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Mister Howards is a man who wants to be another man, and his life is not better off for it. He is a school teacher at Saint Howards where he teaches Social Projects to students whose parents could ruin his life for dramatic effect. Naturally, he is pessimistic about life, and life taught him this: to weigh his worth against the number of coins in his pocket or in the bank, which is not so much if he’s being honest. He is hardly honest. He tells his wife, May, that they have more than they have and when she says, “Show me,” he says, “It’s in the bank.” She says, “We need more liquid cash” and he says, “Manage, manage, we’re saving for the rainy blah blah blah.”
Blah Blah Blah. That’s how May has come to punctuate his sentences. Blah blah blah because he’s a man who talks too much of himself. “Like me for example” — his preamble for switching conversations to himself, conversations that could’ve been about different ways to grill shrimp for shrimp sauce or fish for fish cake or plantain for boli. His students have also taken to punctuating his sentences like this for he bores them to no end.
Mister Howards is having a particularly bad morning and May is praying for a miracle. “Good God,” she cries, “hear the cries of your children. Give us a breakthrough.”
“I am hungry and I want food,” he mutters. But he can’t say it aloud. He helps himself to Lipton and sugar (there is no milk), ties his purple towel around his waist, and heads back into the room where he slips on his boxers and then deodorant.
He hasn’t always worn deodorant. Not until twenty-eight, when his girlfriend of two months brought it to him and said,
“This… this is compulsory. A necessity fa.” He’d gone around smelling musky before then, losing girls, losing beautiful beautiful creatures of God, he thinks.
He feels himself feeling many kinds of nostalgia this morning. Especially the kind that sits firmly somewhere in between his heart — just beneath his ribcage — and his gut, demonstrating itself at the back of his eyes and causing them to wander off into space, to another time, to another place, to another version of himself. This is the main kind of nostalgia he’s feeling. (Although it’s mixed with other kinds of nostalgia, like the one that goes directly for his gut that presents itself as nausea, as the masticated food that traveled down his gut earlier returning quickly in backward motion. Or the kind that sits firmly on his tear ducts, applying pressure until it returns something — anything crystalline.)
There’s nostalgia for the girlfriend who brings him necessary deodorant at twenty-eight. He’d wanted to marry her but she’d said marriage was not for her. She’s married now. He knows because he watched her relationship status go from single to in a relationship to it’s complicated to engaged and then to married. She’d married a Fulani prince complete with all the traditions including Sharo, the flogging of the potential groom. He smirks at this; he would’ve been unable to stand that anyway.
The other nostalgia that plagues him is that of his other person, or the person he used to be. He shouldn’t have had to change. Had the universe not colluded against him, he wouldn’t have had to. He might have even found love. He doesn’t think he loves his wife. Not really. Not at all. And it’s not that she’s convenient. She’s not. A convenient wife would be quiet, mute, deaf and dumb, barren… non-existent. He wants to unmarry because to unmarry would be to unbecome or to become his other person that he was before.
This other person lives alone and keeps rolls of marijuana in nice places (secret places) and rewards himself for progress. Progress is “finding” the marijuana within his clothes, underneath the carpet, in between bread slices ahahaha… that is by far his favorite supply.
The bread slices are there to quell the munchies from the packet he finds underneath the couch, before he sits down to roll again, all neat and patient. Where was his lighter? He must have left it underneath the couch. He is Zen: troubled by nothing and therefore troubling nothing. Always be Zen, that is all the gospel he knows. But you cannot always be Zen, he also knows this. He decides to write a poem, a poem-letter! He’ll send it on the back of a raven to a long-lost friend. Imagine that? A RAVENOUS LETTER ON THE BACK OF A RAVEN. Perfect perfect… He finds paper,
the world is a
big unforgiving oaf
Isaac, his long-lost friend, scoffs when he reads it, “Two lines? Stop… poems are much more complex, you know, this is a faux poem at best. A random string of words strewn together at worst, and to be fair, more honestly.” After a short pause, he continues, “And what’s a freaking oaf anyway?”
“It came to me,” Howards says. (The other him is just Howards. There’s no heaviness of titles like Mister to weigh him down.) “But think about it. Everything you’ve just said is a random stream of words strewn together. Right. So what does that make you? A faux critic, doesn’t it?”
And they find that approximately ten times funnier than it is.
This is the person who he is meant to be, a poet. Writing bite-sized poetry and receiving critique from true friends. He isn’t given the opportunity to outgrow his need to express through words. But does anyone ever outgrow it? Is it such a thing that gravity, love, or age can plunge out of us? Let’s be honest, he is plunged out of it with brute force, a force more barbarian than any of the aforementioned, and without any systemization.
He thinks about how his mum called and said,
“Howarddd, get a job.”
How he thought to himself, “I’m a poet” almost stamping his feet petulantly. He imagined her barking back, laughing, “That’s the same thing your father said and where is he today? A dead bum.”
“Mother don’t be mean,” he mouthed to himself. He opened his mouth, shut it. Shut his eyes, opened them. “I’ll get a job,” he said aloud, finally.
This is the flavor of nostalgia that hits him this morning, the one that says: you could’ve been like Bukowski, or maybe even got as crazy as Van Gogh and cut off your own ear. But now you’re a Social Projects teacher. What even is Social Projects?
His wife is singing louder. A song about how, if she should die and her soul should perish, it would be nobody’s fault but hers. He wants to tell her that God is good for singing since God is an action word, a verb, a doing thing (he had read this somewhere, at a time when he still read things) but that God is even better for conversation. Then he remembers that he actually likes God. He remembers that God sees the best in him when no one else does. He also thinks that the song she is singing is good because it will have her take responsibility for her own soul so that should it perish, it would be no one’s fault but hers. He performs a perfunctory wave: one hand nudging at his tie, the other hand creating a motion of something like a finger flicking imaginary pixie dust into assailing wind.
He rides on a motorcycle to the buses and loathes the big shock to his masculinity while riding on the back behind the feisty motor cycler — who has decided that the only way possible to ride his motorcycle is to speed like a madness — and so he finds himself clinging to the back of the motor cycler like a — and he hates that he has to admit this — woman. He buys a bus ticket and the passengers file into the bus.
He is preparing to get some shuteye when the woman beside him starts to preach. The girl behind the woman (and so behind him) decides to counter the woman’s preaching by shrieking and singing worldly songs. The preacher woman looks at her; her eyes are a cold glaze but the girl is unfazed. As the preacher woman raises her voice louder, so does the girl who is seated on her mother’s lap. The mother sounds distraught when she tells her child, “Stop it. Stop it immediately.” In hushed whispers, she reminds the girl of “the nonsense she pulled off at home” and asks her to “koshi danu immediately!” But the girl says, “Leave me alone jare!” to her mother. “E fimile!” And she returns to countering the woman’s message with her voice. Her voice is raspy but young. Her face is a smiling face that keeps on smiling and is perfectly carved as a harbinger of mischief. When they get down from the bus, Mister Howards slips a five note into the girl’s hand. She makes no sign of having received it but he watches her slip it into her pocket with one surreptitious move.
He does not know why he has done that — the giving thing. But he also doesn’t know how much good a five would do him anymore. He stopped eating sweets a long time ago.
Saint Howards is having a fundraiser for their Inter-house Sports. Whichever house wins gets a huge chunk of the money and so if his house wins, as housemaster, he gets a huge chunk of the huge chunk of the money. He’s certain his house is going to win. He put too much pressure on the rich kids to get their rich parents to donate, threatening them with his ugly scowl and with the black patches underneath his eyes, a sort of birthmark. He is not certain how much the other houses are getting and so he has only one plan: to beat them like a drum, to beat them like cake batter, to beat them like he would beat these pompous children if he ever was asked to choose between them and say, his right shoe. His plan is to have raised a colossal amount by the end of the competition so that the other houses look like ants beside a mountain (he being the mountain of course.)
To win the fundraiser, he reaches out to friends of his, and it is through this that he finds out that one of his friends, Monsieur Jacques, is a slimy lying bastard. Monsieur Jacques lives in a great white house, a house without blemish, with strong white pillars that keep the house from caving in on itself, but you would easily forget that because these pillars look like their sole purpose is to arouse your sensibilities. There are gardeners to tend to its gardens, and cooks to cook delicious meals and chauffeurs to tender the grand automobiles. After seeing all this, Mister Howards wrote to the office of the diplomat, Monsieur Jacques, and a letter returned from the secretary saying that a certain Mister Howards (is it?) had addressed the letter wrongly to Monsieur Jacques, the diplomat, and that the diplomat is in fact a Madame Jacques, the wife of a Monsieur Jacques who is not a diplomat, not a diplomat at all.
He resent the letter, addressing it the right way this time.
He thought about confronting his friend, saying, “Hey you slimy lying bastard.” But he changed his mind. And that is what made his jaw drop: the secretary of Madame Jacques called him later that night and started to cuss at him in a drawling voice.
“I shouldn’t have corrected you, but if you hadn’t written then I wouldn’t have had to. It’s crazy. I’ve worked for her for five years and yes, yes, she was dangerous at times, hilarious at times, but it was okay. It was really okay. Until she sacked me for exposing a family secret to you.” She made a loud sound as though she was searching for or grappling with something. “So do you have work for me? Do you?”
“I don’t. I’m sorry.” And he truly was.
“I’m sure you don’t. I remember you begging for money and what what. Talking about School Inter-house Sports and whatnot. Bull. Bullshit.”
“It is a fundraiser”
“How could I forget?”
“That you were begging.”
“It is a fundraiser. Didn’t you read it?”
“Anyway, I just called to say thank for ruining my life.” Here she started to sing, “What a beautiful liarrr. Beyoncé. Beyoncé. Shakira Shaki-uh.”
“I’m sorry, but are you drunk?” he asked.
“A little. Good-bye.”
The Jacques still sent him a huge check. He put everything into the fundraiser.
Victory is imminent and gargantuan. He is prepared for absolute victory, and therefore absolute funds. Tomorrow when he goes home and tells his wife that supply is bountiful, much greater than demand, he will not be a lying person, a Monsieur Jacques. He allows himself to enjoy the process of absolute victory: this includes heaving in a deep sigh, exhaling loudly, looking himself in the mirror and seeing the exact person he was before, except that now there’s hope, and there’s faith, and there’s a little smile tugging at the corners of his mouth until it becomes a wide smile. Now he’s blushing at his own reflection.
He heads to class preparing for his manner of teaching: dictating notes to the students until they realize the period is almost over. If a student should ask between notes, “What does this mean?” or even worse, “Why is this so?” he does not know what he would do, or how he would do it. He has never known. And the most pedantic question is “How?” “How” questions are the most annoying, the most imprecise. If you’re so keen on finding out how, go to a freaking laboratory and set everything on fire, you’d be charged for arson but that’s your problem, you’re the curious cat that needs to know how right?
Once a kid asked him, “Mister Howards, how is it that people hate each other?” He had replied, “How? You want to know how? I don’t know, maybe that’s how the world works. Like me, for example, I hate all your faces, especially you, standing there all smug, asking me this dumb question you probably, most likely in fact, already know the answer to. Why do I hate you? No reason. Maybe it’s circumstance. Or maybe because you have stood there and asked me the dumbest question in the history of even dumber questions. And do you also know something about this class? I hate your questions. They’re mostly dumb. Don’t ask me anything. Ever.”
The boy, little and timid, had stood there, visibly shaken as his squiggly mouth moved to tears.
“Emm, I’m sorry I didn’t mean that,” Mister Howards had started to say. “No one is perfect. Like me, for example, I’m not perfect. Even my wife reminded me of that this morning. She said, Mister Howards, you aren’t perfect, and I said sure, sure… I’m not. And no one is right? So forgiveness is a necessity.”
“And… honestly, “ he had added. “We have to find ways to free ourselves from hate. Plus, if you ask a question, then only you can answer it. The crafting of the question and the asking of it are the work in themselves. The work is not in the answer. No, honestly, this is the stuff philosophers are made of. Quote me anywhere.”
Today he’s a tad more inspired to teach (to teach is to dictate). He’s teaching about the Caucasians and says the Caucasians have thinny lips. Perhaps he means to say “tiny” but does not remember how the word is spelt or pronounced. Perhaps the actual word has escaped him in the way that familiar words often escape people. Perhaps he has never known the right word. Perhaps what he actually means is what he’s saying, and he has said what he has said. Whichever way, words, and so language, are fleeting.
“Thinny..?” Tomi asks. He remembers her name because she is the most beautiful girl in class. All the slum books say so. Mister Howards is an avid follower of the slum books. He “seizes” them and studies them frantically. Something like a curious pastime.
“Yes, thinny,” he answers, “Caucasians have thinny lips.”
“Please spell it.”
“Cee Ayy Uuu Cee..”
“No, please spell thinny.”
“Teee Eichhh Iiii Ennnn Ennnn Whyyy. Thinnyyyyy.”
“Do you by any chance mean, tiny?” another student asks, neither the most beautiful nor popular in any way, and therefore nameless, just another student.
Mister Howards doesn’t really know or care what he means but he has to pick a side soon. He feels pushed to a corner. This whole thing feels like a coup.
“I said thinny” he says, raising his voice. “Caucasians have thinny lips, Africans have thick lips.”
“Please spell it,” another another student asks.
“TEEE EICHH IIII ENNN ENN WHYYYY,” he’s shouting.
The class is murmuring and he is nervous, pushed to an even tighter corner.
“KEEP QUIET,” he screams.
They do not quiet down.
“Thinny is not in the dictionary sir,” Tomi says.
The class is laughing. The humor is that they think their teacher should back down from battle. That he has lost composure and is therefore incapable. That he has said Caucasians have thinny lips, but even he doesn’t know what that is. If he knows, he must prove it. Mister Howards is humiliated.
“Maybe Mister Howards is a thinny man who has thinny lips,” the biggest boy in class says, and the whole class bursts into rapturous laughter.
In moments the biggest boy in class finds himself on the floor. Through brisk movements, Mister Howards has moved and smacked him down on the floor, causing a clattering noise of desks and chairs as they tumble to the floor along with the biggest boy in class.
The biggest boy in class is too stunned to cry but his face is blood red. There are scratches on his arms, and his back bends with heaviness. The whole class has gasped, one heavy gasp in unison and some have raised their hands over their mouths for dramatic effect.
Soon Mister Howards is performing the motion of heading to the principal’s office and then performing the motion of hearing the principal say things along the lines of: I don’t know what happened. You were one of the good ones. I am letting you go. Thinny? Really? Is that an actual word? Do Caucasians really have thinny lips, Mister Howards? The principal performs the motion of saying, “It doesn’t matter anymore.”
Mister Howards never made his desk into a mini-shrine of sentimental things and so there’s not much to clear. He looks through the drawers and finds a note he had kept from one of his best students. The note says, “You are the best teacher ever.” The note comes from a better time when Mister Howards taught French. Yes, he’d once, by some miraculous miracle, taught French at this school. And now, by an even bigger miraculous miracle, he is thinking that the thing he’ll miss most about the school are the students. The rush of their noise after the bell rings for lunch, their tired feet and voices swelling together after school. How he walked around saying, “Where do you think you are? Tuck in your shirt.” Or, “You there, tie your shoelace.” And they had stopped to do it in a hurry.
He walks all the way and gets home, perspiring but cold, freezing by his own sweat. The yellow walls of his apartment are darkened with soot and May has asked him countless times that they buy a gas cooker and give up this arcane stove. But every time she asks he says to her, “Gas is carcinogenic,” and other cool stories like, “Gas is perilous, it can turn our whole house to ash in seconds and then where would we lay and live?” Now she’s cooking and he’s thinking: Cooking is an activity of life. An activity for the living, isn’t it? Dead people eat themselves, a decay that begins outwards and travels inwards, from skin to bones, or begins inwards and travels outwards, from maggots nibbling at seeds to red skin turning putrid. I don’t really know the semantics of decay but look at me, look at me, I am eating, and therefore I am not yet dead.