I remember too clearly. The day he left was not the kind of day anyone should leave his family. The sun was directly overhead, and I remember our throats being parched beyond redemption. By the time Mama got us ice-cream, I’d already developed sores on my lips. We were hot, sweaty and miserable.
But not my Papa.
The joy that bubbled in his being was visible but not contagious, as if Mama already had the prophecy of what would happen, and as if we children concurred with her. Papa was oblivious to us, mopping his big bald head, and gnawing on the garlic clover he never went anywhere without.
There was no direct flight, so he was catching a first flight to Amsterdam. Eight tedious hours, he’d say, but the pleasure was all there in his eyes. He was the first in our family to travel abroad, and the fact that he wasn’t doing so legally didn’t bother him. A man had applied for the American DV lottery but had died before the results showed he was a winner. His brother shopped around for a look-alike, located my father, discussed business with him, and sealed the deal.
Four months later, my father, now bearing a dead man’s name, was going to the land of promise. The plan was for him to get established somehow, anyhow, and then send for Mama and us. Mama’s obvious displeasure eventually rubbed off on us. It would be years later that I would begin to understand her reluctance.
Papa was a natural womaniser, a man blessed with too much good looks. A straight well-packed body, an oblong face that housed piercing dark eyes, an aristocratic nose, and full lips that bordered on pretty. The only thing that tainted his handsomeness was teeth that were slightly off colour, stained yellow by garlic juice. Being married and being a father to four children didn’t, couldn’t stop his wandering ways.
When the public address system announced that his flight was ready, he flashed us a thousand watt smile, waved goodbye and was off.
Little did I know that I’d never see him again.
He called twenty-two hours later. Mama came back from our neighbour’s house where she’d received the call, not exactly smiling but not frowning either.
“Your Pa called. He’s in America now. Says to say hello to you all.” That said, she took a seat and started to dish our dinner, food that already gone cold and congealed at the edges.
“Ma,” I began in my ten year old wisdom, a part of me eager to go live in America, the other not wanting to irk my mother. “When do you think Papa will send for us? Will it be very soon?”
She didn’t answer for a moment, but her spoon clanked against her plate. Then she stared me right in the eyes. “There are things you’re too young to understand. Perhaps your Pa will send for us, and perhaps he won’t.”
“Because he is who he is. And as I said, there are certain things you’re too young to understand.”
Her answer did not satisfy me, yet in that secret part of me where I know what things are true and what things are not, I knew it had fallen upon me to be the man of the house. After all, I was already ten years old, soon to be eleven. And I had three younger ones to look after. Not to talk of my mother, my Ma with the habitually pinched face and trembling hands.
I found a dried clover of garlic in his trousers. Without any moment of hesitation, I pocketed it. It made all the sense in the world. If I had to take my father’s place, I had to be like him. I had to be him.
The first gnaw filled my mouth with heat and a horrible taste. I wondered how he could stand it, enjoy it even. But I persevered. I had to be Papa.
In their room, I found a picture of Papa and Mama. She looked very different, with a smile curving her lips. And there was none of that gauntness in her face. In fact, she looked radiant. Positively glowing, like there was nothing more to do in life than savour it. Based on the date on the right had corner of the picture, I realised the picture had been taken a few months to their wedding. And I also understood something else.
Twelve years of being Papa’s wife had drained the life from my mother.
To my surprise, he called again. A month after he left. Even though I didn’t speak to him, I gathered from Mama that he was finding America exciting. He told he her was already getting used to being called something other than his real name, that his new country had dizzying sights and sounds. He didn’t talk about getting a job.
I wanted to ask her if his call meant that we would soon be joining him, but didn’t.
“Ma, didn’t he ask to speak to us?” Ambrose, my eight year old brother asked. I gave him an evil eye. Didn’t he know one didn’t ask Mama that kind of question?
Mama shook her head. “He said to greet you all. Making calls from there is very expensive and he has to save money to send for us.”
“So when are we going?” Ambrose persisted.
“When all is good and ready.” And with that, she turned on her heels and went to her room. Even though she held her head high, I knew stupid Ambrose’s questions had rattled her, made her reconsider that Papa might not come back, as she so strongly believed.
I waited ten full minutes before I knocked on her door. When she didn’t bid me enter, I did anyway. She was curled up in the foetal position, her back to me.
“Ma, are you all right?”
A huge heave went through her body before she pushed herself up and turned to face me. “Yes, I am.” But her eyes were red-rimmed, as red as ripe tomato fruits. “It’s just that…just that…”
“Just that what, Mama?” I moved closer and put my arms around her and was startled when she stiffened. “I’m old enough, Mama. You can tell me what’s wrong?”
Closing her eyes, she sniffed the air. “What’s that smell? Didn’t I tell you not to ever chew garlic again? Didn’t I?”
I’d chewed a bit of a clover about two hours ago, before she came back home from work. After a month of practice, my tongue didn’t recoil in horror anymore even though I still detested the tangy taste.
“Don’t ever chew that noxious stuff in this house again, you hear me.” She was shaking me so hard I thought my teeth would fall out of my skull. Then she burst into tears.
I was confused and frightened, and slowly removed my arms from around her.
“I’m sorry.” She finally said. “It’s just that I don’t want you to be like him. Never.”
“But…but he’s my pa, and now that he’s gone, I have to take his place.”
She sighed. “No, you don’t have to take his place. I love you just as you are. Do you understand?”
Even though I didn’t, I nodded nevertheless.
“Even though you’re still too young, I’m going to tell you some things. Perhaps then, you’d stop trying to be like your father.”
I didn’t want to hear things about my father; at least not right then. I was still too frightened. I slid off the bed and stood.
The command was soft and sharp and I quickly scrambled for a seat.
“Do you know what a womaniser is?”
I shook my head no, and was startled by Mama’s bark of laughter. “I thought not. A womaniser is a man who loves women too much. He just can’t do without them, and the more they are, the merrier.”
“Is Papa a womaniser?”
She nodded. “Yes. My mother didn’t want me to marry him. She saw right through him, but by God, you father could turn on the charm. Of course I went right ahead and married him. A year later, as I gave birth to you, I heard news that another woman had also just given him a son. You have a half-brother. Do you know what that means?”
I shook my head.
“It means you have another sibling that is different from Ambrose, Elvis, and Lilah. He’s about your age now.” For a minute she seemed to withdraw inside herself. “If your father had stopped at that, it would have been all right. He’s not made another mistake of knocking someone else up, but he’s done just as well. Over the years, I’ve caught him with several women, some not much older than sixteen.”
“But nothing. And now that he’s travelled, I’m sure he’s going to find himself some American woman and forget all about us.”
“Shh. I’m tired. Could you close the door after you when you leave?”
Bewilderment surged through me. Was the conversation over? “Mama…”
“I’m sorry I told you all this, but you’ve got to stop acting like your father. I don’t like it.”
I never chewed garlic again. We never continued that conversation. And none of my younger siblings ever bothered Mama with questions about Papa again.
A year rolled by, with Papa calling about every month with promises of getting a job and sending for us. Then two years and then three years. The calls became spaced out, like every four months. And then they stopped.
Mama’s face lost its pinched look, and slowly she began to resemble the woman I’d seen in the picture.
Before I knew it, I was sixteen and virtually fatherless.
I came home from school to find Mama on the couch. There were no tears this time but there was a hardness in her face that could cut diamonds.
“An old friend called. She somehow heard the news.”
“What news, Mama?” My voice was now fully broken and still embarrassed me.
“The news we’ve been waiting for for five years.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand you.” I dropped my school satchel and sat opposite her. “What happened?”
“It’s you father.”
A knot of an emotion I couldn’t quite define gripped my midsection. “Is he dead?”
“No. He’s alive and doing very well. And by the way, he’s remarried to a white American, and has another child. Obviously, he got by by telling her he was never married. And as he is going by a new name…” She shrugged and stopped.
She was trying to be nonchallant but I knew, had an inkling of how it must feel. Your worst dream come true. I wanted to tell her it would be all right, but I also knew it was no time for platitudes.
Like that time five years ago, I slipped my arms around her waist, only that she didn’t stiffen now. Instead, she rested her head on my shoulder. In no time, I felt wetness. She was crying.
The next day, after she’d left for work, I came back from school. Rounding up Papa’s clothes did not take too long. Emptying the pockets, I found a grey mess that must some years ago have been garlic.
In the backyard, I built a huge bonfire, feeding it Papa’s clothes one at a time. When all had turned to ashes, I turned back and went into the house. Now, my father was officially dead.