This story is by Dominique Fields and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
No one’s asleep at this hour. Men push wheelbarrows full of produce. Women carry baskets on their heads or set up tarps on the ground to sell their products. As we’re driving down Walker Bush Highway, I’m reminded of all the shops I’ve worked at, and all the street peddling I’ve done. I’ve been making money since I was fourteen, but it’s never really been enough.
I’ve stayed with aunts, cousins, and even my grandma until she was called to glory. Moving around from place to place, making money wherever I can.
Today, I’m not dressed to work. I’m wearing my beige and white plaid shirt with the black loafers that I scrubbed clean last night. I haven’t seen my brother Cameron for the past year. Not since a friend of his helped him to get a work visa in London. Now, I only see him on Facebook where he posts pictures of himself in his uniform or pictures of him out with friends. Today he returns so that we can bury our father. He will go back to London soon after.
My cousin Richie has a car and so we’re picking him up from the airport which is not far from the roundabout. “The biggest roundabout in West Africa!” we say each time we pass it.
Richie lets me out in front of the airport where it says arrivals. There are taxi drivers bargaining with potential passengers, as well as families who, like me, are waiting to see someone who has gone and come back.
I hear my brother’s voice call me from a distance. Although he’s the oldest. I’m the one called junior, but my friends and former classmates call me Desmond.
My brother and I are now nose to nose and he greets me with a hard pat on the back followed by a hard squeeze of my shoulder. Before he left, he and I were about the same size and we often shared the same clothes. Now, he’s buff. Even his neck seems twice the size of mine. Our mother always told us that Banku would make us big and strong but I guess London has something better than Banku.
“Ete sen, my brother?”
“I’m well,” I say. I grab some of his luggage. He has two big suitcases and a duffle bag despite the fact that he shipped boxes and containers here ahead of time. He found a shipping company that delivered it all right to our door. I chose the cloth and got the stationary made for our father’s funeral, but the day the containers arrived with dry food and liquor all everyone kept talking about was Cameron.
After releasing him from a tight embrace, my cousin hands Cameron the keys to his truck. I climb in the back and watch my brother adjust the mirrors. “Hey, Junior, have you learned to drive yet?” he asks, looking at me through the rearview. I shake my head and gaze straight forward, drowning out the conversation between Cameron and Richie as the road back to our place goes from smooth to bumpy.
The old landlord tried to evict us—my mother and I. I took him to court and got our eviction date postponed. I was actively looking for another place for my mother and me. Next thing I knew, Cameron called saying that he arranged a place for us and the required one-year rent fee was paid.
“Thank God for Cameron,” is what my mother kept saying after that. She’s out doing errands before the sun gets too hot. She should be home soon, as it’s almost noon.
“Remember we used to say that we were going to travel the world? That we would start a business together somewhere, make lots of money, and build our mother a house?” I ask, as Cameron is going through his luggage.
He slips his hand under the cloth that’s draped over the dresser armoire to where he knows the key is. He opens the closet and puts in some of his clothing. “Don’t talk to me about those childhood dreams, Junior. Everything seems easy when you’re young. It’s time to grow up now. ”
It wasn’t childish talk. We used to discuss the whole plan detail by detail and he came up with most of the ideas.
Cameron and Richie decide to go out. “Tell mom I’ll see her in the morning,” he says.
Atop the armoire is our family photo album. I take it down and flip through the now yellowed pages. I find my favorite photo—my dad holding me and Cameron at his sides. He left us not long after this photo was taken. “A man has to go out, and make money,” is all he said. We heard from him a few times a year, and saw him even less than that.
I key in my phone card code to activate my data. There’s a four hour difference between here and the east coast of the US. I have two east coast girls, Tiffany and Jasmine, and one girl in Texas, Shauna.
Shauna messages me when her husband’s not round, when they’re arguing, or when she just needs to talk. We’ve been chatting for like two years. Tiffany is a single mom, we’ve been chatting on and off for about a year. Sometimes I don’t hear from her for months, then she’ll text me “hello” and within minutes were sexting. I’ve been chatting with Jasmine since December and already she’s sent me money twice and bought me airtime. She even said she wanted to visit here.
“Jasmine. My Jasmine.”
“I miss you, girl.”
“Miss me how? We’ve never met.”
“You know what I mean.”
“So, how’s your brother?”
I forgot I told her that he was coming today. “He’s okay.”
“I bet you were excited to see him.”
“What did you wear?”
“My beige and white plaid shirt.”
“I’ve seen you wear that shirt like five different times on Facebook,” she says while laughing. “Is it your only dress shirt?
She really knows how to piss me off with her sarcasm. “No,” I lie.
“Well, hopefully he can help you out…maybe get you a work visa or something.”
“I don’t need his help, okay? Nor do I need anyone feeling sorry for me. I’ll make my own way.”
“I mean like maybe he can talk to somebody for you.”
“No, I can do it for myself. Forget Cameron. In this country we say, Every man for himself, and God for us all.”
“I don’t need him to help me out. It wasn’t that long ago that Cameron was in the same boat as me. Now, I can feel him looking down on me like I’m a peasant and he’s some kind of king.”
“Why do you say that?”
“If you’d seen him with his big, gold watch, and the earring in his ear like he’s better than everybody. He doesn’t even want to stay here, even though we worked to prepare the house for his arrival.”
“Did he actually say he didn’t want to stay there?”
“He unpacked some clothes, then said he’d be back tomorrow morning. Our mother hasn’t even seen him yet.”
“He’s probably just excite to see everybody.”
“He’s probably out gallivanting around town.”
“Well, maybe after the funeral, you can just have a conversation with him.”
“Just forget it, okay?”
“Fine. Okay. You’re not mad are you?
Just then, I realize my fist is clenched tight. “No. Let me call you later.” I end the call without hearing her response.
One hundred push-ups. I remove my shirt and toss my Nokia onto my couch and I do one hundred pushups. I need a shift in focus. I give my attention to the sweat pouring off me and pushing myself past the numbing pain in my muscles. Now is when I remind myself, You’re built to last, you’re not built to break. That is what our father used to tell us.
I text Tiffany on WhatsApp, “Send me a sexy pic.”
Five minutes later she send me a pic with her blouse unbuttoned.
“Nice one,” I reply.
The adrenaline high I get from my pushups fades, and Cameron’s words echo in my head “It’s time to grow up now.” Tomorrow, I will travel to my father’s place of birth, where he will be laid to rest. What I wanted most was for my father to see me make something of myself. Me, the one he chose to call junior. Maybe that was a childish dream too. I do know that one day, I’ll receive an opportunity. Who knows where it will take me. In the meanwhile, I will continue to work for everything I have. My belly may never be full, but I’ll keep striving.