A Bucket of Crabs
Vunderkind’s note: I wrote this long ago as a sort of self-test, after the style of Tai Pei by Tao Lin. I must warn you: it is pretty long and round-about.
I used to know a guy named Lucky.
He worked at one of the barbershops in Downtown, a part of town where parents would rather shave the heads of their children with blades than patronize the barbershop. Haircuts were a luxury here, and people tried as much as possible to squeeze in the longest possible time interval between their last haircut and the next one; here, afros and dreadlocks were more an economic necessity than an actual fashion statement.
If you have a fresh haircut here, people would ask if you are going for a job interview and when you say no, they’d call you something along to the lines of “rich,” or “enjoying” (they would say you are flexing, a counter-intuitive word used to mean one is living the good life), alluding to your having enough money for such luxury as a haircut, but they may also be heaving an internal sigh of relief, subconsciously thankful that there are no job interviews in your immediate future and no upsetting change of status (on your part) is to be anticipated. The crab mentality is reflex for most.
Seeing as I religiously keep an afro, I mostly visited Lucky’s for the newspapers and the gist.
He had a lot of stories, mostly gossip he picked off while tampering with the scalps of his clientele. He was a funny man, Lucky was, but this was not unique to him. The barbers I knew were all funny. Humor seemed prerequisite for holding this job.
One day, I was browsing, distractedly, reading the cartoons in a two-day old edition of The Vanguard, when I heard Lucky tell me he was going to quit working at the barbershop.
My first question – reflexively – had been “why?”
We were alone in the shop, and he was polishing a mirror, his back turned to me, but I could see his face reflected off the mirror he was currently burnishing.
“I don tire for this place,” he said in pidgin English. “Everyday somebody dies in this area, and it affects me. The other day I was talking with one of my customers and he told me his uncle died in the gang war between Black Axe and Buccaneers last month.”
“This place has been like this even before you started working here. You shouldn’t have moved here at all if that’s how you feel,” I said, then realized I was defending Downtown and all it represented. I wondered at that.
“I know. I thought I could cope. Tough man, me, I thought, but this city kills, man, and I’m not just talking about the gangs. It’s something in the air,” and he waved the towel vaguely in the air, “it feels like everybody here is not part of anything, you know? Like people are just living, but not really living.
“I have told my oga that he should start looking for my replacement in the shop. I will work for him and train his new boy in the next few months, then I will leave finally.”
I had laughed. “And do what, after that?”
“Become a taxi driver. Drive big people around. I’d own my own car,” and his face shone in the mid-day heat.
I laughed again.
“Why do you laugh? You don’t think I can do it?”
“You can’t afford a car, Lucky. You’re just a barber.”
“I’ve been doing this for four years,” he said, smiling like he had won a personal victory. “Four years. I barely touched my earnings in that time. The money is now enough for a small car.”
“Good for you,” I remember saying, feeling vaguely envious and upset that he was really going to buy a car off cutting hair – I remember thinking, stupid, foolish hair! – and I was here, reading a newspaper in his shop, my life a shabby mess that pretended to look better because I spoke better English than he did.
I felt vaguely betrayed; by life, and by him: here he stood, day in, day out, every year, unobtrusively performing a menial service with no indication of ambition. That was what upset me about his life. There was no reason for him to be ambitious, yet here he was, leaving me blindsided.
“In three months’ time, I will quit and start my new business!” he beamed. “When I told my mother in the village, she prayed for me and told me to drive the big men sofri-sofri.”
“Good for you,” I said again, hurrying to read the stale newspaper and ignore his offensive happiness.
Less than two months after this conversation, I stood with four friends outside Lucky’s shop, now locked, and we talked in somber tones about the man who used to work there. A gang war had broken out between two vicious gangs in Downtown and Lucky had had the singular misfortune of crossing the road on the wrong side of town at the wrong time of the day wearing the wrong color of shirt.
When you drive down Old Badamosi square, straight down, past the brown-roofed houses with their doors left generously ajar to stave off the oppressive heat, past the dirt-caked roads with pavement shrubbery so heavily cassocked in dust that you wouldn’t even notice the shrubbery at all, and further down, past the morose silence of a handful of people seated, or standing, swaying, inevitably lethargic in the desiccation of the February air, when you have passed these, you can then make a turn, left or right, for West Mission Road, or Downtown.
If you pass through West Mission Road, you would be reconnected with the Lagos the media falls over itself to show you, the beautiful parts of Lagos, where the foliage is always green, the roads always paved and the hum conveniently a backdrop to the strident tunes of ‘Eko o ni baje, Lagos will not spoil’. Old Badamosi will quickly become a bleep in your memory, a hastily receding blur that you would never have to remember, mercifully, maybe.
But if you go into Downtown, it would be surprising, as very few people ever go there willingly; most of the people there have been thrust there, irreverently, by the vicissitudes of fate. I say most, because I do not live in Downtown, yet I visit it willingly.
Downtown is where mothers warn their children not to visit beyond a certain time, and as soon as dusk begins to have the day in its thrall, stalls are shut and houses are reluctantly locked, trapping the safety-conscious inmates with the eternally pervasive heat. Here, Downtown, is what the oyinbo people would call the ghetto. The oyinbos have the ghetto classified under a media-friendly taxonomy, separating it into factions: East Coast, West Coast, the Crips and the Bloods, tag teams of violence, an urban mafia for people of African-American descent. For us, here, it is a lot less complicated.
Downtown is, quite simply, where the recalcitrants come to die.
I watch Mensah, the Ghanaian boy cough after taking a few drags from the joint currently passing round. He is dark-skinned as most Africans are, yet we insist on calling him Blackie, because his skin is significantly darker than ours, his melanin pigmentation going beyond what we can observe without recourse to humor.
“You smoke like a girl, Blackie,” jeers Jasper. Before he can finish speaking, Onome cuts in, her voice raised, as she says, “you are a sexist pig, you know that?”
“Oh look,” Jasper says, pretending to peer at her through a microscope. “A feminist. One of those rare illogical creations of nature. Like BigFoot. I must examine this specimen. Much study is required,” and he lets off a bark of laughter.
“You’re always an imbecile. Eternally. Until God returns. An imbecile,” says Onome.
Bobo is quiet, like the rest of us, and he silently takes the blunt from Blackie’s offering hand. Blackie is wiping his watering eyes against the back of the sleeve of his free hand.
Jasper blows Onome a kiss and bursts into laughter while she rolls her eyes. I am almost certain the two of them are having boisterous bouts of unbridled sex behind our backs. When I close my eyes sometimes, I can imagine them, daytime enemies, nighttime lovers, sweating, bouncing, in a nondescript shack, their passions and frustrations dissipating in a clandestine fusion that finds fuel from their anger at the world.
“Hey bro,” says Bobo, still holding the joint. I can see he is being careful, speaking to me, concern etched so deeply in his face I feel the crazy impulse to start laughing maniacally. I know what he will ask next.
“Hey bro,” he says. “How’s mumsy coping?”
How’s mumsy coping.
About three months ago, we had lolled, just like we are now, in this abandoned building that belonged to a nice man, we were sure, but just didn’t care enough to know his name, passing the pot as usual, talking about life in general. I remember that day because Onome and Jasper had been having their usual quarrel (about dressing decently, I think, with Onome saying a girl had the right to dress as she liked, Jasper saying it wasn’t an ideal world and rapists were everywhere and a girl owed it to herself not to draw unwanted attention) but this time Bobo, who was the most phlegmatic of the group had snapped and told them to shut up and fuck or something.
Jasper had grinned grandly while Onome expressed disgust, saying she’d rather be boiled alive, or maybe dragged across a bed made of glass shards, but I had picked up something in her body language that told me she wasn’t exactly averse to the idea. Mensah had then cracked a dirty joke, and Jasper started laughing and Bobo joined in and Onome said “you guys are pigs,” and the laughter had gotten louder, and it caused a dull ache I could feel in my brain. Something about the laughter annoyed me, and I remember gritting my teeth, a deep sadness and anger engulfing my chest.
It was in the middle of this disturbing laughter I had told them my mother was dying.
The laughter had transformed from disbelief to sympathy, and they had flocked around me, asking questions, and I had answered as best as I could. What kind of cancer? Lung cancer. Does she smoke? No. Don’t be stupid. You know my mother; she’s a deaconess. Can she be cured? How much do you think it’ll cost to treat? Questions…
The questions were easy to answer. They were dispassionate enough, but the emotional undercurrents had been too much for me, and shortly after, I half-regretted telling them. I wondered if they saw the irony in it, that it was I who smoked, who did ecstasy and who consumed any and every dubious chemical cocktail that was within reach, but it wasn’t I, at least not yet, who was dying from cancer of the lungs. My mother is a good person, and I am not, and life does not know what it is doing half the time.
The guys had mumbled words that were deficient in meaning but rich in intent, statements which were in the ballpark of sympathy, camaraderie and clumsy empathy and I realized that life, this one we lived, prepared no one for grief. We just made it up as we went along. I briefly considered the hilarity in that, because life is a concatenation of grief.
Onome had stared at me, her eyes reddened, partly from the weed and partly from her overworked empathy. When she walked to the end of the building, I knew she had gone to cry.
I would have wept with her, had I not done all of that days ago, when the doctors had made the diagnosis, and now I was just a stripped soul, naked and raw, a hollowed-out container of a boy caught between childhood and adulthood, with a mother fated to depart the world not with a bang, but in a drawn-out nightmare, one that would drain me of everything: tears, happiness, funding, warmth and finally, in a sinisterly epic crescendo, of the only person on earth for whom I was no burden.
While my friends lived in Downtown, I lived around Old Badamosi square, the go-between for West Mission and Downtown. My mother, a single woman who worked as a secretary in a quaint organization in West mission, wasn’t quite rich enough to afford a home in the neighborhood she worked, and (mercifully) wasn’t exactly poor enough to warrant living in Downtown, but, by God, we were close.
Sometimes I think she rebelled against our lean purse, fighting not to relocate to the significantly cheaper houses in Downtown because she didn’t want me influenced by the despondency, the low quality of life, the general apathy and lack of desire to rise into betterment that characterized Downtown. It was a bit ironic, and perhaps ungrateful, therefore, that I spent the days when she was at work – when she could still work – Downtown with Jasper, Bobo, Mensah and Onome, four lost kids who, while not exactly the most morally compliant friends I could have chosen, were completely harmless.
The company where my mother worked had sent her home, brusquely, when her condition was realized, with a severance pay that, while it looked impressive in light of my mother’s salary, gave one the queasy feeling that it could have been better. My mother had, afterall, worked there for 15 years of her life.
Now that my mother was sick and bed-ridden, I spent most of my time with my friends. My mother’s sister had been invited, and she was taking care of my mother and simultaneously whispering to her that I had become such a bad boy, smoking weed and hanging with “children of dubious morals” from Downtown.
“Your mother worked everyday, and every night, to see that you lacked nothing, and this is what you do?” she had shrieked at me one night, when I had returned particularly late.
The cloying, pervasive odor of sickness hung in the air. I had read once that animals could sniff out cancer in humans, and I was convinced, sometimes, right before I slept, that I could pick up the smell in the air, a yellowish smell (words are terribly poorly-equipped for me to describe the olfactory experience) that drifted about in trace amounts, and sometimes I wondered if inhaling this meant I would have cancer, too? Then I would chide myself, knowing I was smarter than that, to be thinking like that, because whoever got cancer by breathing in the air around a cancer patient? Then I would think about more illogicalities, such as, might the particles in the air be sentient and, realizing I can sniff them out, seek to terminate me in the way they have now laid waste to my mother?
Some nights I would lie still, really still and try to listen for my mother’s breathing in the other room. On really silent nights I would hear it through the thin walls, and I would wonder, in curious awe, how many more breaths she would draw before she finally died and my aunty (who hated me, I knew) would leave and I would be truly, and finally all alone.
Most mornings, I woke up crying, without remembering why, but feeling weak and tired all the same, like I had run a metaphysical race and lost, a fatal loss with implications beyond my mortal comprehension.
On mornings like those I would listen again for my mother’s breathing.
How is mumsy coping?
Ever since I told them about my mother’s condition, they had taken to referring to her like she was their mother too. I found it strangely patronizing, offensively so, but also felt it would be in poor taste to ask them to stop. I realize, on some level, that they mean well.
She’s fine, I say, because there is nothing else to say. Were I to give a truthful answer, it would elicit a tangled mass of verbal shoulder-pats which would achieve the unwitting effect of reifying my woes. She is fine is the answer they would expect me to give, and maybe the doctors say she’s getting better.
The joint is now with Onome, and I wish she would hurry it along, After Jasper, it gets to me, and I am not sure I would be willing to hand it over to anyone else.
Bobo, 26, has a situation of his own. After impregnating the daughter of the chairman of the bus drivers’ association, he had been forced to arrange a marriage to the girl. All his savings, he says, have been hijacked, and he is still running about, trying to get more money to appease the chairman.
When he had told us his story, we had laughed. Jasper had told him the wages of sin is death, and the wages of dancing in the rain without a raincoat on was kids, and Onome had told him it served him right, and he had just held the blunt and smiled weakly.
Bobo rarely speaks much, or shows emotion, and I find it disturbing most of the time. Mensah once told him, “you’re the kind of guy to kill yourself and not leave a suicide note.”
Bobo had asked, “why would I do something like that?”
“You wouldn’t do it to achieve any effect,” Mensah said, his accent splashing over his words. “You’d just do it because you’re you, Bobo. And you’d leave behind many sad people wondering what upset you enough to do it.”
And Bobo had sat silently, thinking it over, then he had keeled over, laughing the loudest I had ever heard him laugh. Mensah had mumbled “idiot,” but I had found Bobo’s reaction disturbing.
Lately I’ve been thinking about Lucky, and how he was killed just as he was about to say goodbye to Downtown. I think about crabs in a bucket, the crabs at the bottom unwilling to climb out of the bucket, pulling down the ones attempting to escape. I think about my friends, unambitious men and a woman, willing to smoke and philosophize and question life without taking action to correct their fates.
I also think about myself. I am not much different from them, afterall, or we wouldn’t get along so well, but lately a glow has started in the middle of my heart and it becomes brighter everyday.
My mother’s illness is fated to engulf all her finances, an exercise in futility as it would kill her still, in the end.
I have been suffused with growing discontent with Downtown and Old Badamosi square; I feel the spreading desire to go out, past West Mission road, to make something of myself, and with that desire comes another which I have considered as disinterestedly as possible, as a surgeon might consider, without queasiness, an eye gouged out of its socket.
I look at my mother in the mornings when I wake up, after wiping fresh tears, and in the moments when my aunt leaves us to be together, alone, I stare into her pale, wrinkled face as she attempts to smile, to reassure me, that we would beat this illness, telling me she is a fighter, and I would smile back, seeing past her bravado, seeing past the reassuring lies, and in those mornings, the word euthanasia comes to my mind unbidden.
I realize, daily, that my mother is gone already, but her savings may yet save me, and it would be unfortunate, for me, if our financial stash were to follow her into the great beyond.
The joint finally gets to me and I take a drag, allowing the smoke cloud my vision of the four, permitting myself to think about my mother, knowing, finally, the exact date of her demise.