|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.34(w) x 9.22(h) x 1.52(d)|
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PROVERBS for the PEOPLE
Dafina BooksCopyright © 2003 Tracy Price-Thompson and TaRessa Stovall
All right reserved.
"If a youth washes his hands well, he will be invited to the feast of the elders." -African, Igbo
Every morning Ken kicks the rusty metal heater in his studio apartment. Sometimes he kicks and kicks until blood trickles from under his toenail, muttering to himself about how the people next door never stop cooking nauseating-smelling food, how the weather back home in Nigeria was never this bad, how his boss at work never seems to clean his shirt, because of the permanent brown line on his collar.
When he is done kicking, he takes a bath, cleans his teeth, and gets dressed. He doesn't eat breakfast anymore, since realizing that an early lunch saves breakfast money. Before he leaves to catch the bus on Forty-fourth and Lancaster, he glares at the heater one last time. Sometimes he says things to it under his breath, things he would not say in the presence of a child.
The heater is central, the landlord told him when he moved in some months ago. And now, after the first snow, he realizes that central means he cannot control it from his room. Sometimes he wakes up shivering with cold, bumps as hard as uncooked rice all over his body. Other times, he wakes up sweating because the heater is turned up too high. Or he wakes up startled by the sounds the heater makes as it heats up, clanging sounds like the groans of a sick person.
"What the hell do you want me to do?" the landlord asked when Ken complained about it. I don't care, Ken had wanted to say, just do something. But he didn't. He was scared he wouldn't stop once he started talking; he would have to yell in the landlord's face and hope his spit would land upon the man's hooked nose. He would have to tell him how the cracks in his kitchen cabinets were choked with tiny cockroaches, how the spaces between the strips of wood on the floor were wide enough for his foot to slip into. How none of this was like the America he'd imagined. But then the landlord would tell him he could leave, and he would never find an apartment for $250 a month anywhere else in Philadelphia.
Ken knows he will have to stay in the apartment for a while. At least until he can get enough money together to enroll in the computer course. Or until his mother gets better.
He sends almost everything he makes back home.
His mother's letters come every other week in her big, sloping handwriting, telling him how happy she is, how the medicine she bought with the money he sent makes her feel better, how his brothers and sisters are doing so well in the new school that he paid for. You should see the big English words they can pronounce now, his mother writes. You should see the big math problems they can solve.
He reads the letters often-smells them, too, because they smell like the kerosene fumes from his mother's stove, and if laughter has a smell, they smell like his mother's laughter. Sometimes he places them one atop the other, forming a paper pillow, and lays his head down on them to sleep.
The bus is never late, but it is today, and Ken stands at the bus stop, listening to the woman behind him talking to her child as she looks up Lancaster Avenue for the bus.
"I won't broke it, Mummy," the child says in a tiny voice, shrill like a bell.
"It's break, baby. Say break."
"Break," the child repeats.
Ken closes his eyes because the tears are in them again. Little things make him tear up now-little things like a child talking to a mother, like two people holding hands walking along the street. He feels helpless and unmanly when this happens, but he can't help it.
He started to feel this way after his first week in America, when he walked past a young girl on the street and stared in surprise when she did not greet him. He realized then that strangers greeting him on the streets would now be the exception, not the norm. When he was job hunting, he'd get the city paper and sit on one of the white plastic chairs in front of the UPenn quad to watch the people walk by.
They walked so fast. Once, he stopped a young girl wearing a Kente-print vest and asked, "How are you?" and she glared at him and said, "He's such a weirdo" to her friend.
There are some things Ken never mentions in his letters home. He keeps his letters brief, mentioning his job at the Water Department, how important it is, monitoring chlorine levels of water at the treatment plant. He doesn't tell his mother how his boss sneers and asks him questions like, "You Africans drink water straight from muddy rivers, don't you?" And he doesn't tell her that, even when he was in the Market Street mall, surrounded by people, some so close that his shoulder brushed theirs, he felt alone.
"Sir? The bus is here."
Ken opens his eyes, turns, and asks the woman and her child to go in before him. The woman says thank you; her daughter is looking at him curiously; her cornrows run down the length of her head and have bright blue beads strung through them. It reminds him of his mother plaiting his little sister's hair, his little sister sitting on the floor with her head cradled between his mother's legs.
Ken swipes his card, says "Good morning" to the bus driver, who mutters something in return. Ken stares at the elderly driver, whose blue SEPTA hat hardly hides the white sprinkled throughout his hair, and realizes that it could have been anything that the bus driver had just said. It could have been "Shut up," or "Go to hell," just as it could have been "Good morning." Ken shrugs. He can't blame the man for not bothering to open his mouth to talk. People have problems.
The next morning, the bus is late again. And Ken is glad that the woman with the daughter is not here today. He sees the bus turn onto Lancaster and start to make its way down, hears the screech of its brakes as it stops before him. The door swings open, and Ken bounds up the stairs and is just about to swipe his card, when he realizes it's not the old man at the wheel.
Ken stares at the woman at the wheel, his mouth hanging slightly open. The small SEPTA hat she is wearing barely covers the long braids that are held together in a ponytail at the back. Her skin is the even shade of the back of a fresh African yam. Ken has never seen a woman driving a bus.
"Good morning! You forgot something?" the woman asks, startling Ken.
"No, no, sorry," Ken mutters and swipes his card.
"I'll be doing Mr. Easter's route for a couple of weeks. He's out sick," the woman says and smiles, her chalk-colored teeth brightening her face.
"Oh," Ken says.
"You need a transfer?"
"No. I don't need one."
"You have an accent. You from Africa or Jamaica?"
"I have a Nigerian friend. Yemi."
"Oh," he says again. She is looking right at him, into his eyes. He has never seen such sincerity as this since getting off the plane at JFK more than a year ago.
The seat just behind the driver's is empty and he sits there, although he often sits at the back. And as she maneuvers the bus throughout the city of Philadelphia, he watches her braided hair bounce on her neck.
The bus is on time the next morning. As Ken watches it crawl down Lancaster, he practices what he will say to the driver. Something smart and warm, like her. Not the dumb "oh" he'd muttered yesterday. The bus stops, the door swings open, and Ken forgets all the smart things he has thought up. She is wearing a puffy coat, the high collar swallowing her neck.
"Good morning to you," she says, smiling. "Sorry the heater is broken this morning."
"Oh," Ken says and then adds hastily, "my heater was not working this morning, too." There, something not so dumb-sounding, at last.
She laughs. "What's your name?"
"Ken? That an African name?"
"Yes. It's short for Kenechi." He wants to ask her what her name is, too, because she does not wear a name tag, but there is somebody shuffling into the bus behind him, and her eyes are on that person.
After work a few days later, Ken stops at the Perfume Palace on Market Street and buys himself a bottle of cologne on sale. It is a little more expensive than the other one on sale, but he buys it because the salesperson tells him, "this has a real sexy smell."
He dabs it behind his ears the next morning and as he gets on the bus, he wonders if she can smell it. She doesn't say anything about the cologne, but she seems to smile more widely as she says, "Good morning to you, Mr. Ken!"
She remembers the names of all the regulars on the bus. "Good morning to you, Miss Wilson," she'll say. Or, "Little Dennis, how you doing this cold morning?"
Sometimes he finds himself wishing that she would remember only his name, but then he chides himself and thinks of the smiles on the faces of the kids she talks to.
Every morning, Ken plans to ask what her name is, but whenever he gets on the bus and sees that wide smile, those open brown eyes, those braids, he loses it. And he ends up saying something to her about the weather, or his heater, or his landlord. The only personal thing he knows about her is that she has a Nigerian friend called Yemi. He wants to ask if she has a boyfriend, a husband, children. Where she lives. What she likes to eat.
One day, after about a month, he hears one of the regular women, the portly Miss White, who often offers potato chips to everyone on the bus, ask her, "How much longer you got with us? I hear Mister Easter is coming back soon."
Ken is sure she responds, but he doesn't hear. His ears are filled with a fierce burning liquid. He has the sensation of missing something that is still there; he imagines he is a sock that misses the feel of a foot even as the foot is still in it.
He will ask her name the next day, he resolves. He will tell her something smart, something that will make her laugh in a more personal, more intimate way. Not that one-size-fits-all laugh.
The next morning, there is a snowstorm, and the mayor announces on the radio that all city offices are closed except for essential services. Ken looks out of the window, wishing, unreasonably, that he worked in the water emergency section. The apartment building next to his is so close he imagines he can reach out and touch the old scarred brick walls if he tried. He watches the falling snow, white flakes as thick as the outer part of a boiled egg.
The heater makes a loud sound as it heats up, and he realizes he has not kicked it in a while.
The snowstorm lasts two days. The second day, a Friday, Ken calls SEPTA to ask if buses are running, but he keeps getting the recorded voice saying, "All of our customer service representatives are currently busy; please hold," until he loses his patience and hangs up.
The whole weekend he lies in bed and tries to write a letter to his mother, but he keeps tearing it up and starting over. Finally, he gives up and throws the papers into the garbage can.
On Monday, he plows his way through mounds of snow that still sit on the sidewalk as he walks to Lancaster Avenue. He can look down and see the thump-thump movements on his chest-his pounding heart. Perhaps she is gone; perhaps old Mister Easter is back. Perhaps she might have wanted to say good-bye but couldn't because of the two days of the snowstorm. Ken sees the bus turn onto Lancaster, and he wants to push at the man in front of him so he can see better. He strains his eyes. The head in the driver's side looks like a man's, but then, he can't be sure. He closes his eyes; it is freezing; his nose is numb, but he feels sweat on his forehead. He opens his eyes after counting to five, and the bus is slowing to a stop. He stares at the driver's seat and smiles.
Her hair is different. The braids no longer graze the back of her neck; instead they are shorter, with golden highlights, and they curve and stop barely under her ears. They cover too much of her skin, too much of her radiant face.
"Good morning to you, Mister Ken!" She says.
"Your hair is different today," he says.
"Got it done Saturday. An African place, too, on South Street. The ladies are from Senegal."
"It doesn't suit you," Ken blurts out. "The old braids were better."
There is silence, but Ken hears a loud buzzing in his ears. She is staring at him, her eyes narrowed, and he wonders if he has gone too far, if she will tell him off and then stop acknowledging him every morning. He does not know what he will do, how he will live with that.
Her eyes are still on him, still narrowed, and then suddenly she bursts out laughing, and Ken feels so relieved he wants to pee.
"Is that so, Mr. Ken? Well, thanks for telling me. I will keep that in mind."
She is still laughing as she starts the bus.
That evening, after work, he sits on his bed and starts to write his mother.
I hope you and Chika and Chinedu and Amaka are well. What about Uncle Emeka and Aunty Ifesi? You did not mention them in your last letter. Greet them.
He stops writing and stares at the heater. Perhaps it might not look so bad if he polishes it with wax. He picks up his pen and resumes writing.
America is very different from what we think at home. Everybody does not have a car, there are cockroaches in houses here, too. But there are some very wonderful things about America. For example, women here drive buses.
He reads what he has written and smiles. He has never written a letter like this to his mother.
The next morning, he stands waiting for the bus, his chest puffed out. When the door swings open, even before he swipes his card, he asks, "What's your name?"
"My name?" she asks with that smile he has started to imagine on his boss's annoying face when he is having a bad day at work. "It's Carol."
"Have you ever had African food, Miss Carol?"
She laughs. "My mom is back in Alabama. There was something she used to say all the time: 'I thought you'd never ask.'"
Ken feels warm, and he doesn't know if the heater is working or not.
"There is no life without life."-African, Mali
Life is short, so they say. I cannot tell you how many times I've heard that phrase over and over in my lifetime, never quite grasping the full impact of its meaning until now. I understand it now. Yessiree. I understand it way too well now.
I sink deeply into my bathtub with the whirlpool twirling and massive amounts of lavender-scented bubbles, contemplating that saying again and again inside my head.
Excerpted from PROVERBS for the PEOPLE Copyright © 2003 by Tracy Price-Thompson and TaRessa Stovall
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.