City Paper is not for tourists
I was still shaking when I came down for dinner that evening. My uncle from Rochester was there. We called him that because that’s where he first landed when he came from Nigeria after winning the visa lottery. Now he was in Bowie, with his wife and young family, and was always around our house on the weekend for fellowship prayers and to eat and drink Star beer with my dad, as though his wife’s helpings were not enough.
That evening he was at the dining table lapping up egusi soup with a ball of ground rice in his hand. He smacked his lips on his fingers and my dad complained about me not having the manners to “properly greet” my uncle. I quietly objected to the emphasis on “uncle”: He was only my uncle insofar as every Yoruba man who walked through those doors was my uncle. I said hello, prostrated in the usual custom, and my uncle from Rochester grunted a response.
“What is wrong with him?” my dad asked, as though I were not in the room. “Is he sick?”
“Don’t mind him,” my mother said as she emerged from the kitchen. “He is in mourning.”
“Mourning?” my father asked.
“Yes. His friend the witch, his babalawo, has died.”
“Ey!” said my uncle with a phony sense of alarm. Babalawo was a dirty word in our good Pentecostal Christian home.
“And so your friend is gone, eh?” my father said. I shrugged my shoulders and collected my plate of food. I made to head back upstairs, but my mother gestured for me to sit at the table beside her. “We shall pray for him,” she said, speaking in English on my behalf. “He was a very troubled man.”
My father kissed his teeth. “He was a crazy man.”
“What town is this man from?” my uncle asked, since it was now a topic of conversation.
My mother had this way of pouting, of turning her mouth upside down in disgust or disagreement, and the thought of Mr. Tuck being Nigerian promptly brought both feelings out of her. “He is African-American.”
I said nothing as I ate, my hands near trembling, the food turning in an already unhinged stomach. I left them to it after I felt I’d eaten what I could. I cleared the table and brought them a bowl of soapy water in which to wash their hands. As I went up the stairs I could hear them as they moved around and rustled the pages in their Bibles. Not long after I was in my bedroom listening to the murmurs of their collective prayers. I was riled up, disgusted with the way they had spoken about Mr. Tuck, as though they’d had known him, as though they had met him. But above all, I was disgusted with myself and with the way in which I had fed them the stories he fed me, with humor and, if I was honest, trace amounts of ridicule.
We’d come from New York and had been in the neighborhood less than six months when I met Mr. Tuck. My dad had become a resident physician in Providence Hospital, in Washington, D.C., and my parents eventually bought a house in Northeast, one of six or so fairly modern builds in a small cul de sac off of 18th Street surrounded by older houses and a nursing home. When we first settled in, my mother would give me a ride to the station where I’d take Metro to my new school. But after a couple of weeks she came into my bedroom and handed me the local bus schedules. “It’s much easier than New York’s,” she said.
I learned very quickly that if you missed a bus you’d wait a while for the next one. So I started to secretly walk to the Metro station, up Douglas Street and through Brentwood. In those early mornings, I would cross the Home Depot parking lot to get to the station, pass the Latino men who were up at the crack of dawn, in hoodies and paint-splashed denim, waiting for work. Gulls would circle around the nearby trash-transfer station, where the smell of refuse hung in the air. Sometimes the gulls would linger in the parking lot, like we gave them the impression there was something to scrounge for over here too.
I kept those trips through the neighborhood a secret because, in order to take the shortest route to the station, I would pass Brookland Manor, the Section 8 housing that fringed Downing Street. I didn’t really think anything of it, but I knew my parents would freak out about it. We weren’t coming out of the boondocks, but they were nervous about the move into a new city.
It was along Downing Street that I met Mr. Tuck. It was in the late afternoon and I was making my way home. Spring was giving way to summer, around the time when you had perfect weather in the city and you could casually make your way without feeling like the sun was bullying you.
“You…boy, where you from?”
I didn’t see him before I heard him. He was on the entrance steps outside the door to one block of the apartments, sitting in a butterfly chair. I would’ve put him in his mid-seventies. The skin around his cheeks and chin were well on their way south, carrying his graying beard with him. He wore a kente kufi hat over a balding head, khaki pants, and a gown that you might’ve said had an African print but was nondescript; it didn’t point to a particular region and was nothing like anything I saw at any of the christenings or weddings I’d attended. A sea of beads circled his neck, each a combination of two to three colors that reminded me of plastic lace. His hands leaned onto his carved wooden walking stick.
I put my fingertips to my chest, unsure as to why anyone would talk to me. “Me?”
“Yes, you young man.”
“Speak up!” he shouted and gestured to his hearing aid.
“No, no, you look African. You African?” I had seen some version of this before, the flit of recognition at the DMV while throwing my paperwork together for drivers ed, or on the face of the security guard who handed out name badges during our field trip to the City Museum. I know you. You might think you are one of them, but you are one of us. Except this man wasn’t one of them who said you’re one of us. Sure, he had made an attempt with the Kwanzaa regalia, but I passed him off as an Afrocentric and they usually didn’t trouble me for any kinship.
“I guess I am,” I shouted.
“So where?” he asked.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“What is your name?”
I told him.
“What is your full name?”
I told him this too.
“You and I are brothers,” he said, matter-of-factly, almost to the point where I might’ve believed him had it not been a biological impossibility.
“Our ancestors are one and the same.”
“You are excused,” he said, and clammed up. He just stared at me with those pent-up, glassed-over eyes. I filed it under “odd encounter” and kept moving.
I would see him on my way home from school almost every day after that, at the same time and always in the same uniform. Each day we would talk a little more. At first, scrappy exchanges, bones with shreds of meat on them. But soon I found myself stopping to spend time with him because he was, for want of a better word, entertaining, and I didn’t know anyone else in the neighborhood.
In summer the Downing Street community came alive. For every man on the corner there was a child playing in the streets with no fear of the road. The ice cream truck would come around every so often and there’d be a cookout almost every other day, accompanied with loud music and street football. Mr. Tuck would sometimes talk to his neighbors, and they seemed nice enough, but you had the impression that anything he had to say fell at their feet. I’d sit outside with him, watching guys tear by on dirt bikes, their bare torsos covered in tattoos. I had nothing better to do. We let our boredom unite us.
Theodore Tuck was his “slave name,” he’d told me. He wanted me to address him as “Babatunde” because it meant “the father had returned” in Yoruba and Theodore had been his grandfather’s name. He told me he had African blood in him, and when I asked, “Oh yeah? What part?” he would say, “The knee, the foot, what did it matter?”
I think it surprised him at first that he found someone willing to listen and to fire questions back, and I think the more I stopped to talk to him the more obligated he felt to say something of value. He’d tell me about Ifa, the original spiritual practices of my people, the Yoruba, and about the different Orisas that were like gods and the ancestors that protected us.
I became a go-between, a ping-pong ball. I’d tell my parents about the man I continued to address as Mr. Tuck, the man who had been to Nigeria and who practiced Yoruba spirituality, and ask why they’d never shared this with me. And they would give me an earful to run back to Mr. Tuck with: that he was practicing juju, dark magic, and that Nigeria had moved on since then.
Within months, I had his spare key and was letting myself in, helping him out around his cluttered and hygienically challenged apartment. He didn’t speak of any family, and I had the impression he was alone. I would bring him junk food, and sometimes some of my mother’s cooking, and I would listen to him talk to me about the time he’d spent in Lagos, when the city belonged to Fela Kuti, and the pilgrimages he made to Ile-Ife, his spiritual home. He had a shoebox of yellowing Polaroids from the 1970s and that time spent in Nigeria. In one picture, behind his smile, behind his thrown-back forehead and his cleft chin, thousands of people gathered for the nine-day river festival for the Orisa Osun; most if not all of them were dressed in white. There was another photo of a local priest and him in prayer, another one in which he was being offered local food.
By the end of the summer it was like enough time had passed for him to let me in on his great secret: his immortality. Not a day passed that he didn’t remind me of this—that he had lived forever, and planned to do so for the foreseeable future.
“I die, I live again—I don’t miss a beat,” he said. “This world can’t get enough of me. I’d show you photos from when I gave a helping hand on the Pyramids, but I tend to travel light.”
He had seen the Medieval Age, the Industrial Age, and the Renaissance, and all of it, he said, belonged to Africa. He could show me recordings, anachronistic proof that he had lived forever. It began to disappoint me, sobering the excitement I used to feel about going around there and listening to his stories. I thought that he had lived too rich a life to be struck with senility.
And then he died.
As usual I’d knocked on his door, warning him of my arrival, and entered his apartment with a Tupperware bowl full of jolof rice. I went into the kitchen, where I’d normally wait for him to emerge from one of the other rooms. But that evening he was there, in the kitchen, on the floor, eyes wide. His cap had fallen off and a string of blood ran from the back of his skull towards it. I dropped the rice, which scattered across the linoleum, and I ran out the building, almost knocking over a group of girls playing foursquare and having their mother volley curses at me.
I didn’t return. And I didn’t tell anyone. Not for four days. I cried silently at night. He haunted my dreams and thoughts. On the fourth day I told my mother that the man I’d told her about, the man I helped out, who had once been to Oshogbo and told me he was a prophet, that man was dead. On the fifth day, as part of a casual conversation over dinner, she told my dad and uncle from Rochester.
On the sixth day, I was determined to walk over there and survey the damage. I stood at the edge of Brookland Manor, taking my cues from the signs the neighborhood gave me, looking for anything different. The trash overspilling the Dumpster and the boys out on the corner were all familiar. I recognized each of their faces now, as they recognized mine, but no one had ever said anything to me over the months gone by. I was afraid of what I might find in Mr. Tuck’s apartment, but I told myself I owed it to the man, to see that he was taken care of. I stepped off the curb, as I’d done many times before, as if stepping into a new world.
There were more neighborhood boys directly outside his building, leaning on the short long fence that separated the pathway from the patch of grass. They cast looks at me, as if for the very first time. Maybe now they were seeing a killer or coward; both come loaded with guilt. I wanted to tell them that the first day was a shock, and that after that I got to thinking how it would make me look. I’ve seen the movies and know the questions that might be asked. Why did I leave the scene? Why is rice everywhere, spilled in the struggle? I walked past them but felt their silence, their eyes on me, the way they’ve rallied together in my absence. Would they trap me once inside? It was too late to turn back now, too late to do anything else but enter.
One boy came up behind me and prevented me from shutting the door. “Thanks,” he said, as though I’d held it open for him. He lingered in the building’s entranceway. Mr. Tuck’s door was the first on the left; I fumbled with the keys as my hand shook. I pushed the key in the lock and rushed inside, half-expecting him to push in after me or kick at the door. I slammed the door shut and leaned against it for a while. For the first time I saw Mr. Tuck’s door for what it really was, a shoddy piece of work, offering no protection from what’s outside.
I quit leaning on the door and told myself I would’ve smelled something by now, but really, what did I know about these things? I checked his bedroom first. I’d never been in his bedroom, I’d expected more clutter but it was all dust, dust, and old furniture. A well-made bed, a walnut wardrobe. I searched around the bedroom for the shoebox full of Polaroids, but there was nothing. In the living room, the TV was gone, a blank space, free of dust, remained. It was now the cleanest space in the apartment.
Or maybe not. I slowly pushed the door to the kitchen open and peered inside. He was not there. The kitchen was spotless. I heard the toilet flush and leapt forward, into the kitchen, as the bathroom door opened and closed. I could hear him as he shuffled down the hallway, the tap of his stick against his wood floors, the groan he would make because walking was now an effort. And then there he was at the door, in the same clothes, his cap back in place.
“Oh, there you are,” he said. “I was starting to believe your parents had put a stop to you coming around here. Either that or you’d lost faith in the stories I’d told you.”
Koye Oyedeji was born in London and now resides in D.C. He teaches creative writing at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and won a Mayor’s Arts Award in 2012. He is currently at work on a novel.