My father was a gambling man. He taught me to gamble too, but he never really taught me all there was to it. Everything we owned—the house, the chairs, the refrigerator and even the dog—he got from gambling, and everything we lost, he lost to gambling.
He came home one evening with a brown adult dog tottering behind him, tied to a leash which he held steadfastly unto. The story was told of how Odunbaku had lost all his money to Father over a game of draughts. And in a bid to win back his money, he wagered an amount he did not have while solemnly hinging hopes on a positive outcome. Father beat him hands down. When he was asked to produce the wager, he stuttered. Father picked him up immediately, since he was a small man, shook him hard and dipped hands into his pockets; there was not a kobo on him. Frustrated, father picked up a rope and tied it around the neck of Odunbaku’s dog. The dog protested at first, but when it got a fierce kick on its side, and on the realization that its owner was doing nothing to save it, it simply succumbed and followed Father home.
We were not surprised, when three months after, the poor thing was no longer seen around the house. We knew it had gone the same way it came.
As the dog disappeared, so did every other thing we owned. One after another, year after year, until we had nothing left. Just two months ago, father returned home with a man who was at least one foot taller and much bigger in size. They talked in hushed tones in the sitting room. Father’s face was grim and unsmiling, the man’s beamed with smiles and shone. They stood up and shook hands, father handed him some papers. The man smiled but father still did not see a reason to smile. Thereafter, we started paying rent on our own house.
* * *
Looking at him now as he lay lifeless like a piece of wood in his mat-coffin (he didn’t leave us any money to buy him a proper coffin), the hatred I felt for him glowed and fostered. Imagine, all he left me, his first son, as inheritance, was a worthless Nokia phone that goes off and comes on at will.
This hatred goes deep! It goes beyond the hatred you feel for one, for doing or not doing certain things. It is the hatred that smolders because you see an acute replication of another in you—a behavior you never bargained for—and suddenly an intense fight ensues, to free yourself from the entanglement of a suffocating propellant, to step off the burning coals under your feet. You struggle so hard to put out the fire that causes black thick smoke to go up within you, yet suddenly, there’s an eminent realization that makes you want to pick up a revolver and bore a hole in your head: that that which you’d love to do, you do not, and that which you’d rather not, you do.
* * *
For me, it started in primary school (primary two). I always had a die or two and a pack of cards in my pockets. All you had to do was signal and we’d go to a corner, where teachers or obnoxious female pupils would not see us and there, I’d take your pocket money. I was soon known all over the school by other boys who gambled too, just like an Indian hemp vendor is known and patronized by smokers; to non-smokers, he may just come across as a regular easy-going guy on the street.
As the years went by, I upped it. I brought the game back home. Charity begins at home but gambling begins abroad. We soon found rendezvous—behind gates and doors and under trees—where we furtively threw our dice and played our cards. Often times, we scampered at the approach of an adult. Once, my father came upon us (it obviously takes a thief to catch a thief) as I was about to grab my wins from where we had heaped the bets. He held my hand. I quickly released the coins and stood up with him still holding strongly to my arm. The other boys scurried away. My heart pounded and a clog caught in my throat. He wore an expressionless look and so I didn’t know what to expect. He slowly let go of my hand and commanded, “Take out your pockets.”
I did, more coins and notes fell off and assembled with the heap on the ground.
“Put them together and count,” he further commanded.
I stooped, arranged the pieces and counted. “Two—” I cleared my throat and announced, “Two hundred and sixty.”
He stretched forth his hand and I placed all the money in it. He counted off two hundred naira, put it in his pocket and handed me the remaining sixty naira. He clasped me on the shoulder and muttered, “Your father indeed gave birth to you, carry on!” He walked away and I stood there beaming with smile and renewed zest for the game. A boy whose father has sent to steal, does not go knocking on doors, he breaks in with his foot.
* * *
“Mr. Michael Olusola was a good man,” the officiating pastor who read Father’s eulogy hollered. I mused. If only he knew how many times we had had to make a fire to burn the sole of Mother’s feet, just to revive her after Father had knocked her unconscious; if only he knew that the last time he bought me and my younger brother a piece of clothing was December 2007. Good man indeed!
My father’s burial was not the kind you attended with the hope of getting two plates or more of food. If you got a sachet of water at the end of the day, you should go home and give a dance offering to your creator. People who came with the evil intent of two plates or more had long gone and all we had left under the one canopy that was set up in front of our building were five genuine sympathizers. There was no music! I sat on a low stool in front of the house; my hands were folded across my belly. I was bending slightly and peering into the canopy. I literally sympathized with the sympathizers.
* * *
I remember going from behind gates and doors on the street to hide-outs and joints. We rolled dice in the hide-outs amidst billowing smokes from sticks of cigarette and wraps of marijuana, and placed bets on sporting events, especially football, in the joints. By now, I had begun to smoke and get red eyed. I drank alcohol like whale drinks water.Soon, our everyday conversation was cluttered with “I will do so and so, do you want to bet?” We would hold out our hands and expect notes to be stuck in them.
One afternoon,Father took me to the arena where they played their draughts game. I didn’t know he was teaching me the trade. I monitored events with eagle eye. At home, he produced his own board and taught me the moves, the secrets and the deceits. I learnt patiently, taking in every detail. Soon enough, I started playing in the arena. First, I played with the young men and then I graduated to playing with the gray-beards. Then, I realized that grayness had nothing to do with wits. The age of Methuselah has nothing to do with the wisdom of Solomon. I whipped the gray ones like babes.
The advancement was sweet. The bait in the mouth of a snare is usually sweet to the rodent until the snare snaps. I didn’t need to take money to the arena anymore. I just went. Once I sat on any bench, men would cluster around me and place bets on me. I took a large chunk of the winnings at the end of the day. One time I had to play Father; I whipped him without looking in his face.But he took back his money on our way home. I absconded from school every now and then, and each time, there was a cluster of men waiting to bear me on their bicycles to the arena.
One day, an old man visited our town from another town. He got to the arena and played with the men. He won bets after bets. In the brown bag he carried was a large chunk of bush meat which he nibbled from time to time. He also drank from the guard of palm wine he stood beside the bag. He won each game effortlessly. You could see that in the way he smiled at, scolded and scorned his opponents.
I arrived at the scene and praises were sung of me. By then, the man had just scraped the money he won from Olawale (someone I considered a very fierce contender). The men bore me shoulder high and put me down in front of the man. One of them said, “This small boy will take all your money, including the wine you drink and the meat you eat.” The man looked me over, smiled and offered me a piece of meat. I took it with all gladness and munched away. I was trying to conceal my fear.
“That’s the only piece of meat he’ll get from me,” the man said and laughed a throaty laugh.
The game was immediately set up. I looked into his face, he smiled; I feigned a smile. The men placed five hundred naira on me; the man took out a clean note of five hundred naira and placed it beside their bet. In a matter of one minute or two, he had seized eight pieces of mine and I only had two of his. In four minutes, the game was over and he scraped the winnings, smiling. The men behind me shifted uneasily. The man placed five hundred still and set up the board; no one moved. When he finished setting up the board, he looked up at the men and spread his palms.
“Is this all the boy knows?” he asked. “Certainly he’ll do better in the next round.” Some of the men fizzled. The others simply looked on with their hands folded across their chests. A bulky man stepped forward and placed two five-hundred’s; he stooped and looked hard into my face, “Win this for me boy, you hear me?” I nodded. The meat-eating man placed another note of five hundred on the bench and the game started. The first seven to eight moves gave me an upper hand. The men behind me smiled and resumed chanting. The man smiled still. We pushed our pieces with cruel intentions and stole wicked spontaneous glances at each other. He soon got what he wanted; he had been plotting it. In one move, he swept four of my pieces off the table and smiled. I struggled from that moment on. At the end of the game, he was laughing much louder. He scraped the winning and drank some more wine. When I looked behind me, there was no man standing. I stood up quietly with my head hung down and walked home. The man laughed louder.
I didn’t know the men had gone to wait for me on the track that led home. Two of them appeared from the bush. One of them was the bulky man who had placed a thousand naira. I looked back and two more men appeared; behind the first two men, appeared about three more.
By the time I got home that evening, my lips were two times their normal sizes. My right ear was twice the size of the left and my left eyelid covered the eye completely. My head felt like I needed someone to help me carry it.
I recovered fast, but not with bets. I won no more bets. I condescended to the level I had forsaken: rolling of dice, still I won nothing. I went to the joints, no luck!I went to the hide-outs and only succeeded in smoking wraps of Indian hemp and losing more of my money. Even if I was winning normal games and someone suddenly placed a bet on me, I’d begin to lose. I lost all my money and began to place bets with items like my clothes, shoes and the likes. As I thought about this, I hated myself. The more I tried, the more I lost. Then I made a conscious resolution: I was going to stop gambling before I lost everything I owned, including my mind. It was then I learnt the lesson my father never thought me; the lesson he struggled with all his life; the lesson he was too ashamed to mention; the lesson that made him go back every day: “It is much easier to start than to quit.”
I purged my room and pockets of cards and dice and everything that reminded me of gambling; I even avoided the arena like a plague. Still, I gambled every day.Something I do not know, speaks to me constantly until I head towards the arena. I have borrowed money, stolen money and sold properties that didn’t belong to me just to satiate this voice in my head. Still the voice refuses to go. Why am I like this? Must I lose even my soul to gambling just like he did? Must every child of the chameleon dance like him in the name of walking?
* * *
Even as I sit here staring at his corpse, the stupid companion in my head still says to me, “There’d be very many of them in the arena now; today could be your lucky day you know? Just steal the purse of one of those pathetic sympathizers and get going.” I try to remove my thought from the voice, but it bangs constantly in my head and steals continually into my thought. What is this?
As I stood and made my way towards the canopy, the preacher repeated, “Michael Olusola was a good man.” I paused. Everyone becomes a good man once he’s dead. If only the preacher knew we may be ejected from the house anytime; if only he knew how much Father owed; if only he knew that there are no chairs in our sitting room, not because they were taking out for repairs, but because Father had placed a bet with them and lost; if only he knew that one time, Father placed a bet with his wife, only the man was too kind not to have come take her away. My father, Mr. Michael Olusola … was a gambling man!