Even though Joshua was not dead, she missed him. She forgot the children; the two boys she had adopted to please him, and Vick, the girl she had had at first, unluckily, who had then extended their bad luck by having a child of her own, a grandson nobody had asked for. She was thinking about how much she missed him, hoping all was well–being herself, her forty-eight-year-old illusion-hamstrung self–when the kids shrieked, jolting Annevoi out of her daydreams. If Joshua were here, if he had returned from his mysterious Lagos trip, she would not be the children’s first shout. This was what she was thinking when she burst into the children’s room.
The children had looked at her for a full minute before she realized her buba was not tied high enough to cover her breasts. The children, especially the older boys, Mac and Darwin, seemed more interested in their mother’s chest than the mamba splayed as pathetic and lifeless as a belt on the shoe rack behind them. Annevoi shoved the boys aside, grabbed a mop stick and approached the serpent, whose haggard eyes thrummed with the terror of blows not yet suffered. It slinked away when she attacked, vanishing down the shoe rack, displacing a fair number of Vick’s shoes. Annevoi chased it around the room for a few minutes, losing her buba’s grip on her chest twice before striking a fortunate blow with the mop stick.
In the morning, an engineer investigated all the plumbing channels and inlets and concluded the snake may have crept in from Annevoi’s clinic, a sturdy structure which was attached to the back of the house. He had found a slit inside a ward ceiling which, in the building plan, led to Vick’s room. A slit resulting from a badly cracked tile, which he blamed on harmattan. He’d return with a workman to fix it the next day. But first, the engineer told her, he would call her husband to discuss it. Annevoi wagged a warning finger in his face, threatening to give the job to someone else. The engineer made his apologies and sprinted away.
Across the street, where two-bedroom houses sat elbow to elbow, neighbors were pretending to not notice the disruption in Annevoi’s small palace: thirteen-year-old Fatimah was fetching water from a tap outside. Her mother was yelling at her through a window to stop kicking the bucket, to bend down like “a proper woman” and adjust the bucket to the mouth of the tap. Another neighbor sat on the bonnet of his Peugeot 307, shirtless, flipping through a sports magazine. A third neighbor was cutting his son’s hair on the balcony. Annevoi shut the gate and crept back into the house, shivering a little. Small domestic tragedies like this, she felt, were brutal. Look at her trying to be the man of the house, they’d think.
Annevoi’s husband was not home. Nobody knew where he was. He was not in Lokoja, where he worked. Or at church, for one of his committee meetings. Or any of those other places he left irregularly for, with vague excuses. He could be in jail, chewed by somebody’s mad dog, or killed in an accident; hard levels of gone. But Annevoi did not wish any of these outcomes to be true. In fact, it was probably truer that she wanted to be the leaving party. But the children, the complexities of caring. Annevoi had been raised to think of families as people that stick around. Her older sister, Magdalene, who lived in England, had told her, “Look, we have to support her. Or else we are no better than homeless people who congregate under the bridge. This is the stuff families are made of.” Magdalene had said this after Vick became pregnant for a boy in the university. But Magdalene was always one to say things like that, about things like that, with her thirty years of marriage and six wonderful children.
It was now one hundred and twenty hours since Annevoi last spoke to Joshua. Since he told her he would leave Lagos at ten a.m. to reach Okene at six p.m. Six p.m., now the Houdini hour of their lives, had come and gone five times. When the clock struck five, while Annevoi dreaded the approach of another barren six p.m., the phone rang. A slap in the knee. Ozona, thrusting the phone at her.
Grandma, your phone is ringing.
Ozona had a craftsman’s way of slashing through, casting and heating joy out of misfortune, a true potter of happiness. Even his birth, a terrible occasion, quickly became special. While Annevoi delivered her unmarried daughter of a fatherless child, this fair-skinned, brown-eyed, soft-haired boy had beamed down directly into their lives like a strong shaft of light from heaven, crushing Annevoi’s initial resistance. She had been so surprised by her delight, by his beauty, that she even took pictures and sent a few to Magdalene, who had said, on that occasion, “What a charming bundle of handsomeness. Poor chap almost compensates for how he was conceived.” Annevoi had considered this for a while, how Ozona was conceived, and in whose image. God, she decided, at last. Aren’t we all made in the image of God?
She took the phone. Though her brain denied all possibilities, her fingers were warm with expectation. It was something she couldn’t help, betting on this amount of unreality.
Sorry, auntie, she said, one of my patients was rushed in this evening. How is the family?
She listened to Brother Jo’s wife repeat the usual questions: Have you heard from Joshua? Is his number available now? I hope the children are not too worried? How are you coping alone?
Since Annevoi panicked three days ago and told Brother Jo, Joshua’s older brother, his wife has called around, always to ask the same questions for which Annevoi was seeking answers. Brother Jo’s wife cared in a way that made the gesture excessive and burdensome, on top of an already odd friendship heaped on them by the men they’d married.
Annevoi considered Brother Jo’s position of first-born dubious. She thought her husband, Joshua, with his decisive name, larger body and yellower skin, superior to Brother Jo, whose open-ended name, wiry frame and over-shaved skin was laughable. Even life had noticed the wrong order of arrival and tried to provide compensation. Where Brother Jo, once a social welfare officer, now a pensioner at the monthly mercies of the brutal Kogi state government, had finally raised a four-bedroom house in retirement, with contribution from five children, Joshua was chief registrar at the state Magistrate Court, his meaty face appearing yearly in almanacs and public calendars.
Finally, Annevoi roughed up Ozona’s hair and repeated the usual answers. No news from my husband. His number is still not available. The children are not bothered; though she did not mention that Vick had tried to poison herself. Especially because this was something Magdalene had warned her about, that at some point Vick would untangle from life. “I see it all the time. It’s a long way back. That’s why she needs her mother and father, but especially you. You’re the mother.” Magdalene, like her sister, owned a private medical practice. But something Annevoi couldn’t quite figure out was why it took Joshua’s prolonged absence from home for Vick to begin manifesting designs on cruel death. Another unresolved thought that plagued her was Joshua’s incessant camaraderie towards their daughter, as if in getting herself pregnant Vick had done something a parent ought to be proud of. He called her full name “Victoria.” Sometimes he called her “Victorious.” He’d return from Lokoja and knock on Vick’s door, drop off some gift he had brought along. Not that any of this behavior would be odd between any father and daughter, but between Joshua and Vick, Annevoi knew that she was being played. When she brought this to Magdalene’s attention, her sister had said, in that very cold and English way she says things, “Sis, listen, he’s just being a man. You can’t expect him to go around the house stomping his feet, waging a silent war on his daughter. In fact, I should begin to worry if he did. Chin up, dear.”
At eight p.m., the diocesan priest at St. Paul’s Anglican Church visited the house. They sat at the dining table, so as to be out of range of the bedrooms, in case the children had some interest being nosy. A slack-jawed man with paws for teeth, Venerable Okuku headed the committee which had sent Joshua on the official trip to Lagos two weeks ago. The purpose of the trip: to deliver important church documents to the diocese in Lagos and acquire some fittings for the church choir. She nodded, not understanding why in the world the church would consider her husband for such a mission. As she watched the Venerable moan about the committee’s anxiety, she wanted to reach for the needle and thread on the glass top and sew his mouth. He continued speaking, bolder. Soon, he wanted to know if her husband was on leave. No, he wasn’t, said she. In fact, Joshua had recently written a promotional exam that would move him two Civil Service cadres up. She left this unsaid. Joshua’s contribution to the house was unaffected by an improved salary. For all his superior rank, he had not bought one brick of the house they lived in, or a single tire of their two cars. That had all been Annevoi, but this was something no one knew about them, not even Magdalene.
After Venerable Okuku said a prayer for her and mercifully went away, she began to dread that Joshua’s lack of accountability, a wound she’d always nursed privately, was becoming public. She’d heard in the clergy’s voice a regretful moan that betrayed the committee’s diminishing faith in their emissary. She imagined at subsequent meetings they’d shake their heads and blame each other for the decision to send Joshua on that assignment. She wondered how much the committee had given him for the trip, which, according to Venerable Okuku, was originally intended to conclude eight days ago.
At eight-thirty p.m. she took Ozona to the toilet, and softly coaxed him into his business. Like Joshua, he was a deep sleeper. He grunted on the toilet seat, clearly unaware his body was dispensing a basic function. She was tickled by his innocence and purity. Sometimes, when she wasn’t so mad at Vick, she saw Ozona as a fresh chance to mother better. When he finished, she carried him up to the wash basin and massaged his soft hands under the warm water. He grunted. She kissed and dropped him in Vick’s room. Then she stopped to check on her large, dark sons. Mac and Darwin lay on the bed like potted plants, only bothered, perhaps, by thoughts of growing, only bothered by how much they ate and drank. They had perfected Joshua’s sleeping posture; his deadpan gracelessness, his princely snoring. She nearly cried from the image. Back in the parlor, she sat in front of the news until ten p.m., when she texted Joshua about the snake she had had to kill, and to say she missed him. Like the texts sent before, it didn’t deliver. She messaged Magdalene on WhatsApp. The text received one tick. Her sister was offline.
* * *
At that hour when the sun slips between louvers and wet leaves are shaken by butterflies, she opened her eyes to a world as bleak as she remembered it. She tried to pray, an attempt at humility. Ozona hurricaned into the room at the exact moment when she thought God might be listening.
Grandma, Grandma, you have a call.
Annevoi took the phone and put God on hold.
Good morning our father, she said.
Exactly as she feared, the clergy’s question, first heard yesterday, now fell out of Brother Jo’s mouth. How can I know if your brother is on work leave? What do I know about what that man does? Annevoi issued these negative responses with all the politeness of a farmer defending his hectare. Before she could apologize, the voice on the other end changed. One of the children has called with news, Brother Jo’s wife said. They’d called their uncle: it rang. Somehow, this was supposed to be good news. She was supposed to receive this with joy, proof of his safety. Annevoi resisted a strong urge to curse. She remitted her gratitude with plastic cheer.
When the call ended, she went to crush her daughter’s door.
Victoria! Victoria! Is this boy not going to school today? Do you know what the time is?
Then she went into her room, brushed her teeth and hair thoughtlessly, entered an ugly sweater and went for her morning rounds at the clinic.
* * *
At the clinic, everyone smiled at her. A real shitty position to be in, she thought, when patients have to rise above personal discomfort to comfort the doctor. She dreaded their sympathy for the same reason she had evaded her neighbors’ queries about Joshua’s absence. They all talked her into blamableness, as if she had chased him away from home. Where has your husband gone to, Fatima’s mother had asked, a question of abandonment, instead of, when is your husband coming back, a question of adventure.
A six-room eighteen-bed facility, the clinic was always full. It was cheaper to go than the General Hospital. She completed the rounds in forty-five minutes on most mornings, thanks to good help. Nurse Rose, who was Vick’s peer, but brighter, never not smart-looking in her purple scrubs, had been working here for six months now. The only trouble with Nurse Rose, who was twenty-four years old, was that she had a teenager’s tendency to pursue hollow romances. In the past six months, Annevoi had had to intervene to save the girl from seven bad relationships. This girl is a headache, Annevoi said to Magdalena once. “That may be true on one hand, but look at all the rest she’s affording you,” her sister responded. Magdalena was right. Before Rose took the job, Annevoi needed two hours for the rounds. But Nurse Rose had worked out so well that sometimes, like last night, Annevoi did not have to sprint from her sleep into the clinic at midnight because a patient was screaming.
Good morning ma, Rose said, blushing.
Good morning Nurse. Any problem?
Nothing serious. We ran out of Vitamin C last night and our bottles of aspirin, Ibuprofen and Tylenol are severely depleted. But no worries, ma. I already sent the driver to replenish our stock from Kwadeco.
That’s very bright of you, okay. Who was shouting last night?
Oh, Mrs. Itopa, the woman at thirty-seven weeks. She claims her relatives tried to come and remove her child.
Annevoi yawned. Now there goes a woman in real trouble, she thought. Hallelujah for other peoples’ grief.
Where is she now?
In the toilet since she woke up.
The engineer jogged up to them.
Oga Abu, said Annevoi, when will your boys start work? I don’t want another surprise inside my house this night.
Ah auntie, that’s why we’re here early. We need to break the ceiling in the toilet. But your nurse said we cannot enter yet.
Please give them an hour. Nurse, tell Mrs. Itopa she has thirty minutes.
Rose nodded. Annevoi turned to leave.
Ma, about those aspirins and Ibuprofen, said Nurse Rose.
Mutai claims to have seen Vick emptying the pill jar when I left my desk, said Nurse Rose.
Noted, said Annevoi coldly.
She caught up with the engineer. Please find that hole and close it today.
Inside the house, she found Ozona dressed for school, sitting on the brown leather couch she had bought for Joshua. Ozona’s eyes were set on the 117-inch TV screen in front of him, watching Nickelodeon. Annevoi sat down on the brown leather couch and her eyes roamed the wallpapered wall above the TV stand, where twelve family portraits hung in different states of happiness. There was one of Joshua and Annevoi standing near Joshua’s first car, outside a magistrate court. There was one of Magdalena and her family. There was one of Annevoi, Joshua, Vick, Darwin, and Mac together. There were five portraits arranged in a circle around this one, a portrait for each of them. But Annevoi’s favorite was the silver-plated portrait taken on June 19, 2001, their wedding day, a day she still remembered like yesterday. Then there was one portrait that looked out of place, of Vick and her father. Joshua was smiling in it, vivacious as always. So was Vick, whose smile most imitates Annevoi’s. But there was something untrue in that portrait. Annevoi checked the time. Ozona, she said, time for school.
* * *
At Ozona’s school, sitting in the car, the years came in a flood. First the superior match, which she’d arranged: Joshua, fresh from law school, the least boyish of St. Paul’s men choir; her, a newly minted nurse. Lawyer and nurse. Knockout combination. Her parents, very practical people, had funded the wedding.
She had Vick out of the block. She had hoped the girl would shorten the distance in their bedroom. But Joshua wanted a boy. They tried and tried. She adopted two. Peace reigned. Annevoi had finished this six-bedroom house and the clinic behind it, when their lives began to splinter. Even though Joshua’s friends and family had given him credit for the completion of the house, she had ridden the illusion, focused only on his love. He was even agreeable for a while. But Vick’s pregnancy brought the storm. Joshua became rudderless. Maybe blamed Annevoi’s mediocre mothering. And this was the crux of her annoyance: Brother Jo and his wife had raised five daughters. How is it she couldn’t raise one?
The headmaster, Jeremiah, appeared now like a magic trick, leaned down the driver’s window, eager to chat. Even though their history could fill valleys, they talked about weather, fuel scarcity, and unfortunate dollar to naira rates. She had turned down Jeremiah’s offer of marriage twenty-six years ago (one of many suitors she turned down), and each time she compared Joshua’s station with his, some wind was taken out of that decision.
Today, however, with Joshua still absent, leaving her at the mercy of butcher knife queries, it was difficult to find a man kinder than Jeremiah. As if to bow-and-tie his candidacy, Jeremiah leaned further down her window, almost within whispering and kissing range, to remind her about Ozona’s fees. She had expected a different question, and now the answer she’d prepared in her head sat idle, since Jeremiah wasn’t interested in finding out about Joshua. Vick had wisely spread her legs for a magician’s son, now long vanished and untraceable. So Annevoi and her husband had had to do un-grandparent things like paying school fees. And now they had both failed, another small domestic tragedy brought on by Joshua’s absence.
* * *
When she pulled into the house, there was a small crowd in front of the clinic. Patients were pacing the balcony in their night slips, some wearing new wrappers hitched up to the chest, uncovered. Nurse Rose was placating the engineer, who supported with his left hand the right side of his head with an ice pack.
Mr. Itopa has emptied the clinic, ma, Nurse Rose said.
What does that mean?
The engineer drew near. That thug punched me because I yelled at his wife for refusing to leave the toilet. I was just doing what brought me here, he said.
And all these people are outside because he chased them out?
They both nodded. Annevoi saw the complacent glances of her patients, their shoulders sagged by her failure to protect them. She saw their relatives, all disappointed.
Stay here all of you, she said, marching inside.
Annevoi knew that Mr. Itopa, like generations of his family, was a mason. In a way that was close to philistine, he was enormous. But Annevoi, at six feet and two inches, with a wild courage that rarely sagged, was her own kind of Goliath. She entered the clinic aiming to evict, armed with rebuke. But the scene she met outside the toilet was disarmingly charming: the mass of Mr. Itopa sprawled on the wet floor, indulging his screaming wife’s two-minute rages with a feverish devotion that shook real life out of Annevoi. Mrs. Itopa wanted to be begged to come out and eat, and to bathe. She wanted her husband to join her in cursing her relatives who were on their way to snatch her baby. He did. And he kept chanting: my wife, my wife. Annevoi stood there until she couldn’t take it anymore. She went out having not opened her mouth. The last time Annevoi was my wife to Joshua, he was sending somebody to get something from her.
She apologized to the engineer and asked him to come back the next day. She told Rose to bring the patients into the living room. Then she sat in the car and wept.
Mrs. Itopa refused to leave the toilet for fifteen days. Although Annevoi succeeded in reinstating the patients in their rooms, they all had to use the guest toilets inside her house. Mr. Itopa would come straight to his wife, from construction every day, always bringing along a slight fancy of hers in a nylon bag. Mrs. Itopa would open the door wide enough to receive his gifts. Later, plates of food. And later still, wide enough for him to enter and pet her. Patients’ gossip had it that he had had to borrow to buy many of those things, which she left untouched anyway.
Mrs. Itopa’s husband did not skip a day.
* * *
The church stopped calling. They believed, she believed, wife was in league with husband. And how many others thought so? Brother Jo’s wife had slackened in her devotion. In the past few days Annevoi initiated the calls, which Brother Jo’s wife did not always answer. And when she did, she left Annevoi the burden of keeping conversation, a problem Annevoi tried to solve by regurgitating banalities. But the resulting awkwardness left a dry taste.
Annevoi hated her. She hated the other wives who hadn’t called. They had all quit her marriage, which many of them had attended and declared lifelong. She begged Brother Jo’s wife for the other wives’ numbers. She then had to call some housewife in Abuja or Port Harcourt, introduce herself as Brother Joshua’s wife, chat idly for two minutes, before asking, with a freighter of embarrassment, if they or their husbands had news of her husband.
The good thing was that having sunk so low, there was suddenly not much beneath her. It did not matter if it were a beardless boy and his bare-chested girlfriend swinging hands, or two small dogs performing the rituals of sex-seeking; she was always moved. Moved, not in an organized system of transportation way, but in a rash, flighty emigration from point A to point G. She figured her desperation and Joshua’s indiscretion were now public domain, a head-shaking topic for family dinners. She was tormented by the loud laughs at those long dinner tables, between satisfied wives and husbands, and why not, their adult children. The thing that kept her alive was that somebody needed to survive for the children. Blessed much is that immortal maternal itch to persevere. Also, Venerable Okuku called with news: Joshua had sent a report of his assignment and with it, his promise to refund the church. Through an emissary, whose identity the good Venerable refused to divulge.
Great. God was pacified. Damn the wife.
Soon, Mrs. Itopa was pacified. She got a private ward, fitted with a queen size and bigger television. She moved in on the understanding that the clinic would keep her relatives at bay until her babies came.
With Mrs. Itopa safely put away, the engineer was able to trace the crack through five bedrooms to Vick’s wardrobe, where he found, while patching the fist-sized, man-made hole, a small box holding five hundred dollars and a box pill of Tylenol. Vick claimed ignorance of the former and shrugged at the latter. Rose did not believe Joshua was taking another wife, but left Annevoi enraged by offering no sensible alternatives. When she told Magdalene, her sister replied, three days later, “There’s something fishy going on here. There’s definitely something fishy going on here. Something is not adding up. You were right to be concerned.” But this was the one moment in her life when Annevoi did not want to be right. She wanted to be wrong so bad.
* * *
Five weeks after her husband left for Lagos, Annevoi went to Brother Jo’s house. Eight months ago, she was here for Ann, Joshua’s youngest sister’s marriage. Because Ann and her man were well aged (he had been married two times), and some in the St. Paul congregation frowned at the union, it was a difficult wedding. Annevoi had sat in the cavalcade of sisters-in-law who provided a spine for their husband’s sister. Long day, that. The other wives had done themselves no favor touching Ozona’s cheeks, praising his color, declaring him the first son, nullifying the two big sons she had adopted for her husband. And the slob, Joshua, sat there, centered royally among his brothers, tearing into large chicken wings.
Although Brother Jo’s wife looked well, Annevoi didn’t say so. Annevoi quietly envied her this Olympic way of going through life, leaping over obstacles and landing on sandbags. Brother Jo and his wife had raised five kids on his civil servant salary. Not the most comfortable life by any stretch. Yet Brother Jo’s wife bounced with a light flourish at odds with the house they lived in: newly roofed, unfenced and half painted, living room walls damp from recent rain, a portrait of Jesus smiling in a small corner of the room, grandmother in all the regalness of her seventies, side by side with a larger picture of Brother Jo and his wife at one of their daughter’s weddings. They looked so proud and happy, untroubled and together.
Now, Brother Jo entered the living room in a strung wrapper and faded T-shirt. She rose in greeting. His wife, who’d gone to fetch him, remained absent but Annevoi knew there would be three people in that conversation.
How are you?
I’m fine sir.
They studied each other. Brother Jo, aging like he had a manual. Annevoi suspected she was aging lavishly, probably halfway ghost.
How are the children?
They’re all well. How are my little sisters?
We thank God, Brother Jo said. Any news? I called Venerable today.
Oh, nothing from that man. Venerable doesn’t call anymore.
Brother John crossed his legs, patted his knees under the wrapper.
I’m sure they’re all looking for him. We’re praying too. How is the clinic?
Annevoi sighed and leaned forward, Mrs. Itopa on her mind. Annevoi was happy to answer this question.
Full of people with problems, she said, we thank God.
After a lengthy silence which forced both occupants of the room into an awkward position, Annevoi broke into a flood. Brother Jo’s wife sprang from her listening post and into action, dabbing Annevoi’s face with an old wrapper. Stunned by its mustiness, Annevoi opened her eyes and instantly recognized the traditional cloth cut for Grace’s wedding. Grace, Brother Jo’s youngest daughter, the one who had married the big government contractor, following the neat guidebook handed down by her four older sisters. Annevoi clung to the cloth, weeping hotly into it, no longer caring at what point her tears outran Joshua’s absence, and became about Vick and the white church wedding mother and daughter were deprived forever.
Brother Jo’s wife started a song: amazing grace. Resentment promptly restored Annevoi to dryness. She stopped sniffing, dropped Ozona’s school fees receipt on the center table, plus the box containing dollars and Tylenol. Brother Jo, still under his wife’s ministration, scrutinized the items and waited for an explanation.
Said Annevoi: Victoria wants to kill herself with these drugs. I have told her to allow me to die first because she’s the reason I want to die. They also found this box of money in the house a few days back. I don’t know what anything means anymore. But this is Ozona’s school fees receipt. I paid this morning. I paid Darwin’s last week. Mac’s fees have to be paid next week. Our father, I am tired. He doesn’t buy food, clothes or shoes. School fees was something he used to do. Now I do it too. Brother Jo, I don’t know what my husband does with his money.
Brother Jo and his wife stared at the items on the table. Annevoi imagined they had probably discussed Joshua’s irresponsibility with money. Just as they probably had when Vick got pregnant. She tried to scrape their faces for possible opinions, but their faces were impenetrable, stupidly sending sympathy signals, quite unhelpful. She felt turned inside out; fabric hung to dry, left to the stinging mercies of the sun. But she did gain something from their monkish silence. She looked at them and used their faces as one full body mirror. Thank God she was able to see herself, her poor woman self, miserable as the desert, chained to her confusion, wearing it like pierced armor.
* * *
One night, unable to buy sleep, Annevoi entered the clinic, propelled by a need to re-chew the miseries of others. A quiet hallway. Nurse Rose was probably in her studio, peeling through a self-help book, or watching Korean soap operas. All the wards were lit by great incandescent bulbs, throwing their light down like a challenge. Except one room, where the shades were drawn. The private ward, she realized. She stopped to peek through the blinds. Mrs. Itopa was snoring like the plumbing in her nose was wrecked, arms crisscrossed at the chest, Wakanda-forever style. Three inches from his wife, on that same bed, Mr. Itopa was moving mad on another woman. By morning, Annevoi only needed one look at Nurse Rose to put it all together.
Annevoi was wounded by something else later that day. She walked into the kitchen to find Darwin and Mac taunting Ozona, the bullies’ backs turned to her. Ozona made an innocent fist, a useless gesture, really, in the face of what he was up against. But his face in that moment, the unnatural constitution of his facial muscles perfectly reimagined the one Joshua and Brother Jo and their four brothers were all famous for. She knew because as a young girl she had held that face, especially Joshua’s specific variation of it, many times in front of her own face. A curse caught in her throat. She turned away violently.
When Vick became pregnant with Ozona, Annevoi had combed through her daughter’s phone, trying to sniff the culprit. She had copied out phone numbers of people she assumed were boys, sweethearts she didn’t know about, with giveaway names like “LuckyHostel” “MalikEatery” “RobertChemistry” “PappyGTBank.” She had called them and threatened to cut their genitals. The entire time, Annevoi had truly believed that Ozona belonged to one of those poorly-named boys, and it had helped make living with their one bad decision, Ozona, easier, one of many bad choices they would make in their lives. But she hadn’t expected this. Not even Magdalene could’ve seen so far out.
* * *
One morning, Mrs. Itopa had two girls. Mr. Itopa held and gratefully patted the hand of every visitor to the ward, as if the newborns were loans ripened by a cooperative thrift society. Annevoi was happy for him but pitied his poor wife. All that madness and disorientation, for what?
Later that afternoon, on the very day his two girls entered the world, Annevoi gave Mr. Itopa a ride to the supermarket. She could have sent the driver, easily. Nurse Rose even suggested this. But Annevoi shut Rose up and handed him the keys.
So, towards the Ageva sun Mr. Itopa drove jovial like a reunion was underway. He made all the jokes, laughing and crying and reaping snot. He was scared. He had misjudged the leap from husband to father.
Annevoi understood. Nothing but a historic propensity for charity made her touch his shoulder and say, it will all be fine.
The truth is that she had slowly banished all her old charms to the basement, a place Joshua had stopped going. She’d almost forgotten the effect she once had on men. She must have believed that Joshua’s abandonment had relieved her of these charms.
She only realized this when Mr. Itopa, chest pumping, a dam of excitement, and perhaps a canister of lust exploding into the landlocked geography between them, stopped the car, the poor Mazda suddenly heavier with their aroused gyrations. She wanted to, and did, ride him like a winning racehorse. He torpedoed into her, as entitled as a landlord, letting himself in, letting himself out. And for the next two weeks (which Mrs. Itopa spent at the clinic, still terrified of her relatives), Annevoi drove him to get something, then he drove her to get something she did not even set out for. When they did it, she cursed a lot. Joshua sometimes. Vick other times. Why not, Ozona, too; the family of lies.
Mr. Itopa began to suggest things he could get for his wife, itching now for any window to pursue his other passion. He even began to dress up for their trysts. Sometimes, he would wear his one denim jacket, and fold a handkerchief into a makeshift pocket tie. They would be on the road two hours in both directions. Nurse Rose, jealous or clever, began to finger the dots.
And that was when Annevoi took care.
On their return trip one evening, as Mr. Itopa dug deep, heaving like a miner, Annevoi thought about Joshua turning their daughter, her gift to him and God’s gift to them, into a mockery of the family institution. And now Mr. Itopa was doing it, barely registering remorse. It is true Mr. Itopa, like Joshua, was a large man, but in that arena of uninsured rope-climbing that sex is, size can hardly defend anyone against God’s plan. She trapped his neck in a vise and the poor idiot must have misunderstood. He must have assumed she was dying to receive more of him. While he busied himself with reaching her edge, breathing like a war beast, she pushed into his throat, knowing exactly where the air goes out quickest.
He died surprised.
She drove down the hill, put the car in park, and got out. She slowly buttoned up his shirt, then laid him up in the back seat. She calmly walked to the car trunk and opened it. She went through the items Mr. Itopa had bought for his wife and found a medium jug of white vinegar. She emptied the jug on the front passenger seat. Then she took the handkerchief from his breast pocket and flattened it against the car seat. She repeated the process for the back seat, where the dead man was propped like a man asleep. What was it Magdalena had said that first night of their honeymoon, when Annevoi had frantically recorded Joshua and sent it to her sister? “Ann darling, what are you on about? A man asleep who is not snoring? Good luck finding one.”
Annevoi brought out the Paris fragrance she had intended to give Nurse Rose for her upcoming twenty-fifth birthday. She sprayed the car. Then she wondered how high the air conditioner should go. For a long time, that was the only dilemma there was, the only choice to make. And it was harder than she thought.
Caleb Ozovehe Ajinomoh is a fiction candidate at Texas State MFA, where he has won the W. Morgan and Lou Claire Rose award, as well as the L.D Clark and LaVerne Harrell Clark award, and recently, the Francys Houston scholarship. He was shortlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and has attended a residency at Ledig House, New York. More at calebajinomoh.com