Happy Is a Doing Word”

Arinze Ifeakandu

April 24, 2023 
The following is a story from The Best Short Stories 2023: The O. Henry Prize Winners, chosen by guest editor Lauren Groff and series editor Jenny Minton Quigley. Arinze Ifeakandu is an O. Henry Prize winner and a Kirkus Prize finalist, and the author of the debut short story collection God’s Children Are Little Broken Things. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He currently lives in Nigeria.

They were ten when the plane crashed. Binyelum saw the blackened remains in his father’s Sunday Times, they always read the Sunday paper together, passing pages between each other. Just look at this rubbish, his father would say, frowning at yet another headline about Hisbah (“Kano State’s Hisbah Cracks Down on Private Schools, Enforcing New Hijab Rule,” one headline had said), or, Sharp observation, my boy, which made Binyelum’s head swell. The day of the crash, his father did not sift through the pages, deciding which he wanted to read first before sharing with Binyelum; he went straight to the page with the story, shaking his head as he read, muttering under his breath. Binyelum leaned against him, reading at the same time, the way he used to do when, littler, he would sit between his father’s legs, asking what this or that word meant, how this or that word was pronounced. This is tragic, his father said, turning to him. Later, Binyelum ran to Somadina’s house, waving the paper and saying, Look! It was evening, the sun, huge and yellow, rolling into the belly of the sky. Somadina followed him outside, to the dogonyaro tree across their yard under which they often sat, watching birds. Binyelum caressed the pictures, his eyes like a dreamer’s. One day, he said, he too would fly, and he would not fall.

Binyelum and Somadina and the other neighborhood children used to sit under this tree and sing to the birds—Chekeleke, give me one white finger, they screamed skyward. Every evening, the birds erupted in noise as though, having returned from wherever they had traveled since morning, they could not wait to regale one another with stories about their day. Binyelum believed that he could tell each one apart, and he gave them names even though Somadina told him this was impossible: there were just too many, and they all looked the same, clear white feathers, pale yellow beaks, and long broomstick legs. See, Binyelum said, Sarah had a way of flapping her wings, like a thing about to reveal itself, regal and wild, but Rose was timid and loved the branch hanging close to Baba Ali’s fence. That made no sense, Somadina said, and they fought, sometimes with silence, a few times with their bodies, rolling in the sand, over dead leaves, pulling at each other’s shirts. By morning, they were friends again, playing catch, watching the birds.

But this was before. Before the plane fell from the sky. Before all Binyelum wanted to talk about was how he would be a pilot when he grew up. Before Hisbah seized the truck full of alcohol and ruined his father’s business. Before the evening when, after playing ball, the boys formed a circle around him and he took down his shorts to show them he’d begun growing hair down there. They were all a little shy, until Nnamdi, who was the most senior, said, You be man now o, you fit give woman belle. Binyelum, no longer shy but proud, glanced at Somadina and smiled, as if to say, You see? The next day, they both climbed the short fence into Baba Ali’s compound again and went into one of the discarded old cars littering the yard. It seemed ages ago, and not only yesterday, that they used to have their bath together outside, under the eyes of the entire world.

They returned there most days after school, making up excuses to wander off from the company of the other boys. Baba Ali’s was the perfect spot, that yard with the dark, quiet house whose windows seemed permanently shut to the world. Baba Ali was never in town, and there was no wife cooking dinner in the corridors, no kids running around outside under the mango tree with branches that stretched to the dogonyaro tree, forming a vast canopy for all those abandoned cars. Who taught them to hide? They never wondered. They were only curious fingers in the mild dark. You like it? Somadina said, not in the voice that he would use with the girls and women years away, he’d not yet learned to treat pleasing someone else as an act that affirmed his power over them. He asked because he wanted to know, and Binyelum said yes, and it was not a performance of surrender at all; this was not a game of owning and being owned, not yet.

Had they been older, and cannier, had their minds been tainted early by the world’s caprices, like the mind of a boy like Nnamdi, orphaned at three and passed around from one close relative to another distant one, they would have known how suspect they looked, two boys abandoning the gang almost every evening and wandering off on their own. But they knew nothing about the shrewd, untrusting nature of the world. And so there they were, alone in each other’s company, shorts pulled down to their ankles, and suddenly there was sound, and light, and they were no longer alone: they lay there, awkwardly, all around them eyes gawking. I tell you, Nnamdi said, turning to the other boys, smug and knowing. They all stood there in silence, Nnamdi smirking still, and maybe it was that smirk that made Binyelum start begging. Abeg, he said, abeg no report us. Somadina looked from his crumpled face to Nnamdi’s smug one, and to the wondering faces of a dozen sweaty, grimy boys, and it dawned on him how much trouble they must be in for Binyelum to plead that way. He, too, began to beg.

For days, Nnamdi hounded them like a potent cloud, taking their break money, sending them on errands, making them race each other so that he could see who the man was and who the woman. One evening, he pulled them aside and made them scale the fence. There were five of them, two other boys whom he’d brought along to look out, and this would become Binyelum’s second lesson in growing up, having already learned shame the evening they were found: to always watch his back. Pull your knicker, Nnamdi said, and they both stood there and gaped at him, confused, until he frowned and said, Quick. Good, he said, now do that thing wey una dey do before.

In the same backseat as the first evening, it did not feel the same, did not retain that thrill of discovering something sweet. Binyelum looked down, crying. I no tell you to stop, Nnamdi said from his view in the front seat, and now Binyelum’s crying made his body shake, and it made Somadina incredibly sad, he too began to cry. They disengaged, and no matter how many threats Nnamdi barked at them—I go tell your mother, I go report to your class teacher—they did not return to each other, did not look at each other, could not.

That night, Binyelum’s mother brought out the belt she hid in the same trunk in which she locked her most expensive lace and Georges and Hollandais. Your body will tell you today, she said, as she whipped him on his back, his buttocks, his legs. She’d never beat him, nor his sisters, like that; in the past, she’d ask them to stretch their hand and spread their palm open, and it had been better because he could close his eyes and anticipate the sting, count the rest before the belt came down, one, two, three. This time, she flogged him all over, chanting that his body would tell him. He could hear his sisters crying in the other room. When his father returned, he woke Binyelum up and they sat together in the living room, the girls asleep on mats spread out on the floor, saying nothing, his father’s head bowed for what seemed like eternity, his bald spot round and gleaming like the moon. Finally, he lifted his head. You are a man, he said, calmly, shaking his head—you are a man, Binyelum, my son. Binyelum sat there and cried: it was the strangeness in his father’s voice, as though he could no longer recognize the boy with whom he read the papers on Sundays, swapping pages, laughing over the cartoons, solving puzzles, as though Binyelum had intentionally misled him all those years and now that he’d been exposed, there was nothing else to feel but crushing disappointment.

Somadina, on the other hand, went out and came in, not quite like before, but almost. When Nnamdi came to Somadina’s house with the news, his aunt, Mma Lota, was there. And why are you only telling us this? she said. She spoke Igbo to Nnamdi, persistently, even though he responded in pidgin, and she stared him down with a fierceness. Somadina stood in a corner, watching. The next morning, smug and bouncy with triumph, he waited by the gate to tell Binyelum what had happened. How he told his mother about Nnamdi, about the backseat of the car in Baba Ali’s compound. How, seething, his mother said, Ị sị gịnị? You say he made you do what? How Nnamdi stuttered, then fled the room. How after she opened her Bible and showed him the wrong in what they had both done, she’d bought him ice cream. He waited until he almost missed the school bus, until his mother came outside and asked what he was still doing there.

At school, Binyelum stayed far away, as though Somadina had a smell about him, and the next morning Binyelum walked past him on his way to the bus stop, and no matter how fast Somadina walked, he never caught up with him, and no matter how hard he called, Binyelum never turned.


The Christmas Baba Ali returned home with a woman, they were teenagers, seniors in secondary school. Somadina’s father had gotten a job with AP Oil, and they had moved to a nicer house on a quiet street far away from Sabon Gari, a street where the taps spat clean water and the boys were gentle—that was how Somadina’s mother had put it, where the boys were gentle. Somadina liked a girl in his class, Kamara, who was always beating him at physics and math, and Binyelum continued to play on the same field, with mostly the same boys. He’d let Dave, a boy from school, suck his dick a couple of times, always at Dave’s house when his parents were at work, the doors bolted shut, the curtains drawn, an awkwardness between them. Outside the walls of that house, they did not speak to each other, did not act like they had ever spoken to each other.

Baba Ali’s new woman stayed, night after night, month after month. She set up a light-yellow kiosk under the dogonyaro tree. MTN, Everywhere You Go, it said on the body of the light-yellow kiosk from which she sold recharge cards and milk and soap and egg rolls that were soft and sweet, and when the children congregated under the tree to sing to the birds, she shooed them away, the children; in the mornings and afternoons and evenings, women gathered there, talking, laughing, sometimes quarreling loudly, so that people rushed out of their compounds to gawk at them and point fingers. Baba Ali became a face that people saw every day, standing under the electric pole with the fathers and bachelors, a lean, clean-shaven man in the whitest singlet talking politics and football and smiling at the children as they walked to school.

It was Saturday morning, and the husbands had played a football match against the bachelors. Binyelum’s father returned home, flopped down on the couch, his red Arsenal jersey around his neck like a towel, his round hairy stomach glistening with sweat. Binyelum got him a cup of water, which he gulped down, Adam’s apple rippling.

Binyelum returned to his phone. Dave had texted, Come to the church. He’d recently started attending choir practice with Dave. Last week, in the parish’s bathroom, which smelled of Izal, he had been more worried that they were doing this in the house of God than he was about the fact that Dave was kneeling on the bathroom floor, on tiles that looked brownish with accumulated grime futilely scrubbed. It was one thing doing what they did at Dave’s house with the windows and doors shut, there, it was secret and safe; in church, he felt the eyes of God on him, blazing with condemnation. Sometimes—especially on those nights when his father, cursing and staggering, had to lean on him to make it home, the entire street staring at them—he wondered if he was the cause of his family’s misfortune, if his secret desires were too abominable for God’s grace.

Before Hisbah seized the truck full of alcohol, ruining his father’s business, his father’s bar was the happening place. People went there for his special drink combos, and because whenever a dedicated customer asked for a brand of cognac they’d had on a business trip somewhere far away, he made real efforts to have such a drink in his next consignment. Whatever you call your business, son, his father used to say, be proud of it and aim to be great at it. After his goods were seized and destroyed, he became a silent person, sleeping all day and drinking all night. But something about Baba Ali’s return had awakened him, making him join the men again at their football games and their early morning banter about the news.

Ị ma, his father said, looking out the door where the wind was lifting the yellow curtain. I was just there, looking at Baba Ali, e nekete m ya anya, and I hailed him, Odogwu!

Whenever his father got this way, he slipped into an elevated Igbo, untouched by English and garnished with the occasional proverb, the occasional unfamiliar word. Binyelum knew the story about Baba Ali. It had been whispered in the street ever since he was a child: how his wife had woken up one morning, dragged her bags outside, Baba Ali begging and crying behind her, how she’d gotten into a taxi and left. They had even made a song about it at one point, Baba Ali, clean your eyes, no dey cry / Pluck mango from your big tree, chop life, but the adults had scolded and whopped the song out of their mouths. Was he odogwu, Binyelum asked, because he brought home a woman?

His father looked at him, eyes yellow, sprinkles of gray hair on his chin and on his head, lines at the sides of his eyes; it struck Binyelum like a punch, his father was getting old. Baba Ali and his wife, Aina, had been very close, some people even said they were cousins—a detail he could not confirm, his father said—but love can do that to you. His father paused, eyes trained on the picture above Binyelum’s head, a framed photo of his sister, Ngozi, standing behind a birthday cake with one candle in its middle. There was hardly a Sunday, his father continued, that they did not go to church dressed in matching clothes, hardly an evening that Baba Ali did not desert the men to go sit with Aina in the kitchen. Their life, already domed in joy, would have been perfect at the birth of their daughter, but they soon learned, after several illnesses, that she had sickle cell. They watched their child suffer, knowing that the suffering was a direct result of their love. After their daughter died, Aina left. The story went that she loved Baba Ali still but could not risk bringing another child into the world just to suffer, that Baba Ali had tried to convince her to stay, the two of them alone in their marriage, But, I guess, Binyelum’s father said, face bright with contemplation, that not even they could survive the blow of such a tragedy.

He fell sick for months after, and we thought he might die. We had to rush him to the hospital one time because he could not move, had not eaten in days. Your mother and some other women had to care for him after he was discharged. And then he closed down his shop in Kano, which was doing very well, moving everything to Kaduna, to a branch that was only just starting out. But he kept the house, he’d lived there since he was a boy.

His father took a deep breath, released it slowly, his stomach rising and falling. You see, my son, he said, many people break after something like that, or they become bitter and hateful. But not Baba Ali, not the man I talked to and played ball with today, so eager for life. That is something.

Binyelum knew the story and all its embellishments, was used to his parents retelling tales with as much vitality as they’d told them the first time, but there was a solemnness to the way his father told it this time, a tenacious optimism, that saddened him. His father was trying to motivate himself, he realized, by lifting Baba Ali as evidence of the possibility for life’s restoration. Binyelum was not sure if he felt the same way, he’d begun recently to think that the forces of life were capricious and fickle; why, he wondered, did some people spend their lives struggling to scrape by while others wallowed in abundance?

At school, Dave had started to sit beside a boy, Somadina’s cousin Lotanna, who seemed to have everything, staying back in class to talk to him at break time, holding his hand in the corridors. Dave’s husband, their classmates teased him, but he laughed at the name, and soon everybody said it without accusation. Binyelum watched Lotanna talk to Dave, Dave’s head thrown back in laughter—it annoyed him, how easy it was to fool people. Lotanna, polished in his school uniform that was always crisply ironed and in the way he spoke, without hurry, as though the whole world were his audience, and good as he was at playing midfield, at tennis and chess, and loved as he was by the teachers, was someone for whom trouble was glamorous and safe, someone for whom the world would bend.

Mma Lota, who was at the house most Sundays, came with the news that Baba Ali had died. When his mother poked her head into his room to tell him, Somadina looked up, grunted, and she said, What, it’s my house, and sat at the foot of his bed, glancing at everything as though she wasn’t in there every day.

You should come out and sit in the living room, she said.

Moving had been her idea, and though Somadina no longer hated her for it, he could not understand why she continued to be invested in gossip about their old street.

Did Somadina’s mother know, Mma Lota said in the living room, that Baba Ali’s new girlfriend left him as he fell sick? The poor man, had he not enough heartbreak, his mother lamented. May affliction not rise to us a second time.

I took food to him on Sundays, she continued. Mma Ayo did on Fridays, you know, small gestures here and there—it was the most anyone could do.

What happened to him? Somadina asked.

People say he had AIDS, his mother said. But you know how people like to make up stories. The poor man must have died of loneliness.

Loneliness does not kill people, Mummy, Somadina said, shaking his head.

She rolled her eyes at him. What do you know? You have not seen anything yet.

It had seemed, when they first moved out here, that he would never be able to breathe again. There were no boys his age playing football on the street, and his classmates spoke Hausa, which he did not understand, at break time. He wanted to go back home, he’d told his parents. This is home now, they said. Now, though, he had friends who sat on the living room couch, on the floor, drinking Coke and eating chin-chin, playing PS and arguing in loud voices about Merlin or Greek or whether the guy in that video had actually put it in her ass; friends who thought his mum—the few times she’d dropped in from her shop to get something at home—was cool, the way she did not frown at them like most of their parents would have done.

And he had Kamara. His mother said of her to Mma Lota, She’s a wonderful child, so smart and so mature, and the nnwa amaka. I did not know Somadina had big eyes like that.

Mummy! he said, raising a pillow above his head as though to throw it at her.

Kamara had only just started talking to him again. JAMB was around the corner, she’d been studying a lot and so hadn’t gone with him to the party where he had a can of Star and large puffs of Faruk’s blunt. When his friends dared him to kiss Mary, the only girl at the party, he did it. His friends cheered. When the bottle spun toward Mary, they dared her to take off her blouse, an earring, her skirt. No, she said.

It’s the game, Faruk said. Don’t ruin the fun. And then he said something else in Hausa, which made the other boys laugh.

The next day, Kamara showed up while he was shooting hoops and stood in the middle of the basketball court, arms crossed. Somadina walked toward her but she lifted her hand, halting him. Her friends appeared at the other end of the court, watching. Come on, he said, is all this necessary?

You tell me, she said.

I’m sorry—you want me to kneel down? ’Cause I will. He began to roll up his trousers to avoid staining them, but she said, Please don’t embarrass me.

Binyelum scored 268 on JAMB, and his mother cooked his favorite, coconut rice, to celebrate, and his father was sober that evening, and they sat outside, shirtless in the heat, and talked aimlessly about things that had happened and things that were yet to come. With a score like that, his friends told him, he would surely get in somewhere. At the screening for the Defence Academy, Binyelum did not run into Somadina, and Somadina did not run into him. They took the written parts of the exam in the same hall, Somadina in front, Binyelum behind, the hall full of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds in an assortment of school colors. Binyelum passed but did not get in. Ibadan released their list, and then Nsukka, and he was not on either.

It rained on the evening he got the Daily Times to look up Nsukka’s list. He sat outside Mama Ayo’s shop with the boys, heads huddled together, as they went through the names. Wait, is this the Somadina we know? someone said, pointing at a spot on the paper. They could not believe Binyelum had not gotten in, the boys said, and talked about how rigged it all was, patting his back, making encouraging speeches. It began to rain, the first rain of the year: it began with a whirlwind, dust rising and swirling, making everyone disperse, and then the sky poured down on everything. A neighbor brought out buckets and lined them up under the roof. Binyelum watched from the window. Did she not know not to fetch the first rain? he wondered.

He got a job washing bottles at a pharmaceutical company a few blocks away, stopped attending choir practice. You have to understand, he thought of saying to Dave, but instead stopped picking up his calls. Dave showed up on his street for the first time ever, breaking an unspoken agreement. Wetin? he asked, putting on his harsh voice, aware of the guys’ eyes on him. Nnamdi stood up. You hear the guy, he said, who you dey find? Binyelum saw Dave’s eyes, darting toward him, confused and a little brave, and looked away. Just go, he thought, just go. Binyelum, Dave said, but Binyelum simply glared at him—all those eyes, he thought, all those suspicious eyes.

Nnamdi laughed, putting his arms around Dave’s shoulders. I just dey play with you, he said. See as you dey shake. Why you dey find my guy?

Choir practice, Dave said.

A week later, outside Baba Ali’s compound, Binyelum and Nnamdi argued over Messi and Ronaldo, and everyone who asked could not believe that a boy like Binyelum, quiet and unproblematic, would throw the first punch. Day after day, his heart ached more, and he often had an urge to cry that could not be tied to anything in particular.


Nobody believed it would happen in Kano, Somadina’s father said over the phone, and yet here they were, in the middle of a curfew, the entire city still and uneasy, waiting to see if there would be another bomb. Binyelum called his mother and asked her to give the phone to his sisters. Don’t go outside Sabon Gari, he said. Be careful. Distance made him helpless. His presence would do nothing real for them, he knew, but he could not shake off the feeling that if he were close, somehow he could keep them safe.

He missed them, that was what it was, a homesickness made urgent by worry. For a whole year he’d been away from home, in Lagos, serving Oga Lawrence. He had balked at the idea at first: learning a trade was for dull students and village boys with no hope of another way. But after three years of waiting, his JAMB score getting lower with each try, his friends getting into small schools in Katsina and Kogi, he had begun to feel useless. In the company of his friends, he felt unreal, nonexistent, as though life were not happening to him, even though all he could feel was its force: his father always reeking of alcohol, the talk of the neighborhood; his angst about never getting into the Nigerian Defence Academy and becoming a pilot; his worry about his sisters.

In many ways, the apprenticeship was like being in school: after four years, he would be given a shop, goods, and some money to start up his own business. He could always go back to school, he would tell himself at night, lying exhausted on the mattress with the other first-year, Innocent, assailed by his scent, his snore, both of them shirtless, both of them sprawled under the insistent whir of the fan, their shorts rumpled, their thighs golden in the soft light of the appliances. The job was hard, it involved lots of walking under the sun, unloading trucks, sweet-talking often surly customers; it involved, for him and Innocent, starting the generator every evening, going to the main house to help Lady B in the kitchen, sneaking into the living room, spacious and high ceilinged, to peek at episodes of Grey’s Anatomy or whatever Oga Lawrence’s children had decided to watch, Lady B’s voice raised in scolding—Useless bush rat!—or little Mary-Ann saying no she would not move her legs so the boys could sweep the floor. Do you know that my smallest sister is older than you? Innocent said to her often. Binyelum liked him, his nightly smell of bitter lemon and fresh bath; his limbs, of a boy who had spent his childhood weeding and tilling; his accent, the l’s that rolled into r’s, so that “rubber” became “lubba” and “love” became “ruv.” There was a softness about him, though, that made Binyelum wary, a gentleness in contrast to his hard face, a way of moving and being that was too familiar for comfort.

Innocent, having served a former oga who in the end did not settle him, was always ready with advice. Nothing we say or see among ourselves gets back to Oga, he once said, but you never can tell when a Judas might appear, so don’t join the other umu-boy in openly bad-mouthing him. The last thing you need is for Oga to get it in his head that you’re disloyal, life can get very hard then.

Binyelum wondered how much harder it could get, he felt already like someone walking on broken glass, his life dreary—a necessity, he believed, Growth flourishes in stillness, he’d written in his notebook where recently he’d begun leaving himself reminders, goals, motivations—sometimes he imagined breaking Oga Lawrence’s curfew, imagined getting on one of those hookup apps and finding someone to sneak into the boys’ quarters, the way the seniors did with their girlfriends. You don’t have to do everything Oga says, Innocent told him. There are ways around these rules. Binyelum listened eagerly but told himself that he would break no rules, he had huge plans and narrow options: he could not afford the cost of recklessness.

The bombs were followed by shootings: a sixteen-year-old boy seeing his friend off after a visit was shot and killed as they both stood at the junction, chatting. The men were driving an okada, the gunman in the passenger seat behind, the driver speeding away, cries of Allahu akbar lacerating the night as they zoomed off, as the spared boy froze and then fell on his knees beside his friend. They must leave Kano, Somadina’s mother said to him every time she called, they simply had to—but his father, his father was stubborn, talking all the time about his job, could Somadina believe it! That boy could easily have been you, she said, and then what would a job mean? What would it mean?

This is the first major fight my parents are having, he told Kamara, holding her. It was dark in the room, there was no power; they had left the windows and door open to let in some breeze, the night crackling with the noises of crickets and toads and with the occasional caw of a nameless bird. He pressed his lips to Kamara’s hair, wet and smelling of shea butter. Funny, he thought, how fond he now was of a scent that used to nauseate him.

My parents argued all the time, she said. This one time, my mother threw a plate at my dad and it missed him and hit my little brother on the head.

He placed one hand on her breast and the other on her stomach, twirling his finger around her navel. We will never fight, he said.

She backed into him and he held her tighter. His father had been furious when he chose to go to Nsukka: Who chooses Nsukka over NDA, gbọ? Do you know how many phone calls I had to make to ensure they didn’t dash someone else your spot? But Somadina did not care for NDA nor anything else for that matter, did not know what he wanted to do with his life. He was good at many things but perfect at none, liked many things but was passionate about none; he could go wherever the wind blew him but why should he, when he felt, with Kamara, such profound happiness, when he could simply follow her wherever she went?

Was he not tying her down? her friends had argued when they moved in together. Men were already knocking on her door, her parents’ door, prosperous men, some of them handsome and nice too. Her mother introduced most of the men to her and she talked to them merely to satisfy her mother. Lying in Somadina’s arms, she read their text messages aloud, and they laughed together at these desperate men and their outmoded ways. God, you’re an expert at nonchalance, he said to her, this man basically says he cannot live without you and all you say is aww. After a while, they became serious, and he told her he loved her and this was it, the two of them together until death. Here was the plan, he said, here was the plan, she agreed: they would both get a job in Enugu after graduation, find a room at Ninth Mile, and then a flat; they would save up, get married, have two or three children, ideally more girls but boys would also make them happy, wouldn’t they?

Sundays were for church and football. Oga Lawrence and Lady B did not approve of girlfriends, because to have a woman was to need money—for dates, and Valentine’s Day, and birthdays, and shoes and handbags, and shawarma—and to need money was to steal from Oga Lawrence’s business. That was, however, not the speech they gave after morning devotion. Don’t get a girl pregnant and derail your life, they said instead.

Don’t get a girl pregnant and derail your life, Innocent said as they walked back groggily to the boys’ quarters, rolling his eyes. As if they care about us.

Binyelum laughed. In their room, he picked up his phone to find his father’s missed calls. He called home every other evening, to speak to the guys, or to his mother and sisters, rarely ever to his father. You never call your old man, gbọ, he said when Binyelum called back. He laughed, and maybe if he hadn’t the hurt wouldn’t have stuck out so much, like a bone jutting out of torn skin, it made Binyelum queasy.

Haba, Daddy, he said, and laughed, too, and then they both waited in silence.

Did you hear about Nnamdi? his father asked.

Yes, Binyelum said. He’d heard, from his friends back home, from his sisters, from his mother: a nine-year-old girl had named Nnamdi as the reason she was injured down there, and her father, a retired army man, had stormed the street in a vanload of soldiers, dragged Nnamdi into the middle of the street, beaten him until his eyes were onion purple, and then thrown him into the back of the van and driven away.

A shameful thing, his father said.

A shameful thing, Binyelum agreed.

They waited, again, in silence.

How is work? his father said finally.

Binyelum gazed out the window, at the milky harmattan haze hovering over the conspiratorial cluster of roofs, at the people, bright in their Sunday jeans and gele and agbada, trudging up and down streets and alleyways, vibrant even in the cold, their noises—of laughter and greetings—rising and merging with the rumble and clatter of drums, with the brash songs and prayers blasting out of the speakers of the Mountain of Fire church down the road. It was so much like home, the riot of everything, the splattering of crumbling, brown-roofed bungalows around that one compound ringed by flowers, the compound in which he now stood, looking out at all these people: Iya Ibeji, whose tomato-crushing machine made so much noise; Baba Bolu the police officer, Bolu who always accosted Binyelum and the boys on their way from the shop, chanting Broda mi until Innocent handed him his PSP for the evening. Binyelum wanted to be the person looking down at everything from the house ringed by flowers. He wanted to be the person who, when his sister texted him saying there was nothing to eat at home, didn’t immediately fall into a hole of depression and helplessness. He wanted to be the person who told others when they could date and when they could not. The plush couches in Oga Lawrence and Lady B’s living room, the huge TV that started from the floor and rose nearly to the ceiling, the endless rows of Cerelac and Indomie noodles for the kids, the crates of eggs, the cornflakes: he wanted to have all that, a life of ease and plenty. Downstairs, Innocent was washing Oga’s car, whistling to Osadebe, his arms, his bare back, shining with sweat. Binyelum wished he could stay home, skip church today, but service was compulsory. If he were in Kano, he’d be seated outside Mama Ayo’s shop after football training, staring idly at the churchgoers. How he missed having nothing to do.

For Easter, Oga Lawrence took the family to visit his brother in Ibadan, and Binyelum went with Innocent to his first Lagos club. Walking in, he was frightened by the mass of people—everybody was beautiful, or had mastered ways of making themselves appear so. He felt self-conscious in the ordinariness of his black T-shirt and blue jeans, but a few bottles of Heineken later, he was in the middle of the dance floor, bodies pressed together, people floating from one dance partner to another, it made him think of folks trying on clothes at a boutique. A woman wrapped her arms around his neck, twisting into him. She smelled of sweat and perfume and looked into his eyes as though she’d known him all her life and loved him with a sad, quaking love. He wondered what her story was.

Outside the club later, he stumbled into the street with Innocent, arms around each other’s shoulders. It was past midnight. A car sped past them, men sticking their heads out of its windows, spraying the street with champagne and yelling, Na we get Lagos!

Your papa! Binyelum yelled back, then turned to Innocent, laughing.

You’re wasted, my man, Innocent said, laughing too.

They got on the same okada, Innocent seated behind, his body warm against Binyelum’s back. In their room at the boys’ quarters, Binyelum collapsed on his mattress, his shoes still on, he felt sleepy yet wide awake.

Next time we go out, Innocent said, sitting at Binyelum’s feet, I’m going to take you somewhere different.

Binyelum looked up at him.

He smiled. It’s not as big and flashy, but I’m sure you’ll find what you need there. At least you’ll dance with someone you actually want to fuck.

Binyelum hesitated. Perhaps it was a ploy: get him drunk, ruin his life in the presence of everybody. But the silence felt heavy with potential. He sat up; slowly, he took off his shirt. They were now seated side by side. He hugged Innocent. How terribly he’d missed it, the warmth and solidness of a man’s body. Innocent sat there, letting himself be hugged. What am I doing? Binyelum muttered, chuckling into his shoulder.

You’ve been alone too long, Innocent said, guiding Binyelum’s head onto his lap, where he cradled it like he would a sleeping child.

There were birds in the trees outside the Enugu Premier Secondary School, where Kamara broke up with Somadina over the phone, and in the trees under which Binyelum stood, months after his settlement, scrolling through Facebook as he waited for his bus to arrive. Somadina sat on the bench outside the ash-and-oxblood building, head bent, hands covering it. To a passerby, he would look like a man suffering from a terrible headache. One moment a city is still, he thought, the next there are bombs; one day his father was stamping tickets for independent oil contractors, building a house in Enugu, another at the village—and the next he was struggling to get his tickets signed, could not finish his house in the village, peace giving way to strife.

And one moment, he was telling Kamara he loved her and she was saying she loved him too, and the next they were graduates and she had a dream job in Abuja and he had a shabby one in Enugu, a graduate of physics teaching mathematics to junior students and physics to seniors, and soon she was telling him, over the phone, that she wanted to start a family, could no longer wait, It’s complicated, you have to understand, you have to understand. All those years, eight years, had those promises meant nothing to her even as she lay beside him? How could she, he wondered, how could she. The voices of students at play drifted toward him; watching them at break time, the junior boys and girls running after one another, dirtying their school uniforms, the seniors standing in corners, whispering, plotting, being dignified, he remembered his own secondary school days. Suddenly, it was all over, his years of carefreeness, it made him pity them. He felt it in his palms, the wetness, and squeezed his eyes shut to force it back in—what a sight he would be, a twenty-three-year-old man crying publicly, in the glare of the sun.

Finally home, Binyelum collapsed on his bed, exhausted. Today had not been his day: he’d woken up much later than usual, run after several buses before finding a seat and, at the shop, had lost a major sale to his neighbor. The elation he felt after his settlement had long since faded, now when he took the bus to work, he thought of the day ahead with hope and apprehension—would customers flock to his shop, he worried, or would he sit idly all day?—and on his way back, he thought only of his bed.

It was raining, and his room was dark and cold. He’d pulled the drapes; something about the street soaked in water, the rust-colored roofs dripping, people clutching umbrellas as they skirted puddles—something about all this made him terribly homesick. Perhaps it was the ordinariness of rain, the way it subdued people anywhere and everywhere, so that the woman clutching an umbrella down the road would remind him of his mother rushing home in the rain, clutching her old yellow umbrella that said The Taste of Goodness.

His phone tinkled with a notification: Somadina Obi Accepted Your Friend Request. Scrolling through Facebook earlier as he’d waited for the bus, he’d come across Somadina’s profile in his People You May Know. He went back on, looking at pictures. The face, bearded and grown, smiling teeth white against a face so black and smooth, not the boy he had known all those years ago, but boyish still, and familiar. Binyelum scrolled through the page, more pictures: with a girl in front of a water-spitting lion, his arm around her waist, her head on his shoulder. My World, the caption said.

He imagined messaging Somadina. He would be effusively familiar, Longest time, my gee, he would say, and Somadina would respond as enthusiastically. He imagined their friendliness evolving into flirtation, that on the loneliest of nights, such as this, Somadina would say to him, I have been thinking of you all my life.

He chuckled to himself, how wild, his imagination. He messaged Innocent about a party they were planning, then went on WhatsApp, where his fuckbuddies were. Wyd, he typed to Yomi and Ferdinand, who lived closest to him. It still surprised him, the leeway they allowed him. He rarely ever texted them back outside of sex, and he lied to them all the time—I am an only child, he once said—lies that he told not to make himself appear in a striking light but to avoid being known, because to be known was to be invested. Sometimes, after they’d fucked, they would cling to him, and the slightest moment would present itself in which he wanted to hold them, too—and then he would feel only encroachment, the air suddenly too soft with feelings. He would hurry into his jeans and say, E go be, like he always did, and leave. In his apartment, he would wash his face in the bathroom sink, looking in the mirror, his hair spiky and tangled, his beard trimmed into a funnel, his eyes, red from smoking, looking back at him, saying, Who is this stranger, who is this man? Twisting the faucet, he would lower his head again, cup his palms under his face, cold water hitting him. Every day he lived, he felt less like himself. Growth, people called it; he thought of it as estrangement.


“Happy Is a Doing Word” first appeared in the Kenyon Review. Copyright © 2022 by Arinze Ifeakandu. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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