[STORY] The promise keeper (episode 1-19)


1.

We promise according to our hopes, and perform according to our fears.
François VI de la Rochefoucault

I was sweating again. I closed my eyes and tried to calm my thudding heart. I saw her there, in my mind. The Brazilian hair she always had on reached down to her graceful shoulder. I remembered every detail, how her beautiful eyes crinkled when she smiled, the way the left side of her lips curled more than her right when she laughed. The looks on her face when we made love; her soft and sensitive neck and all of that. I could still see the few freckles that lay dotted across the bridge of her nose. All of that was still mine, but I knew it wouldn’t last. Holding on to her image for two weeks had been a miracle. I just had one last promise to keep.

I was jostled by the nervous girl sitting next to me. She was littered with tattoo proclaiming her to be a courageous rebel; her jitters spoke of the same fear I felt. They had packed us in like sardines on little plastic chairs that looked like they belonged in some elementary school classroom. Most of us would leave disappointed and I prayed I was one them. I had only promised to show up I hadn’t promised to succeed. No. I didn’t. Most of the contestants were younger than I. I closed my eyes again, to shut out their youthful anxiety.

I took a few deep breaths, and brought the image of Dolapo back into my mind. It was still so easy to see her. I knew my memory, such a weak tool, would begin to fail. I had pictures, but they weren’t the flowing 3-D I could call up in my psyche. Still so beautiful and perfect was the picture framed in my feeble mind. I heard the door open and hoped it wasn’t for me. “Omawumi Megbele?” I opened my eyes as the smartly-dressed woman wearing a headset called out the name. A young lady of about 19 three rows away jumped up excitedly. I was just as excited for her.

I had been here for over half a day and knew the auditions had to be coming to a close. It was a long shot to be chosen and I had never been lucky at things like this. I had my bad luck going in my favour because I c couldn’t make it to the hot seat with Frank Edoho having tried several times to take a shot at WWTBAM. I closed my eyes again and spent more time with the memory of Dolapo, my wife.

“Timi Dakolo?” The lady had returned, and blessedly called out a name which was not mine. I didn’t open my eyes this time as Timi gave a quick cheer, and I heard him head quickly to the door. I wished it would end. I was hoping he was the last, but no one dismissed us. I tried to breathe slowly. My pulse was still racing and I needed it to slow down. One way or another, this little bit of personal hell would be over soon.
It was getting too late for it to continue much longer. “Last one,” the woman called, when she returned fifteen minutes later. I could feel the emotions shift as one in the room. The silence was deafening. I closed my eyes again and saw Dolapo’s smile. Her face shifted slowly to a look I knew all too well. The mischievous one, the expression that lovingly told me I had no choice in the matter.

My heart plummeted to my stomach and I knew the next words before they were spoken. “David Akeju?” The groans were loud as hopes were dashed, mine included. My hands were shaking as I opened my eyes, armed only with a promise. I stood slowly, trying to stall as fear mixed with my sorrow. “You’re lucky, oooo!” the tattoo girl said as I stood. I looked at her, sweat forming on my brow. I was about to say something; maybe offer her my place. The promise kept me from that escape. I just shook my head and headed toward the door I wished was miles away.

The woman with the headset led me down the hall. She was babbling quickly, in an indifferent manner, about what I was to expect. I stopped listening after she told me I was to stand on a small red ‘O’ on the stage. I was met, just off the stage, by a young man who fitted me with a wireless mic. He warned me not to touch my chest while I was out there. A lady in a white T-shirt came up and wiped my brow and quickly put some kind of powder on my face. He warned me the lights would be bright, and I should just look at the judges. I closed my eyes again and saw Dolapo smiling. It didn’t slow my heart, but I didn’t feel so alone or so I thought.

[nextpage title=”episode 2″]
Episode 2.

All promise outruns performance.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I heard my name reverberate in the auditorium. It quieted the low drone of the audience I hadn’t realized was so close. I stood there, my legs unwilling to move. Someone pushed me and I half stumbled toward that little red ‘O’ at the centre of the stage. The lights were so blinding; I could only make out the first twenty rows behind the three judges’ seats. A weak, cordial applause welcomed me to hell. Yeah…it was hellish.
I stopped on the ‘O’ and turned toward the judges. I could feel the blood driving painfully through my veins. “Welcome, David,” a man I recognized, the third judge on the right said. He had a wild frock of black, dreadlock hair running down his shoulders and back. He wore sunglasses and an overly confident expression. I knew I should know his name, but I never watched these talent shows because of my love for football leagues around the world especially, the EPL.

I found myself jealous of his sunglasses. I nodded to his greeting, not yet trusting my voice. “Do you think you have what it takes to win?” the judge asked. He looked a little perturbed that I hadn’t really acknowledged him yet. At least he asked an easy question. “No,” I answered truthfully. I didn’t give further details on my answer which seemed to bother him all the more. “Then what are you doing here?” he asked exasperatedly. I had a feeling procedures would change at the next auditions. Another easy question; the answer was more difficult to get out. “I promised my wife,” I responded.

I remembered when I made the promise and the pain hit hard again. I had to take a long blink. “So, your wife thinks you can win?” the man asked with a bit of whimsy. The thought that he would even pretend to know Dolapo’s wishes infuriated me. I know there was anger in my voice when I answered. It felt better than the fear I had. “I don’t pretend to know why,” I answered thickly, “I promised her and I am going to keep that promise.” The audience gasped a little and the judges looked surprised at my venom. There was a pause while Mr. Sunglasses considered my response.

“What do you plan to sing for us, Promise Keeper?” the judge asked sarcastically. This elicited a small chuckle from the audience.
I really didn’t like this guy making fun of my promise to my wife. “Dolapo,” I answered. The judges looked at each other strangely. “The R’n’B song?” Mr. Sunglasses asked incredulously. I kicked myself for not looking up the name before. Of course there was already a song called ‘Dolapo’. I really didn’t want to answer any more questions.

“No. I wrote it myself,” I replied. There was surprise and a bit of laughter at that response. I was already gritting my teeth wishing this would just end. “Well this should at least be entertaining,” Mr. Sunglasses said with a superior smile, “go ahead and keep your promise.” He made it sound so amusing. The audience was laughing openly at this point. I rallied around my rising anger, trying to hold the fear at bay. I had to close my eyes to make the faces disappear. I had never sung in public; I had only for my wife. I saw Dolapo there, smiling and proud. I could always sing to her. I wrote the words to fit the folklore generic hip-pop.

The tune was almost as pretty as Dolapo, and fit our love as well as possible. I heard the music start in my mind and I slowly sang to her about how we met and how our hearts merged. I sang of her beauty, comparing it poorly to a sunrise. I sang of her smile, of our dreams and mostly of our love. Dolapo’s face changed, and I saw her concern as I got to the end. I sang about my loss and of her death. I couldn’t help the tears or the crack in my voice. My promise kept, I dropped my head and listened to the silence. I raised my head and stared into the blinding lights. I think they were waiting for more. The applause started slowly and my anger flared quickly.

The death of my wife was not a celebration. I raised my hand in front of my face, trying to shut out the hullabaloo and the lights. The hysterical ignorant audience went on with their revere, but my promise was kept. I headed off the stage at fast clip; my pain as sharp as when I last held Dolapo. The song had fully renewed the misery, my misery. I heard the judges shouting at me. ‘Just don’t call me back,’ I thought.

[nextpage title=”episode 3″]
Episode 3

For every promise, there is price to pay.
Jim Rohn

The producer lady, the one with the headphones, wisely moved out of my way as I exited. The man behind her wasn’t so smart. “You are yet to finish the auditioning process,” he informed me as he attempted to block my way. I was glad of it, more anger to replace the pain. I flung the microphone at him and I grabbed him by the collar. “Sue me!” I shouted and threw him into a pole behind me. He slipped and fell to the ground and quickly turned away. It took a couple of turns down the hall’s backstage before I found an exit. The crisp open air hit me in a wave. I breathed it in deeply as I headed down the street, darkness already cloaking the city; the coolness wrapped my pain well. I heard a door open behind me. I ran to the street and disappeared into the city.

I was at the bridge when my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number so I hit ignore. I walked along the walkway, looking at the silently-flowing river. Cars passed as their occupants oblivious to the death of my wife. The whole world was oblivious. My phone rang again, another number I didn’t recognize. I ignored it as well and stopped at the head of the bridge. I closed my eyes as I leaned on the rail. I could see Dolapo again, so cheerful. I would begin to forget soon. I didn’t want to lose Dolapo again. I knew it was grief, but that was all I had of her. I never wanted the grief to end.

My phone rang again and I didn’t even look. I pulled it out of my pocket and dropped it into the river. It was joyous to let it go. I laughed at the thought of it, throwing away the world and all its useless machinations. My Rolex wristwatch followed and I wrapped myself in a cloak of my memories. I pulled my wallet out and looked at it closely. It was my connection to the world. My driver license, National ID, Voters Card, Master debit cards and the Staff ID card I should have turned in when I had quit. None of it had meaning. I had kept my promise and everything else was unlikely. I threw the wallet farther. My keys were heavier; they went the farthest into the water below bridge.

I walked courageously to the east end of the bridge, where the river lapped up next to the rocks far below. I was no longer cold, or cared if I was. I climbed over the railing and aligned myself with the rocks the water was kissing below. I closed my eyes and there was Dolapo again, in all her perfection. Every freckle, every dimple, her arms outstretched and inviting. I didn’t jump; I just leaned into her arms. I saw the most precious expression, the same one I would see as we made love. I folded into her as I fell away from the world. I had kept my promise.

[nextpage title=”episode 4″]
]4.

“Promise only what you can deliver. Then deliver more than you promise”

Author Unknown

It was terribly cold. My entire body was shaking like jelly fish and I could feel my back spasm with each shudder. I tried to lift my head, and pain let off down my spine. I lay back down and tried to open my eyes. There was light, but not oppressive light. Slowly, my focus returned, and I glanced unknowingly at my surroundings. The light was coming through an assembly of all manners of flex banners of political office aspirants and church events, cartons boxes and rough planks surrounding me. I had a torn green trampoline over me. I tried lifting my shaking hands, but more pain shot across my back.

The trampoline smelled foul, like the inside of a wet sneaker or gym shoes and socks. I raised my head enough to see the white stains, obviously bird waste, speckling the trampoline. I choked at the thought and tried again to move. The pain was too much so I collapsed on the hard surface making my bed. I was lying, slightly inclined, on carton sheets, pali. I suspected there was unyielding concrete beneath them. My shaking was getting worse. I was soaked from head to toe, and the water was foul. Maybe it was I who smelled so bad. The bridge drifted back into my mind. The events leading up to it and then, Dolapo.

Grief flooded back as the uncontrollable shaking continued. I couldn’t even fall off a bridge properly. It would be slow, but I was going to freeze to death. I could feel my fingers going numb and my lips weren’t moving right. I closed my eyes; they say it is just like falling asleep. Dolapo was there, in my mind. Something was missing and I couldn’t figure out what it was. My memory wasn’t perfect. I knew it was her, but something was off. It didn’t look quite right and I struggled, shaking, to bring back the perfect image and things got worse. I was losing her. I hated myself that moment on.

I heard footsteps, walking through loose gravels, echoed into my pali beddings. I opened my eyes, and turned my head toward the sound. The steps left the gravel and became quieter as they hit a harder surface. I realized this must be the person who unsaved me.

A small section of the makeshift abode made of pali was pulled away to reveal a cloudy, dismal day. I could make out some large concrete supports and the brownish iron underlying a portion of the bridge. An old man, his hair greying on both his face and head, grinned at me. His teeth would furnish a dentist with months of work and make a fortune for Oral B tooth paste brand. “You’re up,” he said with eyes brighter than his weather-beaten face. “They call me Fabio. I pulled you out of the water.” He tossed a nylon pack into the tiny shanty and it landed on my chest.

“You should have left me,” I ranted, not realizing talking would be difficult. “This province is mine and I am the mayor of the province,” Fabio stated firmly, “you want to die, go to the other side.” He used his head to gesture along the bridge to the other bank. “These are dry clothes. They ain’t the finest,” he smiled again, “but they are dry. I ‘trago’ them on my way coming home so they are sparkling clean.” He crawled into the hovel and reclosed the opening. He didn’t smell any better than I did. I tried to sit up and a sharp pain put me back down. “Just roll me back into the water,” I groaned. Fabio laughed. It was a halting laugh that didn’t speak well of his mental state. “You missed most of the rocks, but found a few. Fabio chuckled. “Bet you’re real sore about now.”

That’s all I needed, some homeless guy laughing at me about my failed suicide. I took a few deep breaths and cried out as my muscles protested. I forced myself to sit up. The dirty trampoline fell forward onto my lap and my upper body felt even colder. I sat shivering, trying not to move much. My lower back would have preferred I lay back down.

“Give me your shirt,” Fabio demanded. I took a couple of deep breaths, trying to give my back time to get used to the new position. It wasn’t fast enough for Fabio. “The shirt or you leave. You have to go somewhere else to die,” he said, while holding out his dirty hand. I was in no condition to leave and I guess he had a right to demand I didn’t die in his home, as crappy as it was. I tried to unbutton my shirt with my shaking hands.

The mixture of the cold, and the shooting pains as I moved my arms made it very slow going. I couldn’t feel much in the tip of my fingers which made it difficult to shove the button back through the wet hole. Fabio started laughing again. “Maybe you don’t miss the rocks next time.” He barely got it out before resuming his inappropriate laughter.

“My fingers are too cold,” I stuttered between shakes. “I’ll do it, but don’t have ideas,” Fabio stated as he moved forward, stinking like unkempt poultry farm. I tried to give him my ‘are you out of your mind’ look. I don’t think I fully managed it. He deftly undid the buttons and quickly scooted back again. It was agonizing pulling the wet shirt off my shoulders. I must have really bruised my back.

The air hit my wet skin sharply, and my shuddering increased. Fabio quickly took the wet shirt and handed me a dry one he had liberated from the pile in my lap. It was only an old t-shirt, but it was dry. Pulling it on was another slow, agonizing process. Fabio handed me a worn flimflam shirt that buttoned down the front.

“Kari-kaka, I learned that my first year of homelessness,” Fabio spouted proudly. There was more pain putting my arms in the arm holes. The shirt smelled clean. In truth, it didn’t smell at all and that was clean from where I was sitting. I was able to get the shirt buttoned myself, much to Fabio’s relief, who seemed overly concerned about his virtue. The dry clothes started warming my chest quickly. The shivering didn’t stop, but the severity receded, and I had more control over it.

“Now the trouser,” Fabio said, and quickly stepped outside, “let me know when you’re done.” I smirked, my lips working a bit better, at his worries. Even if I was gay, Fabio wasn’t my type. I laughed inwardly at that thought. He was old and homeless and had all the right in the world to be from the roughest side of the street.

It took a long time to switch my trouser. My lower back must have taken quite a hit and the muscles were screaming. I more or less scooted out of the pants since I was unable to fully bend my legs. Fabio had brought a pair of cotton exercise shorts and some old stained jeans. I replaced my boxers with the exercise shorts, almost screaming to get them over my feet. The jeans were even more difficult. I looked around and noticed for the first time that my shoes were missing. They were probably the same place my socks were.
“Pa Fabio, where are my shoes?” I asked as I rolled over onto my hands and knees. I wasn’t sure I could stand up without passing out. I certainly couldn’t stand up in the hovel.

“I put them by the side to dry,” Fabio answered, “they will dry soon.” I crawled to the exit and poked my head out into the grey day. I was housed under the bridge, right where the supports met the land. My shaking had stopped. It wasn’t terribly cold now that I had dry clothes. Fabio looked down at me. “The face cap is in there too,” he said, pointing into the hut. I crawled back and painfully.
“What’s your name, jumper?” Fabio asked with a bit a sarcasm. I decided it was best he didn’t know. I didn’t plan on staying, and I didn’t really trust him. “Frank,” I answered. It was the first name to come to me, my father’s first name, though he was gone before I was born. I subconsciously felt for my phone and remembered it was at the bottom of the river, along with my wallet. I really wasn’t planning to need them anymore.

“Why did you do it?” Fabio asked. I looked up at him and saw the glint in his eye. I could see he wasn’t really concerned about me. He was more interested in the story. I guess I was what passed for entertainment under a bridge. “Are you owing a debt, killed someone?” he continued. He gave me the best lie, the one that said I owed a lot of money.

“Debt, the economy is biting hard and I am out of business” I lied. Fabio laughed his crazy laugh.

“I’m always penniless,” Fabio said, “I don’t need money so I don’t care if I don’t have any. It’s you idiots that put worry in it.” I chuckled at that. He was right in his own way.

“You’re a wise man, Pa Fabio,” I praised, his face lit up like a Christmas tree. I have no idea why I found that pleasing. He’s an old man who lives under a bridge. Why would I care if he was happy? Nevertheless, his dental disaster of a smile made me feel good. I tried to stand and decided against it when my back fought against it with pain.

“Lay flat,” Fabio instructed, “you might be stuck here a day or two. I will take care of you and then you owe me….that’s how it works.” I slowly rolled over on to my back and slowly straightened my legs. I smiled at him. “What will I owe you?” I asked. I was thinking in terms of cash.
“I don’t know yet!” Fabio snapped, “You share what you get or do some jobs at my command. Nothing more than what you get. I’ll ask when I see it. We can’t live without helping each other out here.” He was talking to me like I was an idiot. It was a simple barter system, favour for favour.

“Sounds more than fair, “I responded lightly, “you just let me know. I will owe you good when I get out of here.” Fabio smiled again, and nodded his head. He really enjoyed the idea of being owed. I would have to find a way of paying him back. I was impressed how simple his life was. Right now, I envied him.

[nextpage title=”episode 5″]
5.

“Oft expectation fails, and most oft where most it promises; and oft it hits where hope is coldest; and despair most sits”
(William Shakespeare)

“It’s almost four,” Fabio said absently, “kitchen will open soon. Shade said I could bring you back something ’til you feel better. She won’t do it for long so you got to get better.”

“Shade?” I asked.

“She runs the kitchen,” Fabio said incredulously, “don’t you know anything? You’re lucky I found you.” He was shaking his head as he headed off beyond the bridge supports. He acted like the whole world knew about the kitchen.

I lay on the cardboard mattress feeling physically better than when I woke. I closed my eyes and saw my flawed vision of Dolapo. “I miss you baby,” I whispered. The vision didn’t improve. I had already lost perfection and I knew it would only fade more over time. My grief returned and I wished Fabio hadn’t left. I needed his simplicity, as strange as it was.

Fabio returned as the sun began to set. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed because my watch was in the bottom of the river. It was kind of nice not caring what time it was. I have spent my whole life watching a clock. All that happened was time ran out for Dolapo and me. Now time could just s–k itself.

“I got you some fried yam and a sachet water,” Fabio said as he handed me the food in some old newspaper sheets. Strangely, it seemed like a feast. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was until I smelled the cold yam.

“Got to eat out here,” Fabio pointed to the cement. “Don’t want flies feasting.” More homeless wisdom. I crawled out and sat up slowly. I was starting to figure out how to move with the least amount of pain. The lower left side of my back felt like it had been hit with a sledge hammer. If I kept myself tucked a little to the left, I could withstand more movement.

“Thanks, Fabio,” I said sincerely, “I owe you.” Fabio smiled and nodded. I was getting the hang of this favour thingy. Just acknowledge the debt and pay it back in kind in the future. If only the rest of life were that simple. I dug into the yam and it disappeared quickly. Even cold, the seasonings in the stew partied with my tongue in a snappy way. I was kind of wishing there was more. I emptied the sachet water in one swoop. I made a ball of the newspaper sheets and looked around for a waste can or something. Fabio laughed and grabbed it out of my hand, walked down to the river and threw it in. Pollution was obviously not part of his ethos.

[nextpage title=”episode 6″]
6

It was four days until I could stand and walk properly. Fabio said I had one hell of bruise on my back. I guess I was lucky, or unlucky depending upon your point of view. I was certainly happy I didn’t have to crawl down to the river to relieve myself anymore.

Fabio and I became good friends. I liked him better than anyone else I knew. I liked his philosophy. There was no way I was going back to my old life, not without Dolapo in it. Jumping off a bridge didn’t appeal to me any more either. I was losing weight, something I always wanted to do. I couldn’t care less what time it was and there was absolutely no stress. My home, job, car and old friends would do nothing, but remind me of what I had lost. A week ago, I would have never guessed I could live without all my stuff. Now, I couldn’t care less how full my notifications on my social media accounts- twitter, instagram, facebook, whatsapp were or whether I had checked my email. I was dropping out and going off the grid.

Fabio was a brilliant teacher. He had been on the streets for over twenty years. He dropped out when he lost his factory job. He couldn’t find another even close to what he had been earning, his wife deserted him and couldn’t afford to pay for accommodation any longer, so he hit the streets. For him, it worked. He really didn’t care how the world turned and had no desire for the finer things in life. I wasn’t sure how long I could hack it, but, after four days under a bridge, I was feeling pretty free. I didn’t have any obligations to clutter my time. Grief would visit, but never stay long. There was nothing under the bridge to remind me of Dolapo except my own thoughts.

“I guess you could make it to the kitchen today,” Fabio said, “it’s almost four so we better get started if we want more than scraps.” I looked at him strangely. His time-telling skills were gnawing at me. He wore no watch, but he always had a good sense of the time. Even when it was cloudy.

“How do you always know what time it is?” I asked with a smile. Fabio was always proud of his secret knowledge of the streets. It’s one of the reasons why he liked me. I always made a point of drawing it into the open so he could show off.

“Traffic,” Fabio answered, pointing to the bridge, “I can hear rush hour starting.” He was beaming and I gave him a small bow in praise, which caused a little pain. I had ignored the traffic, but he was right. You could almost count the tires crossing the breaks in the pavement. In his own way, Fabio was a genius.

I followed Fabio into the streets for the first time in four days. I am sure I looked a mess. I hadn’t shaved or even combed my hair in all that time. I received a few disgusted looks from suited professionals, but most people just ignored us. I felt invisible and found it exhilarating. I am sure my smell wasn’t invisible, but Fabio didn’t seem to be offended.

The kitchen was in an underprivileged neighbourhood. It looked like it had been some kind of factory at one time. It was a three story brown bricked building with large windows, mostly boarded. There was a large sign above a double set of doors that said ‘City Kitchen.’ One of the doors was propped open, but a line had already begun to form just before the two steps that led to the doors. There was no indication why we couldn’t just go inside.

“Can’t go in until ‘I Need An Angel,’” Fabio said as we got in line behind an old woman. “Jummai, this here is Frank.” Jummai turned, her face was wrinkled like elephant skin. She smiled, nodded and turned to face the line again. I greeted but I don’t think she heard me. She was humming to herself and it wasn’t offensive, almost like she could carry a tune.

“‘ I Need An Angel?’” I asked.

“You’ll see,” Fabio smiled. I waited with everyone else as the line got longer. I let Fabio have his fun. I learned in four days not to get anxious about anything. Patience was a way of life on the streets. It was the cost of the freedom.

Fabio seemed to know most of the people in line. A week ago, I would have never thought of them as people at all. It’s strange how jumping off a bridge could change your perspective. Not all of the people looked like they hadn’t showered for a week or more, and I was surprised at the number of kids in line. There was one mother trying to reign in three young boys who seemed very comfortable with the whole process.
The civility in the line was the most surprising aspect. No one seemed to mind the wait and there wasn’t any attempt cut in or form a new line. I was expecting more of a herd mentality instead of the practiced order being displayed. It went against everything Fabio stood for.
“It’s so…orderly,” I said. I almost gave it a questioning tone.

“Shade don’t take nonsense,” Fabio replied. Jummai stopped humming and turned around.

“You cause trouble, you don’t eat,” Jummai said accusingly. She raised her finger and pointed at me with a scowl. I smiled at her, trying to prove I was a good person and deserved to eat. She turned back around and continued her humming. Shade must be a beast of a woman to invoke such discipline in everyone. I imagined her huge being swinging a rolling pin with deadly force. I didn’t intend to cause any trouble, so I wasn’t too worried.

I heard an electric pop followed by a hiss of speakers firing up. “Four o’clock, here we go,” Fabio said patting me on the back. The line started moving forward just before the music started. The song ‘I Need An Angel’ wafted through the open door. I realized that was the tune Jummai had been humming the whole time. Everyone moved forward calmly; there was no pushing or arguing. I have seen ruder people entering high-priced theatrical productions. But it seemed Shade packed some bouncers, of course there was nothing of such.

The line moved forward slowly, but steadily. I patiently waited my turn to head into the door. I smelled the aroma as I neared the door and my stomach growled. I was hungrier than I thought. I know I hadn’t eaten well in the last four days, but it really didn’t bother me until that wonderful smell hit my nostrils. Inside the door, the line continued down a short hall and took a turn to the right. The music was more pronounced inside and Jummai was bouncing to the beat. Maybe she was a deadhead from way back.

I turned the corner just as the song ended. The clashing of plates replaced the music. There was a stainless steel cafeteria line ahead, manned by people who looked like they would fit comfortably in the line. The first station was being handled by a large woman wearing a white apron over mismatched jeans and shirt. Her hair, black with streaks of grey, was pulled back and covered in a white scarf. She was filling bowls with food and handing them over with a smile that was missing a few teeth. I assumed she was Shade. She was definitely imposing enough.
“I haven’t seen you before,” a female voice to my right said as I entered the dining room. The room held a good twenty long tables with chairs. My eyes followed the voice to a woman dressed in a flowing red flowery skirt. Her hair was held in place by the same white scarf with the lady with imposing stature was wearing.

“No, I guess I’m new,” I replied, a little lost for words. I wasn’t expecting to be greeted. The woman’s eyes crinkled when she smiled. She was petite, at least a hand shorter than I. Her cream-colored blouse was practical, but sharply ironed. She stood with both hands clasped behind her back. She looked completely out of place, for one thing, she had all her teeth.

“Shade, this is Frank,” Fabio chimed in from behind me, “he’s the one I told you about.” Shade didn’t look anything like I expected. She was maybe in her mid-thirties and not physically imposing at all.

“Welcome, Frank,” Shade said, and used her hand to direct me toward the cafeteria line. A small gap in the line was created when she greeted me and I think she was intent on seeing it closed. Something about her manner made me hustle to fill the gap. “You owe me five days, Fabio,” Shade called as we moved toward the food to be served us.

“Five days?” I asked Fabio for clarification.

“Yeah, I have to work the line,” Fabio said, nodding to the line, “if you eat a lot, you owes days to Shade.” He smiled as he picked up a plate off the stack. “It isn’t bad work, it’s just she makes you clean up, you know, before you touch the food and stuff.” Fabio obviously cherished his grime. He wasn’t quite as free as he claimed.

[nextpage title=”episode 7″]
7

“Does Shade run this all by herself?” I asked as we began to dig in the food.

“Yep, it’s her kitchen,” Fabio answered with a mouth full of rice. I saw him eying my fish. He wasn’t trying to be overly obvious, but he wasn’t hiding it either. I smiled and moved my fish to his plate.

“I owe you,” I said. Fabio nodded his head as he stuffed another spoonful of rice into his mouth. I had a feeling I wouldn’t be getting enough food for a while. It didn’t really bother me, anyone who could help me forget was worth it.

We ate in the relatively quiet atmosphere of the cafeteria. There was talking, but it was all subdued and very cordial. Not what I expected at all. Fabio informed me Shade wouldn’t allow raucous behaviour in her cafeteria. I looked back at Shade and wondered how she could possibly stop a ruckus if it started. Everyone just seemed to accept her iron rule here.

I was watching Fabio enjoy his fish at the end of the meal. Enjoying was an understatement. He was in ecstasy. He savoured every bite, and his eyes glossed over. His joys were simple and this was one of his favourites.

“So, what are you doing here, Frank?” Shade had sat down next to us without me noticing. I jumped a bit in surprise. I figured I would stick with the lie I started with.

“Financial problems,” I answered. I wondered if I smelled as bad as Fabio. If so, Shade didn’t seem to mind. She just looked at my face as if trying to figure out something. Her dark eyes seemed to penetrate past my lie and I sensed she didn’t believe me.

“You’re not buying Fabio’s freedom of the streets crap are you?” Shade smiled sweetly at Fabio as she said it. Fabio was still lost in his second fish and seemed oblivious to the teasing insult. For some reason I didn’t feel like lying to her again. There was something about how she presented herself that just made it feel wrong.

“Right now, yes,” I answered honestly, “it’s kind of refreshing.” Fabio was nodding as he relished another mouthful of the fish. He was more aware of the conversation than I gave him credit for. Shade rolled her eyes and gave me an expression just short of disgust. I suddenly wanted to take my answer back and try again.

“You owe Fabio?” Shade asked, nodding toward the fish monster.
“Yes,” I answered quizzically.

“Then you take his five days,” Shade said as she rose, “I’ll see if I can change your mind. Be here tomorrow morning at nine; don’t be late.” Shade headed off before I could respond. I was shocked by the authority she just assumed she had. Fabio smiled with a mouth full of fish.
“We’re even,” Fabio said, obviously pleased with the turn of events. I looked after Shade, her skirt swinging from side to side as she headed toward the serving line. She walked with authority that no one seemed to question. She inspected the line, and was pointing out things while workers hustled to make everything right. Not what I expected at all.

It was a chilling morning, doubly so since I had to leave the shack, my new abode I share with Fabio, before the sun was above the buildings. I made it to the City Kitchen well before nine or at least Fabio said I would be early. I was stamping my feet on the steps, and hugging myself when I heard the door begin to open.

“You’re going to have to collect better clothes if you want to make this your lifestyle,” Shade said, while waving me in. “You’re early,” she commented.

“Don’t have a watch,” I responded as I stepped into the warmth. It was the first time I had needed a watch since I threw it in the river. She locked the door behind me and started walking to the dining area expecting me to follow. I followed like a dog.

“The door to the right,” Shade instructed while pointing to the far wall, “leads to a shower room. There is a wash basin to wash your clothes and a dryer. Clean up, and we’ll get started in about an hour.” She turned, and headed back toward what I expected was the real kitchen area. She left no room for dissent.

“What if I say no?” I asked. Might as well find out how this all works. I wasn’t used to feeling like someone’s slave. Shade turned around and looked at me with a calm glare.

“If you’re not clean, you can’t touch the food,” Shade stated firmly, “if you can’t help, we won’t like each other.” Her hands found her hips and she stared at me. I almost came back with a smart-ass remark, but couldn’t find the courage. She was very imposing for such a petite woman.
“Clean it is,” I said cheerfully. I really didn’t want Shade’s ire. I had a strange feeling it would be a costly thing to behold. Shade just turned and continued on her previous path.

The shower room was large. I guessed the building must have needed it in its prior life. It was set up like one you might find in an old dormitory. A row of sinks, a hall of toilets and a large, open shower room with five shower heads. In the sink portion, there was a utility basin with an old dryer next to it. I followed Shade’s instructions.

I stripped down and threw my clothes in the basin. There was detergent above the faucet which I used to scrub the clothes. The water turned a nasty shade of tan as I washed. I guess five days in the same clothes does that. I rinsed the clothes as best I could and went to toss them in the dryer. The dryer held a towel that I guess was meant for me. I exchanged the towel for my clean, but wet, clothes and put the dryer on a one hour cycle.

Above one of the regular sinks was a set of hotel toiletries sitting on the metal tray below the mirror. The tray held a cheap plastic-wrapped toothbrush and comb, along with a small bar of soap, a tiny toothpaste tube and a mini shampoo. I didn’t recognized myself in the mirror. My thick dark hair, which hadn’t been combed in five days, was disheveled, and it stuck out in strangely. I was sporting the beginnings of a sparse beard, and I was shocked to see some of it coming in grey. I had never had grey hair before. My face was basically filthy with streaks of oily dirt where I had wiped it with my dirty hands. I had aged ten years in five days. Dolapo would have been pissed.

I grabbed the soap and shampoo and headed to the shower. I scrubbed myself thoroughly and then repeated the process a couple more times. I closed my eyes with my head under the warm shower and tried to see Dolapo again. She was there, missing the perfection I could once see. I hated losing that perfection, but it wasn’t ripping me apart as before. I knew I wouldn’t be jumping off any more bridges. I also knew I wouldn’t be returning to my old life. The mirror convinced me Fabio didn’t have the answers either. I owed him five days, so that’s how long I had to figure out things. At least Shade had my day planned for me. I really didn’t want to think any more.

I dried off, combed my hair and brushed my teeth. I felt slightly more normal. I lost a little portion of the freedom Fabio had tried to instil. It was replaced with a desire to do something. I just wish I knew what that something was. I looked at my scraggly baby beard and wished I had a shaver or shaving razor at least. I didn’t like the grey hairs, Dolapo would have hated them. I remembered trying not to shave on Sundays.

It was just a lazy thing, to make Sunday a do-nothing day. Dolapo nixed it almost immediately. I remember her sitting me in a chair, then straddling me and shaving me herself. We made love like teenagers that day, me promising never to not shave and her promising to shave me personally if I reneged. The memory brought a mixture of tremendous love and horrible sadness. A potent mix that always caused tears. I wished I had a razor.

I spent another twenty minutes with my memories while I waited for the clothes to dry. I washed out my towel and exchanged it with my clothes in the dryer. I set the dial for thirty minutes on the dryer and fired it up. I walked out a clean man.

[nextpage title=”episode 8″]
8

“A bit better,” Shade commented as I entered the dining hall. She was obviously waiting for me to emerge. “Let me see the hands,” she ordered. I held out my hands with a small roll of my eyes. She ignored my eyes and looked closely at both sides of my hands with special attention to the nails.

“Take the chair off the tables,” Shade ordered. I assumed she had accepted the cleanliness of my hands since she didn’t make me rewash them. “Tuck them under, equidistant apart. Don’t move the tables, they are exactly where they belong. Meet me in the backroom when you’re done.” She headed off with a purpose. I looked at the legs of the tables and the north sets of legs were lined up perfectly on a tile line. The northeast leg of each table was on a tile corner. Shade may be a perfectionist.

I lowered the chair and tucked them under and scooted them to make sure they were equally spaced. I walked around when I was done and adjusted a few, so the chair lined up with the tables in the same rows. I rechecked each table to make sure it hadn’t moved. Then I went into the backroom. I had no idea how Shade got me to be so anal about tables and chairs.

I walked into the backroom, one of the cleanest kitchens I have ever seen. All the stainless steel sparkled and everything seemed to have a place. There were no utensils or pots and pans lying out. Even the tiled floor looked spotless. Shade was sitting on a stool, working with a set of papers. She looked up as I walked in and pointed to an apron and scarf that had been laid out on the counter. I donned both.

“That’s the hand wash,” Shade said, as she pointed at a small sink along the wall. “Push the lever with your leg and wash your hands. Before you touch any food or anything that will touch food, you wash your hands. Tissue paper is in there next to it.” She went back to her papers, making notes on one of them.

I was a little surprised not to see anyone else working. I moved over to the sink and washed my hands. It seemed a little over-the-top since I had just gotten out of the shower. I guess I touched some chairs, but I assumed they were strictly sanitized like the rest of the place. I was drying my hands with the paper towels when Shade looked up again.

“There are tomatoes over there in the store,” Shade said and pointed to the large steel door, “they are on the left side, second shelf. Bring out two baskets and set them on the floor by the sink.” She indicated the large sink with the high curved faucet. She then went back to her papers. I started to walk toward the store and decided my silent obedience was a bit much.

“By the way, good morning, Madam Shade,” I said with a tiny bit of smart-ass. I kept moving toward the store so she couldn’t find fault. Shade surprised me by looking up briefly with a smile.

“Good morning, Frank,” Shade replied and returned to her work. I guess authoritative regimes could be cordial. I found it pleasing to make the great leader smile — my little bit of rebellion for the morning.

I hauled the two baskets of tomatoes out to the sink. They were a bit heavier than I had thought so it took two trips.

“Place the baskets properly, then, wash your hands again.” Shade didn’t look up from her work this time. I sighed as I placed the baskets properly and washed my hands again. Shade rose from her work and washed her hands as well. “We never allow our skin to touch the food,” she instructed as she dried her hands, “We always use latex gloves; I’m guessing you will want the large ones.” She pulled a pair of small, disposable latex gloves from a rack mounted on the wall next to the sink. I grabbed a pair of large.

“Start washing the tomatoes.” Shade’s motions were practiced as she blindly grabbed a metal sieve from the wire shelf above our heads. “Both baskets need to be prepared. Rinse, core, slice then chop. She walked off to grab some more tools for the job as I began rinsing the first batch of tomatoes.

Shade returned with a cutting board and a pair of small clawed spoons. She deftly maneuvered, with her feet, a wheeled garbage can over toward the sink. “Touch the garbage can and you need a new set gloves,” she warned. She retrieved a wet tomato from the large metal sieve and showed me how to take out the small hard core at the top with the clawed spoon. The core went into the can and the tomato onto the cutting board. We started cutting the tomatoes together. She wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty.

[nextpage title=”episode 9″]
9

“I have seen your face before,” Shade said absently as she quickly cut another tomato.

“I don’t see how.”

“No, I’ve seen it.” I remembered her greeting everyone at the door last night. She was good with names. “‘Frank’ doesn’t jog my memory. Perhaps you have another name.” Her smile was slight, but I did see the small curve. I cut another tomato, conscious she was doing two for everyone I did.

“I like the name Frank right now,” I said truthfully, while respecting her deduction, “yesterday was the first time I have ever seen you, so I am sure you must be thinking of someone else.” I couldn’t see how our paths had crossed in the past. My mind was drawing a blank.
“It will come to me,” Shade said, “I never forget a face.” I needed to change the subject. Dolapo didn’t know Frank. It was easier to try and forget as Frank.

“I thought there would be other workers.”

“Not until one,” Shade replied, “I only need one for prep.” I felt like I was in a coring competition. Every time I moved to catch up to her pace, she would accelerate. Finally, I surrendered and slowed to a reasonable pace. “Nice try.” Shade was wearing a smirk as she slowed to a pace just a bit faster than mine. She obviously liked to win.

“So how did you end up here?” I asked Shade. I was truly interested in how a model of efficiency could find herself running a free cafeteria for the homeless.

“Long story. Maybe I will tell you sometime.” Shade paused, then smiled and said, with emphasis, “Frank.” ‘Touché,’ I thought. She was willing to trade stories, but not give hers up for free. I just smiled back. Shade had a quick mind. Dolapo would have liked her.

“How do you fund this place?” I changed the subject to something more comfortable.

“Donations. Lots and lots of donations.” Shade lost her smile as she continued with the tomatoes. The answer seemed to exhaust her.
“Charity?” It came out of my mouth before I could stop myself. It was habit. Shade stopped cutting and looked up at me.

“Do you understand financial statements?” Shade had already surmised a lot. I wanted to feign ignorance, but I had asked the question too confidently.

“Yes.”

“Will you look at my books?” Shade’s question sounded almost pleading. I sensed her confidence didn’t extend into accounting. So much for totally ignoring my old life.

“I can do that.” I didn’t want to sound too confident about my abilities. Sometimes people hand you a horrible mess and expect you to create facts from thin air.

“Okay, tomorrow, same time. I’ll get someone else for the preliminary preparation of the food.” Shade’s mood changed. She started cutting with enthusiasm. I thought I might have just bitten off more than I could chew.

I learned a lot about mass food preparation. Shade changed from authoritative to patiently instructive. Maybe her books were more than a mess. I was being buttered up for tomorrow. Strangely, I found the labour fun and relaxing. It was fairly easy, different and repetitive. Nothing you had to think too deeply about. Each task had an endgame, a place where I could identify that it was done and enjoy that sense of completion. I needed the mindless labour, and today I was good at it.

At 1:00 four other homeless workers showed up. Each had worked for Shade before, and confidently went to work after reading a chart on the wall. Felicia, the large women who was serving food yesterday, didn’t read the chart. Shade instructed her verbally as a matter of course. I suspected Felicia couldn’t read. Shade just took it in stride and ignored the limitation. In fact, she put Felicia in charge of teaching me every other thing I needed to know. Felicia smiled.

Felicia redundantly educated me about washing my hands and using latex gloves, which I took in stride. Her personality was a lot like Shade’s, only leaning more toward the compassionate side.

My university degree was useless compared to her experience. It was refreshing to be taught something new and to have a teacher so enthralled with the experience.

“You single?” Felicia asked. There was a twinkle in her eye and I couldn’t help blushing. The question came out of nowhere. I mumbled, trying to come up with an answer that wouldn’t scar the rapport we had. I could think of nothing that would not come out insulting. I whispered some truth for both our sakes.

“My wife just passed away.” It was quiet enough to remain private. Felicia nodded slowly and leaned into me compassionately.
“I’m sorry,” Felicia whispered back. I wasn’t sure if she was sorry about my wife or the fact she flirted.

“Thanks.”

“We have three more pots to fill,” Felicia said, returning to the job at hand. I think she saw my need for manual labour. We worked in tandem with the next three batches. She didn’t flirt any more, but we bonded. She started humming ‘Tempted and Tried’ as we cooked. I joined in after a few moments. Felicia smiled at me and I realized she was humming for Dolapo. I was touched that she understood, although she had never met my wife.

I turned to hand off the second pot of cooked meat to the next station. I caught Shade staring at me. She clumsily went back to her paperwork. I wondered if she had heard my confession. I hoped she hadn’t. I only told Felicia to spare her feelings, and mine.

If you do food preparation, you get to eat first. It was a wonderful rule that my growling stomach appreciated immensely. I had been smelling food all day, and had had nothing but water. I was getting used to eating only once a day, but it’s tougher when watching it being prepared. There was no cheating or snacking in Shade’s kitchen. I even had to wait for ‘ I Need An Angel.’

Luckily, Fabio was near the front of the line. I waited until he sat down before I started eating. It wasn’t so much manners as it was a show of friendship. I liked him liking me without the need for my past. I loved feeding off his lazy enthusiasm for life. It was refreshing.

“Good evening, Fabio.” Shade had snuck up on us in the middle of our discussion. Fabio nodded with mouth full of food. She leaned down and whispered in his ear. He nodded again. Shade placed a foil wrapped fish on Fabio’s tray. Fabio smiled, showing all his awful teeth.

“I got to get you warmer clothes,” Fabio said, never taking his eyes off the fish. I snapped my eyes up, looking after Shade. She was moving off, back to the front of the line. Her flowered skirt, greenish this time, swaying confidently back and forth. The books must be in really bad shape.
Fabio showed me how I could get some warmer clothes. It wasn’t exactly stylish, but I was now wearing an old brown jacket that looked like it might have been used by someone in construction, and a pair of NYSC boots. The laces in the boots were strange against the colour the boots were made of. It was better than the old loafers I had been walking around in. I really looked the part now, homeless. Everything mismatched, but functional.

Yea, homeless.

[nextpage title=”episode 10″]
10

The next morning started the same as the first in all but one respect. Shade was smiling when she opened the door. The books must be an absolute disaster. I took a shower, which I now appreciated greatly, and met Hassan. He was a shy younger man who was to replace me. We shared the dryer. Not unexpectedly, there were two of everything waiting for use. Two towels, two toothbrushes and two shampoos and soaps.

Shade never prepared more than necessary. Exactly what was needed and nothing more, but it was always exactly what was needed.

Shade took me into a small office connected to the kitchen. It looked as clean and organized as the rest of the building. There were three four-drawer black file cabinets labelled by year, plus a small desk with an old computer and small printer. A stack of folders, each labelled with a month and year, were piled next to the keyboard.

“These are this year’s receipts.” Shade pointed to the stack of folders, “I hope you are familiar with the accounting system of NGOs.” She logged into Microsoft Money I was quite familiar with. I nodded my head. So far so good. “Can you make sure it is all correct? Nothing can be wrong.” I looked at her worried expression. All of this seemed too neat and orderly to be worrisome. “You just want me to audit the books?” I asked, the surprise evident in my tone.

“Please, it’s important.” Shade left before I sat down. She never even doubted I would do it, but I did note she used the word ‘please.’
I made myself familiar with Shade’s chart of accounts and printed off a balance sheet as of the first of the year. With that starting point, I began matching receipts to journal entries. Her record keeping was meticulous. I had very little trouble reconstructing what she had done. There were no journal entries without supporting documentation and each receipt corresponded to an entry. I was impressed. It is rare to find such perfect record keeping. I ended with printing a current balance sheet and income statement. Everything was perfect to the penny. It had only taken me four hours to complete.

“What’s the verdict?” Shade asked as I walked into the kitchen with my notes. She seemed apprehensive and I couldn’t understand where it was coming from. There was no way she could think her books were bad.

“All good,” I responded confidently, “you expensed some things as repairs that I probably would have capitalized, but you did it consistently. There is nothing wrong that I could find. In fact, they are very accurate and well done.” Shade visibly let out the breath she had been holding.
“Do you think you could look at the three previous years?” It began to make sense.

“You’re getting audited,” I stated. Only the FIRS could make someone like Shade fidget. She waved me back into the office.
“Yes,” Shade answered once we were alone. She pulled an envelope from a drawer and handed me the letter inside. The FIRS was auditing her last three tax returns and wanted to examine her supporting documentation. There was a paragraph about providing necessary documentary support to maintain her charitable status. The letter seemed to be worded a bit differently than a standard audit letter. The amount of money involved usually didn’t generate FIRS flags and certainly didn’t warrant an audit this deep for an NGO only M&E would have sufficed.

“This seems a bit heavy-handed,” I offered when I handed back the letter.
“Will you look at the last three years?”

“Sure,” I answered, with some fight in my words. I never did like it when the FIRS picked on the innocent. Frankly, Shade was doing the world a favour. I had only known her for three days and I could tell the city needed her. “It will take a few days and I’ll need the tax returns.”

“Each year has its own drawer.” Shade hastily pointed toward the file cabinets, “The first folder contains the tax returns.” “It will be alright,” I said, trying to calm her nervousness. “They can only go after fraud. I’ve seen nothing coming close to that. If your tax returns reflect your financials, this will be nothing but an annoyance.” Shade looked slightly more relieved and even gave me half a smile.

“Thanks.” Shade left the office for a moment then poked her head back in. “What are you doing here?” I guess my skills didn’t make sense with my homelessness.

“Nothing criminal, I assure you,” I said in all honesty. Of course, if I was a criminal, I would have said the same thing. Shade seemed to size me up and accept me at my word. Either that, or I was the only one convenient to trust. I was busy putting this year’s files into their proper drawer as she returned to work.

Hassan and I were in the front of the line when ‘I Need An Angel’ came over the speakers. It seems auditors gain the same rights and privileges as prep cooks. Felicia winked at me and gave me a slightly larger portion. I winked back in a friendly way and waited for Fabio again.

“I owe you,” Fabio said with a mouth full of food. I wished I could live day to day like he could. He seemed to have no concerns beyond the present. I envied the freedom he had built in his own mind. My mind was still lost in the past. My precious Dolapo was gone and I was forgetting her face. I could imagine her touch and her voice. It was her face that was fading. The rest would follow. My mind was too weak to hold on.

“You owe me nothing but good company,” I said. Fabio laughed and told me about the boat he saw get caught among the pilings under the bridge earlier. It took the better part of the day and two more boats to get it free. To him, it was quality TV. I laughed when he told me how one guy was trying to rig a pull line while straddling both boats. They invariably pulled apart and sent the guy into the river. To Fabio, the incident was as good as soap opera. For me, a moment not lost in the past.

“Good evening, Fabio.” Shade had snuck up on us again. “Why don’t you show Frank how get a warm bed tonight.”

“Shade, a man lives where he wants,” Fabio stated firmly. It was funny watching him consolidate behind his beliefs. I was strangely flattered. Shade rolled her eyes, reached into the pocket of her blue flowered skirt and placed a foil-wrapped fish on his tray. Fabio smiled and I stared dumbfounded at Shade. “But a man ought to know all the options,” Fabio retracted quickly.

“Thank you, Fabio.” Shade never really looked at me. She just headed back to monitor the line.

“You’re the best thing I ever pulled out of the river,” Fabio said slowly as he unwrapped his precious fish.

“Did you tell Shade how you found me?”

“That’s for you to say.” Fabio took a small bite of the fish, obviously trying to make it last. “Sometimes it is best not to say – leave it in the past.” That I had to agree with.

[nextpage title=”episode 11″]
11

Shade was happy to see me the next morning. Maybe I was more reliable than the average homeless person. It was nice to start out the day with her smile.

“You ever going to shave off that fuzz?” Shade asked. I could see her eyes on my chin. The mirror told me it added a few years to my looks, but I was getting used to it. Dolapo would have hated it. Strangely, that’s why I finally decided not to shave it. It reminded me she was gone, and I didn’t want to forget. I was worse off without her and my scraggly beard was proof.

“Someday,” I answered with a smile.

“It makes you look old.” Shade turned and started walking toward the kitchen. I followed, liking my beard a little less.

I went to work on last year’s financials. It took me all day to audit the financials and reconcile everything to the tax return. I questioned Shade about a single donation entry marked Charity Dinner. She produced a paper ledger with the handwritten names of all the donors and the amounts they gave. The Kitchen put on the dinner every February. It was the biggest fundraiser of the year. I tallied the donations and they mirrored the entry. It was a pretty successful event, generating a little over N3,500,000 in donations.

“I notice you don’t take a salary.” It struck me as odd. She spent seven days a week here and there was no disbursements to her name. In fact, there was no payroll at all.

“I don’t need the money,” Shade said nonchalantly.

“Independently wealthy?” I was grinning.

“I don’t know, Frank.” Shade dragged my fake name. “Am I?” We were still in the trade story for story mode. I wasn’t willing to give up mine and she was stubbornly holding on to hers as leverage.

“I’ll just make up a story then,” I said, tongue-in-cheek.

“Make it a good one.” Shade laughed and returned to her work. I liked her laugh. She didn’t laugh enough. Neither did I.

I found only one entry without supporting documentation. It was for one thousand five hundred naira and was expensed as window cleaning. Hardly material, but I followed up anyway. Shade had given a young boy the money to clean the windows. He obviously didn’t have a business that could generate a receipt. He was homeless with his mother and just wanted to help. Shade allowed it and paid him out of petty cash. I assured Shade it wasn’t going to be a problem.

I now knew the words to ‘I Need An Angel’ by heart. I really wanted to ask Shade why she played that song every day. I knew it would cost me my past so I just sat with Fabio and tried to quell my interest.

“Hearing from any of your family members?” I asked. I wondered why I never asked the question before. I was so busy hiding my past, I never thought about his. He simply nodded and went on eating. I could tell he really didn’t want to go into it. There was no eye contact, and his gritty smile wasn’t evident. I dropped the subject and knew we would be better friends because of it.

[nextpage title=”episode 12″]
12

I spent the next day on the two-years-back books. There was absolutely nothing wrong with them. I couldn’t even find simple addition errors. Shade was as stringent with her accounting as she was with her kitchen. I pulled the FIRS letter out of the desk again and reread it. It used harsher language than I had seen in past audits. Things like these are usually handled by ordinary letter to the organisation that is concerned.

Here they were demanding an on-site audit with veiled threats hidden inside their demands. The two tax returns I reviewed didn’t seem to warrant any kind of review. Nothing in them should have raised any flags. The letter was certainly not indicative of a random audit.

“This audit doesn’t feel right,” I said as Shade came in to check my progress. “It almost seems hostile.” She hesitated before she responded. Then she sat down.

“I think it is an attack, but I can’t be sure.” Shade sighed softly, looking at the letter I placed on the desk. “The city tried to rezone this block for a developer. It would have forced me out so I fought it and won. I don’t know how they could have done that.” She pointed to the letter. “But I think it might be part of the same thing.” She looked up at me. “The FIRS doesn’t do things like that, do they?”

“No, but people do.” My anger was brewing again. Someone was the friend of an FIRS field officer. It was the only way the letter made sense. Dismantling Shade’s charity initiative to the poor and homeless would silence her opposition. It was a roundabout, but effective way. I simply wasn’t going to allow it to happen.

“We’ll just make sure they fail.” There was determination in my mind and I wanted Shade to hear it in my voice. I was surprised when she blushed at my words.

“Thank you, Frank. That makes me feel a lot better.” Shade stumbled the response out with an awkward smile. She hesitantly rose and exited the room. It almost seemed like she wanted to say more, but thought better of it. She was flustered and I wondered what I had said that caused it.

Shade surprised me the next morning with a cup of coffee and a doughnut. I had never seen her serve any food before four. I had never even seen her eat. I stared at it in shock when she placed in on the desk. She blushed again and left quickly. I didn’t even have time to get a ‘thank you’ out. It was completely unlike her.

I spent the morning, warmed by coffee, traversing the first year the FIRS was interested in. They were as immaculate as the other two. I was determined to leave no stone unturned, so I went through the Charity Dinner ledger as I had the other two years.

I was absently totalling the donations when my eyes were attracted to the name column. A sense of familiarity pulled my eyes. ‘Dolapo and David Akeju’ was handwritten next to a donation of fifteen thousand naira. My eyes welled up as I ran my fingers across the names. Dolapo was always giving to one organization or another. My name must have come from the cheque. The irony of it all hit hard. I felt tears running down my cheeks and I squeezed my eyes to get them to stop. They didn’t, so I let it go. I saw her perfectly again, my mind had rebuilt the image. With it, the pain came slamming back. I buckled under the pressure and the floodgates opened. God, I loved that woman.

Shade picked that time to check on my progress. Fooling no one, I turned away and quickly wiped my teary eyes. I stumbled out of the office mentioning the need to use the restroom. The tears kept coming as I hurried past Hassan who was busy peeling yam. I spent fifteen minutes, sitting on the toilet, slowing my heart. I rinsed my face, trying to dull the redness around my eyes.

[nextpage title=”episode 13″]
13

Shade was sitting at the desk when I returned. “Close the door,” she said, and motioned me to the seat on the other side.

“My husband died nine years ago.” Shade was looking directly at me. “The kitchen was Richard’s creation, the only thing he had done right, he told me. I promised him I would keep it running. I don’t think he envisioned me running it personally, but here I am.” She looked down at the desk. “The whole world thinks you’re dead.” My mind was reeling. She made sense now, her running this place fit. Her telling me about it meant she knew something of me.

“Most of the world doesn’t know I exist,” I countered. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be angry. I just didn’t want more memories. I was having trouble not remembering on my own.

“I’m pretty good with faces, it was your beard and name that throw me off.” Shade tapped the ledger with Dolapo’s and my names. “You just looked the same way I felt when Richard died, David.” I excused myself again. Having Shade know was just as bad as seeing Dolapo’s name in the ledger. I was dousing my face in cold water when I began to wonder how she knew my face. She wasn’t guessing, she knew. I don’t remember ever meeting her prior to a few days ago. Maybe she knew Dolapo that, would explain the donation. I settled my emotions and returned for the second time.

“You knew Dolapo?” I asked, choking on her name.

“Close the door,” Shade responded while shaking her head no. “I know of her. The whole world knows her.” I sat down confused. “I’m sorry, seeing the name in the ledger must have hurt.” I closed my eyes and nodded. I really didn’t want to start crying again. I wasn’t confident my voice wouldn’t crack.

“You can hide here for as long as you need,” Shade offered.

“The police looking for me or something?” I asked with quite a bit of confusion.

“Not any more. They think you are dead.” I shook my head, trying to wrap my thoughts around what Shade was saying. Dolapo’s image kept flashing in my mind. I had an estranged sister, it would have taken her twenty years to report me missing. I had quit my job, they wouldn’t have cared enough to check up on me. I guess maybe a friend, but I hadn’t been gone long enough for them to worry enough to call the police.

“Why would they think that?”

“You don’t know?” Shade seemed surprised.

“Know what?” Shade went to work on the computer as I looked on. A few moments later she turned the monitor towards me. My picture was on the screen under the headline, ‘Promise Keeper Believed Dead.’ The banner across the top was the daily paper’s logo. It was a picture of me, on stage, with my hand held out before me.

“Your song ‘Dolapo’ went viral.” Shade said softly.

“It was just a prelim. It wasn’t supposed to be broadcast,” I said as I leaned into the computer screen to read the article text. The text mentioned finding my wallet in the river. The fact that it contained money, indicated I wasn’t robbed. Their assumptions were correct, the end result was not.

“How did your wallet end up in the river?” Shade asked softly. I could see the concern in her eyes.
“Fabio fished me out of the river,” I answered. I wasn’t ready to say the truth out loud and probably never would. I skipped over it and then added a weak justification, “It wasn’t a good time for me.”

“And now?”

“Time to think,” I answered, “I just need time to think.” Shade looked like she might have misunderstood so I added, “No more bridges in my future.” She smiled.

“Take all the time you need, Frank.” I smiled at her use of ‘Frank.’

“I’ll figure things out as soon as we get through this FIRS audit,” I said as I continued perusing the article. Shade got flustered again and fumbled her way off her seat. I had no idea what was causing it. I pretended to ignore it for her sake, and mine.

“I’m sorry about Dolapo,” Shade whispered before she opened the door.

“I’m sorry about Richard.” We shared forced smiles. At least we understood each other that far.

Embarrassment was my main emotion as I surfed the web for the first time in a week. My fame was fading, as all digital fads do, but I had shined brightly for a few days. I couldn’t watch the video, not out of shame, but out of fear of the pain returning. Dolapo had always said I had a lovely voice, I had just assumed she was biased. I sang for her because she got a kick out of it. For us, it was like foreplay. I never had a desire to share it with the world. I made up songs for her and her alone. The words were sometimes silly and sometimes nonsense from my heart. Loud pillow talk and nothing more. Now the world knew because of a dying promise I could not deny. I loved her too much for that.

The social media platforms, first of all, Nairaland and the likes of LIB, facebook and others were the worst. Half had me as an insane idiot and the others thought me some kind of love god. Offers of marriage and psychiatric help were abundant. It was just a promise, it wasn’t meant to go this far. I was going to have to hide for a while. The story would die a quick death as all things internet-related do. Dolapo would have gotten a kick out of the whole thing, but then I would have had her at my side. I could have weathered any storm with her there.

[nextpage title=”episode 14″]
14

I went back to work and finished the last tax year. Like the rest, no errors. That, in and of itself, was amazing. Books this clean were usually done by professionals. The FIRS can dig as deep as they desired, there was nothing to find. Shade was pleased to hear my summary. I could still see a little fear behind her eyes, but the FIRS had a tendency to do that.

“Do you remember Dolapo?” I asked pointing at the charity ball ledger.

“Sorry, there are lots of attendees and most of them bring cheque from their friends.” Shade’s eyes went sad. “I’m sure she was lovely, I can see her in you.” I could only nod at that. Dolapo was certainly lovely.

Fabio joined me for dinner once again and he told me about his day. There was an accident on the bridge that marred his time keeping, but, other than that, it was the same day as always.

Jummai sat down next to me, her face all crinkly with her smile. I guessed I had become a regular and was considered safe. Fabio placed my fish on her plate. I gave him a confused look. I had never seen him give up a fish. I thought maybe he was hitting on Jummai.

“Jummai got me new shoes,” Fabio said, nearly bringing his leg and a HSE boot up on the table.

“Nice one, Jummai,” I said as I admired the nearly new treads on the sole.

The boots did look warm and I knew Fabio saw the value. It was strange how my priorities were changing. A month ago, I would have just run out and bought a pair if I wanted boots. Now, I was slightly envious. Shade snuck up on us again. This time it wasn’t to speak to Fabio.

“Thank you for all your work, Frank” Shade put a bottle of zobo on the table for me. I just stared at it, not knowing what to say.

“I thought you liked zobo,” Shade said with pain in her voice. She started to reach out to take it back. She couldn’t have known. I reached it before she did and pulled it close and forced a smile.

“It’s perfect. It was just unexpected.” Thank you.” I glanced back at her. She was wearing a grin that spanned the whole room. She turned and went back to her duties on the line, her blue flowered skirt floating across the floor as she moved. Jummai giggled and shared a stupid look with Fabio.

“It’s just a thank you,” I said, exasperated. Jummai went back to eating. Fabio just smiled at me. I spent a good five minutes examining the zobo. Fond memories of Dolapo washed through me.

I refused to be in a mournful mood. I smiled at my memories. It was well chilled and tasted wonderful. The irony of the day was not lost on me, finding Dolapo’s name in the journal and the zobo. There was pain, but there were also good memories. I decided to concentrate on the memories that shown brightest. The pain would have to take a backseat.

“Thanks for the zobo.” Shade was busy watching the hall as I spoke. She turned to me with an honest smile. She really needed to smile more and so did I.

“Your time is done here,” Shade said cheerfully, “what will you do with your day?” I looked around the room and felt a kind of affinity towards the place. I hadn’t been here long, but I was comfortable here, for now.

“The work here is kind of therapeutic. I wouldn’t mind staying on if you can use me.” Shade looked at me with curiosity. I could almost see her thinking. It wasn’t the reaction I expected.

“Food preparation or the line?” Shade asked when her mind was made up.

“The line. Might as well learn it all,” I said honestly. Shade laughed before she spoke.

“1 o’ clock, you’ll just love the cleaning.” Shade had a mischievous grin on her face. I had seen it on another woman before. I smiled graciously, somewhat wishing I would have said food preparation.

[nextpage title=”episode 15″]
15

Cleaning up was really a task. Shade was adamant about sanitation. Nothing was clean until she inspected it and it usually didn’t pass on the first inspection. Luckily, there were four of us so the work wasn’t totally oppressing. I washed hundreds of plates, pots and pans, a lot of them more than once. The floor was done twice. She seemed to relish finding issues when I thought I was done. I think she took my volunteerism as a challenge.

I spent the next four weeks learning the hard part of running the kitchen. Shade began to trust me to manage the deliveries. She was hesitant at first and I don’t believe she had ever allowed anyone else to do it in the past. The first time she watched me like a hawk. It was simple stock control to me, but to her it was like lopping off an arm. Reluctantly, she began to trust I wasn’t going to screw it all up.

We would receive both ordered goods and donated goods. The donated had a very short shelf life, the reason the supermarkets donated them in the first place. It was priority that these short-lived items found a place on the next day’s food and everything was visibly marked so nothing expired would ever find its way onto a plate.

I watched Shade develop food menus. This was something she would never relinquish control over. It was as much art as science. The expiration dates drove some of it and experience drove the rest. She worked up to five days in advance, solidifying a day’s menu as it drew near. It was not something you could easily automate. There were food clashes that needed to be avoided and last minute donations that needed to be squeezed in. She allowed me to watch, but laughed when I offered to help. This menu was her domain and it would take an uncontrollable situation to drag it away.

The situation arrived a week later. I walked into work to find Shade, pale and sweating, slumped on the kitchen stool trying to work on the menus. Her eyes were bloodshot and I could tell she hadn’t slept the night before. She looked absolutely miserable.
“Go home,” I said compassionately.

“I can’t, there are much to do.” Shade covered her mouth with her hand when she spoke. Her voice was raspy like something was stuck in her throat.

“Give me the keys,” I said forcibly, “and go home. You’re going to get everyone sick.” I think it was the thought of contamination that finally convinced her. Reluctantly, she handed me the keys.

“I promised Richard,” Shade said softly while looking around. It was important to her that I understood why she was here, as sick as she was. I understood, maybe the only one who could.

“I will make sure the promise is kept.” I said it with conviction because I meant it. When Shade’s hesitant red eyes meet mine, I added, “I promise.” Her eyes sparkled for a moment as she held my gaze.

“Thank you.” Shade moved off hesitantly.

I ran the City Kitchen for the next three days. I had to send Shade home every morning those three days. I made it easy for her to leave, everything was in perfect shape and I was the picture of confidence. It couldn’t have been father from the truth. I had no idea how Shade did it seven days a week. I felt like I was being pulled in ten directions at once. Workers didn’t show, deliveries were late, menus didn’t fit supplies and clean up done later than it should. I messed up on the first day sending the next two days’ menus into turmoil.

The days were long and gruelling. Shade had made it look so easy. With the help of some of the more experienced volunteers, we were able to pull it together at the last minute. ‘I Need An Angel’ always played at 4:00 and people were fed. I was a stressed mess.

Shade took back the reins on the fourth day. She smiled at the obvious relief on my face. I confessed it all, the problems, the botched menus and the overall mismanagement. She walked around inspecting the kitchen as I explained the problems that still needed solving. She ended in front of me as I explained about things I threw away because I didn’t use it in time.

“Did anyone leave hungry?” Shade asked calmly.

“Well no, but…” Shade didn’t let me finish. She went up on toes and kissed my forehead.

“Thank you, David. You did wonderfully.” Shade’s smile burst through my misgivings. I let out the breath I was holding and stopped the tirade of my failures.

“I’m glad you’re back,” I admitted as I handed her the keys. It felt really good to put the place back on her shoulders. She was even stronger than I had given her credit for. The kiss was a little disturbing. I could still feel the impression her soft lips left. I was happy when she sent me to reset the tables for the day.

[nextpage title=”episode 16″]
16

Three days later the FIRS invaded. A black-suited field agent with two similarly-suited accountants descended on Shade’s books. It was a witch hunt. Normally, an auditor would look at significant transactions and a random sampling of others. These three did as I had done and checked every transaction and journal entry. Each, and every, bank statement for the last three years was scrutinized. The questions were insulting and bordered on acquisitions. My indignation was already sky high when the audit came to a close.

“We will assemble our findings and you will be notified within two weeks of the results,” the head field agent said. His name was Tade Ibirogba. I could see the frustration on his face. I suspected he wanted to find glaring problems.

“You don’t foresee any issues, do you?” I asked, thinking I already knew the answer.

“We will make a formal response only.” Tade’s face was not friendly as he packed up his note pad and calculator. My anger was growing. The FIRS was always a pain, but usually polite.

“You must have some idea,” I added with my hands on my hips. Tade looked at me from head to toe, then at Shade with more than a bit of disdain.

“I recommend you secure proper guidance.” Tade closed his file folder and started walking out. It was all I could do not to take a swing at him. His words told me they intended to find problems. I couldn’t imagine it would get anywhere in the long run, but they were going to pull Shade through the ringer.

“What are they going to do?” Shade asked. I saw fear in her eyes.

“I’m not sure, but it won’t be good.” I didn’t have the heart to lie to her. “In the long run, nothing will come of it. I’m just not sure how long the long run is.” Shade looked ill. She seemed to be taking it as a personal failure.

“We’ll get through this.” I thought the words would be comforting. Shade found them shocking.

“We!” It was the first time I had heard Shade raise her voice. “There is no ‘we.’ It’s me they are attacking. You’re just some guy who dropped out. You risk nothing and then walk away clean.” She raised a hand to shoo me away and returned to the kitchen. She returned to work, making sure not to look my way. It was time I left. I just didn’t know where to go.

I left as quietly as I could, unseen. Shade was right, I could just walk away. I walked for the rest of the evening, my stomach churning with bile. I thought I saw friendship in Shade, I thought I could help. I had done nothing but raise her hopes, only to watch them get flung from a bridge.

That night was cold. The seasons were changing and I wasn’t ready. I huddled sleeplessly in a warehouse entrance down the street, trying to avoid the wind. I closed my eyes and tried to see Dolapo, build her face in my mind. I saw only Shade, hating me. I shivered with my knees tucked tightly to my chest. I wanted my wallet, keys and phone back. I wanted Dolapo and my life back. The shaking increased, memories of my first wet day under the bridge. The cement I was sitting on did me no favours. I nodded in and out

[nextpage title=”episode 17″]
17

The air tasted colder than it should. I realized my nose was non-functional and dripping mucus. My body had caught up with my soul, both feeling horrible. Maybe it was time I went home. I didn’t like the idea, not with all the memories, but I knew I wasn’t built for the streets or to become homeless. I was no Fabio, not strong enough. I needed sleep. Then, I could do what was needed, whatever that was. I tried to cough, but my lungs argued about it and decided to remain clogged. At least the shaking had stopped.

I stumbled forward for blocks. Directions were muddled and I wasn’t sure if I was going the correct way. It was still dark and traffic was minimal. Fabio would know what time it was. I laughed at that, me and my university degree easily shown up by an uneducated homeless man with bad teeth. My laughing didn’t sound right, way too throaty. A laughing frog came to mind which made me laugh more. I had to stop with my hands on my knees to catch my breath. It felt good to laugh, but I knew it was sapping my energy. I had to find a place to sleep. I found a church, God’s Promise Evangelical Fire Church this time. What a name? It was just a small building consist of woods and corrugated iron sheet.

Thank God it was warmer. I curled up against the corner away from the cold. It was better than the cement. I closed my eyes and Shade’s image formed in my mind. I was puzzled why it wasn’t Dolapo’s as I drifted off to sleep.

It was music that woke me. It entered as a dream on the tip of my memory and then the dream faded away. I was late, late for dinner. I sat up too quickly and ended up in a small coughing fit. When my eyes focused, I was in an office I knew well. Shade’s office. I could hear ‘I Need An Angel’ playing and the general noise of food being served. It was muted by the closed door, but it was obvious it was 4:00. I was on a fold out cot with two thick blankets now bunched up on my lap.

I wasn’t sure how I ended up at the City Kitchen. I remembered finally finding the small church building and trying to get some sleep. In hindsight, it seemed like a silly decision to sleep outside last night. I should have gone to the bridge to see Fabio. I still wasn’t good at dealing with pain. I stood and coughed some more. My feet were steady, but my head felt like a brick. My nose was stuffed up and I could feel thickness in my eyes. I must have found my way back here. Shade must be really pissed. I had to stop this stupid self-loathing homeless shit and get my life back.

[nextpage title=”episode 18″]
18

The kitchen was in full swing. I was walking slowly with a foggy head. Felicia spotted me ambling toward the dining room and called out, “Frank is awake.” Shade swung quickly around the corner, her green flowered skirt swaying with the momentum. Her lovely hair extension flowed just moments behind her, catching a small draft and flaring out for moment. I saw determination in her eyes. I was ready for an earful so I pre-empted.

“I’m sorry.” It came out hoarsely, my throat wasn’t ready for words. So I cleared it with a cough quickly and continued, “I’ll get out of here and leave you alone.”

“What were you thinking?” Shade’s voice was controlled, and I don’t think it carried past me. She grabbed my hand and pulled me into the office. I followed, her will being stronger than my mushy brain could counter. “I had everyone looking for you.” She pushed me back on the camp bed and began covering me with the blankets.

“I thought…” Shade didn’t let me finish.

“You didn’t think,” Shade stated firmly, then her voice cracked, “if Fabio hadn’t found you…God… you were gone when he brought you back.” There were tears running down her cheeks which she quickly wiped away. I was confused and my brain wasn’t processing at full speed. She sat down on the floor next to me, spreading her skirt evenly around her. “I am so sorry.” It sounded like she wanted to say more. She couldn’t get it out and wiped away another tear.

“I don’t understand,” I said quietly. One minute I thought she wanted me to leave and the next to stay.

“I don’t either,” Shade said, her voice cracking, “it was cold last night, and I thought you were going to die.” She dropped her head into her hands and sobbed.

“I didn’t though.” It was an obviously useless statement. I thought back to crawl into that small open church building. It was almost my grave. “My stupidity isn’t your fault.” Shade tried to say something, then thought better of it. She stood, instead, wiping her eyes.
“I’m going to get you some food. You’re not to leave.” It wasn’t a request. I watched her leave. Something had changed and I couldn’t completely wrap my head around it.

Shade returned and allowed me to sit up. She placed a plate of semo and hot ogbono soup on the desk. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was until the smell hit me. She sat with me, watching me eat, smiling while I devoured the meal. When I pushed the empty plate away, she spoke.
“I want to take back what I said.” Shade looked at me, then her eyes drifted toward the empty plate. “I was angry…I can’t really explain it and it confuses me.” She looked back at me. “I don’t want you to leave, although I know you might. I wouldn’t blame you.”

“I’m pretty messed up,” I admitted. I tried to kill myself and then almost did it accidentally. “I’m not sure if I do more harm than good.” Shade put her hand over mine.

“I have been playing Richard’s favourite song every day at 4:00 for nine years.” Shade smiled as she thought about it. “I’ve been hiding in here behind a promise. My acquaintances all live on the streets. I am the poster child of messed up and I am highly efficient at it.” I didn’t move my hand, thinking she might remove hers. I felt guilty enjoying the human touch. The last person I touched died in my arms. It felt nice to be close to someone again.

“I threw my life away to live under the bridge with Fabio,” I said to top Shade’s concept of messed up. She laughed as I smiled. It was nice to see her eyes crinkle and little dimples form on her cheeks. I was happy she didn’t remove her hand.

“So you’ll stay for a while?” Shade’s eyes were hopeful.

“I could use the distraction this place provides,” I said honestly. “Those little solvable tasks are welcoming. I would also like to see this FIRS thing through. I kind of pisses me off.” Shade’s smile widened.

“You can sleep here until you find someplace better.” Shade rose and picked up the empty. I felt a small emptiness when she removed her hand from mine. “If you feel better in the morning, I’ll put you to work.” She started walking out, then stopped in the doorway and turned back toward me. “Thank you for not hating me.” She spun back around and disappeared out the door before I could form a response. I had no idea where that came from. I was hating myself, not her.

[nextpage title=”episode 19″]
19

I ate dinner with Fabio the next day. I thanked him for finding me the other night. It turns out I actually walked back to the City Kitchen with his help. I remembered nothing of the walk. Fabio’s lecture on how to survive on the streets was long and disjointed. I listened patiently, knowing he was the reason I was there to learn it.

Shade and I began working closer together. I learned proper menu management and stock control. The problems that plagued me during her brief sickness were the norm, not the exception. She just had the tools to deal with them without panicking. The management skills she taught me would put Harvard Business School to shame. There was a change in Shade during the period. She would smile more and become more tolerant. I still had to do it right, without exception. She just identified the many errors in a pleasant, non-demanding way.

I was able to get into cookery contest with Shade. I worked with vigour and was handily beaten again. She had nine years’ experience, but I think I did a lot better than the first time. I suspected I could beat her given a few more tries. I loved her triumph face. Maybe I would never win.

I really enjoyed the escape from my past. I also knew that staying forever wasn’t much of a possibility. I had commitments I had been ignoring that would cause festering problems if I continued to neglect them. Using the office computer, I logged into my bank account. Nothing has changed on my account. I was a little concerned about my car. I had left it in the parking lot of a mall and I wondered if it was still there. I shrugged my shoulders and made payments to the Let’s Fix It Initiative, an NGO I support quarterly. It felt a little weird transferring the money. I had spent a lot of time these last weeks, trying to avoid real life. I was taking a step toward normalcy, and I still wasn’t wholly comfortable with the move. I had already checked the boxes and hit ‘pay’ so I couldn’t step back. I stroked my growing beard and logged out.

It was just a step, I’ll take the leap later.

Three weeks after the FIRS audit, a letter arrived. Shade was crushed and I was livid. The FIRS had identified the one thousand, five hundred naira window cleaning payment as an undocumented cash disbursement. They claimed it indicated fraud and were notifying Shade that a seven year audit of both the City Kitchen, and her personal account, will commence in ninety days. It was the second time I had seen Shade cry. This time it was on my shoulder. It took a few minutes to return to work.
Tbc