have been if I stayed back in Nigeria, because I was already gone then. If I had gone to a Nigerian college, I probably would have been deadlier than college times. Most of my friends joined a cult in University. Shaba was shot dead at Ekpoma University, Costa Rica met his waterloo at UNILAG. These where the men I used to play with, eat with, drink with, laugh with, you know that kind of level?” he said and hissed.

     “I know exactly what you are talking about,” I said and hissed.

     “Now the worst of all Buhari won the election,” he said, and sighed.

     “Let’s see how it will go,” I said.

     “What can you expect from a military dictator? My people will never learn.”

     “He might turn out be person Nigeria needs at this time.”

     “We’ve heard that before, watch and see.”

     For a couple of minutes, we smoked in silence. I looked at my phone, almost 11 p.m.

     “Brother, I have to start going,” I said.

     “Men, what are going home for, at this time of the night, this is your house too.”

     “I have to prepare for an interview tomorrow.”

     “In this storm?” he said and pulled up the garage door, and indeed it happened that the rain had receded greatly, “alright it seems better now.”

     “I promise I will come this weekend for a sleepover.”

     He walked towards the living room, and I followed him. Ayo and Margret were already sleeping. I saw my food on the table, packaged for me already.

     “Ah, she even packaged the food for you.”

     “Men, thank you, you guys are amazing,” I said and walked into the rainy night.

     Water poured down lightly on the tarmac and rays from the street light made the wet leaves shiny. I got to my car and drove away. I ran down Travis street and pulled into Main street and drove all the way to Richmond Avenue and made a left. The water kept growing as I drove towards my house. The storm suddenly picked up again and came with a roaring wind and rain. I felt drops of water on my feet and I could tell my car engine was getting water too. I kept on driving, high as fuck and eager to get home. Soon I noticed that my car was floating on the water. It glided towards a wall. I came down, and with the water around my chest, I pushed the car forward until it touched the ground again and pulled onto the tarmac. I got in and started the engine again, and lucky for me, it heaved in. I felt the blistering cold on my wet skin as I drove down the road. I began to shiver. I turned the heater and drove towards my house.  The road was still flooded and I couldn’t see a thing in the distance. I pulled into a gas station where other cars parked waiting with their blinkers on. I put on my blinkers and shivered inside while the car tried to warm me. I took almost an hour before the rain receded.

     When I got home later, I soaked myself in a hot bath and stayed there for nearly an hour in an attempt to defrost my own soul. I knew my car was damaged when I pulled into the parking lot. I turned on the television and listened to the news on CNN, and the reporter was talking about Houston's death toll being around fourteen already. People drowned in the storm, two on one the routes I took. I sighed. I looked at myself in the mirror and wondered if I was just a ghost of myself. Maybe I died out there in the storm. I blinked, and wiped the mirror with the back of my hand.

Chika Onyenezi is a Nigerian-born fiction candidate enrolled in the University of Maryland's MFA program. His work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Evergreen Review, and elsewhere. He is working on a collection of short stories and a novel.