The City Will Love You
Excerpt from Wood
He arrived in the middle of the rainy season in 1990, on one of those days when an intense sun had dried the previous day’s mud into cracked patterns and many-sided cookies in the ground. I was playing table tennis with my sister on a makeshift table of thin plywood propped up on four of our mother’s broken flower pots. In fact, I was about to beat her for the first time ever, and I was getting ready to call Da to come and watch, when I heard a car honking at our gate. I hesitated because I didn’t want to stop the game, but I was the youngest so I was expected to go. I sprinted to the gate, jumped to free the clasp that held it closed from the top, pushed the left gate open and swung out with the right gate, hanging onto it like a chameleon. By the time the silver nose of a Chrysler had appeared over the rise of the slope that led into our compound, catching the light of the setting sun, Ma and Da were standing at our front door. Da jumped, then yelled Harry and ran towards the car as though there was no one else in the world who could possibly drive to our house in a powder blue Chrysler Cordoba. The man in the car braked as soon as the car had cleared the closing arc of the gate, leaving the car at an odd angle as his shiny brown head emerged from the two-door saloon. He met Da with a bear hug and lifted him clean off the ground, even though Da was at least two inches taller. When Da was back on his feet and Ma was standing just behind him, Uncle Harry said, “Jimmyfio, is that a pot belly you’re growing?” That’s when I looked at my sister. It was, without doubt, Uncle Harry because only Da’s siblings called him Jimmyfio, little Jimmy – with reference to Da’s father who shared Da’s name – and we knew Da’s seventeen other siblings.
“I’m trying to be like my big brother,” joked Da, pointing at Uncle Harry, who had, excuse me to say, quite a big paunch.
Uncle Harry threw his head back and laughed, then he pushed Da to one side and hugged Ma. “Atuu, NaaNaa.” He held her an arms length away and smiled. “Do you ever get less beautiful?”
Ma laughed the same laugh that my sister laughed when she got phone calls late at night and went to her room to take them.
“Is this the ’76?” Da ran his hand along the roof of Uncle Harry’s car and slapped it once.
“Yes.” Uncle Harry’s moustache twitched as he smiled. “Ei, my brother, still no car but you know every car in existence.”
“Nii Ayi, come here.” Da signalled to me then turned to my sister. “You too, Ayikailey.”
I sprang from the gate and ran to him, grabbing his arm before my sister could reach him.
“This is your Uncle Harry who lives in Liberia,” he said. “Ayikailey, do you remember him? You were six when he last visited.”
My sister shook her head.
“Well, I remember you,” Uncle Harry opened his arms for a hug. “Atuu, you were a pretty little thing then and you’re even prettier now. And you,” he said, turning to me and inclining his head so I would go to him, “were an ugly baby, but look at you now! Atuu.”
Da and Ma laughed, then Da pointed at the car. “Nii Ayi, this car is five years older than you.”
“Really?” I ran to the car and peered at the wooden dashboard as though it could tell me the truth.
My sister came to stand beside me and whispered, “And I’m one year older than the car.”
“Show off,” I said, and pushed her, suddenly upset that our game had been interrupted, because it would have been so good to beat her and somehow I knew she wouldn’t allow me to continue the game later.
Ayikailey took a jug of water to the living room to serve Uncle Harry, Ma and Da, then we sat near the door, just in case we weren’t allowed to stay and listen to their conversation.
Ma said that even when Nelson Mandela was in jail he saw his family more regularly than Uncle Harry saw his.
Uncle Harry and Da laughed.
Uncle Harry shook his head and said that we were lucky this time because he was staying with us for three days because his wife, Auntie Mati, was moving back to Ghana with the kids so he had to sort out a house for them.
Ma looked at Da and the two of them laughed. Uncle Harry asked why, but that just made Ma and Da laugh harder.
I looked at my sister and she leaned towards me and whispered that whenever Ma asked Da about Uncle Harry, Da would say that Uncle Harry never asked to visit or stay, he just turned up and did it. I laughed too, even though I didn’t understand.
Uncle Harry turned to us. “The two of you, go and get my bag from the back of the car.”
I ran ahead giggling, knowing I had been naughty and listened to grown up conversation and got away with it. I was also looking forward to playing with the cassette player in Uncle Harry’s car.
That night, when I padlocked our gate, I slipped into the car again and fumbled with the knobs before I rolled up the windows and locked it. I looked back at it before I went indoors; it glowed in the pale light and I wished that Uncle Harry would leave the car with us.
The next morning Uncle Harry and Da were sitting outside, under our guava tree, talking, when I nearly beat my sister at table tennis; she won by just two points.
Uncle Harry whistled when Ayikailey’s last shot whizzed past my bat. “You guys are pretty good, you know. Have you tried lawn tennis?”
“Harry,” said Da, “racquets are expensive. Please don’t encourage them.”
When Da said racquets, I said, “Oh, long tennis. I have played twice at Kaneshie Sports Complex. I want to be like Frank Ofori or Andre Agassi… or…” I stopped because my sister was laughing. “What?”
“Nii Ayi, it’s lawn tennis.”
I saw that Da was trying not to laugh so I knew she was right.
Uncle Harry’s moustache twitched before he said, “Don’t worry about the name. I’ll get you both racquets myself. The company I work for supplies wood to the companies that make racquets.”
Uncle Harry, it seemed, had studied forestry in his college in La Mirada, California and now he worked for a consulting firm that found suitable West African woods for different companies in the US.
“Your Uncle used to be college champion.”
Uncle Harry shook his head, rubbing the stubble beginning to appear on his clean-shaven chin, “I wasn’t college champion; I used to beat the college champion when I played him, but I couldn’t play college tennis because I was playing football.”
Ma came to our front door waving the telephone. “Harry, a call for you…” She paused. “From Delores.”
Da looked at Uncle Harry and rolled his eyes. “You gave her our number to call you?”
Uncle Harry shrugged. “I don’t have another number here yet.”
Delores was Uncle Harry’s ex-girlfriend who lived in Virginia. She was one of several girlfriends he had during his years in college. By the time he was vice-captain of his college football team in his junior year, he had fifteen girls on the go and he kept them sweet by telling them that his tribe in Africa forbade him from sleeping with one woman more than twice between each new moon.