Okon Itiaba stumbled out of the black Ford Taurus sedan and then steadied himself. A couple of passers-by approached him as if to offer assistance. He smiled but waved them off.
He slammed the door shut behind him and then pocketed the car keys. His shoes crunched against the gravel as he walked towards the church.
He wanted to make the start of sermon, but parking out here in the boondocks meant that it wasn’t going to happen.
Well, that’s what you get for arriving late, he thought to himself.
He stopped and blew into his cupped palm. The smell of beer on his breath made him wince.
He was already in deep doo-doo for something else with Ekanyin, his mother, who was visiting Atlanta from Nigeria. Smelling like beer in church would make matters worse. He’d been successful in talking her into staying with Mariam, his sister; getting her to give him a pass on attending church today was like moving a mountain.
Ekanyin had found out – from that amebo sister of his – that he’d not been to church for four Sundays in a row, despite his claims to the contrary. And then to pour kerosene into the flames, he answered her phone call last night while in a night club! This, after telling her his cell phone had been run over by a car.
If only he’d studied the number more carefully. How did he know that his mother would be playing sleuth by calling him on someone else’s phone? He actually thought that it was Tanya, his date, and wanted to yell at her for not being at the club at the time they both agreed to. With such a start, the conversation with his mother had been a thing of beauty.
“I thought you said that your phone was dead?” Ekanyin had asked in Efik.
“Yes, uh, em,” Okon stuttered.
“It’s a miracle.”
“Um, em. Yes, it is.” Even he wanted to slap himself upside the head for such a dopey comeback.
Yeah, a miracle indeed. It was certainly going to take a miracle to explain that one to Ekanyin. He just hoped that she kept the lid on it until after church.
As he neared the church building, he wondered why he’d answered the call.
Anger was a bad adviser, he reminded himself.
“Good morning,” the spiffily-dressed doorman greeted. He offered Okon a glossy-covered Sunday handout. Okon replied with a grunt, and then yanked the handout out of the gentleman’s hand.
Tacky, he thought to himself.
He hoped that his actions did not set off alarm bells. He remembered attending his mother’s Pentecostal church in Nigeria. Those people could sniff out the devil in human form a mile away. Not this group. They smiled and welcomed all comers, even ones like him who’d made their way straight from the night clubs within and without the environs.
He’d hoped to slip into the sanctuary of the church and melt into the congregation, thereby avoiding Ekanyin altogether.
Sitting right next to the entrance, just past the ushers’ bench – a very unusual place for her to sit, by the way – was his mother, whose gele crown made her stand out from the American congregants.
Ekanyin tapped the space next to her, directing Okon to sit there. “A to uke adi ufok Abasi, where are you coming from to attend church?”
“Ufok mmi, my house.”
“Why didn’t you answer your phone at home?”
“I must have been in the bathroom.”
“You don’t smell like you’ve been in the bathroom.”
“It must be my cologne.”
“I’m sure that the cologne’s name is beer. We’ll talk about that when we get to your apartment.”
“Good thinking, Mother. I suggest that we wait until then before you ask me all these questions.”
A stern-looking usher shot him a glance and said, “Ssssh!”
“After all I’m here, right?” Okon continued.
“Mother, he’s talking back to you,” Miriam suggested. “He shouldn’t do that.”
“Mind your own business, amebo!” Okon shot back.
“The usher said to be quiet!” Miriam said.
“So obey him and be quiet, Miriam!” He made a face at her.
“Why are you upset?” Ekanyin whispered at Okon.
“I’m not upset.”
“You could have fooled me. Where’s your Bible?”
“I forgot it.”
She placed a notebook and pen on his lap. “Take notes.”
He gazed at his sister, who sat on the other side of his mother. It was all her fault. If only she’d kept her big mouth shut. He mouthed the words, “I’ll pay you back. Watch,” and then showed her, behind Ekanyin’s back, a clenched fist. She leaned back to avoid her mother’s notice and then stuck out her tongue at him. His mother noticed his lack of focus and tapped gently on the notebook.
Okon opened the notebook and copied the date and title of the Pastor’s sermon as shown on the big screen monitor. However, when he raised his head to focus, what arrested his mind instead were two shapely female butts that had suddenly come to view because their shapely female owners had risen to applaud the pastor’s passionate salutations.
That’s why he’d stopped coming to church altogether. This, right before his eyes, was the problem. At times as such he’d tried, very hard, to always keep his mind focused. But – oh God, forgive him – he’d always failed.
He realized then and there that his mind was his problem. He needed to have a serious conversation with it. It should not be embarrassing him like this. These days, he’d taken to wearing shades – even at night – in a bid to shield ladies’ exposed flesh from his sinful gaze.
Was his mind that transparent?
That’s why he couldn’t be all he wanted to be in the church. And, he was sure about this, that’s why the Muslims made their women cover themselves up when they are in public.
How could a man concentrate on the immediate task of worshipping his God when round, shapely, juicy female butts like the ones in front of him always got in the way?
“Are you writing what he’s preaching?” Ekanyin asked, her eyes studying him with laser-like precision.
“Yes, uh, ma.” He drew breath to calm his nerves. He purposely raised his head to view the ceiling of the church.
It was shaped like the inside of a calabash, white and stately. It was the same ceiling he’d seen a thousand times. He played peek-a-boo with a couple of the lights, and then gave an unsolicited mental opinion on the light fixtures from a particular angle:
That one needs repairs… no, looks like it’s intentionally focused on the pastor. Now that one…
At the end, he learned nothing new. He kept his gaze up for a few more seconds, and then he lowered it.
The ladies in front of him were now seated. He leaned to his left to ask the preteen sitting next to him what the Pastor had just said. He frowned with irritation when she wiggled her precocious little nose at him and then shifted away from him. He whipped out a dollar bill and waved it at her; she tugged at her mother, who quickly moved the kid to the other side of her, away from Okon.
Ekanyin yanked the notebook out of his hand to see what he’d written. The words “nice butt” stared back at her. She handed the book to Miriam, who wiggled her slender finger at Okon. He got up and walked out of the sanctuary just as his mother began to sob.
He entered the cubicle in the men’s restroom and slammed the door shut behind him.
Why did he even bother coming? He could’ve just driven straight home and gotten a good sleep for at least two hours. Now look at this… what a mess!
He buried his throbbing head in his hands and wondered what to do next. He got down on his knees and prayed that God would forgive him of all his sins and heal him of his sinful weaknesses. He remained in the fetal position even as he drifted into sleep.
The flushing of the toilet in the next cubicle roused him awake. He glanced at his wristwatch. He’d been asleep in the cubicle for about an hour! The sounds seeping into the restroom suggested that the service was over.
He got out of the cubicle and walked up to the mirror. Red wormy lines dotted the whites of his eyes, and his close-cropped hair looked disheveled. He washed his face with water, dried it with a paper towel, straightened his collar, and then exited the restroom.
He called Miriam on the cell phone and she directed him to where she was. When he arrived at the cul-de-sac where members usually boarded the church buses, he frowned at what he saw. Ekanyin and Miriam stood with a group. They seemed to be waiting for a big white bus, which weaved its way through exiting traffic as it approached the stop.
“What are you doing?” he asked Miriam, who’d turned away from him to show her displeasure. Ekanyin stood stone-faced a few feet away, trying her hardest to hold it together.
“We’re going to minister at the apartment buildings next door. You may go home. We’ll see you later.” Miriam walked up to Ekanyin and nudged her towards the approaching bus. Okon stood there for a second as he tried to gather his thoughts.
He was not going to part ways with his mother like this. He might not be up to snuff when it came to church protocol, but he was not the devil. He walked up to the bus and boarded it, to the delight of everyone, except his mother and sister.
When the bus parked right next to the brick multiunit apartment building, Okon was the first to disembark. A feeling of dread and anticipation pervaded his psyche. He’d never ministered to anything before, and asking him to talk about God to a fellow human being was like asking him to explain the Big Bang Theory to something without a pulse.
“Let us pray,” the lead person said.
Okon closed his eyes and began rehearsing what he was going to say when the first tenant he met opened their door. He imagined an angry man pointing a gun at him and asking him if he had a death wish.
A hand patted him on the back. When he opened his eyes, he saw that the group had moved on, leaving him standing in place. The lady who patted him on the back smiled at him as she handed him a package. “Go forth, young man, and preach the gospel.”
Okon studied the building and decided that he was going to go knock on the door to the first unit on the second floor. He straightened up his posture and marched on to undertake the task at hand.
He almost walked away from Unit G4 when the door opened to reveal a young man wearing nothing but his underwear, with a lighted cigarette between his fingers. He looked… familiar.
“’Sup?” he said, and then took a drag off his cigarette. Okon recognized him. He was at the club last night!
“Um, good morning, sir. I’m here to talk to you about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
The tenant studied Okon for a long time before saying “This a joke, right? Maybe you’re from one a them reality TV shows.” He looked around as he grinned. “Where’s the camera? I can go freshen up.”
Okon shook his head, no. In fact he now knew who this person was. He was the one that stole the girl he was aiming to pick up last night. “This is not a joke.”
“Weren’t you at the club last night?” He squinted as he took another drag from the cigarette.
Okon was stumped for words.
He blew smoke at Okon. “Then it is a joke. You gonna talk to me about Mohammed?”
“Riiight. When did you get religion, Vern? Last night or this morning?”
“Okon. My name is Okon.”
“May I come in, please?”
He stood to the side and waved Okon in. The apartment stank of sin, alcohol and cigarette, and the clutter reminded Okon of his apartment BE (Before Ekanyin hit town). “You got two minutes, man. I got things to do.”
“Do you have peace?”
The tenant smiled. “You serious, man?”
“Yes. I’m serious.”
He waved his cigarette as he adopted the Thinking Man’s pose. “Yep. Matter of fact, last night and this morning.”
Okon smiled as the excitement rose within him. “Tell me about it.”
He shook his head sadly at Okon and blew smoke at him.
The excitement wore off quickly on Okon. “I mean peace – p-e-a-c-e.”
Behind the prospective converted, a scantily dressed young lady walked into the room and then ran back out.
Okon had wanted so badly to get this girl’s number last night. What was she doing here?
“Damnit, Jude. How come you didn’t tell me you had a visitor?” she asked from where she had run into.
“He’s about to leave. So are you, pumpkin.”
“What? Where’s the breakfast in bed you promised?”
“You’ll find it at McDonald’s, honey. Just down the street.”
“Ugh!” She poked her head out to glance at him. “You’re such a fraud!”
“Are you throwing her out?” Okon asked.
“That’s not nice.”
Okon shook his head sadly. If she had gone with him he would’ve cooked her the best breakfast she’d ever had. Could he have avoided bedding her? He wasn’t sure. She looked… so beautiful.
“All right, Vern. Hit the road,” Jude said.
“I’m gonna leave this with you, Jude. I don’t know what religion you belong to, man. But if it isn’t working for you, try mine.” Okon offered him one of the brochures in his possession.
Jude slapped it away. “Obviously yours ain’t working for you, nigga. I got the girl, man. Can’t you see? Get outta my house.” He turned to face the girl, who’d now emerged fully clothed. “You too, Montisella!”
“Marisella! You dope. I should’ve known.”
“Yeah, you shoulda, bitch! Get out!”
Marisella walked out of the apartment in a huff and a puff.
Okon walked up to Jude and said, “Obviously you display a behavior that shows dissonance. If you were a content young man you would show this young lady more courtesy than you’ve shown so far. She chose to spend time with you, sinful in my opinion, so the least you can do is treat her with some respect.”
“I didn’t. What’re you gonna do about it, nigga?”
“I’ll pray for you and ask you to consider Jesus Christ. He grants the kind of peace and contentment nothing else can. Have a good day.” The door slammed hard behind Okon as he exited the apartment. He stopped when he saw Ekanyin and Miriam appear at the top of the stairs in the balcony.
“We heard the commotion. Are you okay?” Ekanyin asked, concern written all over her face.
Okon nodded yes. “Hey, who said that ministering was a piece of cake? He’ll come around. Watch.” All three slowly broke into a smile and then walked together towards the next apartment.
The bus rolled to a stop, cutting off the spontaneous religious singing that had engulfed the bus as a result of a successful ministerial trip to the rental units next door.
All eyes turned to gaze at Okon, who now stood in the middle of the bus as if he wanted to testify about something. Ekanyin clapped as she sat up on her seat.
“Ah, I’m sorry, everyone,” Okon said. “But I just saw a friend.” He doubled over, looked out of the window and pointed towards the bus stop.
All eyes followed the direction of his pointing.
Marisella stood at the bus stop shivering in the cold. She swung her arm around and about her as she spoke into her cell phone.
Ekanyin’s smile disappeared.
“Ahem,” Okon began. “Spirit tells me that that young lady is a potential member of this church. I need to go out there and minister to her.”
The smiles rematerialized on the passengers’ faces, but not on Ekanyin’s. Okon hurried out of the bus before she could stop him. As he walked towards Marisella, he prayed that she came back to the bus with him. If she didn’t, he had some explaining to do.
“Hello, we meet again,” Okon said to Marisella, putting on the charm.
Marisella studied him closely, hissed, and then returned to punching numbers on her cell phone. “Please go away.”
He studied her closely and realized that she looked even prettier under the late morning sunlight. Her skin was the color of a ripened peach, and her eyes were doe-shaped with a hint of Asian. Her hair was wrapped up in a bun – held together with a stick like a Geisha’s – and it was as black as coal. “I’m not here to preach to you. I’m here to offer you a ride. If you’re waiting for the bus, it may take a while.” He looked around. “Maybe the buses don’t run on Sundays.”
She gazed at the big white bus and frowned. “You gonna offer me a ride on that bus? Where are you gonna take me to, your church?” She chuckled.
“Actually my car is parked at the church. From there, I can give you a ride to wherever you’re going.”
“You want a captive audience, right?”
Okon smiled. “If you look at it that way. However, no preaching from me.”
“Why do you wanna do this?”
“I’m a Christian”
“Try me. Give me a chance.”
“Listen. I made a mistake last night going home with that psycho. I won’t make another mistake like that again.”
“I’m offering nothing but a ride to your destination. I would be going against my religious belief if I did anything untoward.”
She put away her cell phone. “Where are you from?”
“I told you last night.” He wanted to see if he’d registered in any way in her memory.
“I don’t remember.”
“You’re from Peru. See? I remember.”
“My parents are from Peru.”
Okon wiggled his shoulders. “At least I remember something.”
“I was drunk last night. How do you think I ended up with that prick?”
Yeah. How did you end up with that prick?
“Well, my offer still stands.”
The bus honked.
Marisella sighed audibly. “Okay. But no preaching. I feel bad already, you knowing everything about me and… this morning.”
“I don’t judge people. That’s not my thing.”
“I know. You’re a Christian.”
She walked towards the bus with Okon.
When Okon’s Ford turned onto Cascade Road, he popped in a DeAngelo CD and stepped on it. “Fasten your seat belt.”
Marisella leaned back on her seat and smiled. “That’s peculiar. Shouldn’t you be listening to a church song?”
“Church is over. Man does not live by church songs alone.”
“Boy. You sure demonstrate that. What’s your name? Just in case.”
“Just in case of what?”
He chuckled. “I told you yesterday.”
She leaned forward on her seat. “Listen, buster. I was drunk yesterday.”
“What’s a pretty girl like you doing with… a prick like that?”
“You won’t let it go, huh?” She leaned back on her seat. “What’s a church boy like you doing with a sinner like me?”
“Because I’m a sinner too. We’re all sinners.”
“I’d say ‘Amen’ to that. Your mom worries a lot about you?”
“Too much. She thinks that I’m a phony.”
“Well, are you?”
“We’re all sinners, Marisella.”
“Tell me about it. I used to go to church a lot. Then…”
“I know. It’s hard. Prayer helps. Are you Baptist?”
“Catholic.” She sighed. “Expect me to be dead by tomorrow anyway.”
Okon frowned. “Why?”
“I think we share something in mothers. My mom found out that I wasn’t at my girlfriend’s like I told her, so she’s gonna kill me when I get home.”
She flung her arms around. “Are you hard of hearing? I told her last night that I was visiting my girlfriend. Well, I did do that part. But then we decided to go to the club. She met this cute boy, who eventually showed more interest in me than in her. One thing led to another and I ended up at his place. Meanwhile, my mom called my friend to check up on me. Instead of covering for her friend, she spills the beans. Can you believe that? Now my mom’s gonna kill me.”
“Why did she do that?”
“Duh. The guy she was interested in went home with me. She was mad at me. And jealous. I didn’t mean to do anything. It’s just that… Hey, I was drunk.”
“You can stay at my place until she changes her mind,” Okon said smiling.
She punched him playfully on his shoulder. “Then she’ll kill me twice.”
“It won’t happen if we pray together.”
“I thought you said no preaching.”
“It’s a request.”
“It’s a hit-on. But you’re a nice person.”
“I try. Sometimes having friends who understand what you’re going through helps. I like you. I’d like us to be friends.”
She frowned as she studied him. “You don’t even know me.”
“I know enough.”
“I need to go to the little girl’s room.”
“Hold on. McDonald’s is a block away.”
“Their bathrooms are dirty, man. You live close?”
“Yes!” He winced. “Yes.”
She smiled. “You’re a piece of work.”
“It wasn’t necessarily a compliment. May I use your bathroom?”
They both laughed at his restraint this time.
“Is it clean?”
“Cleaner than McDonald’s.”
She paused, as if she was thinking about it. “Then let’s go.”
Okon smiled as he stepped on the gas pedal. He must call Miriam to tell her not to bring Ekanyin to his house until maybe… tomorrow?
“Don’t get any ideas, big boy. I’ve sinned enough for one day.”
“I’m a Christian, Marisella.”
“And a sinner. Remember?”
“We’re all sinners.” His smile widened as he began to contemplate having this angel of a girl in his apartment. He’d never had a girl this beautiful as his visitor. For the first time in a long time he thanked his mother for visiting. If it weren’t for her his apartment would still be an eye sore.