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Daniel Joe | A beautiful day for a sad face

On my way to the market this morning, I came across an elderly-looking man, probably in his late fifties or so. Dressed in a black fitted suit and seated on one of the iron benches in the park, he looked very sad and lonely, like a chick separated from its mother. As I walked past, he glanced at me absentmindedly for a second or two, like I was only a fleeting thought he had no interest in savoring, and then went straight back to staring at the bald patch in the grass.

In spite of myself and my timed errand, I felt a tenderness that gnawed at my heart.

STOP STOP, it said. Talk to him.

I made to stop, but then, the beatings I received the last time I went home late from the market came rushing through my mind’s eye like water through a crack in a dam.

With as much pace and precision as I could manage, I went about my monthly routine of scavenging stalls and fending off other customers for the best food items I could find, careful not to miss anything on the list. The last time I did, my aunt shouted at me as if I had just betrayed Jesus or something.

And I should say: she’s not particularly a bad person. I think she just has a lot of issues and insecurities, and a very very hot temper. She’s also a bit paranoid, seeing meaning in things where there aren’t any. Like 2 months ago when she watched me like a hawk for weeks, because somehow, she got the idea that I was sleeping with her husband – that old bum who sits at home all day, reading newspapers and pretending to be knowledgeable about things he clearly knows nothing of. I’d much rather eat a dog’s placenta to be honest. I do find it quite funny, and a little sad as well, that she resents him and yet another woman even near him is petrol on a fire.

To the end, everything went fine. And I reveled in the fact that I was having a great time. But of course, counting your chickens before they hatch is always disastrous. As was the woman I tried to buy vegetables from at the last. Even as I approached, she had begun looking at me with scowling eyes, like I had stolen her daughter’s husband or something.

I had never seen her before so it seemed a real mystery. And no matter how politely I spoke, she responded like she was doing me some sort of a favor. At first, I found it a bit comical, but it became irritating, fast. What did I even do to this woman? Was it my clothes? I wasn’t really showing skin. Or maybe she thought I was rich or something like that. My aunt always says the market women are very much intimidated by anyone they perceive to be, especially when they’re young.

So, I waited till she started cutting the ugu, then told her I was no longer interested.

“You dey mad,” she yelled back. “For weytin I don cut already.”

“I said I don’t want it again,” I shouted back, determined to get a win for the first time in a while.

For a moment or two, she looked dumbfounded. But picking herself up, she charged at me, like a bull to a matador. And I swear, her eyes were balls dipped in lava for years on end.

“It’s like you are mad?” she said, grabbing me by the collar.

In a matter of seconds people had gathered around us, saying things like, “Small girl wey no know her mate,” “Madam no need for this na,” “Small pikin wey just manage to get yahoo boy as boyfriend, no more respect.”

And although I instantly felt bad, I grabbed the woman by the collar as well. I really needed a win. Any win at all. “E be like you never see craze before abi! You wan make I scatter this your shop now now!”

Maybe it was the look on my face or the sound of my voice or the words I spoke or just something else, but the woman instantly let go. “Just carry your witchcraft go elsewhere abeg.”

Satisfied with myself, I cat-walked to the next stall. And talking to the elderly woman who answered me in the condescending manner my aunt sometimes used on her supposed friends, I bought the vegetables I needed without any hassle. And just as I was about to leave, I gave her an extra five hundred naira, hoping the other woman would see it. And when that didn’t work, I made sure to cat-walk with my ass bouncing heavily past her stall, while I rolled my eyes incessantly.

“Useless girl. Ashawo,” I heard her say as I walked past with a smile. But it quickly went sour when I realized the 500 naira was for my pad. “SHIT.”

On my way back home, I saw the old man still seated on the same spot; this time though, his gaze went so far away, it looked as if he was blind.

I checked my wristwatch just before walking past: I was already 15 minutes late; so, I approached him. She was going to shout and hit me either way, so no need to rush anymore.
The old man took no notice of my presence, as I sat beside him.

I greeted him but he didn’t reply.

So, I greeted him again, this time gently touching his arm.

He jerked a little, before turning his head slowly towards me like a rusty bolt.

Then he smiled: a weak and tired one.

Up close his face was beautiful and yet sad under the glistening sun, like my little brother’s when I left home about 2 years ago.

“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” said the old man.

I saw nothing extraordinary about the day, but I replied, “yes, yes, it is.”

He smiled wearily again.

“Do you mind?” I said after a while, “if I ask what you’re doing out here all by yourself.”

“Oh no, not at all,” he said, “I just returned from a small funeral about two hours ago, and I thought I would sit out here till… Well, who knows.”

“Was it someone close to you? The dead person, I mean?”

“Well, I would hope so,” replied the old man. “It was my dog.”

For a second, I thought he might have been telling a joke, but the sadness in his eyes corrected me immediately.

“I must seem pathetic to you, don’t I?” Said the old man.

“Not exactly.”

“But partly?” he said.

“Honestly, I’m just not sure what to make of this. You seem genuinely sad. And you had a funeral… All for a dog?  I mean, where I come from, if a dog dies, we just cook and eat it, that very day.”

The old man chuckled. “I know it may sound strange,” he said, “but that dog was probably my best friend. Maybe even my only friend.”

“Why?” My voice sounded higher pitched than intended. So, I added with a little laugh: “Are you one of those people who can’t stand other humans?”

“Well, I guess you can say that I’m a bit disillusioned with humanity.”

“So, I suppose you’ve never been married?”

“Oh god, no. Never.”

“My aunt says that women who say they don’t need men, always end up in their 40s coming to church on Sundays in nightclub gowns to find husbands; lonely old hags, she calls them. I wonder if it’s the same for men.”

He gave no response, except a short laugh that reached his eyes. And I felt good for making him laugh, even though he was hurting.

“What about children though?” I continued. “You must have a child at least, right?”

“Well, no, not at all. I’ve never wanted any.”

“Why wouldn’t you want children?” Again, my voice sounded more high-pitched than intended.

He shrugged. “Just because…”

“That’s definitely the strangest thing I’ve ever heard. Are people allowed to just choose not to have children?”

“Of course,” said the old man. “I’m sure children are great, but there’s no law that says you have to.”

“And you don’t regret not having any,” I said, “I’m only asking because my mum used to say that a woman who has no children isn’t worth being called a woman, and the same applies for men. And my aunt always acts like a two-year-old greedily watching another child with a lollipop whenever she sees a woman with a newborn baby. She’s barren.”

The old man looked around for a while, (I thought he had become bored) before answering.

“Well, your mother has every right to say that,” he said, “but I’d have to disagree. Whether or not you have children is a decision you should make for yourself, and be willing to face the consequences.”

“Wow,” I said.

“What?”

“I guess I’ve just never thought of having children as something you choose to do or not. Where I come from, if someone is even unenthusiastic about marriage, then everyone starts to call him a Reverend Father, and if you’re deemed wayward then you’re automatically one with the village drunk. I wonder what they’d call someone like you.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” said the old man, “an abomination.”

“Probably,” I replied with a knowing smile.

“As for your aunt, though,” said the old man, “I guess I can understand her resentment. It’s always painful when you want something but can’t get it.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

For some time, we sat quietly under the scorching sun as people walked past. And I tried to imagine the lives of some of them, especially the ones who walked in pairs; I wondered if they were happy, or just doing what they were told, or what they saw every other person doing. I wondered if they had even sat down to think if they were doing what they actually wanted. To be honest, I didn’t even last 5 minutes. I got bored pretty quickly.

“So, what are you going to do now?”

“What can anyone do?” he said. “Death keeps taking everything I’ve ever loved, leaving me with only beautiful memories that inevitably turn to nightmares, haunting me with every breath I take. I suppose that’s the order of things anyway. Always coming from nothing and devolving back into that same nothing.”

“Nothing? You don’t think we go to heaven? Or at least somewhere after we die.”

“Well,” replied the old man, “I haven’t died before, so how would I know? Besides, out of all the people who’ve ever written about an afterlife, I don’t think any of them actually died, went there and came back. So why would I believe them?”

“But you said we will go to nothing. How did you come up with that?”

“Well, where were you before you came into this world?”

“I don’t know,” I replied, “but I like to think I was a part of the air, just waiting to become physical.”

“Fair enough. But all that just means, you were nowhere and therefore nothing. It’s only logical that that’s where you’ll return once you’re gone.”

“Wow,” I said, “that’s kind of sad.”

“Well, that’s just what I think, doesn’t mean it’s true. No one knows.”

“What about God?”

“What about Him?”

“He probably knows.”

“Okay,” replied the old man, with as much indifference as a blank page.

“You don’t believe in Him?”

“I’ve never seen Him before.”

“Isn’t that the whole point of faith?”

“Well,” said the old man, “it always baffles me when I read the so-called academics and artists who make a case for God, whatever kind of God it happens to be. Why are we always the ones who have to make the case for Him? If there is one, then he should come make the case for Himself. Or is He too busy doing God knows what?”

Like my mouth had become an involuntary procedure my brain carried out with no conscious consent, I blurted: “I like you.”

The old man looked at me weirdly. “How old are you, anyways?”

“Twenty-one,” I said, like I was trying to avoid execution or something. Then catching myself I added: “Also, I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant you’re different, very different but really… refreshing.”

“Okay,” he replied, still with that weird look.

“So, where do you live?” I asked after a while. Maybe this was involuntary, or not.

He was hesitant, but he mentioned a fancy estate very close to my aunt’s house.

“So, you’re rich?”

“Something like that.”

“How? If you don’t mind me asking.”

“Well, I used to own a company, but then I sold it for a lot more money than I could ever spend. Now I spend all my time gardening, cooking, reading through my enormous library and taking long walks with…” His face immediately turned into a crumpled old newspaper. 

Again, my mouth turning into an involuntary process, or not, I said:

“I could visit you.”

“Why would you?” His face had now gone from a crumpled newspaper to a weird old man smelling a rotten fish.

I smiled, trying to make it not at all awkward. “Just because. Besides, you have a library filled with books, and I’ve recently developed a love for reading; so, I’d like to browse through them, if you’d let me.”

“Okay,” said the old man. It sounded unsure, but he smiled back anyways.

Later, as my aunt pummeled me for coming home almost two hours late, I thought of the old man – his words and his beautifully sad face.

“I have to see him again,” I murmured as tears flowed down my cheeks.

——–

Image: Albert Ignass Pixabay remixed

Daniel Joe
Daniel Joehttps://linktr.ee/the_underground_thinker
A fellow at the 2023 SprinNG literary fellowship, Daniel Joe is a writer based in Lagos, Nigeria. As well as a Poetry platform on YouTube and Spotify, his writings and pieces can be found in a number of literary magazines, including Brittle Paper, The Rising phoenix review, Afritondo and The Kalahari review.

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