Art by Diedrick BrackensExcerpted from the novel Best Hope
Five years into Old Maggie’s transformation of the England of their arrival, Samuel’s father took a nine-month trip to unknown parts of the world. Oluwasegun Ayodeji departed wife and children and never explained his journey to them in explicit fashion. If their mother, Funmilayo, knew details of his departure, she’d remained dutifully morose in her silence.
Segun returned to their home in Peckham, London just before the Christmas season of Samuel’s tenth year. He took his children aside and told them there were two places on earth that reminded him of the Nigeria of their origin. It was important for them to know of these places, he insisted, and not of where he’d been nor what he’d done for much of the Year of Their Lord 1991. Critical, despite the fact that none except the parents knew anything substantive of the homeland to which he compared the outposts.
According to the father, there was a territory known as Balochistan in the Indus River Valley, a place Oluwasegun called the south-central-middle of the world. The part of Balochistan of which he spoke stretched for kilometers. Parched and patchy grasslands, lush growth sprouting erratically from soil that sliced at the soles of those shepherd clans who tended the province. Balochistan reminded their father of Nigeria’s Middle Belt, the area of tribal contest drawn between his country’s commercial Southwest, the Delta East, and the militarized North. That Belt served as the true Nigerian bush, the region from which the Ayodeji clan had hailed generations prior.
The other familiar global province in the eyes of the Yoruba taxi driver was the Black American Ghetto. Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, North Philly, Roxbury, Columbia Heights in the country’s capital, the Cape in Middlesbrough. Those places to one extent or another reminded their baba of Lagos, still the capital of Nigeria then—the ghetto recalled specifically the Surelere community from which their mother’s family hailed, he said.
“Stay away,” Segun advised with a bass gravity that his children had not heard for so long, its insistence given by the heavy accent of Yorubaland. Samuel remembered nodding to relieve the stress in the senior Ayodeji’s sound. But the boy was not certain what his father meant to dissuade. Were he and his siblings to avoid the regions he’d mapped in recollection, their mother’s madcap family back in Surelere, or were they to stay away from those Pashtun shepherds and ghettoized Americans who had so recalled Oluwasegun’s countrymen?
Samuel did not know whether his father had actually visited the Middlesbrough Cape during his travels either. But the boy had listened, and he’d believed in the man. When he traveled through the country’s major urban centers as an adult, he avoided the places found in the far corners of each of its Dream metropolises. He had also been to Lagos as an adult many times, and he had seen the Nollywood movies and their Tinseltown source work. Telling tales of black wires and hoods menacing society. From what the son encountered, what he’d been shown on either side of the Pond, Baba Segun had spoken truth, regardless how the taxi-man had come about his privy.
Given what sprawled through those commuter bus windows, Samuel did not take well to Maurishka the Teaching Assistant’s invitation to meet her that first Monday of August. She had led a group of minority undergraduates to a library in the middle of the Cape—studying a destination far outside of their campus gates, a neighborhood the Middlesbrough newscasters referred to as The Bog.
Maurishka Alaiyo was not of the place herself. She hailed from a suburb to the east. Yet the graduate student proclaimed the depth of her inundation in this borough’s culture, extolling its art and its funky blues music, while working on multicultural studies or ethnic literature or some such thesis credit in an obligatory elective. As she explained it, that five-mile stretch of the city was impoverished not by chance nor by divinity, and not by the design of a clan of overlords. All those tales were fantastic ruses told both by Cape residents spilling over with despondency, and by those who held some contempt for an indigent lot.
But the place did suffer in a chronic way. Peopled by the grandchildren of exiles who came to Middlesbrough with nothing in hand of hard value. No gemstones, no currency, no crops, no deeds to bound land. Nothing in their effects to barter except that which would be taken from them without recourse: labor, talent, the will to genuflect at the leisure of those who ate high on the swine come feast time. That was the Middlesbrough’s story, not only out there on its Cape dangling in toxic Midlands Bay water, but on the mainland, throughout the city, far beyond.
“Listening to her celebrate what his father cautioned as a slum, he was convinced that the graduate student referred to the place as it appeared in some mid-twentieth-century black-and-white picture book. The kind that celebrated the Glory Bound wonders of magic hot combs, custard pies, collard greens, and electrified blues guitar. Either that, or she had only spoken of the place as she’d imagined it through the tan fancy in her own suburban, dew-filled eyes.”
To ensure that he could cover his lodging and afford to eat while his contract employer arranged his pay, Samuel determined that he would ride cabs and the drone-operated Kruse service only on weekends. Otherwise, he’d use the public transit.
His city bus commute lurched five miles from the Cape’s riverfront entry, through hills full of dilapidated flats squeezed stonewall-to-stonewall along narrowly-rising rows and parkways reflecting beige in the scalding sun. Middlesbrough’s subterranean rail would have taken him to his destination quicker, by ten or fifteen minutes during the afternoon commute hours. But the Herald had printed so many stories about the Underground lair and its shadowy turn beneath The Bog. Surely Samuel did not believe all of the reporting, no more than he could fathom his father actually visiting such a place in 1991. But he’d heard just enough, and he needed to make it safely to payday.
The aboveground streets dimmed as the eco-secure carrier wound about Midlands Bay. Maurishka often waxed effusively of the evangelized churches there along 115th Street, the jazz sets that once were heard at the Bay End nightclubs, home-cooked Southland food and ad hoc hairstylists thriving long before, along Old Gabriel Road. Divas and shiny silk suits pompenading along the Lowlands strip before dipping into ramshackle caves in The Bog near the Cape’s heart.
Listening to her celebrate what his father cautioned as a slum, he was convinced that the graduate student referred to the place as it appeared in some mid-twentieth-century black-and-white picture book. The kind that celebrated the Glory Bound wonders of magic hot combs, custard pies, collard greens, and electrified blues guitar. Either that, or she had only spoken of the place as she’d imagined it through the tan fancy in her own suburban, dew-filled eyes. As he looked through the transit windows, Samuel asked himself: Who faced what was and spoke its truth, and who clutched onto some make-believe and testified thereto? Was it his father Oluwasegun Ayodeji, the Middlesbrough’s Herald newspaper, or the comparative literature/cultural studies teaching assistant, Maurishka Alaiyo McClean?
The transit bus dipped into the Cape valley, and Samuel caught one final view of the Sanguinis River spilling into Midlands Bay, meeting there, through the opened rear window, opposite his destination. Disappearing waters and a sliver of the City Center towers backdropped the aisle in which he stood for those eight miles. He pressed the summons for the next stop as the bus approached the Sojourner Truth Library depot.
As he crossed Old Gabriel Road, Samuel eyed a pedestrian encroaching upon his path. The interloper wore a desert-beige military fatigue jacket unbuttoned at the stomach as they passed the library exterior. It was the heavy jacket that had caught his attention given the muggy air. As that pedestrian moved through the middle-man’s path, Samuel sensed a familiarity in his gait. He was not certain and the younger man paid him no apparent attention before disappearing behind street construction posts, but the elaborate stride reminded him of that student who had introduced himself as Joshua Nebbie in front of Maurishka’s apartment compound.
Samuel found Maurishka on the library’s second floor, instructing her Midlands charges before sparse bookshelves. He approached only after she’d dismissed them for the morning.
“I have never seen you in gym shoes before.” She studied his health-club wear, and the jagged gray at the edge of his hairline; Alaiyo had never seen him without recent grooming either.
“When in Babel—” he said.
“We hadn’t talked since that night. Thank you for coming. It is a long way to this place.”
“I said I would meet you where you are. In your area of study.”
She sat at a long library table, crossing her legs. He felt himself looming over Alaiyo, but he did not take a seat just yet. “You are angry?”
“No,” he said. “Not at all. What about?”
“Who?” She did not reply. “Oh, the boy—that was his name? You know, I think I might have seen him outside just now. Could have been him. Is he one of your students here?”
“I'm sorry about all of that, Samuel.” Her hand reached across the table wood for nothing in particular. Samuel sat. “I had a really fine time at the party you took me to. Terrible way to end a date.”
“You can’t control the miscreant clowns showing up on your doorsteps, can you? This is a free country, like they say. It was a Saturday night, wasn’t it? What does your music say about fever?”
“Fever and freaks, yes. He was my boyfriend. I’m helping him with a major essay.”
“So he is your student then.”
“No,” she repeated, in a manner of speaking. “I’m trying to help keep him in the university.”
Samuel felt his lips twisting. “I see. He seemed like a nice fellow, the boy. He’s one of the many you’ve known?”
“I didn’t say that I knew many boys. It was you who said that.” Maurishka heard her volume rising in the back of her throat and relaxed against the library chair.
“I did, in jest, you are right.”
She opened the eight-hundred-page A Complete Anthology of Postcolonial Literature which she’d carted along for discussion. Her gaze squinted over the table of contents with which she was well familiar. “Why are you still here?”
“I came to see you. You asked me.”
She frowned. “Why are you still in Middlesbrough? When you left that night, I thought I wasn’t going to see you for months.”
“There’s this thing I am working on, with a man. The judge who hosted the cookout. I’m working on something with him on Merchant’s Row. Wrapping up another thing, but just getting started with this new business thing.”
“Men and business things.” She paged to the middle of her dense text, but read none of the words. “Do you have a place to stay?”
“City Center.” He rubbed the top of his head, smoothing the mat of tight curls against his scalp. “The Crown-Ritz on 5th.”
“Thank you for the invitation to visit you.” Maurishka’s gaze reminded him of Lizzie Madden’s cutting at his jugular in a computer laboratory across town.
“It is corporate,” he said. “Do you know why I had my mail routed to your place?”
“We haven’t talked about that.”
“Things weren't going well with the first thing—”
“With the first business thing or the first man?”
“—I knew that I would end up here in town longer than I intended, the way the thing was going—wasn’t going. So I gave the Ritz your address, just in case.” The explanation rang true to Samuel’s ear, although it had just come to him in the moment. “I apologize for the presumptuousness, Alaiyo. I guess you would say that we should’ve talked about it.”
“No, I actually said you have nothing to apologize to me for. Now, your failure to ask me to the Crown-Ritz, that’s some ritzy shit.” She laughed at herself and looked around the library’s study space, scanning for lingering students.
“I thought I might ask you whether I could stay at your place as this thing runs over. But I don’t want to make your ex-boy in the parachute pants angry.”
Maurishka did not blink. He wondered whether there was some medication—a specially-engineered eye drop—that American women used to keep their irises moist while fixed in such glares. “So the thing with this Judge Gold, what is the problem?”
He gasped and choked at once, but he had no choice other than to respond. “It’s a big new energy deal. Some people need the judge’s help. Regulatory case, your federal government and all of its filings. Gets sticky because the judge is looking to diversify into oil futures—”
“No pun intended,” the graduate student chuckled at herself again.
“—while hearing the case. Crude barrels. They’re cheap now. Hedge money. Give it three, four years, 2028? Another election year? An entirely virtual market. You should keep track of these things, too. But there is conflict, always conflict between competing interests. It’s the way of these deals.”
“What is your angle?” He sensed her legs uncrossing.
“I’m just trying to help. Could be a terrific opportunity for the judge and his wife. I just want to be there as they seek the proper investment strategy.” The Honor phone buzzed in his jogging pants pocket, that particular sequence he’d assigned to Naida Begzadi. “His wife is Nigerian, but I don’t think they trust me. I just want to do my job. If I can’t do it now, on this affair, I may not be able to do it in this country again.”
“One of those students just used a word after we exited the subway station. Describing the Haitians leaving Port-au-Prince back in the ’90s. He was trying to impress me, I suppose. Something about the rail reminded him of this term. It is one of my favorites in the language, I don’t know why. ‘Imbroglio’ was what he said.”
“Yes, I saw a European movie by that name, some years back. Italian, maybe?”
Maurishka closed the postcolonial text. “Means ‘men,’ ‘things,’ ‘interests,’ ‘ritzy shit.’ How do you put it? ‘It’s the way these days’?”
An old man dragged himself toward the library, attempting to enter through the exit way. Samuel held the door for Maurishka first, then for the haggard fellow. Despite his apparent confusion, Samuel did not attempt to redirect the man. His clothing appeared ripped and splattered in blotches along collars and seams. His skin was the tint of jaundice, and his air reeked of rotgut liquor.
He looked into Samuel’s face and the middleman forced a smile. The elder did not return the gesture. “You think they’ll let me use the facilities today?” he asked instead.
“The library is public, isn’t it?” Samuel looked at Maurishka, who had paused near the street curb, holding the postcolonial text in both arms. “Everyone uses the facility, as I understand it. That’s what it’s for.”
The old man searched Samuel’s face without entering the building. Something like familiarity flashed in the dim slits above an irritated nose. “The toilet? Is the facilities open, nigga?” The old man made a noise of pained exhaust before seeking out the restroom on his own.
Samuel and Maurishka Alaiyo walked on along Old Gabriel Road, toward the Underground railway. She had convinced the foreigner to ride to the City Center so that perhaps he could have a look at what her student meant by his use of that word, “imbroglio,” and so that she could visit his unpaid-for Crown-Ritz Hotel lodging on the metropolitan mainland.
Bayo Ojikutu is a creative writer currently based in the Chicago metropolitan area. He is the author of the critically-acclaimed novels Free Burning and 47th Street Black. Ojikutu's work has been recognized by the Washington Prize for Fiction and the Pushcart Prize, among other notaries. His essays and short stories have been anthologized widely. A graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Ojikutu has taught courses including creative writing, literature, film studies, and the business of publishing at DePaul University, the University of Chicago, Roosevelt University, and other institutions for many years.
Los Angeles–based artist Diedrick Brackens (b. 1989, Mexia, TX) received a BFA from University of North Texas, Denton and an MFA from California College of the Arts, Oakland. He is best known for his woven works that explore allegory through autobiography, African American and queer identity, and American history. Drawing from African and African American literature, poetry, and folklore, he employs techniques from West Africa, the American South, and Europe to depict male tenderness while alluding to complicated histories of labor and migration. Diedrick has exhibited widely with solo exhibitions at the Mint Museum, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Blanton Museum of Art, New Museum, Ulrich Museum of Art, and Sewanee University Art Gallery.