Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Our Sundays always tasted like peppers that flared hot in the rice and soups and stews. We sat in the kitchen, knees fresh from pews, and watched our houseboy pounding them in pairs. He held the phallic pestle—thump thump thump—while we coughed and spluttered with watery eyes. Nobody tastes them raw, it wasn’t wise. But we did, and then we’d shout and jump to the fridge for ice.
My mom sang an Igbo song about strong women. It wasn’t too trite, but it told of places she didn’t know, streams, goddesses, women who couldn’t read. Women like that would squeeze peppers, I heard, and force them between their daughters’ legs—“so they’ll stop following boys.” But Eros was good for sons. No peppers to curb sons’ paths to manhood.
Nigerian author CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE, who received a 2008 MacArthur Fellowship, is the author of Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, and most recently, Americanah.
The beating of your heart kept me awake last night. For months after you died I kept seeing you everywhere, hearing you, your voice, sonorous, throaty, reverberating in my ear. I wasn’t crazy, I knew you were dead, I buried you after all, I mean, I burned you, cremation was what they called it. But I kept seeing you, doing dishes in the kitchen with your back to me, I’d call your name as you stacked each plate in our plastic dish rack but you didn’t look back and then you were gone in a flash and I was left with nothing, not even an afterimage. I didn’t mistake you for anybody, I never saw you in a crowd, thinking someone else was you, no, it was never like that. I would never mistake you. I saw you in the hallway, in our hallway, under the Turkish lamp we brought back from Istanbul when we were there so long ago, must have been 1987, before the virus began to scour us. The disease killed so much within us. While I was alive I loved you while you were alive and I love you now but I forgot for a while. Forgive me, I couldn’t go on obsessing about you all the time so you disappeared or hid deep in my lakes, as if I bleached my memory, but you came back, you know, like a fungal infection, remember thrush, the furry white stains that attacked your tongue and we couldn’t get rid of them and you hated it and I hated it and you wanted it over. You’d been gone for decades, why now, why infect my dreams now? What flood was this? I was buying groceries yesterday morning where a young Third Worlder mopped the floor, back and forth, back and forth, around a yellow sign that announced PISO MOJADO, the mephitic aroma of disinfectant assaulted my senses, and you jumped the levee of my memory, I thought of you right then. Proust might have had his madeleine, but bleach was all ours, my darling, all ours. The tomatoes didn’t look too good and I just went home. I’d been a coward, I was scared, do notice I said scared and not frightened, you taught me the difference, you said, Children get scared, men might feel afraid, might even feel terror, but men don’t get scared. I’d been so lonely since you died and left me, you left me roofless in a downpour. You gripped the bedrail when you left and I had to pry your fingers one by one, it took fifty-seven minutes because my hands were shaking so much, did you know that? You sincerely believed that the distance between you and me would one day disappear. You told me I was not my father and you were not him either, but how could we not be, how could we not be? You held out your arms and said, Join me, but I couldn’t, and you said, Let me love you, and I couldn’t because you wanted so to be so close, and you held out the fireman’s net and said, Jump, and I couldn’t, I felt the fall was much too great, I chose to go back into the fire because that was what men did. I could hardly bear the beauty of you. You said, I liked it when you doze on my chest, but I said, The hair on your chest irritated my cheeks and made it difficult to sleep. You were gone for so long and I moved along and everyone told me I was alive, but last night, in my bed, each time my ear touched the single pillow I heard the beating of your heart once more. Once more, please. Once more. Once more. Once more. My heart is restless until it rests in thee.
Lebanese writer and painter RABIH ALAMEDDINE is the author of Koolaids; I, the Divine; and most recently, An Unnecessary Woman.
More than any other church in Lincoln, St. Mary’s was a building people tended to treat as a public space, a general assembly spot for events that weren’t christenings, weddings or funerals. That’s because it was big and old and downtown, right across K Street from the Nebraska state capitol; because it didn’t serve liquor, so you could bring the kids; and because it was Catholic, which in the middle of the twentieth century made it a kind of Switzerland for Protestants—made Lutherans and Methodists and Presbyterians and Baptists more comfortable than they might’ve been at a Protestant church of a denomination not their own. Thus Lincolnites of all kinds would gather in St. Mary’s basement to play bingo, listen to polka bands, watch ventriloquists, whatever.
The day after Thanksgiving in 1952, St. Mary’s put on a macaroni buffet dinner and variety show, $1.50 a ticket. It sold out. The main attraction was an actual celebrity, a young guy who’d hosted his own afternoon TV show up in Omaha for a couple of years since graduating from the University of Nebraska.
Kids made up half the audience, including exactly one who’d come all by himself, a wiry little sixteen-year-old radiating eagerness as he rushed to get a chair in the front row. A few months earlier, this boy had won the Best New Performer award at the national magicians’ convention in St. Louis. The guy about to appear onstage was pretty much exactly the man he wanted to become. A Nebraskan who’d graduated from college and was plainly on his way to a coast; a funny magician; and a TV star, local TV, but still. Plus—whoa!—the mimeographed program said he’d been a champion boxer in the Navy during the war; the kid, a Lincoln High junior people called Dick, was a gymnastics star.
As he settled in, preparing to take notes, he didn’t notice the boy three chairs away in the front row, a Lincoln High freshman on a rare night out with his big family, celebrating his fourteenth birthday. They were up front because poor Charlie, in addition to his bowed legs and funny way of pronouncing S, had terrible nearsightedness.
Charlie glared at the twerp upperclassman he recognized from the school gym, saw his notebook and ballpoint, and thought, Fuckin’ Gallant: a popular girl in his class this fall had started calling Charlie Goofus, the bad boy opposite to goody-goody Gallant in the Highlights for Children comic strip. The show began, and when the Omaha TV guy bounced onstage, Charlie sort of hated him, and envied his easy smile, his natural cool, and his fame.
Another kid named Richard, a sixth grader, was in the fourth row with his parents and little brother and sister. His mom had organized the outing: she worked across the street for the state health department and had been a local celebrity herself, before the kids came along, playing on a semi-pro women’s championship softball team three years running. Little Dicky, intelligent but literal-minded and suspicious, was frowning as usual: he didn’t get the joke the entertainer had just told about Adlai Stevenson losing the presidential election three weeks earlier, or understand why his dad, a federal bureaucrat who’d voted for Stevenson, was laughing out loud.
Laughing even harder were four people sitting together in the sixth row: the former state attorney general, his former–social worker wife, and their twenty-four-year-old lawyer son, Ted, back home from Washington, D.C., for the holiday weekend with his wife. The father, still chuckling, whispered to his son—asked if he’d ever seen Carson perform when they were at the university together, to which Ted answered no, but that he reminded him a little of his new boss, the freshman senator from Massachusetts.
The biggest, squawkiest laugh at the political joke came from near the back of the room, from another recent University of Nebraska graduate, another son of a maverick Nebraska Republican politician, another young up-and-comer who’d spent time on the East Coast trying to make his mark. He worked as a stockbroker for his dad in Omaha, but he’d recently bought a gas station as an investment and had driven down to Lincoln for the night to look at another small business that a college friend, a member of the St. Mary’s congregation, wanted him to go in on. He didn’t drink, and the prospect of such a cheap night on the town—“Dinner and a show for a buck and a half?”—had been irresistible.
In other words, of the 10,287 males between the ages of six and twenty-seven in Lincoln, Nebraska, that night in 1952, thirty-seven were in the basement of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, full of macaroni and Jell-O salad, laughing and applauding at jokes and tricks. And six of those thirty-seven became famous men. Which is to say, the magician and comedian/talk-show host Johnny Carson was onstage performing for the magician and future comedian/talk-show host Dick Cavett; Charles Starkweather, the future mass murderer; Dick Cheney, the future vice-president of the United States; Theodore Sorensen, the future special counselor and speechwriter to President Kennedy; and Warren Buffet, the future billionaire.
And the magic show was excellent.
KURT ANDERSEN, the host and co-creator of Studio 360, is the author of Heyday, Turn of the Century, and most recently, True Believers.
Copyright © 2013 by Narrative 4