Warning: These words, you'd find, are as strong as a boilermaker, or its African relative, ògógóró. If you can't hold them in, don't drink.
If you listen closely, above the sound of midnight, above the hum of the faceless drunk staggering back to his makeshift crib; the crooning of call girls, craning necks, fleshy thighs and all, asking for a quickie; the tooting of a chamois-coloured Toyota sedan probably cradling a lucky “whorezula” and one of those callous clienteles that besiege this side of Pound Road seeking sweet release; the snoring of the market madman sleeping under a streetlamp that never lights; the rapid, intermittent ra-ta-ta emanating from the shaky wooden shack that hosts the silhouette of notorious Baby Mama, who, pants down, leaned over the kiosk and conducted her shady business with her usual last customer— the pudgy plumber always pleading for a little more time to come...
If you listen above all these, and peer into the dead of the night, you will hear the other— more musical, clinical, tranquil, and bereft of the sweat, hurriedness and steam that fog the former. It is the sound of me, strolling, nodding to Phyno's Man of the Year, stopping to scribble at intervals, turning every secret the night holds here into naira.
“Enyị-a, do and release na. My husband dey wait me for house.”
“Ọga, you no wan fuck?”
“Touch my boobie na. This nyash go bring you goodluck.”
“I turned sixteen, yesterday. I sweet.”
“Short-time, five hundred, last.”
Someone has to write these things, right? Remind posterity that there once was such a cesspool, this far-flung side of Osisioma-Aba, in case God gets too angry, breaks his own promise and destroys this part of the earth again with another flood. Again, someone has to be these things; be part of the typical thrum and bustle that greets Umuode every night.
Someone has to be the food vendor—Ma Caro by dawn, Baby Mama at dusk. Someone has to be the for-profit mongrels and touts, bus drivers, and motor park clouts. Someone has to be the sleazy polytechnic campus girls who read low-cost books by day, and by night, sell boobs and buttocks as low as three hundred naira. And lastly, someone has to arrange, procure and keep the order of things, so that every day runs in a continuum. This is where Hades meets Eden. How I rose to become the keeper of souls is a backstory on its own.
Meanwhile, because I love spoilers and hate suspense, you must know that whatever happened between me, Marilyn, and big-breasted Nwakaego, did not swallow my head. The gist don sell finish on Gistreel, and at the end of the day, all man believe say in the spirit of hustle na who fall dem chop, na who die, lose. We’ll soon get to that part of the gist.
As to who I am, shebi my own name no kill me ni? You wake up one morning to find out your parents gave you a name that will always keep you within every frat's radar, you learn to swim without hands and trundle water without legs, just to stay afloat. It is not an everyday name. The first time I introduced myself to the street was DoomsDay for me. I’d just turned 15.
“You say you be who?”
“Alo, wetin? Who goes this man, nah? Àró, get this man down!”
These boys on Cambodia Avenue aren't called “Jackals” to laugh with you. It was that day I confirmed that blood indeed had a salty taste; say my fine-boy looks did not settle so well with most men; say an angry man is a horny man; say weed-inspired konji no know male or female nyash! After the “point one” and his second-in-command tired of fisting me, this other older frat girl with them decided to have her fun too. They called her Mami, Queen of the Coast. She always wore this black feline mask, so no one in our area knew her true identity.
The masked she-devil, sporting a tattooed belly, dangling waist-beads and all, rode my painfully erect penis until I spasmed with a breathless mix of fear, humiliation, and … relief. For many nights to come, my dreams would be haunted by the masked girl with the tattooed waist, whose sensual touch bore testimony to her years of experience. And for many years to come, I’d spend my days searching in the moans and body movements of other women, the mystery girl who took my chastity without recourse to my penile frailty. That incident was to be my unceremonial rite of passage into the world of active sex.
Who’s talking about defilement for what I’d unashamedly enjoyed? Na street be this. Anything is obtainable, including free or forced sex! And growing up here in the ghetto as a boy, you find we may not react as caustic as you’d expect to nonconsensual sex. Most boys here in their warped minds look forward to such “altercations,” fantasize about it even, and when it eventually happens, well, we count down and … we move.
At 17, I don embrace street full-full, letting its derelict arms reform me. Parentage has nothing to do with what I've become. As an unspoken rule, I don't talk about family background. All there is to know is I'm the fourth child, third son. No be me tell my papa to born eight children wey him no fit cater for. I fought a battle my parents lost and won.
Shaa, everything don change now, because I chose to believe in myself, believe that there is a God above who legit blessed every hustle. Every hustle no be hustle-o. The six-bedroom duplex I hardly slept in now, or the four Lexus SUVs parked in my garage, have little to say about my humble beginnings—born and bred in the ghetto. I wan think say I no get conscience; say na survival instinct guide me reach this level-o. Shaa, don't get me wrong. Ok. Chill. Make I pass you small orientation. Let it be my official introduction and your exposure to my world.
See, ba? There is nothing about any “hustle” that is legit. No. Not one. So if you’re most of the things I can't be, say: a decent classroom teacher whose reward is in heaven, a studious student who reads for grades and for the future, an honest merchant with no false measures, a preacher of the controversial gospel, a coffin-maker— you are not “hustling.” You are making a legitimate living.
However, there's this other means of livelihood where I and a few others have carved a sort of niche. So, when I say I am a hustler, it means everything that pertains to me—words, thoughts, and actions—is all convertible to a monetary equivalence.
At a tender age of 6, I been don already dey profit from sex wey I no fit give, information worthy of note, and an empty bed in the two rooms that housed us, a family of ten. There was this buddy always coming to seek out Dimma, my eldest sister. No dulls. I became the demon always standing between him and his heartthrob.
There's nothing more frustrating for two sex-starved souls than seeing a little boy, hanging around the room, who wouldn't go away. I stuck to those two like a tsetse fly perched on a scrotum until dude started using his head. He learned to beat me off by sending me on errands to buy suya, mikki-mikki, and candies, which I ate most of.
Soon, I became the small pimp who arranged the rendezvous points for the hornies, the harbinger of bad news who gave the “coast no clear” signal when either of my parents or eldest brother was home, and the stiff-necked sentry who wanted to be bribed with more barbecued beef and bread. Sum this little knowledge up with my first “Mami sexperience,” and you’d have gotten exactly what you asked for: Alọ̀ra.
Two decades later, when it became obvious I could have neither a university education nor a good-paying job, I started with an ushering crew of seven: five beauties and this other guy, Kemka, who was sent away from home because dude was inclined to share his body with guys. Seven of us, brought together by hunger and a sense of danger and death, quested for survival. There was Kemisola, the Yoruba girl from Oshogbo, come east to make a living; Aisha, from the north, stayed back after her National Service; Emem, the chubby lass from Ikot-Ekpene; and Dera and Mera the ebony twins from Owerri. Na only me and Kemka be Aba brought-up.
We needed housing. So we went to the only place and location we could afford: the decrepit building behind Tonimas, rented the 32nd crib, last room, last floor. It became our conference room and crashing place because there was little or no time for sleep. I was the manager of the team. It was obvious I had an administrative calling. Besides, it was all my idea. I nosed around for the right events, struck good prices, and when the parties were over and all the married women had gone home leaving their husbands behind, I delegated which girl to which potbellied big man. That's where the big cuts came from, the after-party. Might sound easy. But it's not just us. There were various ushering crews springing up here, every day. And there were the freelancers who come to spoil the market with their cheap rates. So we needed a strategy.
First, we got a business name and complimentary cards. “De Angels” worked after it took us three weeks to discover the typo when someone called, asking to speak with the director of “De Angles.” I almost killed the graphics designer for free. Next, we created a record book; call it a database of all our after-party clients: names, status, locations, spouses, kids, businesses, biggest secrets, weirdest desires, etc., etc. Our sources were our clients themselves. You want to see a running mouth, big and wide? Give the penis a good head, the belly good food and wine, then wait for the buccal diarrhea. Same applies to the vagina too. Give it a good thudding and ass-licking, and watch the woman cum from her mouth.
Don't judge me for coming up with that nasty idea. It wasn't even at its best then, but it was those backup files that kept us afloat during our drowning days. What that means is that an “angel,” on instruction, could wake up one morning, stick to your ass for a week, professing love and loneliness, and by weekend decide to come visit you in your marital home...
“Now, Chief Nzeobi, you don't want that, do you? You don't want me…”
Mind you, Dera is good at this roleplay: threatening, at the same time guilt-tripping her “asset.” And when she whines this way over the phone, you can be sure Chief would go weak in the knees from fear of blackmail, and an imminent loss of a good “sex slave.” See? For them married juggernauts, good sex is hard to buy, and when they find something as packaged as what De Angels offer, they want to treasure it for life!
Say market don sell na packaging-o. Groundnut and peanut no be same price-o. Our services have a God-given knack to them. We (except Kemka) swung both ways, and so can serve any fucking gender that came our way. It even made us scarce commodities, hence quite ... expensive. You'd find a lot of persons have the craziest, dirtiest desires they want to live out before they die: threesomes, BDSM, fetish, interracial— we made all of their wet dreams come true. Someone fit just come say na Calabar girl ’im wan tidy, and ... Emem, you're up. Usually, I handled the bigger deals, like this one time one man fly me go Dubai to service both him and his wife during their honeymoon… Haha! Ok. That’s not the story for today.
Back to Chief. He does what any man thinking with his balls would do: call to postpone Dera's meeting with a bank transfer typed with fingers shaky from exasperation and an inflated ego that some daughter of Eve misses him. The alert usually runs into six figures. Thank you, Chief for your patronage. See you next weekend. Kọọdi.
Our customers kept coming and cumming, and so did the money. In time, the business needed an edifice, and what else was more eligible than the dilapidated five-story building that’d housed us for almost five years. Mr. Landlord had to sell. We had him by the neck. He was a frequent consumer, and we had things to say which he wouldn't want his wife to hear. Bought over, renovated, it became our operation center, no more a residential building.
We moved to a duplex in Housing Area, but we never really moved from the firm. It became home for not just seven angels, but thirty-two more, spread in each of the thirty-two rooms that made up the chalet. In honour of our humble beginnings, we decided this hotel-chalet-masseuse-lounge-bar-event center would be called 32 Rooms.
Let's get one thing straight. My angels no be ashawó. No. That would be really defaming our prestigious service to this state and society at large. We no dey stand for road dey beg for men. We no get that kind time. Na men and women dey come look for us. Na social work we dey do. We offer therapy to depressed minds, we give massage. The kind of girls my organization boasts of na the ones wey fit audition for “Big Brother Naija,” enter, win. Na here we dey groom future models and Miss World dem. Call any of my angels ashawó, and I go sue you for everything your life is worth. No jokes...
We never ran out of events: weddings, birthdays, housewarming, luncheons, conferences, board meetings, burials. You read right. Burials. Grief is still nature's most powerful aphrodisiac if you must know. And there's none hornier than a bereaved woman whose husband just left a load of cash in the bank, worth millions in property. It was on one such burial occasion I met my own funeral— Marilyn.
When you walk into 40-40 Lounge, you will see that warning—or rather, the evolution of reason—running boldly across the wall, in a marquee of red and green lights, above the DJ stand. It tells of a certain love for poetry, of a mockery of the paradise story, of recreation in all of its contemptible immensities. It tells of everything that transpires within this wing of 32 Rooms: boozing, reveling, and a sex session where you get to see “actors” make out live on stage! Na the upgrade to today's virtual pornography or future’s sensual holography be that-o. Talk about innovation, right? If you must get peepz to really wank and show off their pubes in public, you at least gotta make it real.
So you know how Friday night “raw” gets here—brimming. The club, in respect to its name, takes only forty viewers per night, and since everyone books tickets in advance, and because the earlier birds pre-book the erotic classics months before they actually premiere, we almost never have any open seat reservations. Now you can't go through all of that hassle to get in here, and when finally let into Abraham’s bosom, you sit on my upholstered couch in the VIP section, all by yourself, gloomy as gbegiri. Not on my shine, girl. Not on my Rolex watch.
“Babe, how far na?”
She looks up at me, smiles, and says nothing. Maybe it is the music, the soundtrack from the amplified voices of Babyzel, Doris, and Chris—all gooey and red from slaps and thrusts—performing on stage. Those should be enough to drone the ear. I sit down beside her and leaned in. The smile is more alluring this time.
“You were saying?”
“Why don’t we start with your name?”
“Nwakaego.” Her eyes twinkle and roll.
“A befitting name, my prettiness.”
Methinks aloud she's not from around here or made of the Aba stock.
“That's because I no grow for Naija. Just came back from Canada, two weeks ago,” she explains.
Obviously. E dey her accent. She’s some rich lass, smells the money, probably came into this den seeking to spoil or “tear eyes.” Give or take, she fit dey a decade younger, and epa, I don clock thirty-two like-play, like-play o. No skin pain. I rarely come across her type on a daily, shaa. Endpoint: she doesn’t belong here.
“So, why are you seated out here alone? Not enjoying the...” I nod towards the stage where the show was coming to a climactic end with Babyzel's moan filling every corner of the room.
“Oh, I’m yet to catch the feel of all of this. You have not told me your name.”
“The Alóra. Why you sound so refined, but god knows I heard you’re the crudest human ever walked this side of the Dark Continent.”
“Abegi. No mind me. All this funee na packaging-o. We wey no too go school have our way around English grammar. I see you know me quite well?”
“The queer pimp who loves writing, keeping bad records, and making money from blackmail. Who no know you? Your reputation precedes you. Besides, it is in my business to know my mother’s competitors.”
“You must know her, the proprietress of Seven Deck.”
“Are you for real?” I signal to one of my barmen for two shots of vodka. “On the house,” I wink at my companion or, maybe, potential client. I’m not in the business of knowing my competitors, but fraternizing with their beautiful daughters? Na my hobby be that.
Seven Deck. Seated beside Rhema University, the place started just two years ago, and they've already copied my concept and more! Those jabronis have a Bet9ja mega outlet and a church where every yahoo guy and local slut come to cleanse their souls on Sunday. In other words, it was a milking machine: the pub house, the whorehouse, the casino, the church. You go in there, and you'd leave satisfactorily poorer than you came. And the “satisfaction” is no feeling that fulfills your desire at all! Whatever you do in Aba, don't go there!
“Well, I hope your coming here doesn’t spell trouble for us.” I grin.
“Uncle, dey well joor.” Her soft chuckle fills a brief pause, before the DJ's scratch of “Omoge, pepper them oo” threw the clubbers into a frenzy. “Here is just something else,” she says, scanning the room.
I laugh. “If you are looking to find value here, I'm sorry, you will be disappointed. This is where every spare or stolen naira comes to dine with us. Thanks to your mother, we usually don’t have a full house anymore, but just enough to throw a feast still.”
“Trust me when I say this, here beats there. I was looking for a place to grieve in peace.”
“And you came here?”
She ignores the taunt and swirls a finger inside the spirit-filled shot glass. “I lost someone who I recently figured out isn’t my biological father.”
“Aww. That must have hurt so badly, these days of paternity fraud and all. Please, accept my condolences.”
“I know you don’t mean it. Shaa, I will only accept your commiseration if you agree to do something for me.”
“And what could that be?”
Edging closer and brushing her index finger insinuatingly across my lips, she purrs, “How much to tear my virgin tor-tor for me, Alóra?”
I lick her finger. It tastes of alcohol and sweet sensuous craziness. Heehh. Pesin pikin go cry well-well this night-o. My heart raced. “Are you for real?”
She is; because she already is pulling up her satin gown and straddling me right there on the couch of the secluded section…
Las las, for this line of work ba, something must kill a man…
There was something about her voice when we haggled over the phone. Something about the owner that said I've got this bargaining chip you don't know about. I am one to reckon with. So, when she said “Alóra, na 500K I go pay your crew for every every,” I knew I'd lost the battle before the war ever began.
“Every every” here implied normal ushering services, and the other services that had to do with consoling her many big association women friends in bed. I wasn't totally listening, because she'd already put me on when she said, “I shall need you for me. See it as gratitude for offering you this much.”
Helloooo! Madame? I am not doing you! I'm the boss here! Double dare me, and I won't even say that aloud. “But madame, shebi you’re mourning ni?” I whisper, more like a croak.
“Aww. Really. Maybe. But you of all gigolos should know the hormones don't mourn. I shall see you at Seven Deck, after the burial.”
“Wait, what? Where?”
“It’s alright if you don’t like Seven Deck. Would have loved to do you somewhere outside of your whorehouse or my late husband’s mansion.”
But that was where it happened after the burial ceremony— her deceased husband’s duplex, on her matrimonial bed. The way this woman rushed me that night, I no sure say her husband dead body don cold well-well for grave…
When the smooth satin of her lingerie finally gave way to the velvety touch of her curvy waistline, what I saw basking around her almost flat belly was enough to dull my senses to the arousals of the moment. It was not the waist beads. No. Every spoiled chic I knew wore those. It was the tattoo; the same serpentine semblance of yesteryears, as of my mystery girl, as of … Mami! That instant, my jaws dropped open, but no words came out, only a muffled moan, because she was already impaled and bouncing on my shepherd’s rod.
Wait-o. How many women this side of hell share this same branding ni? Perhaps, my fuzzy head was making up the very tattoo I saw to look like Mami’s; probably because I’d stayed my body and exiled my soul in search of my penis’s first home. And my, how many of such holes had it not plunged into to find the first reason why it was pitched on this lifetime of service?
“You like it?” Marilyn had followed my gaze. She sat astride my groin, relishing the moments of pleasure still sweeping across her body.
“No ... Yes. I thought I’d seen it somewhere.”
“Well, you’ve lashed plenty women in your life. God knows you must have seen a lot more.”
“No. No. Not this one in particular.”
“What about it?”
“I don't know. I want to think we have met before.”
She chuckled, low, mirthless, got off me, and walked to the tabletop fridge. A can of Black Bullet opened with a wish. “You really don't remember, Alóra?”
She sighed, took a long swig, drained the sweetened spirit in one gulp, and squashed the can between her fists. What memory was she drowning in alcohol? What pain was she sedating? And what has it got to do with me?
“You don't remember your initiation into the Jackal's confraternity back on these streets?”
Marilyn walked to a huge wardrobe and brought something from within its drawers. It was a black mask, the catlike type. One I recognized.
“Surely, you remember—”
“Mami?” I sat up with a knee-jerk reflex.
She smiled, wryly, and looked me squarely in the eyes, “It’s Marilyn now ...”
The memories started pouring with rain in my head, the whole ordeal: my “blending” when as a requirement the Capone, Point One, and his henchman, Lazbby, toughened me up with numerous blows, and then the Queen of the Coast, the girl with the tattooed waist, riding me back to life….
I did not know how to take it all; the eventuality of this meeting, the repeat process, something akin to déjà vu. How does one appreciate the circumstances of time and … fate? I measured her entire frame. She didn’t look any different from what I did make of her during my initiation and in my head afterwards.
“Wow. I don’t know what to say.” That was the timorous part of me, underlying this thick weirdness called “lifestyle,” coming into play. I hid my face in my palms and cackled with laughter.
“Come on, the Mighty Alóra, Pimp of all Pimps and Securer of All Sexual Pleasure, can’t suddenly lose his erection and face over a small surprise.” She jumped on my lap and slapped my hands.
“You call this a small surprise. So you have been here all my life, watching every-every.”
“Aww, you been dey find me? I was not far na. Na me get Seven Deck!”
“Blood of Mary! You? I didn’t even know.”
“Well, you don’t care about anything else outside of filling your pocket and draining your clients in this Aba.”
“Oh no. I think that more like defines your establishment, Mami.”
Wait-o. Did she say she’s the CEO of Seven Deck? My thoughts flashed back to a few days ago with the “grieving virgin.” OMG! How possible is it that … Wait-o. Nwakaego? I was starting to see the close resemblance now: squinty eyes, slender frame, black and beautiful, great cleavage to die for, and don’t forget the fiery libido, summarily sexy. Heeeh God eeh. Make e no be say I don tidy this woman pikin-o. Well, would it not only be fair that I got to repay daughter in kind for her mother's past charity in snatching my chastity? Abi what goes around no dey cum around again?
“Babe, you literally tear me finish and left me to my imagination. That was my first taste of a real woman!” I said.
She got off, sashayed back to the fridge, and threw me another can of Bullet. As we sipped together, she told me how she and her crew had travelled to Asaba on “full moon”—a secret national meeting of all top officials in every sailing ship within the eastern horizon. It was one week after my initiation. The state police caught a whiff of the occasion and busted the Jackal’s coven.
“Point One and Lazbby and a lot of other men died in the shootout. I narrowly escaped, exiled myself to Bonny, and that was where I found out I was pregnant.”
“Wow. Really? Pregnant? Point One?” I laugh-guessed. Everyone knew she was his queen.
“No, not Point One. Even then, I was having an affair with my late husband, Chief Ezego. But, he wasn't responsible, either. I been dey use protection with them on a regular. Shaa, when P1 died, I made Chief think it was his baby. I came back to Aba, secretly married him, became his third wife, after which, he flew me to Dubai.”
“Nawa-oh. Mami! Mami!” I hailed her. “You tough oo. So street give you belle laidis, you hang'am for our dead man conscience.”
She smiled, “No be street gimme belle, Alóra. Na you.” And then the smile died on her lips.
I retched and spewed my drink. Fuck me twice! “Haha! Good joke there,” I countered, but she was being serious. “No. Mami, sea rough o. No dey play me this kin' tape now.” My heart started pumping gbigi-gbigi.
She nodded and bit her lips. “Your sperm was just as stubborn as you. Nothing wey I no do make I flush am o. It just wouldn't go away.”
I have not known this woman but for a few bouts of sex of another twisted history. However, mopping into her face now, I knew she was being honest; helplessly so. And this was one moment I wished she’d burst out in laughter and tell me she was just messing with me.
But she wasn’t. She reached towards the side stool for her iPhone. A single swipe and she was confirming my fears, in raspy excitement.
“I named her Nwakaego. Isn’t she a beauty? She's as stubborn as you, heady like eh... This one? You rarely see her o. She's in town, though. Got her an apartment when she flew back into the country for the burial.”
I was still dazed. The initial gbigi-gbigi had intensified.
Marilyn jabbed me. “Hey, it's ok. See? We are doing well, right? I, you, our baby girl. Nothing needs to change unless you want it to. I’ve already told her. She might want to know her real father soon, though. I’m sorry you had to know about it this way. If you have any doubts we could run a paternity test. Didn’t think you’d mind though—”
“I’ve met her.” It was a low mumble.
Marilyn looked again at the picture of the pretty ebony in her first flush of youth, dressed to kill as if she was just seeing or hearing about our daughter for the first time too, and then glared at me for what seemed to be like forever, excitement giving way to astonishment and then to reality.
“You have met our daughter.” It was not a question. It was a realization.
“Alóra, what have you done?”
And suddenly I saw myself becoming another 32 rooms of immortal guilt…
I felt as though I couldn’t breathe. I said: “These times are hard.” But I was a junior member of the clan, and female on top of that. When the summer dawned I would leave the homestead to be married. My sorrow was unimportant.
With pursed lips, Olanna returns into view. She kills the music and snatches the lace curtains closed. She loves to peel back the curtains. She does the tango with the breeze.
“With your porcupine teeth, you could even be a cashile.… enhe. What Chief would you be with that enormous nose that is good for smelling dung, utShaka?” they would scorn.
She sees Ofodile taking pictures of the baby as his mother threw their baby up in the air, saying gwam as she caught the baby. Her baby laughed, showing his pink gums, blabbing.
“But caution, always,” he added. “For some days I doubt the river’s friendship.”