Excerpt

“Debris”

Uche Okonkwo

April 26, 2024 
The following is a story from Uche Okonkwo's collection A Kind of Madness. Okonkwo’s stories have been published in A Public Space, One Story, the Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2019, and Lagos Noir. She is a recipient of the George Bennett Fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy, a Steinbeck Fellowship, and an Elizabeth George Foundation grant. She grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, and is pursuing a creative writing PhD at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

D’boy lurked around the edge of the crowd at the newspaper vendor’s stand, looking for a worthy pocket to pick. It was a good hunting spot. Most of the people gathered there had no intention of buying a paper, but that didn’t stop them from reacting loudly to the headlines, their arguments sometimes leading to fistfights. D’boy scanned their back pockets, kicking a rusty can to avoid suspicion. Years of picking pockets had made his eyes discerning, his fingers nimble. But people had become warier too, men carrying valuables in their shirt pockets and women growing fonder of bags with short straps, so they could tuck the bags under their armpits.

D’boy decided that if his scrounging attempts at the vendor’s proved unfruitful, he would proceed to the nearest bus stop. Fuel was scarce again in Lagos, and, with it, public transportation. The bus stops were packed with people wilting under the unrelenting sun, searching for the next danfo that would rattle to a stop so they could fight their way inside. D’boy imagined himself slipping into their midst as the chaos started. With multiple limbs clawing and shoving, his work would not be noticed until some unfortunate individuals managed to struggle onto a bus only to find their wallets gone when it was time to pay the fare. D’boy could not afford to spare them a thought. His stomach growled yet again, reminding him of rule number one: stomach before conscience.

A few years ago, D’boy had been introduced to his father, an enigma known to him merely as Spanner. He’d lived with his mother all his life, until that morning when, without warning, she’d taken him and his few belongings on a long bus ride. They arrived at a vast compound of bungalows with crumbling one-room apartments, and she left him in front of room seven. Her instructions were to ask for Spanner, and to tell him that he, D’boy, was his son by way of Tinuke. She’d left without a goodbye, and D’boy hadn’t seen her since. After knocking for several minutes and getting no answer, he’d sat outside that door for hours, growing tired and hungry, ignored by the people who passed him. He’d learnt rule number one then: every man for himself.

Spanner had come home that night long after the compound had gone to sleep. D’boy lay curled up in front of the door, on the corridor that would turn out to be his bed many nights. He was prodded awake by a foot. Spanner, with a gravelly voice, asked who he was. D’boy blinked up at Spanner, his eyes losing the weight of sleep, and recited his mother’s message. The big, dark man examined D’boy in the light of the bulb overhead like he would a worthless, albeit fascinating, piece of debris that had washed up on his own private stretch of beach. He finally shoved his hand into the pocket of his trousers and dug out his key. Then he reached over D’boy’s head to open the door to the room and, with a grunt, gestured for D’boy to go in. The room was dank and airless, with a mattress, a wardrobe, and little else.

D’boy had no fantasies of Spanner as the dutiful father. While his mother had bemoaned her fate every day she’d been saddled with him, Spanner simply ignored him. D’boy followed Spanner’s lead, and in no time they managed to wordlessly carve out their separate islands in the small room, learning to meander around each other with minimal contact. As the weeks passed, D’boy learned nothing about his supposed father, except that he went away often for some kind of work. During these absences, which were sometimes long and always unannounced, D’boy would make his bed on the corridor, like he had that first day. Spanner hadn’t thought to give him a key. D’boy hadn’t thought to ask.

D’boy felt a gust of wind and glanced up in time to see Orobo—round and squashed-looking, as though some malignant force had pressed his body down into itself—whizzing past. Whenever he ran, which he did with a speed and ease that belied his bulk, it was for good reason. D’boy remembered the day when a riot broke out after a clash between police officers and okada drivers. He’d followed Orobo to safety then, and so now he spun and ran after him.

“Orobo, wetin dey happen?” D’boy asked.

“Food . . . food . . .”

That was all Orobo could manage. It was enough.

D’boy ran with Orobo all the way to the local primary school, through the gates and onto the school’s football field, and there D’boy lost sight of him. In the center of the field there was a long table. On one side of it, four women stood handing out food in sealed foil packs, and on the other side were four untidy lines of children reaching almost to the school gates. As happened every once in a while, some organization was giving out food. When people talked about this kind of food, they called it “free.” But those people were not sharp. They didn’t know life’s number one rule: nothing is ever free. In this case, though, the price was an easy one to pay. In exchange for full stomachs, pictures would be taken of the fed, mouths shiny with gratitude and oil from jollof rice.

D’boy noticed, beside a block of classrooms and half hid-den among a cluster of banana trees, a few adults creeping around with sacks, into which some children were dropping their uneaten packs of food before rushing back to queue up for more. There were no adults on the queues; it looked like only children were getting fed this time. D’boy didn’t feel like a child, and he didn’t know if, technically, he was one. Like Orobo and many of the boys D’boy hung around with, D’boy didn’t know his age and had never marked a birthday. Birthdays, like eyeglasses, were one of those things that only rich children seemed to need.

D’boy would get his meal pack, but not from joining the end of one of those queues, which were growing longer with every second. He had to make his way to the front. He positioned himself in a space between two lines of noisy children and snuck toward the table, avoiding the harried-looking young men brandishing bamboo sticks and trying to maintain order. He could see the tubs from which the packs of food were being given out. They were almost three-quarters empty, and the food was disappearing quickly. One of the women handing out the packs wiped sweat from her upper lip and beckoned to a man standing by a van parked nearby. D’boy knew what it meant: more food was needed, fast. The man shook his head and made a waving motion with both hands. D’boy also knew what that meant, and he was seized with panic. He dropped to his hands and knees and crept forward, making his way toward the tubs. Just as he stretched out his hand to grab a pack of food, his ankle was caught in a firm grip and he was yanked out from under the table.

“What are you doing there?” It was one of the men with sticks. “My friend, go stand for line before I break your head!”

D’boy scrambled to his feet and ran toward the end of the lines. But, knowing that if he joined a queue the food would be gone long before he reached the table, D’boy decided there was only one thing to do. Reaching the end of the queue, he took a deep breath and shot forward like a striking fist. As he gathered speed, he opened his mouth and let out a scream. The other children, seeing D’boy as he flew past and realizing what he was doing, broke rank. The lines collapsed into a stampede behind D’boy as he charged, the children’s voices joining with his in a frightful roar. He’d never felt so hungry, so powerful.

Mere feet away from the table, his army raging behind him, D’boy saw one of the serving women look up at the advancing mob. She alerted the other women with a scream. The women let go of the food packs in their hands and fled for the safety of their van, where even the stick-wielding order keepers had gathered to watch with their arms folded as the wave of bodies surged.

It was called survival. That was rule number one.

__________________________________

From A Kind of Madness by Uche Okonkwo. Used with permission of the publisher, Tin House. Copyright © 2024 by Uche Okonkwo.




More Story
More than a third of translators think they’ve already lost work to AI. That’s according to a recently released survey by the Society of Authors, which heard from over 800 of their members about...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.

x