Murder my name please! Even my ancestors agree you have earned the right to do injury to that name…
As he rang up the talkative pair hefting tubers of Ghana yam at the counter, Chinedu Akalaka kept an eye on the woman to his left browsing the store. In the five months since he opened shop, he had come to realise a white woman in an African Market was a rare opportunity to mark up prices on strategically untagged items.
Mid-thirties, dark brown hair that made her as tall as the tallest of the sparse shelves, eyeglasses like triangular slices of leopard skin around curiously blinking eyes… She appeared to be another troubled American wife desperate to satiate an African husband’s craving for African food.
“Here’s your change,” Akalaka said to the customers. “Thanks for coming.”The doorbell chimed at their departure.
Ordinarily, as the hours crept closer to midday, Akalaka would be growing sleepy, but anticipation banished that feeling today as he turned fully to the lady who was now hovering between rows of palm oil plastic bottles and boxes of banku mixes. She seemed at once fascinated and confused by the variety of items surrounding her; touching a loaf of Agege bread with fingers that looked like they’d never held a ladle; knocking gently on a wooden mortar divorced from its pestle companion; probably wondering what was inside the small stack of sacks on the floor by the display refrigerator…Her grey skirt suit suggested she worked in corporate America and may have money. Add to that the fact that she still had no shopping basket and Akalaka was about 90% certain of a killing waiting to be made…
“May I help you find something?”
She turned to him with a smile, eyes aflutter. “Yes, please,” she said in a voice that sounded to his ears like fingers rifling through a sheaf of dollar bills. Right hand confidently outstretched, she walked briskly to him at the counter. “I believe we spoke on the phone earlier.”
“Oh,” Akalaka said, abruptly deflated, “you’re Crook?”
“Brook. Short for Brooklynn.”
They shook hands.
“You’re Chee…Cheeneedoo Aklak?”
The man’s barely concealed disappointment moulted into a clearly disapproving frown. Half a decade in America and he still had no tolerance for any mangling of his name.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said quickly. “It’s company policy to call a customer by name, and I tried all the way here to get my tongue around yours – just like you sounded it out on the call. I guess I failed.”
“It’s easy,” the man replied stiffly. “Chi-ne-du A-ka-la-ka.” He helpfully punched the syllables with karate chops in the air. “You have to clamp down on the consonants as if you have a quarrel with the letters. Speak like you’re biting into goat meat.”
“Oh, I’m a vegetarian.”
“Then pretend you’re chewing carrots. Repeat after me -” He chomped his teeth exaggeratedly, gesticulating. “Chi-ne-du.”
The woman nodded gratefully, seemingly eager to try again.
“Akla… Aka… Aklak?”
“Just call me Immortal,” the man said with a dismissive wave of his right hand.
Her eyes blinked at first with regret, and then they grew delightedly bigger, shoving skimpy eyebrows upwards. “Immortal? Like the old gods?”
She was about to continue, but he stopped her with a vigorous shake of his head and a finger in the air. “Before you question my middle name, remember you’re named after a bridge.”
They laughed as one.
“The city actually, not the bridge. But I get your point. Parents, huh? Immortal it is.”
Both of them turned at the sound of the door opening. A boy had poked his head in the doorway to look around the store. Immortal quickly grabbed and brandished from behind the counter the other half of the mortar, a wooden pestle about two feet in length and just thick enough for a grown man’s hand to easily wrap around. When the boy at the door saw the object in the man’s hand, he retreated instantly, laughing. Immortal and Brooklynn could not see much beyond the glass door because of the Nollywood movie posters taped to it, but the muted sound of a car braking and a man cursing was a clear indication that the boy had dashed across the street.
“Neighbourhood rascals,” Akalaka said, putting the pestle back under the counter before the woman caught a glimpse of it. “Always looking for something to steal.”
“Wow, that’s a nuisance.”
Akalaka responded with an “I’m used to it” shrug, and then suppressed a yawn. The rush of anticipation gone, weariness was stirring in his bones again. “’Sure you’re not buying anything? I saw you looking at the banku mixes.”
Brooklynn’s response was a question: “Is my car safe out there?”
“They don’t tamper with cars in the daytime in this area.”
The woman seemed unsure what to make of his response. She nodded, hoisted her handbag on to the countertop and began to rummage through it as if she’d decided it was a good idea to conclude her business and be out of there. When her right hand emerged from the handbag, it held a plastic card, which she held up for Immortal to read: it identified her as Brooklynn Shepherds, a promotions executive at Cross-World Money Transfer, Inc.
Immortal frowned. “Is this about the money I sent to Nigeria last week? I know they got it.” He rolled his eyes. “My wife is already counting down to next week for the next instalment. Is there a problem?”
“No, Mr. Akla – Immortal.” She brushed her thin nose quickly with the back of the hand holding the card, trying to stifle a sneeze. “Wow, it’s a riot of smells in here.”
Akalaka shrugged. His bald head glistened with a faint film of sweat. The store air-conditioner blew humid air because it needed service that he could not afford, which compounded the notorious ‘odour’ often associated with African foods. “Food will smell,” he said. “Look around you: there’s fish in that basket, smoked chicken over there by the entrance, egusi up on that shelf to your right, and raw pepper in the bowl by the window – ”
“Pepper!” she cut in, brushing her nose again. “That’s what’s tickling my nose. It’s in the air…spicy!”
“No. Peppery. Spicy is water pretending to make waves in a bathtub. Peppery is a tsunami swallowing a village. African food is peppery, not spicy.”
“Okay. It’s peppery.”
The man and woman reappraised each other as if pleased they had found common ground on something. They started laughing. “I like your passion,” Brooklynn said.
“That is one thing I have in abundance,” Akalaka replied, running his eyes over the limited selection of items on his shelves. “It’s a struggle to crack the African market business in this area. The competition is well established and capitalised. Passion is what’s keeping those doors open.”
“The story of every startup,” the woman said, impressed. “Hang in there. You never know… Which brings me to why I’m here today. I bet you didn’t know that every time you wired a minimum of $200 to Africa, you were automatically entered for the Cross-World Money Transfer Great Africa Prize Draw?”
Immortal stared at the woman as if he expected her to say more. She blinked, smiled and continued.
“It’s our way of giving back to the local communities that keep our business going. The good news is you’re the grand prize winner of this year’s draw, Immortal.”
“Really?” he said unenthusiastically, ducking behind the counter to pick up an open box of phone cards that had arrived via UPS that morning. He needed to count and hang them up on the rack behind him. “That sounds nice. What is this grand prize? An umbrella?”
“No, sir,” the woman smiled. Her eyes blinked furiously with excitement. “It’s $2 million.”
Immortal froze in a half crouch, head cocked sideways as he gawped at Brooklynn. His fingers became limp and the box slipped out and hit the floor with a dull thud. He remained in this position for a moment, scrutinizing the woman’s face from an angle while his own seemed to be struggling to lose its perpetual scowl. And then he pushed himself slowly upright and extended his neck to re-evaluate the woman. Black pumps – the kind his wife used to haggle intolerably to buy at the used-goods market in Ikorodu before he had to leave her and their three kids and let the godfathers of the football supporters’ club fly him to America to hail Nigeria at the Olympics. His eyes trailed up the woman’s body, back to her face where amused eyes still blinked at him from behind the designer frames.
“Is this a joke?”
Brooklynn shook her head, smiling, clearly enjoying his reaction.
A light-headed feeling washed over the man as he stepped backwards until a display shelf poked him in the butt. He grasped it to steady himself, convinced he was dreaming. He hurried out of the counter area to look behind the woman, and around the store, expecting her accomplices to jump out and mock him. He swung the aluminium and glass door open to peer outside. Her official car, with the blue Cross-World logo on its side, was parked by the entrance. Beyond it on the other side of the street was the boy from earlier and a bunch of his rogue partners, insolently idling the school day away. The world was business as usual and there was no TV crew secretly taping him for a prank show. Immortal rushed back to his spot behind the counter and regarded the woman again, closely. Unsure what to say, he blurted out: “Le…let me see your company ID again. And your driver’s license. And your birth certificate! Who is your doctor?”
Brooklynn burst out laughing, a natural throaty sound that made her seem sincere and more believable. She unlatched her bag, and this time, she let Immortal hold the ID card.
“I assure you, this is for real.”
“$2 million?” Immortal spluttered as he returned the card, his hand shaking. It was the real thing. He had a fake driver’s license in his back pocket and this card looked nothing like that. His body quivered as he tried to absorb the full impact of what was unfolding. “Just like that? I don’t have to kill anyone? I don’t have to do anything?”
“You did all you had to when you sent $300 to Nigeria through Cross-World last week.”
He started to sing. The song was a popular Igbo highlife number that spoke of the transformative power of ‘ego-money’. And then his feet began to move too; left, right, back and forward, his knees bent, butt shoved outward, shifting ponderously to the pulsating rhythms of relief. Salvation! Immortal sang and danced. And when a customer chose that moment to open the door, he barked at her to come back later. Much later. Like never.
He stopped again and the suspicion appeared to be fighting to return to his face. “You’re sure I don’t have to give you anything first before I can get this money?”
The woman shook her head reassuringly.
Immortal was ecstatic. Thoughts hopped inside his head like horny squirrels high on coffee; like fidgety rabbits poked by thunderclaps. The business was flailing. He’d known that for a while. Not for lack of effort or ingenuity, but due to undercapitalization. Returning to Nigeria had crossed his mind a few times; especially at night when – as an underpaid security man – he risked his life walking the perimeter of a multi-million dollar building to earn money to sustain his daytime ventures. Here was his chance to confidently bid America goodbye and stop being a second-class citizen. He could go home triumphantly and go into manufacturing or politics. He could do whatsoever he wanted with $2million converted to naira! He was ecstatic!
“Okay. If you go through that back door,” the man said, pointing, “you will find water and a towel in the toilet. You will need both to revive me.”
Brooklynn’s amused expression turned to concern immediately.
“Why? Why would I need to revive you?”
“Because I’m about to faint!” Immortal declared elaborately, arms up in the air like swaying palms. “That’s why! These things never happen to me! Never ever ever! Even the reward for all the money I have squeezed out to send home to my family, I thought that would be waiting for me in Heaven. Or am I dead? Did I have a heart attack? Is New Jersey heaven?”
Brooklynn shook her head, all smiles. “You’re alive sir.”
Immortal ticked off items on his fingers. “School fees money, food money, money for books, money for teacher, money for school uniform, money for money, money for Christmas in the village, money for that useless landlord that’s always increasing the rent of the apartment in Abule Egba, money for somebody’s burial – like it was me who killed their grandfather! If I’m sleeping, don’t wake me. I’m in heaven! Show me that ID card again…”
“You’re not dreaming, Mr. Akla-“ Brooklynn caught herself before she did any more damage to the name. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right. You can call me whatever you like. Murder my name please! Even my ancestors agree you have earned the right to do injury to that name. Are you sure this is not a dream? Pinch me here.” Immortal pushed the exposed inside of his right arm toward Brooklynn. “I cannot pinch myself properly, pinch me!”
The woman declined with a polite smile.
“Thank God I went to Church last Sunday!” Immortal continued. “I even sat in front for the first time in my life. That Pastor… That pastor na faya! It must have been the anointing from that service that anointed me! There is anointing o! In fact, I must pay my tithe this time. $2 million! Can I make one phone call? I have to tell my landlord in Abule Egba that I’m going to buy his wretched house from right here in New Jersey!”
“There will be time for phone calls, Immortal. As soon as we’re done here – ”
“One hundred goats!” Immortal yelled again, interrupting her. “That is what I’m sending straight to the shrine of my ancestral gods! One hundred fat goats and a hundred kegs of undiluted palm-wine. I’m declaring a party in the land of the spirits! Let all the gods get drunk on me!”
“Aren’t you a Christian?”
“I am. But where I come from, double protection is allowed. A little religious prostitution is good for the soul! You should try it sometime.”
“Thanks for the tip.” Brooklynn said. She pulled out a clipboard with some papers attached to it. “Can we quickly get the procedural clarifications out of the way?”
“Okay. Anything for you. I’m closed for the rest of the day anyway. Do you want a drink? You should try kunu. Way better than champagne.”
“Maybe later, sir.” Brooklynn began to flip through pages on the clipboard, pen in hand. “So, my job is to vet the winner before the result is made public. May I see a photo ID?”
Immortal started to reach for the wallet in his back pocket. He caught himself and paused. “Ah… I have my passport downstairs. I live in the basement. Let me get it for you – ”
“Is it an American Passport?”
“Not yet. But it is international. My Nigerian international passport. It’s expired, but my face is still the same on it.”
“An expired passport is unacceptable. A driver’s license will do just fine.”
“Well, my driver’s license is – ” He hesitated. “Why can’t I use my passport? My American passport is still pending. I will buy one soon.”
Brooklynn’s eyes opened wider. “You can do that? Buy an American passport?”
“You can buy anything with the right amount of money…” Immortal winked slyly. “$2million will do the job.”
“Interesting. So, do you have another form of ID?”
The trace of sweat had become a trickle on Immortal’s head, travelling to his brow and down the bridge of his nose. There was no avoiding it now. He yanked out his wallet and handed the woman the driver’s license.
Brooklynn stared at the plastic for a moment, frowning. She had received training on how to spot forged documents and what she held in her hand was clearly a badly produced attempt. She shook her head and returned the license to the man. “I take it that you bought this one too?”
“But I am me. You know I am me. Why do you need identification now?”
“It’s protocol, standard procedure. This announcement is going to be national news, and we have to ensure there’s nothing about a winner that’s likely to backfire and cause bad press for Cross-World.”
Immortal paused to consider his options. “Can I use my security guard ID?”
“No, that’s a private organisation. I’m going to need a government-issued ID. Do you have proof of residency or citizenship?”
Immortal smirked in disgust. He could see where the conversation was headed. “How come you never asked for my ID all the years I’ve been sending money through your company?”
Brooklynn stopped writing and squinted at him from behind the eyeglasses, blinking. “Is it going to be a problem?” She asked sternly.
“Maybe I just have a ‘procedural clarification’ of my own.” Immortal half turned away from the woman as if about to resume the process of hanging the phone cards on the hooks on the wall, but he swung back almost immediately, with the renewed energy of a salesman salvaging a threatened sale: “Look, I’m still working on my ‘stay.’ I don’t see why that should be a problem. Your company will accept whatever you tell them, right? Say everything’s fine. Scratch my back; I scratch your back…”
The woman paused for a moment, looking confused. “I don’t know what that means. Why would I want to scratch your back?”
“It means if you take care of this small matter for me, Brooklynn, Brookie, Brook… I will return the favour.” He held up both hands. “10%?”
“Of what? 10% of what?”
“20%. And that’s my final offer.”
“Oh…” Brooklynn sighed and shook her head. “I can’t take your money, Mr. Aklak-“
“It can be our money!” Immortal had no idea his voice was rising and growing whiny, but he could feel his veins expanding and contracting as blood coursed furiously through his body. His brain was in overdrive. “My money can be our money. 30%! Think about it. IRS free!”
“Undoubtedly a tempting offer, Mr. Aklak. I take it then that you’re in the United States illegally?”
The young man mashed up his face as if it cuts him mortally to even contemplate the words he was about to speak. “I’m a work in progress, okay? I rent unofficially from the Nigerian owner of this building – store space and basement apartment – supplementing with night work while I give this place legs. But your presence here today is the answer to all my prayers, the end to all my struggles. God sent you to me! With money in my pocket, they will give me American citizenship overnight! In fact, you can tell Immigration to deport me after that. I will deport myself if you want! Just give me my money…Please! I earned it!”
Brooklynn’s lips tightened. “Unfortunately,” she said with finality, “I will be advising my company to award the prize to the next name in line – ”
Immortal looked devastated. He slammed his open palms on the countertop, making the woman flinch-blink. The candy display jumped an inch in the air, before settling in disarray. “You can’t do that!” He spat. “You can’t!”
A rush of sympathy for the man washed over Brooklynn’s face. If she were religious, she would have thought he looked like one who’d been teased by God’s embrace, before being shoved cruelly down a hidden side-door to hell. She felt sorry for him and would do her best to mitigate his agony, but there was nothing else she could do. Brooklynn put the clipboard and pen back in her handbag.
“Stop! Don’t do that!” Immortal pleaded, struggling to breathe, right hand held out as if to stop the clipboard from disappearing with his dreams. It felt as if without warning, all of the oxygen had been sucked out of the store and his lungs were now collapsing… “You can’t!”
“I’m afraid I can, Mr. Aklak.”
Immortal’s movements became tiny, feverish jerks. He was hyperventilating.
“Are… Are you sure?”
Brooklynn nodded grimly and slipped the strap of the handbag back over her shoulder, ready to depart.
“And there’s nothing I can do to change your mind?”
“40%!” The man screamed, desperate.“50-50! I’m not greedy! 50%!”
“I can’t. I’m sorry.”
“What’s the matter with you?” Immortal wailed in frustration. “You want to die wretched? You want to be saying ‘Yes sir’ for the rest of your life? Think, woman, think! Help me here…”
“Rules, Mr. Aklak. In this post 9/11 America, a company like Cross-World can’t be seen rewarding illegality in whatever form it surfaces. And giving money to an illegal alien does just that.”
“But taking money from that same illegal alien for the past five years is not against those rules?”
“I don’t make the rules, Mr. Aklak.”
Immortal grinned like an insane cartoon villain. It was the story of his sojourn in America, the broken promise he’d sacrificed everything to overstay his visa and capture.
“Good luck with the business.”
Brooklynn headed for the door.
Immortal spoke calmly to her back: “I think I got your name right the first time. Crook.”
She stopped and faced him again. He was just being petulant and she told him so.
The man raised his right hand from behind the counter. There was something in it.
“Do you know what this is?”Immortal asked?
She really didn’t care to continue with the conversation, but she humoured him nevertheless. “Some sort of sculpture?”
“You could say that. In Nigeria, we use it to pound yam in a mortar.”
“Interesting,” Brooklynn said. She was bored. As she turned again to leave again, her mind flitted to the Starbucks she’d passed on her way to the store…
“We also use it to sculpt heads,” Immortal continued, even though it was obvious that the woman was no longer interested in what he had to say. “It is a handy weapon when bearers of bad news make their crooked way into your house.”
Brooklynn stopped and swiftly faced the man. Only the word “weapon” had registered in her mind, but it had been enough to activate her internal alarms. What the man had in his hand could do her serious damage. It was a stone-age club. Her eyes blinked again and again as she backed away.
“Mr. Aklak, you don’t want to do anything silly…”
The door seemed so far away all of a sudden.
“Let me show you how it works,” Immortal said as he exited the counter area again and began to approach the woman.
Brooklynn took another step back. “Threatening me can get you arrested and prosecuted, Mr. Aklak. You’ll go to jail. You’ll be deported.”
The unhinged grin had taken over the man’s face now, but she was already clawing at the door, trying to push it open. She pushed and pushed, but it wouldn’t budge.
He was coming closer. That grin! That deformed grin!
“BRING YOUR HEAD!”
Frantic, Brooklynn pushed harder, feeling the doorframe begin to buckle. And then it struck her as he was almost upon her that the door opened inwards. Pull.
She yanked the door open, making the glass rattle in its frame, and bolted outside, screaming his name.
Immortal followed, and chased her down the street, wielding the pestle like a cudgel, a possessed man also screaming his own name repeatedly:
“A-ka-la-ka! A-ka-la-ka! A-ka-la-ka!”
Behind them, the boys hanging out on the other side of the street saw an opportunity, exchanged looks, and quickly seized it.
Image by 3D Animation Production Company from Pixabay (modified)