Into the Go-Slow
This piece was submitted by Bridgett M. Davis as part of the 2014 PEN World Voices Online Anthology.
Bridgett M. Davis’s Event: “Bad Women”: When Women Break the Rules
Her last morning in Surulere, Angie awoke to a rooster’s crow and lay there unmoving, waiting. Lightning crackled. The chalky medicine had finally worked, her stomach calm. She rose and dressed to a quiet house. On a bold whim, she boiled a pot of water on the little burner, mixed it with cold water and used that to take a warm bucket shower. Afterwards, she made a cup of tea with sugar and pet milk and sat at the kitchen table. She could hear Funke getting out of bed. Rain poured in sheets. Out of nowhere, the fan in the main room came on and the mini refrigerator hummed — a magical burst of electrical current running through the house. That gave her resolve. When Funke walked into the room, Angie said, “Tell me what you know about Ella.”
Funke rubbed her eyes. “Later,” she said, yawning.
Funke looked at her. “Do you want the truth?”
“Yes.” Angie cupped her tea, bracing.
Funke moved around in the kitchen, making breakfast as she spoke. “This sister of yours came to my kiosk and started looking at all of the jars and bottles. Reading them closely, telling me this one has an old date on it and so does that one and you should not sell this to anyone. Telling me not to sell my Venus de Milo cream to women — the one that brightens skin. My best seller O! That is what I remember about your sister. Telling me what not to do. Like a preacher on Sunday.”
“What else did she tell you?” asked Angie. “I’m sure you two talked about lots of things.”
“Talk, talk, talk. That is what she made me do. And then she was putting words in my mouth and into that radical newspaper. Why did she do that, eh? It made my husband very angry when he read my name next to those words.”
“I’m sure she was trying to help,” said Angie. “You know, improve women’s conditions.”
Funke set Ope’s food on the table, ignoring her.
Angie pressed. “Please, tell me something I can take with me.”
“I have told you something,” said Funke. “Now. You tell me something: do you have a gift for me?”
“From America. A gift.”
“Oh. I’m sorry, I don’t,” she said.
Funke sucked her teeth and headed for the washroom.
Angie drank her tea and waited. She’d just keep asking, wear Funke down if need be. She wanted stories.
Funke returned with fists balled. “You have used all the water!” she yelled.
“I just made myself tea and-“
“Just filling many buckets like we have our own river!” She thrust out her hands and shook them. “What if the well is dry and we must go through this day with no water?!” She slapped her hands against one another, rubbed them back and forth. “Not a drop.”
“I only used one bucket of water,” Angie insisted. “For a shower. That’s it.”
“But you did not replace it.” Funke threw her hands up. “You must replace water when you use it! You must never, never leave a bucket empty. I am telling you this over and over!”
Angie stood. “I really am sorry.”
Ope stumbled out of the bedroom, grabbed onto Angie’s leg.
“I cannot use your sorry to give my son drinking water, to bathe him, to cook for him, can I?”
“The well will fill up again soon, won’t it?” She tried to gently shake off Ope.
“What is soon? Who can be without water even one day? And you are talking this foolishness about soon? You and your American thinking.”
“Well, I am American,” said Angie, defensive.
Funke bucked her eyes. “Are you sure? I have had many Americans stay with me and I have seen these Americans on telly and in movies. You are not like them a-tall! You come to my country with your clothes from some bend down boutique, bearing no gifts for your hostess in those bags of yours. What type of American are you?”
Angie picked up Ope and handed him to Funke, as if he were a piece of luggage she’d borrowed. “Apparently not the type you were expecting.”
“Look at you with that nose and that skin. Those braids in your hair. You are Fulani! But do you know how to wash a baby or cook a dinner or fill a bucket? Eh-eh! You are an African woman but you don’t know how to act like one. Not like your sister, O. She was a real African woman.”
Angie stepped backward, as if pushed. Funke turned, moved into the kitchen. Angie watched her back for several seconds, before retreating to the bedroom. She sat on the hard bed. It’s true, she thought. I’m no good at this. This is all wrong. On impulse, she quickly packed her bag, exited the room.
She stood before Funke. “I’m leaving.”
Funke didn’t look up from the stove, where she was stirring something in a sauce pan, Ope at her feet.
“I appreciate your letting me stay here,” continued Angie. “But it’s obviously not working out.”
“Silly girl, do whatever,” said Funke. “I don’t know what you mean by this ‘working out.’ Is it like that American actress Jane Fonda and her exercise videos, this working out?”
Furious at being mocked, Angie turned with such force her gold pen flew out of the front pocket of her reporter’s bag and hit the floor.
Funke quickly moved to pick it up, examined it. “I will keep this,” she announced.
“No! Ella gave me that pen.”
Funke wrapped her hand around it. “It is mine now. My gift from America.”
“Give that to me!” screamed Angie, lunging for the pen.
Funke wouldn’t let go, holding her arm with the pen above her head. Ope cried, “Mum! Mum!”
“It is mine now!” Funke laughed, mouth wide open.
Angie tried again, reaching up to grab the pen, but to no avail. She gave up. She couldn’t wrestle with a pregnant woman. The unfairness of it overwhelmed her and suddenly Angie was sobbing. Harsh, messy tears. Funke’s eyes flashed with concern. She gently pulled out a chair for Angie.
“Sit,” she ordered.
Angie did, hiccupping through her sobs. She cried until her head ached. Funke waited until she stopped. When all was quiet save her sniffles, Funkemade florid, wide gestures in the air with Angie’s gold pen. “I will use it to write you from my new home,” she announced.
“I just want my pen back,” whimpered Angie. She felt like a child taunted on a playground.
“You are American. You can have many pens such as this,” said Funke.
Recognizing defeat, Angie stood, picked up her duffle bag, headed for the door.
Angie whipped around, held her hand out, ready to receive the pen.
But Funke was grabbing one of the pieces of paper piled high in the corner. She thrust it at Angie. “Give me your address.”
“No.” She never wanted to hear from this woman again.
Funke thrust the paper at her again. “I will write to you about your sister.”
Angie eyed Funke for several seconds before dropping her bags and scrawling her Michigan address; she handed back the paper and Ope reached his arms up to Angie. She ignored the boy as she turned, slowly walked out of Funke’s house.
* * *
She made her way up the road to the taxi park, where the sun now shone through lingering puddles from the morning’s heavy rain. She climbed in the back of a waiting car and directed the driver to take her to the airport. What else was there to do? Angie felt deflated, as though she’d failed a test, blown some once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She didn’t want to be here anymore, a lone woman chasing after a ghost in a harsh, lonely place.
Traffic stalled. As cars inched along the road, she saw that it wasn’t the normal go-slow causing the logjam: it looked like a bundle fallen from a rickety lorry, but as the driver got closer, she realized what it was: a body splayed out, lying in the slow lane of traffic. Cars were swerving around it. It was a woman, a foot still holding its thong sandal, head in a grotesque twist. Angie screamed, “Stop!”
The driver turned around. “What is it, please?”
She pointed to the woman’s body, struggled for words. “Right there. Her.”
“Ah. Yes, it is an unfortunate part of Nigerian life.” He maneuvered around the corpse, behind other cars. “I am afraid you get used to it.”
Suddenly, Angie pushed the driver in his back. “You have to help her!” She pushed him again, so hard his chin hit the steering wheel. “Do something!”
He turned to face her. “Ah, ah! You bee-tch! What is your fucking problem!?”
“You have to do something,” she repeated.
The driver drove on in angry silence. She turned around, eyeing the dead woman through the rearview mirror. “Please do something,” she begged, heart racing.
He ignored her, drove past the logjam; once the traffic opened up, he pulled over to the edge of the road and hit the brakes. “Come down,” he ordered her. “Get out of my fucking taxi!”
“What?” she was confused.
He pushed her against the back door. “I am telling you, O! Come down!”
“I didn’t mean to-“
The driver got out and grabbed Angie’s arm. She screamed as he pulled her from the back seat, throwing her bag out behind her. Grabbing her duffel, she stumbled onto the narrow shoulder and watched as the driver got back into the taxi, slammed his door and screeched away. Cars whizzed by. Four lanes of traffic stood between her and the exit on the opposite side. Desperate, she waved her hands in hopes that someone would stop. But the cars were flying too fast, as if grateful to be past the inconvenient road-kill blocking their way, speeding to catch up for lost time.
Angie stood on the highway’s edge, the whoosh of tires filling her ears as they whizzed by, making their revolutions. Gravel flew up, hitting her legs and arms. She could be stuck here for hours. Forever. Her chest throbbed with panic as she began walking along the shoulder. The sun pricked her skin. Was this what happened to Ella? Was she caught out on a road like this, desperate? She thought of her sister Denise’s admonition. Do not let anything happen to you over there. I cannot bear the thought of delivering more bad news to Mama. Please God, Angie thought. Please. I do not want to die like Ella.
Against the sun’s glare, she thought she saw tiny figures making their way toward her. She stopped, stood still. The figures grew larger and as they got closer she could see that yes, it was a man, a woman and a boy. They walked in single file along the edge, closer and closer, approaching.
“Please!” she yelled against the traffic’s steady roar. “How do you get off this highway?”
“There is no flyover,” yelled the man. “You must cross.” He nodded toward the traffic. “We will cross with you.”
“But there must be another exit?” she yelled back.
“Miles away. This is best, to just cross here.” All three of them were without shoes. The man gently nudged the boy’s back. “Go,” he said; the boy,who couldn’t have been older than ten, looked up at Angie with saucer eyes, then ran onto the highway. Angie gasped as the boy deftly dodged oncoming cars. When he made it across, he waved at them.
“My God,” she said. “I can’t do that.”
The man turned to Angie. His narrow face was all hard angles but his eyes were sympathetic.
“You must make your mind blank and just go,” he offered. “I will show you.” He created a rhythmic momentum with his shoulder blades, like a girl entering a double-dutch jump rope game, then darted into the fray. Aghast, Angie watched as he wove between zooming cars before making it to the other side. He waved wildly at her, or perhaps at the other woman, who stood beside her, staring straight ahead. Cars flew by. The boy and the man both waved. The man cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled something that got lost to the wind. Cars passed and the boy and man disappeared, reappeared. The man gestured for them to come, come. Cars flew by. Come, come.
The woman, uttering no words, dashed across the highway. Her wrapper flapped in the breeze as a van barely missed her; she moved adroitly between oncoming traffic and leapt gracefully onto the embankment, like a modern dancer. Once across, the woman too beckoned for Angie to come. The sun was like a laser aimed at Angie’s face. The man and woman and child appeared and reappeared between the whoosh of traffic and the relentless heat mingled with her terror, making her light-headed. Angie could no longer be sure: was it Ella prodding her on? Was her sister telling her to come, come? Did she want Angie to join her? More cars flew by. Come, come. She looked straight ahead at the disappearing, reappearing woman. White dots floated across her vision. Yes, it was Ella! If she made it across, there her sister would be. The Buddhist chant Ella had taught her came to her. Nam myo ho renge kyo. Angie threw her bags to the side of the road. She moved her shoulders in rhythm with nam myo ho renge kyo, nam myo ho renge kyo. Staring ahead, focused on Ella’s face, she yelled: “I’m coming! I’m coming!” She counted: one, two, three….
Suddenly, a car swerved at her, so close spewing gravel hit her face with force. She jumped back. More cars passed at breakneck speed. She tried again, moving her shoulders in rhythm, but the chant in her head disappeared. The moment had died. She couldn’t do it.
She waved to the others. They beckoned from across the highway, all three of them. She shook her head no, hoped they could see her gesture, knew they couldn’t. She waved good-bye again. Exhausted from the effort, her legs untrustworthy, she sat on the highway’s edge. Her face hurt. She hugged her knees. Soon enough the man and woman and boy moved on, shrinking figures making their way up the exit ramp. She thought the boy waved at her one last time.
She regretted her own fear. Yet the terror sat with her, an unmovable force as the sun loomed overhead; parched, she longed for water. How long could she sit here before someone stopped to help? Even though it was barely midday, the thought of darkness forced her to rise. She grabbed her bags and ran as traffic whipped past, and flying gravel attacked her limbs. When she tired, she walked for several minutes, gravel crunching underfoot, duffel heavy. She ran again. And then she walked for an hour, more, another hour, resting briefly at intervals. The sun was a penetrating heat lamp. Her throat felt glued closed. She didn’t know how much farther she could go. Even as she looked out at the oncoming traffic, terror kept her on the highway’s edge, one foot in front of the other. Her hands dripped with sweat and the handle of her duffel kept sliding from her grip. Walk, rest. Walk, rest. Walk, rest.
Mercifully, she glimpsed a sign for the next exit. She hurried on, feeling blood drip down her legs and a welt forming on her face. Minutes later she was making her way clumsily up the exit ramp, its incline a small mountain under the weight of her bags.
She trudged to the first building she saw, a post office. She walked inside, the interior’s dark coolness a relief. She headed straight for a nearby bench and collapsed. She closed her eyes and waited for her heartbeats to slow. In time she opened her eyes and searched until she spotted it and stood, dragged her bag across the floor.
“I want to call the United States,” she said to a young woman perched behind a desk. The woman had drawn-in, dramatic eyebrows. She handed Angie a scrap of paper and instructed her to write down the number she wanted to call. She pointed to a row of phone booths without doors and told Angie to enter #4. Inside was a large gray telephone with no dials. Angie sat on the little wooden seat jutting out from the wall and watched as the woman attempted to make the connection from her main switchboard. Moments passed. The little booth was hot, stuffy. Finally, the woman arched her exaggerated eyebrows, nodded her head and said, “You can pick up now.”
She picked up the receiver. “Hello, Mama?”
She could hear her words echoing back. There was a delay in the transmission, a beat before she heard her mother say, in a formal voice, “You have reached the Mackenzie residence. No one is in to take your call right now. Please leave a message after you hear the beep.”
When had her mother gotten an answering machine? Beeeeep! The sound felt like an affront, jarring and discordant. Feeling the pressure, Angie opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out.
She hung up.
This piece is excerpted from Into the Go-Slow, forthcoming from Feminist Press, September 2014.