“It’s a road trip,” Hugh says, in his characteristic self-deprecating manner. Sometimes when he speaks I recall some quotes I chanced upon while reading Oscar Wilde’s plays. “Guys, you can stay back if you want.”
Most writers whoop; the rest just sigh, as if world-wearied. True, the previous flights have induced slowness into our writing routine and spirit. Some of the writers even fell sick when they returned back to Iowa City. Others complained of the distance, of jetlag while a few are still trying to modulate their sleeping pattern; and someone mentioned to us a couple of days earlier, that Daylight Saving Time is just around the corner. Prior to the much-anticipated time adjustment, my own clock has in fact altered its notion of time. It has reset itself automatically, wrongly of course.
Nothing to complain about, space or time, motion or inertia, except the low buzz in my ears when we’re thousands of feet above the earth. Except the strange chill – or dread – that claws its creepy way around my chest when the airplane bumps for a few seconds. Except this ruthless chill that fiddles with the hairs in my nostrils and tickles the soles of my feet when my landlord fails to switch on his heater while the oak tree groans desolately outside my window.
Swaddled in a pullover, hoodie, winter jacket, and jean trousers, with a furry cap strapped over my head, I still can feel the sting of autumn on the back of my hands. I try to ward it off, but realize it’s senselessly futile since, in four hours or more, we shall enter Chicago. I am ready, for now at least.
I reach for my gloves in my pocket. I feel a slight reassurance in my spine that I can withstand the weather extreme when it blows cruelly, a mini-tornado, across my way. I remember that I almost chickened out when I woke up that morning, with the winds roaring in the chimney.
Should I change my mind? I don’t have anything to prove, do I? It would be terrible to fall sick now, at a season so raw and merciless – who’d cater for an infirm in a foreign country? I’ve spent most of my per diem on gifts for families and friends, so it’ll be horrid to lie in the hospital bed. I heard the bill is not only high, but also petrifies your savings.
How can I back out now? I’ve looked forward to visiting Al Capone’s gangland. The city that made Michael Jordan a legend; inspired the award-winning musical film that featured a stellar cast of Hollywood icons from Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, Queen Latifah, to Taye Diggs and Lucy Liu.
Shikaakwa – Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer, two reality talk shows most Nigerians enjoy with so mad a passion.
Shikaakwa – Pointe du Sable, and Barack Obama. History and modernism.
“We’re cool with the trip,” I say, defying the hypochondriac voice that frets and wishes me nausea.
“A road trip? That’s far, what’s the distance?” a voice wafts towards me; the voice is low and hoary from the gust. I cannot tell if the speaker is male or female. The face is almost swallowed in a black wool cap and grey neck gaiter. Although the form looks like a slapstick of an Eskimo, I imagine it in a visor, playing the part of Sir Lancelot.
“Road trip?” I shoot the question back, as I make out the swell of breast beneath the dark brown jacket and the curve of round hips hugged in a faded blue jeans.
She peers at me from under her cap and says, “The cold, wouldn’t one feel better staying back at home?”
Peter and Kelly, two of our coordinators, alerted me beforehand that Chi-Town wasn’t called the Windy City for nothing. After they’d uttered that statement, I went to grab a Styrofoam cup and half-fill it with coffee without non-dairy creamer and sweetener. But the potent brew did not stop me from picturing humid, dark clouds devouring the sun. Bitter winds bellowing out from the mouths of Lake Michigan and Chicago River, swamping the entire lakefronts and skyline. Not even the thermal kit would warm my limbs, I feared.
“It should be fun, travelling by road,” I answer, bracing for the worst, determined like a mountain climber.
“You think so?” Unconvinced.
I don’t have the slightest idea what fun could possibly await us along the road. Is there any fun when you traverse highways and count the number of McDonalds and KFC and Dunkin Donuts and Wal-Mart that zoom by? I think of speaking about the singularity of vast, sprawling acres of corn and soya bean – the grooved, golden blanket that clothes both sides of the expressway when you drive through the great, diverse American states. Is it not thrilling to marvel at this man-made ingenuity?
I don’t mention any of this, because she’ll write me off, a bore, a poet incapable of differentiating splendor from boredom.
“It would really be fun,” I repeat, more confidently.
She doesn’t reply, but hobbles away towards the back door, like a bedraggled bunny rabbit.
Travelling by road? Will it be as exciting as watching the delicate clouds float over the mazy architecture of the city through the window of an airplane? But something else slips into my mind, before the question finds an answer.
The road trip will offer me some opportunity to tackle the stack of books now atrociously piling on my shelf, threatening to burst through my bag when I’d finally lug its sheer bulkiness to the airport. Travelling by road will make it possible to cut down Measuring Time, Song of Night, Long Way Gone, Sky-High Flames, and The General is Up, to mental bits digestible enough for my near-saturated mind.
Some weeks earlier, I made a vow to myself: I’ll finish reading all the novels before I get back to my homeland – despite the tedium of activities IWP expects of us. Expectedly, every vow is broken. I have flagged it, over and again. But now, I think the opportunity has jumped into my lap!
Hugh springs past me. My eyes follow his heels, and I wonder if men have graceful movements, like gazelles, like panthers – or are such adjectives only reserved for the female folk? Language belongs to men, an Iranian poet once told me. They skewed it to suit masculine agenda, whim. And they’d always control and manipulate it. She argued, like a zealot, that there was an obvious double-standard even in sexual behavior. She gave instances, especially the phallic. Penis, penetrate…
And that night tucked in bed, thoughts roamed wanton in my head, as I tried to debunk her feminist obstinacy. Before I dozed off, I acceded to her point. When a woman slept around, she was called promiscuous; a whore. When a man was having it off, what was he called? A guy, a player? A stud? Casanova, Lothario? – epithets more romantic and less pejorative than bitch, hooker, ho, slut. Language was thus paternalistic.
Hugh turns around, as if he’s made out my thoughts, and gives me a stare that borders on sympathy. Judging from the way he tilts his head sideways, I suppose he’d say, “Hey guys, plans have changed. We aren’t going to Chicago anymore!” Just the same way our trip to Red Bird Farm was cancelled because the weather fell to less than 10° C.
I can feel a gnawing in my stomach, that only eased when he says aloud, “Hi Uche. How’s the cold?”
I scrunch up my face. My lips have since cracked like a beggar’s heel. And I forgot to grease them with Vaseline. For some time now, I sleep with my socks and long bottom on – the picture of myself clambering off the bed I detest as it makes me feel like that bumbling stumblebum clown that liked saying, “Ooh Betty, the cat’s done some woopsie on the floor,” who made us rock with laughter in the 1970s and 80s.
Yes, the chill of autumn is stinging and bitter you cannot help but hide indoors, curl up beneath a comforter and two blankets. Nowadays I seldom dream, because it seems the cold has frozen my fecund ability to conjure up images in the subconscious state.
“It sucks,” I murmur, rubbing my palms together.
“Wait till we get to February!” he enthuses.
“I would be in Nigeria by then, sunbathing,” I reply.
His laugh comes out in a graceful stream, not spurting like water out of a tap, or shooting all over like a sprinkler; it just flows up and slow, out of his mouth.
“You’ve got some tan on your skin now,” he teases.
I look myself over. “Naw,” I drawl.
He shrugs, turns around to where the writers stand in different groups. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he speaks loudly. “May I have your attention?”
Voices respond, footsteps echo, and some people exhale in a drawn-out, wheezing moan. We all huddle close to him, like chicks, as the wind whips up flakes of leaves that glint like auburn and blond locks in the frosty sun.
“3 minivans, comfy and warm. 32 writers, hmm, you already know each other,” Hugh says, smiling, while some of us have to clench our teeth, to keep the chill from stealing into our mouths. His smile flits from one face to another and just as it is about settling on my face, he raises a finger and says, “And the Russ –”
“The Russians are coming,” someone cuts him short.
We all spin around, as though we’ve heard the cry of circling hawks. The laughter that ensues from the group, breaks out as a trickle, then rings out, loud and hearty.
Walking leisurely, not even like KGB agents, clad in winter jackets and other warm pieces of clothing, are three handsome men and a diffident blonde. You can’t miss their striking Slavic features as they slide through the back door of Shambaugh House.
Beside me, the Chinese writer laughs on, recalling a joke, and how he used to resent it when people accosted him in Europe and told him the Chinese are overrunning the world. “Ha, the Chinese are coming,” he says, but I notice a flash of pride, a subtle anthem of nationalism in his voice.
Out of spite, I say, “The Chinese have a reputation, a bad one, in Nigeria,” and watch his pursed eyes widen a moment, and then slit back to a snake’s.
“Is that so?”
“Yes. Apart from Jet Li and Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu and Michelle Yeoh.”
“We’re helping Africa, so many African countries are benefitting from China.”
“In Nigeria, we see the Chinese as invasive and scammers. Distributors of fake goods,” I fire on, keeping pokerfaced. I think he shrinks an inch; I think I grow a foot taller, as I look down on him. I don’t want to hold down. I feel so balmy with myself that I long to deflate his Asian hubris to strips thinner than sushi rolls.
He is about countering my views, but I interrupt him and speak fast. I tell him how home based traders respond when you enquire about a product. “This is from China, and this is from abroad,” as though China was anything but abroad. “The point made by the seller is this: when you buy Chinese goods expect poor quality.”
I’m unable to figure out how flattened or flat a Chinese face can get. But I know I’ve hooked his stomach with more uppercuts than I earlier aimed at. As if he has no more defense to prop up, he replies lamely, “Well, that’s the American media –” He breaks off and begins to laugh.
I frown, feeling strangely defeated.
He laughs hard such that some of the writers throw glances at us. “Your country has nothing to offer China. Nigeria? We keep getting those fake emails in China. Nigeria?” he paused and brooded with a finger between his lips. “After all, your government pleaded with us to come and build railways for your people.”
My frown deepens so severely that I feel heat rise in my cheeks. How can he say the giant of Africa has nothing to give the world? What about our oil? Does he know how much we make from LNG? Doesn’t he know that we could lump together one thousand Nigerian politicians to manage the salaries of the entire government workforce in China for the next five years or more?
“It is the western media. 20 years ago, Chinese were driving bicycles,” he says, his face flushed with rose-pink mirth. “The U.S. didn’t complain about pollution and global warming then. Now, Chinese people can afford cars, the world is complaining that our cars emit fumes into the atmosphere. The world is afraid the Chinese are coming. We’ve taken over, believe it or not.”
“Chinese fabrics, electronics and technologies are regarded as second-rated; they never last long,” I hiss, sounding so lame I dislike myself for letting him jab me into a corner. I hope he doesn’t notice the effete way I made my retort.
He reaches a hand and clasps my shoulder. “The way your people see Chinese in Nigeria isn’t even as disturbing as the way the West sees us. Do you know the extent some of the nations went to disrupt out Olympic? Their press created images of downtrodden Chinese crying for freedom. Can you imagine? Igbo man,” he says, a bit smugly, his voice cutting through me, “the western media is unforgiving and blunt when it discusses human rights in China. Nothing good will come out of China, but today we’re bailing out the world’s richest country, right?”
I force a smile of understanding at him, even though I’m feeling knocked-out like The Nigerian Nightmare. The Chinese turns away at once, as if he’s found out that it was pointless explaining basic details to me. As he walks off towards Hugh, I become conscious of that familiar scratchy feeling at the back of my throat; a sign that forewarned the germ of flu. Back home, I took Vitamin C almost on a regular basis, a pseudo-addict. Surprisingly, I haven’t chewed any vitamin C since my 81/2 weeks residence in U.S.
I don’t realize that Hugh has been speaking for some time, while I was attempting to make the Chinese look idiotic. I inch towards Hugh, blowing hot air into my palms cupped over my mouth. I can feel the first sting of the chill in my eyes. Since the beginning of October, tears stream down my face on their own, as if my eyes have decided to weep for the discomfort of a tropical skin unused to temperate extreme. Now and then, I see my tears as a protest against the fall; a lamentation for all that will fall, sooner or later.
Everybody is squinting at Hugh as he recounts, clearly and evenly, like a practiced instructor, the logistics: from transportation, hotel accommodation, tours, and to numerous events all laid out as seamlessly as possible, so the writers – 36 – plus 3 IWP staff would enjoy the three nights in Chicago.
As the Russians walk up to the group, I realize they look cool in that same old-world-espionage kind of façade, Hollywood made me believe when I was a teenager. They look like people carved out of a Siberian ice. Come storm and snow, nothing will ruffle the mufflers on the necks of these distinguished poets and fiction writers.
I already know the Russians are from the Open World Program. The first time I heard the name was last week, when Adam went to pick them up at the airport. Before I grasped the meaning, I did think the Open World Program was concerned with the opening of the closed gates of the Kremlin. I would see two Muscovites pacing anxiously behind a highly wrought bronze iron gate – one of its rods the size of a rotund man’s limb – while an American CAT was pulling down a giant statue of Stalin; already Lenin was lying flat in the slush. On-lookers sway back and forth, hurrahing. A new world, open to fantasy.
Open World, I mouth the word like a mantra. I shrug and ponder if some benevolent idealist can set up a Closed World Program for African countries, but I feel irked by the dismal thought.
In reality, Open World is a program that enables emerging Russian leaders to gain significant, firsthand exposure to America’s democracy and free-market system in action in communities across the United States. A Program that identifies potential leaders and shapers of the future. They visit Iowa City and other places; they will be joining us on the trip to Chicago.
As I think of the far-reaching impact this Program portends, not as per building understanding and network between both countries, but as it aspires to connect future leaders to think alike, dream alike, and plan alike, ahead on the same plane, thereby fostering future homogeny of norms and values and aspirations, I conclude America is a phoenix. What more could reduce global friction and tension in the future, when you and I understand the role each of us must play? When we understand how interconnected and interdependent we are in the long run?
This question whisks sadness over my heart as I think of my country that moment. Amid the laughs and banters of the writers floating all around me, melding into the shine of the morning like Nina Simone’s songs, I envision dark days ahead, days darker than the PHCN’s blackout. I think of the complete evisceration of the land that gives us roots and food. I think of them, the revered representatives in our national house, hoarding our commonwealth in British and Swiss banks, while the remainder is used to sate their sickly sweet private needs – women, wine, holidays and hospital.
I lose myself in a reverie, but someone elbows me accidentally. The Macedonian poet smiles fondly as he makes his way past me. The smile on my face feels like a strip of scotch tape strapped over my lips. The writers have started to file into the three minivans, too.
As I climb into the womb of the minivan, I hold myself back from not tripping over, making a monkey of myself. I choose a window seat and lean a shoulder against it, shoving my hands into the warmth of my winter jacket. Even in the bus the chill is overpowering; each female writer hugs herself tightly, shifts uneasily in her seats. I cock my ears to pick out the first person to gnash her teeth; none.
“Joe,” I call out. “Please could you turn on the heater?”
He does not look back; his eyes are on the wheel, or on the dashboard. But he replies in an amiable tone, “As soon as the car warms up a bit, the heater would start.”
Someone grunts behind me. I snuggle closer to the window, squashing my limbs together. I pull out Sky-High Flames and flip on to the page where I dog-eared. I pause as I fix my eyes on a paragraph.
“Jack Frost is coming soon,” another person crows, gleefully. “It is blowing hard in Indiana. Chicago is next-door. I read it on-line.”
I’m too frosted in the ears to make out whether the speaker actually meant Robert Frost. But I loathe his tone; sounds like a voice over for a horror flick; as if he enjoys the plight of his fellow writers.
I try hard to absorb the simple prose, but I feel like star fish on land. I simply can’t navigate a mere page. Just concentrate as my mind drifts away from the naivety of Ofunne and tumbles into the jungle of questions. I shut the novel and thrust it onto my knees, nestled in my cap.
The drive is monotonous; occasional songs from Joe’s radio, chitchat, laughter and sneezing, pepper the bleak silence. The Chinese is snoring behind me; I’m tempted to swing an arm behind my back so it’ll connect with his forehead, but I expel the juvenile thought.
I face the window. Clouds hang sedate in the sky like burnt-out desire. As lands of corn and soy bean flash by, I dream of the avid national heroes of today’s democracy. I dream of them dreaming of cramming the vaults of banks in Britain and Switzerland with proceeds that would have assuaged the gaping wounds of the Niger Delta.
They do not, these senators. They cannot conceive any enduring projects or linkages that will frame the country in a positive light, that will cast the children in the leadership mold; they cannot build the dynamic ambience that will engineer the rebirth of a glorious past; that will imbue the coming generation with confidence and conviction to confront head-on the exacting challenges of now and tomorrow.
(c) Uche Peter Umez, 2008