Fiction

Jukebox: A Short Story by Emmanuel Iduma

Sometime later, in the course of this decade, when she would remember that moment, it would be the image of congealed blood. It was black, not red. It was black when they carried him in, struggling between the arms of two small-bodied men; black when she had sat earlier in the porch waiting for him and the rain was gathering, black when several interlinked ants scurried on the floor of the porch, and black in her head when she said “yes, I agree to marry you.” So when they carried him in and placed him on their bed, the bedsheet was easily coloured, stained. She thought it was trivial and unfair to think that she had only laid it that morning. It was his back that the blood was coming from, gushing fiercely, even resplendently, even with a measure of fulfillment, and she did not know what to do.

Just before he had come in with blood turned black, when she had sat at the porch and saw the rain gathering, Pa Joe had come to her, wearing the same flower-patterned shirt he had worn two days ago. He was old but not bent, still tall, but age had caught up with his eyes, he wore heavy-rimmed eyeglasses. He did not sit beside her, though there was an empty folding chair, his favorite: he sat on it every evening, just before the sun turned blood red. When she looked at him, he gave her a crumpled paper. It read, DID YOU DO ALL I ASKED YOU TO DO? She looked at him, and nodded. Then he walked past her, out of the house, out into the street. It was the first time in many months that he had done that, walking out of the house, he always stayed inside. But today Pa Joe walked past her, and would not be in the house when the small-bodied men carried her husband in.

The day he finally stopped hearing, Pa Joe would dedicate the rest of his life to silence. This was strange, considering that he had heard and heard, had lived his life surrounded by sound, sound of machines working, roaring in confidence. But that day his hearing ceased, he was grateful for the sounds he had been accustomed to, the giant machines that had produced thundering sounds. So he wrote to his daughter-in-law (who used to resume her complaint where she had left off the day before; who left soon afterwards because her husband died, and her son was wayward, and there was another man she had already slept with) on a crumpled sheet of paper he found under his bed, an old wrapping paper for a roll of tissue paper, I CANNOT HEAR A SINGLE WORD YOU ARE SAYING. She said, “What?” But he did not hear and he demonstrated, pointing at the crumpled paper. She was impatient, looked at him twice: the first look was more accusatory than disbelieving, and the second had the assuring undertone of “I must leave now.” But even after she had left and her son came to his father’s house with a woman he said had agreed to marry him, Pa Joe still believed, still believed the deafness was temporary.

Before a man rushed to tell him that his son was dead, Pa Joe could hear the radio distinctly playing, despite the loud noise from the machines, a song from a musician he could not recognize, “You look wonderful tonight.” The lyrics made him think about fine times when he could dance better without falling or panting from exhaustion. Later he would understand this as the voice of God speaking in the midst of the fiery furnace, in the midst of when life taking what it had given. So, when the man rushed in to tell him about his son’s death and the radio was playing distinctly, he suddenly felt the tiredness of many years overtake him. Many years since his son had told him to leave the job; many years since he had put his foot down and said the job gave him a sense of fulfillment, a reason for continued existence. And this singular disobedience made the weight of grief heavier, the weight that descended once he got to the hospital and saw his son sprawled on the bed. The weight that increased when they said it was a gunshot, a terrific gunshot from God-knows-who, a God-knows-who who shot at several policemen that attempted his arrest.

When he wrote to his grand-daughter-in-law on a crumpled paper that she had the power to stop evil, it was on a day that the rain had been so heavy and by the simple sight and sound of it, Pa Joe thought God had changed his mind and was going to destroy the world with rain. The evil he wrote to her she could stop was the evil of her husband returning late at night or not returning for days. Pa Joe wrote, YOU CAN STOP THIS EVIL. GO AND FIND OUT WHAT IS KEEPING HIM AWAY.

Her favorite part of this story, when she would narrate it, would be how her granddaddy-in-law heard the words of a song, though he was deaf. This appeared uncanny at first, incredible even, but when it happened repetitively, it began to bear semblance to something mystical and had a surreal sense of significance.

A day came when Pa Joe got tired of the silence, and with envy watched her laugh. The envy condensed, and could fill, first a bowl, then a bucket, and then could make a river. So he decided to make his eyes his ears, watch the Jukebox play music, and enjoy the music by the rise and fall of the electronic bars that was displayed on the screen and that indicated the progression of the song. This idea exhilarated him; all day he waited for her to return from her work at the local hospital. He kept rehearsing the idea: to watch the music play, and enjoy it by the rise and fall of the electronic bars, by just watching it.

On the day she decided to discover the evil that kept him away, the wind blew back and forth, terribly, and she cursed, but went on. He had large earphones around his neck, the type worn by disc jockeys, and she rested her confidence on the earphones, saying to herself, he cannot hear my footsteps. He walked past their street, a short street that had few houses and a bar. In front of a bar there were three men and one woman, and it appeared it was polyandry, because the men seemed to be all over her. When her husband saw them he shook his head and looked immediately ahead, then turned his head behind, as though he searched for other eyes to affirm his disapproval. She ducked and was glad it was a dark gown she was wearing. He kept moving, out into the next street, a left turn from theirs, and her legs unexpectedly began to ache, to whine that they wanted no more. But against them she moved on, reducing the distance from him. Now, the wind was terrible, in its flamboyance and pride that Aeolus had given it a leave, to bite into her skin and eat it up. She had worn no cardigan, just the black gown, so the wind was happy and bit her with silent glee. This was when she saw him stop by a gate, of a house that was glistening with faint light, as though a stubborn candle had been mounted on a pole and cast overhead, despite the night and the wind. She stopped when she saw him walk through the gate, but was too defeated by the wind that she just turned, cursing as before. But her legs revolted soon afterwards and she stood on a spot near their house for many minutes, until the wind again prevailed over her legs.

It was prior to the time Pa Joe told her to find the evil that kept her husband away that he wanted to enjoy the music by watching it. On that day he waited for her, sitting in the parlour and not the porch, on that day he remembered his son. His son’s face had no contours, like a glorified being, like a man ready to sail to heaven, to the purest of pure. Then the face trembled into obscurity, changed its outlook, became like a badly formed zygote. And finally, the face became the sound of the gunshot, searing through and killing, rumpling the face and stuffing life. By the end of his recollection, tears had formed, and that was when he heard the noise of the door opening, his daughter-in-law returning. The elation returned when he wiped his eyes dry; he regained his colour, waiting to watch the music.

When she returned from the wind he was waiting for her in the porch. Her hands were held together and it was clear that the wind had prevailed. She stopped when she saw him, and stood beside his seat like a deviant child. She knew he knew that she had failed to see where the evil had come from because suddenly the darkness that she had left him in was gone; there was a little lantern. With this lantern she could see the writing on the little paper he gave her. It was not crumpled like others, something he had torn from a pad she kept in the parlour where she wrote her market list on weekends. When the light of the lantern fell on the paper like a small tree collapsing after a large rain, she read the words, his handwriting was bolder: DO NOT FEAR. Unexpectedly, the wind increased. But she was standing, her hands holding the paper he gave her tightly, and there was no way to show that the wind had prevailed.

Earlier the week, when Pa Joe had told her to confront the evil, she saw her husband reading a book on their bed, relaxing his back on a pillow. She thought he had the face of a child finding that fire could burn. When she pried, looking behind the book, it was titled “The Four Islamic Schools of Fiqh and their Leaders,” and she was both flummoxed and irritated that he had brought the book into their house.

“What are you reading?”

“A book,” he said, almost with a smile. His face irritated her further, his face that had unnecessary smartness and cunning.

“What kind of book is that?”

“Please, don’t start.”

He only said ‘don’t start’ when he was beginning to get irritated, like the last time she had reminded him that he had not found a place of work and he had ranted on and on about her arrogance and impatience. So when he said it again, she only sighed and walked out of the room.

As soon as she entered Pa Joe smiled and his face seemed to show an expectation. She understood in part; she only understood his smile but did not understand that he also had an expectation. When she smiled in return he stretched a sheet of paper to her which she read still having the smile: PLEASE PUT ON THE JUKEBOX.  She looked at him in surprise, the kind that comes from seeing a man walking upside down. She had already said, “What?” before she remembered the peculiarity of her granddaddy-in-law. She sat by him and searched her handbag for a pen and wrote with it on the paper he had given her, I SHOULD PUT ON THE JUKEBOX? When he read it he nodded, and she looked at him quizzically, almost with a face like the moon when the sun refused it light, with exactly the same question the moon would have asked, “Why?”

But she obeyed him, when his face retained its smile and great expectation, and she had begun to see reason to his request: to lessen the severity of his situation, to normalize again. Yet she doubted that his head had not reconfigured, and that somehow the disability had a malignant cancerous cell that had begun eating him up when he stopped hearing and now reached his brain and made him think that he could listen to music.

Because of the surprise of it, the huge doubt in her heart, she simply put in the coin and did not bother to do any selection. There were already several compact discs inside, but she would have, if the circumstances were less perplexing, selected the order in which she wanted the discs to play. Now, she did not, and only pressed down the play button, at the same instant looking at Pa Joe.

The smile had gone and was replaced by another face she thought did not belong to him.

On his part, he started seeing the bars on the Jukebox’s display, something he knew was called LCD, and his thoughts seemed to spell the letters. First, L. Then C and finally D. The letters were falling around his head, like a waterfall, defining his focus. It kept on like this. For many minutes, he saw the letters even when he watched the rise and fall of the bars, and this was not the enjoyment he expected. Soon, the letters began a horrific thumping in his chest, so that in each thump he could distinguish which was from the L and which was from the C and which was from the D.

Very soon he held his ears with both hands because there was a sudden rush of the letters which came with more thumping and a new noise he could not define. It was an internal noise, but it surged into his ears, his eyes became blurred and there was nothing again in the parlour but the surging of the letters as noise. He held his ears closer, tighter, refusing to believe that the letters came to his ears as noise.

In that section where she would describe what she saw when the music began to play, there would be incoherent language because she tried with great unfulfilling effort to write that it was not magic, but an unusual intervention from, perhaps, heaven.

When she turned to him and saw a face that was not his and saw how his body began to contort when he held his ears with his hands, her feet became numb and her eyes became as though a sequoia had grown before her so that she could not see. Meanwhile, within the reach of her ears was the sound of the Jukebox, as though it sang for a packed-full audience and not at the request of a man with a peculiar situation as her granddaddy-in-law.

At the cease of the noise of the letters, Pa Joe thought it was the end of the noise, and that he had even imagined all the noise. This made him look again at the Jukebox, to see if he could find the enjoyment of music he sought. But things began to happen that he did not expect. Words in little saunters began to leap at him, so that he was so confused he just opened his mouth as though he wanted to swallow the words. This was only his first reaction. His second reaction was standing, wearily, up, then he fell back, and then his son’s wife ran to him. He let her hold him and guide him carefully back to his seat. That was when he heard the unmistaken clarity of the song while his mouth remained open and his hands too frozen to try covering his ears. The part of the song he heard was,

I would sacrifice anything come what may
For the sake of having you near
In spite of a warning voice
Comes in the night
And repeats in my ear,
“Don’t you know you fool
You never can win
Use your mentality,”
Step up to reality,
But each time I do
Just the thought of you
Makes me stop before I begin,
‘Cos I’ve got you under my skin

The words were too many and entered his head without meaning, just the words, and his mouth remained open.

The night after the wind lost its battle over her, she followed her husband again. She walked at the same distance as she had last night, and this time it was the darkness that God had given a holiday. It was hoary and if she had been a child she would have seen great masquerades on rampage. But there was a silent ringing in her head, which spelled the letters of the words Pa Joe had written to her, DO NOT FEAR. He did not look back as yesterday, with the earphones clasped around his ears, and sometimes he moved his waist in response to the music. She would say later that following him made her realize how vulnerable he was, how easy it had been for the wind or the darkness to feast on him.

When he got to the gate, she saw from where she stood almost behind a tree, that he was talking to a man, and that there was a brighter light coming from the house, perhaps they had used lanterns and not candles. It was today that she really looked at the house, it was largely uncompleted, but was easily noticeable as a hall of some sort. The windows were almost everywhere, and it looked to her like the image of a god with many eyes. By the time she looked again at her husband and the man, her husband was on his way inside and the man had pocketed his hands.

If she had been with a wristwatch, she knew many minutes would have elapsed while the man just stood in front of the gate, pocketing his hands.

But it happened that there was a sudden shout from the house, a sudden ‘aagh!’ that moved her feet and caused a sensation in her heart. This made the man remove his hands from his pocket and turn swiftly, marching like an awaken tornado into the gate and disappearing altogether into the house. The aagh kept on, in varying degrees, sometimes it was loud and full and later it began to dwindle. When it began to dwindle, the letters of Pa Joe’s words were spelled to her again, and she began to move towards the house.

She could have let her rationality take its toll, because it started screaming loudly that she was a fool, walking into her room of death. But she did not, and by the time she got to the gate, a new voice had replaced the aagh voice. This new voice was both settled and unsettled, like a house standing meters away from the start of an earthquake. She did not move when she had passed the gate; the house now so close and the light from lanterns in the house was too clear from the all-seeing windows. It was as though the darkness still maintained its right to a holiday and would not be dissipated by the clear light from the lanterns.

The new voice continued, “That’s why I’m not going to accept any betrayal. I’m in good mood today if not this man would be kill. We must do what we have to do. People from Morocco and Libya are coming next week. We must ready. This the first time in Nigeria we putting bomb. So be ready everybody. Any person who do what this man do would be kill…”

Her rationality spoke again, calmed earlier by the shock of what it heard. It told her she had heard enough and had to go. She obeyed it this time. Because of her hurry she hit her leg on a stone which rolled and hit the gate, but she turned and saw that there was no pause in the new voice.

When the song continued and it was clear that his ear had opened, Pa Joe closed his mouth and listened to the song. He could think about this miracle, about the strangeness of what was happening, about the impossibility of his open ears because the doctor had emphasized that they were shut for life. But he chose to think about the words of the song he heard, and especially how it came alive. He had been told when he was younger, when he sang with a band that disbanded after a failed album, that no one should limit the power of music, no one should say it was mere rhythm and instruments making sound. It had life and force. The bandleader loved to say that the angels surely must have played some music for God to exert his power and raise Jesus from death. And so it was easy for him to concentrate on the song, because the voice that sang it had chosen to sing the song from the top again:

I’ve got you under my skin
I’ve got you deep in this heart of me
You’re so deep in my heart
That you’re really a part of me
And I’ve got you under my skin.

In the midst of this singing, Pa Joe began to find that the words had the face of his grandson, the boy who lived in his father’s house now with his young wife, the boy without a job attached to his name, who had recently began to spend nights outside. This was when he decided that the boy’s wife would be the tool with which he would find the evil that kept the boy away. Pa Joe began nodding his head, even tapping his feet, the words of the song had seared through him, it had come alive with the force of meaning.

She wrote to Pa Joe what she had heard and was surprised that in the midst of the sheet on which she wrote her fingers did not quiver or react to the darkness. It was in that same darkness that she wrote to him, for he sat in the porch as yesterday and waited without a lantern, and it was the little light from a torch that helped her write. But Pa Joe did not rewrite to her, he only nodded and stood from his folding chair into the house while she stood one moment to examine the darkness and call its bluff, telling it how powerless it was over her.

The next morning, first thing, Pa Joe gave his response when she was dressed and eating breakfast. (Her husband was not back, and nowadays they were used to his long absence. She did not think of this before, but now that she was alone eating breakfast, she remembered the nights he would hold her and their ecstasy would be boundless.) She dropped the spoon and read Pa Joe’s words: I HAVE THOUGHT OF WHAT WE CAN DO. GO BACK THERE AND TELL THEM HE IS A TRAITOR, THAT HE IS THERE ONLY TO BETRAY THEM. THAT WAY THEY WOULD WANT TO DISPOSE OF HIM AND IF WE ARE LUCKY THEY WOULD NOT KILL HIM. BUT WE KNOW THE CONSEQUENCES OF ALLOWING HIM TO PARTICIPATE IN TERRORISM. IT IS BETTER TO MAKE THEM DISPOSE HIM THAN TO ALLOW HIM TO PARTICIPATE. IT IS A BALANCE OF RISKS. GO TODAY. IT MIGHT BE LATE TOMORROW.

She told her rationality that there was no need bugging her about the practicality of Pa Joe’s plan. She would not budge. She trusted Pa Joe in an uncanny way. In a way that even baffled her and made her feel stupid.

That night, she met the man of last night who pocketed his hands. His hands were still pocketed when she walked up to him, shaking from the thumping in her chest that played like samba. The man had talked briefly to her husband like yesterday, and she had been waiting beside the tree. On his face, when he saw her approach, she thought was a condensed mixture of surprise and agitation. But looking closely, she found that the surprise overran the agitation, and she concluded that it made it safe for her to talk to him.

Even before she said something, he asked, “Who are you?”
“My name is Grace.”
“What?”
“Grace.”
She noticed that it seemed like the new voice that spoke yesterday, which seemed half-educated.
“What are you doing here?”
“I came to talk to you.”
“Me?”
“Yes.”
“About what?”
“Joe.”
“Joe?”
“Yes.”
He removed his hands from his pocket and interlocked them on his chest.
“What do you want to say about him?”
“He is planning to tell people what you are doing here.”
His eyes moved, flickered as if a burst of light was cast into it. She thought she had said it wrongly and that he would ask her next how she knew what they did here. But he asked, “Who told you this?”
“I am his wife. I know.”
“Did he tell you?”
“Yes.”
“Everything?”
“Yes.”

She would write later that the way he had turned and walked inside the house reminded her of a raging bull she had seen in a movie. She would not forget to add that if she had not lied, perhaps he would have shaken her hands thankfully before he left her.

They were pleasantly surprised when he came back the next morning, whistling softly. She was eating her breakfast and Pa Joe was sitting in the parlour reading a book. The earphones were not clasped around his ears. He looked gay and fresh. Pa Joe smiled at him and he smiled back and the older man thought how striking the boy looked like his father. And how both father and son loved to enjoy life, to find fun in life. But when he went to his wife and bent to kiss her she rejected it and he sat on the dining chair beside her and still smiling, asked her why she was being difficult.

“Where are you coming from?”
“We have gone through this before. I told you.”
“It’s a lie.”
“Well…”
“You are about to say another lie.”
His only response was a smile, and as usual it infuriated her.
“I have followed you for three days now. I know where you go to.”
The smile disappeared and he said, “Good. You know where I am coming from.”
“You are putting yourself in danger. Stop going there.”
“They are going to pay good money. I’d have a job soon.”
“You’d have no job if you die.”
He said, “That’s very brilliant,” and added immediately, “Everything is working fine. I have earned their trust.”
“You have to stop.”
He smiled, lost the smile suddenly, and raised his voice, “Do you know why I am there? Do you think I’d risk my life for nothing?”
“Tell me.”
But he stood up and walked inside, walking as though he had rehearsed with the man she talked to yesterday night.

At the last phase of the song, Pa Joe decided he would not take this miracle for granted; he would act on the words he had heard. This was when he decided he would tell her to find out what evil kept his grandson away so that they could stop it. The last phase of the song was:

I’ve tried so not to give in
You know I said to myself
This affair ain’t gonna go so well
But why should I try to resist
When baby I know so well
That I’ve got you
Way under my skin.

Even now, now that the song had ended and Grace had come to sit beside him looking flummoxed and totally confused, now that his ear made a shutting sound and could not hear the next song though he saw from the LCD that there was a new song playing, he kept in his mind his decision to tell Grace to find the evil that kept his grandson away so that they could confront it.

Grace took up a job as a freelance contributor to Big Basket, an African magazine with an international outlook which requested that its contributors write short memoirs of experiences they had had. This was in early 2006, when what happened to her husband and the short-term Jukebox miracle (this was what she called it) of her granddaddy-in-law was over and she could tell the story with a backward glance.

But in writing her short memoir, she would pause and begin to cry when she remembered the two small-bodied men carrying her husband inside their house, saying they had seen him on the floor in front of an uncompleted building, crying for help. She would remember that this was the day after she had argued with him about going back there. She would be angry that Pa Joe had taken a walk just before the men brought him in, something he had not done for as long as she could remember. And finally, she would be pained that the men had advised that there was no need taking him to a hospital, he died as soon as they laid him on the freshly made bed, and that as they were bringing him into the house, he had said, with blood spurting out from his mouth, “Those people killed my father. I would have killed them back.”

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