The Lie

 
ADVERTISEMENT
 

Okwudili Nebeolisa

Art by Kija Lucas

 

Maureen and Nkoli were returning from Mass that Sunday evening when a black Mercedes pulled up beside them. A fair-skinned man stuck his head out of the window, greeted them from inside the car, and drove past.

“I just remembered that Tobechukwu Nwabueze is looking for a caretaker for his dad,” Maureen said. Nkoli was still staring at the back of the expensive-looking car as it drove away, until it turned a corner into an adjoining street.

“Who’s Tobechukwu?” Nkoli asked.

“The man who just drove past.”

“Hmm... How long have they been looking for a house-help?”

“Caretaker.” A hint of harsh correction was carried in Maureen's voice. “For two weeks now. The previous caretaker is getting married soon and can’t continue being a caretaker. Tobechukwu’s dad has memory issues, though.”

“How serious is it?”

“I don’t know. Tobechukwu doesn’t like people to know.”

“But will they pay well?”

Maureen eyed her as if she couldn’t believe that Nkoli did not know of the Nwabuezes. “Of course, the man was a chemical engineering professor before he retired. And the son has money too. He’s a lawyer, not the charge-and-bail type. You can tell anyway from the kind of car he drives.”

Nkoli smiled. For a woman in her sixties, who had just mandatorily retired from a previous job as a pediatric nurse’s assistant at St. Gerald Hospital, attending to children for over thirty years, the job seemed like the perfect fit. The prospect of a good salary was hard to ignore. She nodded. “How can I apply for the position?”

“Leave that to me if you’re interested,” Maureen said, pushing her eyeglasses up the bridge of her stubby nose. “I’ll only need to tell Tobechukwu. Moreover, you have the experience. How long have you been working at St. Gerald’s?”

“Since it started.”

They had reached Maureen’s residence, a squat, blue-painted, fenced bungalow with a flowering tree in the front. They stopped in front of the old, rusty, wrought-iron gate, as they always did, every Sunday and Wednesday evening, on their way back from church, for more than six years now, since they had become friends.

“That was not the question I asked,” Maureen said, laughing, jokingly patting Nkoli’s shoulder. “But rest assured, they’ll believe anything I say.”

“If I knew he was the one I’d have greeted him properly.”

Maureen laughed. “It doesn’t matter.”

 

That night, after dinner, while she lay in bed, she tapped her sleeping husband Dike on his arm wrapped around her shoulders and told him about the job opportunity.

After some seconds of silence, he asked her if it was what she wanted.

“What do you mean by that?” she asked.

“I thought people retire to rest, why are you retiring to begin another job?”

He knew she had mandatorily retired because of her years of service and her age, so she didn’t bother to defend her decision.

He turned away from her, taking his arm off her body, a sign she took as his way of letting her know he didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

 
ADVERTISEMENT
 

Three days later, on a hot and humid afternoon, Nkoli received a call from a man who identified himself as Tobechukwu Nwabueze. “Can I meet with you right away?” he asked.

She did not immediately remember the name, but she didn’t ask. Retired, all she did at home was watch soap operas on Zee World, listen to music while she cleaned the house, and make meals for Dike and her youngest child Cheta, who was a student at the Kaduna Polytechnic.

“Yes, I can meet you now,” she said, when she connected the name to Maureen. Tobechukwu gave her instructions on how to find the address, which was in Angwan Boro, Sabon Tasha.

Nkoli, leaving instructions for her child on a piece of paper, left the house, and boarded a keke.

 

Tobechukwu turned out to be taller than he had appeared in the Mercedes. He towered over her like a date palm tree over a cornstalk. The apartment, an expansive bungalow, differed from her initial expectations. The furniture, in the various rooms, looked so old but not in the way one would associate with poverty, even though she believed they needed changing. You could easily tell that it had always belonged to Tobechukwu’s father and not Tobechukwu, because they embodied a taste that reminded her of her own husband, of a taste that used to be trendy. No one used these kinds of old-fashioned curtains anymore, nor the kind of sofas that had curved armrests. Even the TV itself sported a wooden casing, accessible by sliding open an ornately carved door. Leaning on the wall was a life-sized photograph of the bust of a woman Nkoli surmised must have been Tobechukwu’s mother. The only other photograph in the sitting room was of Mr. Nwabueze in purple and green academic ceremonial apparel.

They walked through the sitting room, where Mr. Nwabueze was watching a movie on the TV, to the kitchen, where Tobechukwu opened a suitcase and handed her a sheaf of three papers. She had expected Maureen to be present, but Maureen hadn’t even called her to let her know of the outcome of her conversation with Tobechukwu. Nkoli sat before reading everything in the papers. Maureen should have told her that Tobechukwu was a lawyer, or maybe she was misremembering. She could not believe that she had been given the job without a formal kind of interview. Maureen must have done all the introduction and fed Tobechukwu with enough information that Tobechukwu was satisfied with picking her from merely seeing her. She wondered what Maureen must have said about her.

The job description on the document was ‘caregiver.’ She smiled. Maureen had been partly wrong, calling it caretaker. But then wasn’t English such a funny language, or else why would caretaker and caregiver have similar definitions?

The language of the document was explicit. It was not so much a contract as it was an NDA, clearly stating that under no condition should what happened in the house ever spill out of Nkoli’s mouth or she’d be liable to forfeit a month’s salary to offset the sort of legalities involved. Also, in the event that Nkoli chose to resign, she would have to work until they found a new caretaker. The conditions seemed reasonable, even for a job that combined the duties of a nurse and a housekeeper. She had to be at the house as early as six am, before the patient would wake up, and leave the house as late as eight pm, when the patient, after taking a tablet of Valium, would be asleep. The pay, a hundred thousand naira monthly, was competitive, even better than she had earned as a nurse’s assistant in St. Gerald’s. Though she would have preferred to be paid weekly, rather than monthly as stated in the document, she didn’t say. A monthly check would affect the ease with which one could resign from the job. A weekly or fortnightly payment would have been more flexible. But then many women in her position would gladly accept the job. She was even earning more than some bank tellers.

Mr. Nwabueze, dressed in a matching brown and red Ankara shirt and trousers, did not look like a patient. While she had followed Tobechukwu through the sitting room, Mr. Nwabueze did not look away from the TV even when she greeted him. Even though he was seated, she could tell he was as tall as his son. She had anticipated an absent-minded old man who could barely take care of himself, a man wasting away in a wheelchair. She looked around, hoping to find where the wheelchair was tucked. But there was nothing of that nature. She had expected to meet the previous caretaker, to maybe take detailed instructions about how to really care for the patient but it seemed like whomever it was could not wait to leave the house. And since Tobechukwu did not talk about the previous caretaker, Nkoli did not ask.

 

“The language of the document was explicit. It was not so much a contract as it was an NDA, clearly stating that under no condition should what happened in the house ever spill out of Nkoli’s mouth or she’d be liable to forfeit a month’s salary to offset the sort of legalities involved. Also, in the event that Nkoli chose to resign, she would have to work until they found a new caretaker. The conditions seemed reasonable, even for a job that combined the duties of a nurse and a housekeeper.”

 

After she had read and signed the papers, she asked Tobechukwu, while he slipped the signed papers into a green paper folder, when she was going to begin the job. Tobechukwu, with an inquisitorial look on his face, shrugged and told her she had begun already. “I will come on Wednesdays and Saturdays to check up on him,” he said. “And to give you money for groceries, that’s if I don’t get them on my way. You have my number, send the lists to me.”

She nodded, even though he was not looking at her. She was so happy that she had easily gotten the job. The job at St. Gerald'’s had required a thorough interview and an even more thorough investigation into her past. All this one had required was a recommendation by mouth.

Nkoli followed Tobechukwu around the kitchen even though it was embarrassing. Then she sat on the armless chair and observed him open a drawer in the kitchen cabinet and bring out various plastic bottles, dropping them on the work surface.

“We keep them in the kitchen to keep them out of his reach. You can’t know what is on the old man’s mind.” He shrugged as if he had just made a harmless accusation of his father. She almost shuddered at the thought of the man planning on killing himself. Tobechukwu called her over and showed her where the doses of the medicines were written on the bottles and explained how she was to make sure that his father took his medications at the right time. Nkoli nodded. This reminded her of her days in St. Gerald’s. Sometimes when the ward had been short on staff, she had been asked to administer medication to the patients.

 
 

While they were talking, Mr. Nwabueze walked into the kitchen. His hands were slightly shaking but when he noticed that Nkoli was watching him, he put his hands into the pocket of his trousers, like a young man.

“Tobechukwu, when is your mother coming back?” he asked, looking at his son with slight infuriation at what was maybe his supposed wife’s lateness with her return.

“Papa, I told you she had to postpone the trip back home. She will be here in maybe the next four days.”

Mr. Nwabueze nodded. Nkoli was shocked. She thought Maureen had told her that Mr. Nwabueze’s wife was late. Why was Tobechukwu lying to the old man about his deceased wife? She chipped in: “I thought...”

Tobechukwu, bringing his index finger to his lips, hushed her mid-sentence. He frowned at her, like she was his child and he had caught her misbehaving in the presence of strangers. He motioned to her to come to him and she obliged.

Taking her right hand with his left, he led her to the verandah. “One thing I did not mention was that you do not tell him that his wife is dead. He won’t agree. She died in a car accident three years ago, on her way back to Kaduna. Just tell him she’s still on her way and that’ll be OK.”

It took a moment for her to understand the questioning look on his face to mean ‘Do you understand me?’ and then she nodded. Mr. Tobechukwu had an authoritative tone about him that irked her. Relaxing his grip, they went back to the kitchen where Mr. Nwabueze stared into the distance, admiring the slant of the light.

 
 

Mr. Nwabueze was not a complicated man, even in his illness. At least he enjoyed her meals, even though he never complimented them. She had thought it would be difficult to make him take his medications, but he seemed to have immersed himself in the routine: in the morning, she pulled apart the curtains of the bedroom and gently woke him up by rubbing her palm over his back, then lead him to the bathroom to urinate, brush his teeth, and have his bath. After that, he seemed ready for the day. With a serious expression on his face, he liked to read old newspapers in the sitting room after his breakfast, theatrically flipping the pages as if attempting to knock off the dust from them. Tired from reading, he would watch soap operas and movies on the TV till he slept off in his seat, snoring with his mouth slightly open, and then wake up for lunch, which he always insisted on eating at the dining table in the kitchen. He liked to sip on a cup of mint tea, so she made sure there was always some warm tea in the electric jug. Tobechukwu would sometimes get him recent newspapers, but he seemed to prefer reading the old ones, treating the news in them as if they had happened only a few days ago, bemoaning tragedies that had taken place years earlier. Mostly she had abundant time to read the Bible. Sometimes she would watch TV with him if she had no chores to do. He didn’t like to talk, except if it was necessary, like when he needed her to get something for him, like a glass of water or his eyeglasses. Or when he wanted to find out from her when his wife would be returning from the supposed journey in his head, and she would obediently tell him that his wife was on her way to Kaduna or that his wife would embark on her journey most probably the next day. Whatever reply she gave him, he seemed satisfied with it.

At first, because he rarely had any conversation with her, she thought he didn’t see her fit for conversation, the kind of intelligent conversations a retired professor of chemical engineering would like to be involved in, but soon enough, over the course of a week, she found it was just his habit to keep to himself. She sometimes caught him looking at her with a sharp expression of suspicion, as if he was wondering what a stranger was doing in his house. Once in a while, she tried to get him to talk about his wife, but it didn’t birth the right results as he always plunged into a sad mood at what could still be keeping his wife in Anambra, instead of being with him.

In her first week, Maureen was surprised to find out that his wife’s clothes were still in the wardrobe in the bedroom, colorful blousy dresses on wooden hangers, still faintly bearing her vanilla perfume. Tiny clouds of dust rose from them when Nkoli fingered the dresses. His wife’s high-heeled shoes lined the bottom of the wardrobe.

“What are you doing there?” he asked.

Startled, she stepped away from the door. “Nothing. Just cleaning.” She turned to look at him. “What was her name?”

He squinted, frowning. “Why did you use was? She’s not dead.”

Her heart barreled. “Oh, I’m sorry! Yes, she isn’t. So what is her name?”

“Anwuli. Now leave there. She doesn’t like strangers in her things.”

Every two weeks Tobechukwu would take his father to the doctor for some routine checkups to measure how far Mr. Nwabueze’s memory was eroding. And to also make sure that his blood sugar level was in check. These checkups somehow took the whole of the afternoon. Whenever they returned, both father and son looked famished. She would have a heavy meal of pounded yam and fresh egusi soup waiting for them in ceramic flasks that could keep food warm for up to two days. This was the only time Tobechukwu would sit for a meal in the house, and then immediately leave after, thanking her generously for the food, as if she had cooked the meal out of her pocket. There was barely any conversation between father and son, only when Tobechukwu asked him if he was enjoying the food.

“Yes, this one you brought is a really good cook.”

She smiled even though she felt slighted to be referred to as this one. She observed them indirectly, pretending to be reading her Bible. Tobechukwu ate his food so quickly that it made her wonder why he was in such a hurry to leave, since he was an unmarried man. He didn’t seem to mind that his father struggled to roll the eba in his hand to be able to dip it in the bowl of egusi soup. When his father started choking, coughing up the soup in his mouth, he perfunctorily looked at his father. Nkoli dropped the Bible and hurriedly filled a glass of water and gave it to Mr. Nwabueze. When she caught Tobechukwu rolling his eyes, she wondered if he was paying her to stay in a house that he couldn’t bear to be in.

After Tobechukwu had left, she was doing the dishes in the sink when Mr. Nwabueze walked in.

“Where is Tobechukwu?” he asked.

“Oh, he just left.”

“So soon?”

“Yes.”

“I was about to ask him when his mother will return. She’s supposed to have returned by this week, if I’m correct.”

He turned to the calendar hanging on the wall as if he was capable of completely comprehending what day of the month it was. She rinsed and then stacked the ceramic bowls on the plastic rack beside the sink. For over four weeks, she had had to tell him the lie that she had been told to tell him, but something in her mind, stronger than it had ever been before, a conviction, told her it was not right to perpetuate the lie. She turned to him and asked him to sit down. Then she asked him, “Do you want to know the truth?”

He nodded, like a child asked if they would like a sugary treat.

She sighed. “Your wife died two or three years back. She will not return from any journey. She died when she was on her way back from Anambra.”

“How do you know that? That’s not what my son says.” He turned towards the window, as if Tobechukwu was in the compound, and called, “Tobechukwu! Tobechukwu!”

“I told you he just left, sir.”

His brows furled into tight tildes. “How do you know Anwuli is dead?”

“What?”

“I asked you a question. Don’t pretend like you didn’t hear!”

Her heart raced at the sudden change in the tone of his voice. “This happened two or three years ago.”

“No. It didn’t. You killed her.”

“Why would you say such a thing?”

“Because I spoke with her two days ago and she said she would be returning. How do you already know she is dead if you didn’t kill her?”

This must be a new stage in his illness, (re)constructing memories of his own, without having been told to construct them. He stood up from the chair and charged toward her. She didn’t think a man in his condition would have such brute force stored in him. She withdrew and kept on withdrawing until the back of her head hit the wall. At the sound of the thump of her head, a sour taste filled her mouth, drying up her tongue.

“What did you do to my wife?”

“Nothing. I didn’t even know her.” A streak of tears broke her voice. “I swear I didn’t do anything to her.”

He raised his hand and brought it close to her neck, so close it was enough to hold her in place, enough to make her fear for her life. His nostrils flared to the size of a green tree snake’s eyes. She smelled the egusi soup on his breath.

“She died years ago. How could you not know?” She broke down in tears now, shaking uncontrollably. A brief wave of recognition passed across his face in the form of a quick arching of his eyebrows. He withdrew, lowering his hands, and then fell on the floor and sobbed, covering his face with his hands as if he were ashamed of crying in the presence of a woman. His body rocked terribly with the sobbing, the horrendous sound filling the whole house. She took short shallow breaths. She couldn’t breathe. Her heart pounded so fast that it hurt. Should she console him? Collapsed on the floor, heaving, his face in his hands, he resembled a child. Despite the threat, she pitied him—Alzheimer’s had robbed him of his ability to recover from mourning. Instead of going to him, she found a wooden chair and sat on it, feeling her neck, slowly pressing it with her fingers. A pain, slight, almost absent, reminded her that she should let the man grieve, relive the hurt of losing his wife, that he could likely hurt her if she went over to him.

 
 

All night she worried. Should she tell Tobechukwu—no, he would chastise her for not following his instructions. Who knows what else was written in the contract she had signed, too unintelligible for her to have comprehended, hidden among the fine print, to trap her in cases like this? What about Maureen or even Dike—either of them would advise her to keep it to herself or quit the job. Dike might even offhandedly make a joke out of the experience—no, she wouldn’t give him the pleasure. Apart from the financial freedom from asking Dike for money for every small need, there was a lot the monthly salary could do for her.

That night, after giving Mr. Nwabueze his Valium tablet and watching him swallow it with the help of some mint tea, then tucking him in bed, she wondered if what he had done to her was still fresh in his head, because he didn’t seem to show any comportment as to the way he had treated her. After she had tucked him in, pulled the blanket to his neck, and turned off the lights in the room, she heard him say, “Goodnight.”

She stopped, thinking he would apologize, but when she turned to look at him, she knew the drug had begun to kick in even though she couldn’t completely make out his figure in the darkness.

 
 

The thought was still on her mind the next morning as she parted the curtains in the bedroom and watched the sunlight fill the oblong space of the room like a matured fetus in a womb. Mr. Nwabueze called to her, managing to remember her name, “Nkoli, right?”

Still immersed in thought she nodded, and then greeted, “Good morning.” But her tone didn’t carry the amount of cheerfulness it would normally carry.

He stretched his arms, yawning, spreading his fingers like the legs of a spider. Sleep, white and rheumy, decorated the sides of his eyes. “Good morning. Hope you slept well?”

She nodded. She should be the one asking him that question, as his caregiver. He pulled the blanket to his waist.

“Did Tobechukwu tell you when Madam will return?”

“Madam?”

“Yes. My wife.”

Pain, sharp and long as a machete, sprinted through her back. She stumbled as she walked to the wardrobe, at whose foot his slippers were, so she could bring them to the bed.

“Is anything wrong?” he asked, lifting one leg from the bed, and gently landing it on the carpeted floor.

“No?”

“So did Tobechukwu say anything?”

She looked away from his prying gaze, fearing, for a moment, that he would remember the answer she had given him the previous night, and maybe want to pursue that angle, even if for the fun of it. “She’ll embark on the journey,” she replied.

“Hmm...” He squinted, lines burrowing his forehead. “That’s strange though.”

Normally she would help him out of the bed, after he had slid his feet into his slippers, and then lead him to the toilet to empty his bladder, but she left him there in the bedroom, heading for the kitchen, the one place she believed would give her the serenity she desired.

 
 

Spring / Summer 2024



Okwudili Nebeolisa

Okwudili Nebeolisa is the author of Terminal Maladies, (Autumn House Press, 2024), selected by Nicole Sealey as the winner of the 2023 Center for African American Poetry and Poetics Prize. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where he was a Provost Fellow and won the Prairie Lights John Leggett Prize for Fiction. His poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Cincinnati Review, Image, The New England Review, POETRY, Sewanee Review, Shenandoah, Southern Review, and Threepenny Review. His nonfiction has appeared in Catapult and Commonwealth Writers. He is an MFA student in fiction at the University of Minnesota where he is the recipient of a Gesell Award for Excellence in Poetry. He is a recipient of support from the Elizabeth George Foundation, Granum Foundation, and the Center for the Art Crested Butte. He is currently a poetry editor at Post Road Magazine.



Kija Lucas

Kija Lucas (BFA, San Francisco Art Institute; MFA, Mills College) is an artist based in the San Francisco Bay Area who uses photography to explore ideas of heritage and home. She has exhibited her work widely, including at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), Headlands Center for the Arts, Palo Alto Art Center, Venice Arts (Los Angeles), Sala d’Ercole (Bologna, Italy), and Casa Escorza (Guadalajara, Mexico). Lucas has been awarded residencies at the Montalvo Arts Center, Green City Collective, and the Wassaic Project.



support evergreen