Mr. and Mrs. Doctor
Julie Iromuanya is a finalist for the 2016 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction for her novel Mr. and Mrs. Doctor. The novel tells the story of Ifi and Job, a Nigerian couple in an arranged marriage who live in Nebraska. The couple is the picture of the American Dream—only Job is not the doctor they claim him to be, but instead, a college dropout. This novel examines the intricacies of marriage, immigration, ambition, and the management of appearances. The following is an excerpt from the novel.
They went to the bush, in belated honor of the boy’s birth, to butcher a goat. It had mostly been arranged by phone. There was a farm on the edge of the county in a town called Hickman. An aged man and his wife ran it. Their ad boasted of the biggest, meatiest Boers in the entire state. They would even prepare the goat the Nigerian way—roasted, skin on—free of charge. To Job, this was the biggest relief of all. After hosting Aunty for nearly four months—enduring the cold, sexless nights on the scratchy living room couch, enduring Aunty’s optimistic complaints—Job fervently hoped that everything would go well.
Still new enough to America, Ifi believed that because the farmers were American, and because English was their native tongue, they must be educated, as the upper classes were in Nigeria. And because they were educated and lived princely lives, they must not tell lies; it was surely beneath them. In his own way, Job believed this as well, presenting the ad to Ifi only after all the arrangements had been made. He was, after all, head of the family.
The original plan was for Aunty and Ifi to stay behind with the boy, to wait for Job to return with the goat. Then the women would stand over the sink cleaning, cutting, and curing the meat for pepper soup, jollof rice, garri, and egusi. However, Aunty insisted on coming along—to see America. She had only a short week left before her return to Nigeria, and for the four months she had spent with them, she had seen, at most, the local theater, grocery store, and a couple of restaurants. Her memory of the sandhill cranes was still clouded by her vision of a ruined commode. Because she was deter mined to spend as much of her remaining time as possible with her “son,” she refused to attend without the boy. As a result, Aunty rode in front alongside Job, holding the boy to her chest throughout the ride—despite Ifi’s attempts to convince her that in America it was illegal for a child not to be buckled into a car seat. Ifi, who sprouted budding tufts of threadtied hair under neath her wig, sat in the backseat.
On the ride out to Hickman, Aunty saw nothing of the skyscrapers from the tabloid magazines she purchased during their weekly outings to the gro cery. Unlike Ifi, who bit back her disappointment in silence when she first arrived, Aunty did her best to encourage the young couple, remarking, as they passed the lone steer dotted along the Nebraska skyline, “Don’t count your chickens; they might hatch,” a phrase she had picked up from television during her short time in America.
The first sign that something was wrong happened when they arrived at the old man’s farm. They saw the mailbox, the wire fences, and drove up the dirt road until they found the faded twostory house sitting on a slight rise. At first no one answered the door. Job knocked again and again. He rang the doorbell. A very old woman wrapped in a shawl and smelling of urine finally answered. She was wrinkled but ruddy faced. Her hands were strong. Her forearms were tight and corded with veins. She had the sturdy look of a farm wife.
“He’s ill. Didn’t you get the message?” she asked.
“There is no message,” Job said. But he recalled the phone ringing on his way out the door. He remembered Aunty wondering aloud if it was Uncle. And he remembered, that for exactly that reason, he had rushed them out the door in the interest of putting the money toward the goat instead of another international call.
“You’ll have to come another day,” the farm wife said.
Job could see Ifi’s face in the car window, strained with annoyance. He was responsible for making the arrangements, yet she must always look as if she was begging him to fail. The last few months, he had seen that face again and again: each time he groped Ifi from behind while Aunty washed in the bathroom, each time he attempted to handle the boy, and each morning on his return from work. For this reason, he had chosen not to share the news of their new home with Ifi until Aunty returned to Nigeria. “Please, Aunty,” he said to the old lady in such desperation that he forgot: this is America.
Her face softened. “I’ll ask my son if he can help.” She hesitated for a moment, but went inside, made the call, and returned. “He’ll be along in fifteen minutes or so. He’s up the road.” She beckoned to Ifi and Aunty until they met the two on the porch steps.
Inside, they sipped iced tea that was thick with sugar and lemon seeds, and the old lady asked them question after question about Africa: “How long you been here?” she asked. “Do you live in houses in Africa?” And, “What’s the goat for?”
From a distance, the farmer’s son appeared as a teenage boy, shrunken, with blue overalls free on one shoulder and a tshirt a little too big for him. He wore a backwards baseball cap. Job wondered if a boy should be left in charge of such a task, butchering a goat, but he reminded himself that the celebration must take place the next day. His own father had butchered a goat in honor of his birth forty years earlier. And his father before him. Reluctantly, Job had even gone to the trouble of inviting Emeka and Gladys to the festivities.
When the farmer’s son was closer, his stained, leathery face revealed his age. The two men shook hands, exchanged money, and headed out the back door, leaving the women in the parlor. They tramped across flat, damp earth, and he led Job out past the goats that were scattered behind a wire fence with sturdy wooden posts. He retrieved a .22 from the shed while Job waited outside, heating the insides of his hands with his breath. It was late March. Winter was just beginning to thaw. The sun was without warmth.
He told Job to pick the one he wanted, and Job puffed out his shoulders and marched toward the goats as if he had done this before. To be honest, they all appeared the same to him: skinny and meatless with long, flattened ears, nothing like what the ad had described. Evidently, the man had been ill longer than his wife had implied. Job thumbed one. But he made the wrong choice.
“Are you sure?” the farmer’s son asked.
But Job would not look like a fool and refused to relent, even after the man explained to him that wethers were best. Instead, Job replied, “Remember, it must have skin.”
The farmer’s son wrangled the goat and hauled it to a slaughtering pen near the shed. The goat bleated and whipped its tongue in protest. The slaughter was supposed to be included in the price, but only after Job paid an additional fifty dollars did the son proceed. The farmer’s son slapped the goat on the rear, and it trotted around the pen. He spread some feed on the ground, stepped away, and watched the goat circle and bend to taste. Before Job could turn, the .22 cracked off; the goat dropped. Job was so near the goat he could feel its warmth. A flock of birds perched along the roof of the shed scattered.
Inside, Ifi, Aunty, and the old lady paused when they heard the sound. The boy began to cry. But then they heard it again. Another crack.
And then another crack before the old lady came charging out the back door. Job was turned over, gasping into the dirt. For a second, it looked as if he was the one who was wounded, and Ifi’s throat closed up. But the old lady put a finger in her son’s face. The goat was limp and bleeding from three places. Vomit ran down the sides of Job’s mouth.
The farmer’s son refused to meet his mother’s eyes.
“One shot, Scotty!” she said.
“It’s not my fault,” he said. “It misfired.”
Job could smell it now, the alcohol on the man’s breath.
Ifi and Aunty were still on the back porch, peering out at the commotion. When the farmer’s son wrung the goat’s neck until it cracked, Aunty turned away. The boy, held over her shoulders, inadvertently had a direct view. His tongue out, he watched as the farmer’s son slit the goat’s throat and tied off the gullet. The farmer’s son nicked the goat at each Achilles tendon and hoisted it onto a handcranked pulley. Blood ran down its sides. Automatically, he began to fist off the hide, but halted and torched the bleeding goat instead. He rinsed off the ash with a hose. He emptied its insides. Then he hacked the limbs off in pieces with a saw, muttering to himself each time metal collided with bone. Panting, he mopped his damp forehead with the crook of an elbow, spreading small streaks of burnt blood across his face.
Instead of envisioning himself in place of this small man dressed like an American teenager, Job imagined his father sturdily holding the goat’s kicking legs together, tying it upside down, slitting its throat, and watching the life tremble out before setting it ablaze. Job stepped outside of himself, but all he could see was the back of his body as his hands worked vigorously on the line in the meatpacking plant. He hated what he saw.
The farmer’s son bagged the broken goat so that it could be packed on ice, so that the “cleanup” money could be exchanged, and so he could go back to his whiskey. On their way back to the farmhouse, without noticing, they passed the goat that had been meant to be slaughtered, left hungry overnight by the old farmer, collapsed on the floor of an isolated pen in exhaustion.
On the way home, Job pulled over twice before the contents of his stomach were finally emptied. Each time the car stopped, Ifi’s eyes remained fixed out the window, staring at the grainy landscape. She ruminated again and again on the feeling in her throat when she thought, for just a second, that Job had taken a bullet. Aunty said little and pushed the baby more firmly into her breast, willing, with all her might, her body to protect the small boy, but knowing that soon she would be gone. The heat of the boy’s flesh and the warmth of his breath dampened her neck. She was reminded of a saying she had heard nearly her entire life. In a whisper, she said, “A goat that dies scared will taste of fear.”
When they returned home, they pushed the goat meat into the freezer. It was so large they were forced to move everything else into the refrigerator. They would be eating the goat’s remains for many months.
That night, Job lay flat on his back, staring at the streamers and balloons hanging from each corner of the living room ceiling. His belly ached with failure. He wished he could do it all over again. But he could not. He wished he could go somewhere, get away from his life, just for a little while. Where is Cheryl right now? he wondered. Walking dogs, sipping a milkshake, reading one of her magazines? Already, he knew the answer. Sitting at her dining room table, her neck craned, her eyes pinched by the dull blue glow from a nearby room, she flicked through a book with pages well worn by her fingertips, a book about Nigeria, about him, about the exotic life she imagined he lived. The corners of Job’s mouth drew into a smile.
Soon he would tell Ifi about their new home. Everything had been finalized. The whole time he had stood before the bank teller withdrawing the money, executing the close of the account, it felt right.
Tomorrow, they would cook the goat, drink Sapporo and Heineken, chat about politics, tease the boy with the taste of food from his native land, and pray for his future. In the safety of the timehonored preparations, preparations that had been made before him and would continue to be made after him, Job found sleep despite the boy’s wails.
The boy cried as the pitchblack darkness escalated into a purple, then a steel gray. In the bedroom, Aunty and Ifi were spread out on the bed. Whispering, Aunty explained that the boy was crying because he could sense that she was going away soon. Although it was clear that he had a fever, Ifi couldn’t help but feel that in part, Aunty was right. Rather reluctantly, she had grown so used to Aunty’s place in her home that she couldn’t imagine herself returning to the kitchen to cook a meal alone or sleep with her husband so close. Throughout the night, Aunty bathed the boy’s face with a damp cloth and shined his chest with a mentholated rub. Each time she spread the salve across his body, she leaned in, eyes closed, and puffed her breath on his skin so that the heat could warm him on the inside. Of course, Ifi was not allowed to touch him.
When morning arrived, the boy had cried so long and with such gusto that his throat was strained, and he fell into an exhausted, fitful sleep at Aunty’s breast. Each time the boy tossed in his sleep, she scraped her lacquered fingernails across the back of his head. As Ifi watched her, she imagined the tenderness that her mother must have had for her as a baby girl. Not like her aunty’s forceful ways. She wondered if girls raised by surrogate mothers could ever replicate such a feeling with no memory of their birth mothers.
A sentiment so sudden and hard filled her chest and closed her throat. It was the same pang she had when she saw Job upended at the slaughter. She wanted, now more than ever, to be home. Not in this America. “Aunty,” Ifi said.
Aunty’s eyes opened slowly.
“I would like to see Uncle and my cousins.”
Aunty sat up slowly, cupping the boy’s head in her palm. Her voice was cheery, yet hesitant. “You are such a lucky girl—no mother, no father, sef. And you are in America driving a big car, living in a big man’s house, eating goat meat and stockfish every day of the week while we are eating overripe yam.”
Aunty placed the boy down on the bed between them and turned her back on Ifi. Even in sleep, he turned away from his mother to join Aunty.
Ifi tried again. “I am not happy.”
“What is this talk of happy?” Aunty asked without turning. Then, gently, she added, “You have been in America too long, Mrs. Doctor.”
Angrily, Ifi said, “He is not a doctor.”
Now Aunty faced Ifi. “Do you think you are shaming your husband with this nonsense talk? You are his wife. Do you understand?” Ifi did. Aunty had known all along. “You are everything he is. Do not expose yourself. I will never hear you say that again. Do you understand?” Her words were low, yet sharp. “You are Mrs. Doctor.”
Excerpt is reprinted by permission from Mr. and Mrs. Doctor (Coffee House Press, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Julie Iromuanya.
Read more from the finalists of the 2016 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction
- “A Contract Overseas” by Mia Alvar
- The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
- The Sympathizer by Viet Nhanh Nguyen
- Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng
- Interview with the finalists
Read other excerpts from the 2016 PEN Literary Award winners and finalists here.