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She patted me on the back. “Some prisoner needs you to write a letter and you write it, and then you have to feel guilty too?”
I loved her for saying that. “I am wound a little tight.”
“So what? If it keeps you doing what you have to do.”
“I am a little controlling. A little judgmental.”
She got the giggles again—twice in one day—and I told her I’d better hide at my desk because here came a client. But back in my office I began to cry again, and she let me, all afternoon. The Efficiency Queen wept profusely at her desk, and the clients stared in at me as if a madwoman had taken up residence. I felt I was sliding down a long dark chute. I tried to remember what the lady with the gas bill had looked like, but I could only see her chins, her neck, her bundles. At the end of the day Dawn brought me my coat and as she was handing it over she said: “Frank is an arrogant prick.”
I’d never heard such a word from her lips. “I thought you liked Frank.”
“Now you know.”
And now she said: “Mind if I go out there and have a smoke too?”
“’Course not. I’ll hold the fort.” I was returning the little smile, I guess. All the secretaries smoked—there was nothing you could do about it—but since Cornelia came Dawn was up to a couple of packs a day. I wanted to tell her that I’d seen Cornelia scoop up two and three dollars in change from petty cash to go get her afternoon latté, that sometimes she called up her Victoria’s Secret page on the screen all afternoon to torment Winston. My heart raced and my thoughts did, too.
The two of them were gone forever. They must have gone for a walk, or for coffee, or to talk over how I was abusing Cornelia. I heard Winston come back—I looked over my shoulder, to make sure it wasn’t a client—and he saluted, a funny, charming gesture. I saluted back.
But after a while I imagined he was standing in my doorway and when I looked over my shoulder again to reassure myself, he was standing in the doorway. I gasped, the way you do when anybody surprises you.
“Pretty scary, big black guy coming at you.”
It was a joke. I laughed. “You don’t scare me as much as some of the lawyers do.”
He said: “That’s what I wanted to ask you about. You think my father has a shot at asylum?” It was the longest string of words I’d heard from him and he left me as speechless as his father had, that first day. Ted, who was usually so optimistic, had been hedging about the case.
“How old were you, when you came over?” I shouldn’t have been asking him that. It didn’t matter how old he was.
“And your brothers? Were they born in Nigeria?”
“Yeah. I think they were, like, one and two when we got here. I know Buster cried the whole flight.”
So Dr. Okapu brought three little children with him to America. And called his baby Buster. It probably would have been better if he’d just kept living below the radar, if he’d never filed for asylum.
“I don’t want to go to Nigeria.” Winston’s eyes bore down on me. “I don’t even remember what it’s like. They execute anybody who protests there.” They execute…. Maybe he just knew how desperate I felt, too, sometimes, how my heart pounded so hard I thought it might fly away. Maybe that was why Winston Okapu stood in my doorway, asking me to perform some miracle.
The night Winston asked me to help him I went home and switched on the computer before I had a bite of dinner. I thought I could type in Ken Saro-wiwa and finish up with my guilt—so much time had passed, nobody knew who he was—but page after page of Saro-wiwa opened up to me. I’d never imagined a face to go along with my concept of the man, but there he was, a beaming man of fifty-four, the same age I was, sentenced to hang. Every photo showed him smiling, large perfect teeth gleaming under a jaunty mustache. In every shot he looked straight in the camera’s eye. I couldn’t bring myself to read about him—it was a judgment on me, on how I never lifted a finger to help—and when I put the computer to sleep I imagined it was haunted.
My night was haunted too. I counted Ogonis and Rwandans and Kosovars, mothers who couldn’t pay the gas bill or the light bill or the rent. Their crowded faces floated above me in my lonely bed, too many, too many souls clamoring, speaking an English I couldn’t understand. Dawn came to me in my twilight sleep—One case at a time. One letter at a time. Go easy, go easy, go easy—and I drifted off for a little while.
But I couldn’t stop my heart from pounding. The next day at work I got up and closed the door, as if I were about to leer at pornography, and I typed in the name again. His story sprouted into electronic buds: Saro-wiwa the novelist, the television producer, the activist. His last words to the court were inscribed on the screen, the way they might have been carved in stone a century ago. He sent his five children to England for their schooling, but one of them had a heart condition and died, in the middle of a rugby match.
A rugby match. I imagined him in Nigeria, getting the call. Your son is dead, a continent away. Your son has collapsed on the field. Behind my closed door, my eyes filled, but this time I knew it wasn’t Ken Saro-wiwa I was crying for. It wasn’t Saro-wiwa for whom I was crying. I was crying for me, for my own sons, who’d gone off to lead their own lives. I was standing on the sidelines at their soccer games, the hot Greenglass sun beating down on the barren field. And when we got home I was berating their father for insisting they play and then holing up in his office to work on his latest project. As soon as the youngest left for college—he went back East, the way his brothers had—Frank started a brand new project, a tall assistant professor in fishnet stockings and breasts out to here. Our sons sobbed like babies over the phone when we told them and I could see the rest of my life rolling out with no one to hold in my arms, no one to touch. I felt good and sorry for myself. Right now, for all I knew, my boys were dating ambitious Wellesley girls who said between you and I. I could have taken the computer and heaved it through the window.
Only there was Ken Saro-Wiwa’s smile on the screen. They arrested him, once, twice, and when he got out of jail he demonstrated all over again. They tried to kill him, and here he was. I was the one who was dead, the one whose vision was so narrow I’d never thought of a route out of this grim college town. Why couldn’t I move back East? Why couldn’t I find myself a job in another legal aid clinic and take night classes and get my degree? Why didn’t I just roll up my sleeves and pull up my socks? I tried to picture a time when Frank had been tender to me, but I only remembered our boys making us pose for snapshots, his arm a log on my shoulder, my whole body flinching. Dawn was right: he was an arrogant prick. Why’d I pretend he’d broken my heart? And why—this came out of nowhere—why, if Winston’s family were deported, couldn’t I take Winston in? If I were in a big city I could say he was Rwandan, that I had adopted him. Nobody would think that was odd. My mind was racing. I tried to remember how many cups of coffee I’d had, how many hours of sleep.
A rap at my door. I started the way I did when Winston stood there. “Come in,” I called, and realized too late that I should have erased the screen. Dr. Okapu stood in my doorway, and when I swiveled around, I was sure he could see Ken Saro-wiwa smiling behind my chair. He didn’t say a word about the computer screen, though. He gazed at a spot on the wall above my right shoulder and said: “No one is in this office.”