“I have seen hope ruin men. I have seen people go mad from waiting all their lives for things that never came. It is a terrible thing to witness eh,” the man said.
His legs were placed on the table in front of him that had about five carved wooden figures laying down on their backs and I wondered if they had always been like that gathering dust or if his crossed legs had toppled them over before I came in. The man looked like I had expected – gloomy in a drab room – as he sat wearing no shirt and his skin appeared dull under the dim lightbulb hanging from the ceiling of the cramped room that looked like an old records store with stacked vinyl that covered a huge part of the peeling walls.
On the other part of the wall was a large drum and masquerade masks that stared down on us. A wasted cigarette laid in between his fingers with tiny lines of smoke coming from its burnt end that he pushed every now and then into an ashtray filled with old stubs. The sunlight coming from the only window in the room that was behind him enveloped his figure and added a bit more mystic to the room and the man.
“Are you saying I am wasting my time? Because I came here expecting to be told the opposite,” I said. I could hardly hear my voice above the heavy and lazy twirling of the rusty ceiling fan that threatened to fall on our heads at any given second.
“Listen, young man,” he said, taking his feet off and resting on the chipped edge of the table. He took another drag of his cigarette and continued, “What you are seeking here is not true, it is not a real thing, and I don’t know if you can truly get it somewhere else”.
The room was beginning to grow extra stuffy. I could feel my body get sweaty as the smoke from his cigarette conjured different shapes over our heads.
“But… my friend said you do things like that for people,” I replied, thinking back to the number of times I had hesitated before finally deciding to seek the address written on the paper Ahmed had given me.
On that night, a month ago, when I had gotten terribly drunk, smashed half the bottles in his bar all over the floor and cried that I wanted to see my wife. I mean, how was one supposed to just bounce back after losing the love of your life during labour trying to give birth to our first child after just a year of marriage? Ahmed had pulled me up, slapped my back multiple times and told me to be a man. I had wondered what he meant by “be a man”. Was I supposed to bottle up my tears to prove that I was worthy of the thing between my legs? Was I to let emotions eat me up alive to prove my mettle as a man? Ahmed had taken one look at me sinking into despair and said that if I really desired some sort of closure by talking to my dead wife then he could help me. He knew somebody who knew somebody that had a link to a man who offered that kind of service.
“That is how contacting people in that kind of business usually work. It takes a long line of people to get information about them. It is almost as if nobody ever has a direct link to a miracle working pastor or a fire breathing priest,” Ahmed had said with a bit of jest in his voice when I asked if he was sure that those people really knew somebody who could invoke the dead. We made a string of phone calls and bank transfers to the so-called informants and by the end of the night, I had the address of this mysterious man in my hands.
“What name did you see on the board when you entered this door?”
I didn’t need to think much, I had noticed the large but dusty signboard standing in front of the door in a congested part of town where people sold anything from the latest phones to human body parts. “Hope Merchants Enterprises” was boldly written on the board.
“Good, now listen,” he said, drawing his seat closer. I could then make out his face fully. He seemed old but his hair was jet black and I could tell that he dyed it as frequently as he could. I imagined him taking his time as he stared curiously at a mirror with a brush in hand as he fought off – with rapt attention and dedication – the signs of old age that were taking over his head like encroaching weeds on a farmland. He took one long last drag and stumped the cigarette out on the ash tray in a rough manner that spilled ash on the table.
“This is what we do eh, somebody refers you or some other person who craves to speak to a dead lover or relative. You come to me, tell me your story then I give you a date to return for further consultation so I can prepare my other colleague who acts as the spiritual seer. He has to tie some pieces of red clothing material around his waist and head, we put some white chalk on his face and body, add in some chicken feathers, and he is ready to chant meaningless words in your ears while burning some hallucinogenic plant for you to inhale and chew.”
I coughed, scratched my head and kept staring at him.
“Are you listening eh?” he asked and tapped my hand.
“Ye.. Yes. I am listening.”
“See eh, that my guy waits till he is sure enough that you have gotten high on what he has given you to chew and inhale then he tells you to fill your mind with thoughts about whoever you want. He does his part and allows your stoned mind to complete the damn job! It is like smoking weed, you know,” he concluded and laughed.
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked, even more confused than I was when I first walked in. “Are you not supposed to make money off me like the others?”
“Listen boy, I told you all that because you are not my type of customer. You are too young, and you have all the time to get over your grief and meet somebody else. How old are you? 28? 29? 30?” He asked and ticked off one finger after the other as he called the numbers.
“I am 33,” I replied and ended his speculations.
“You see! Too young, there is no need going down this path and burying yourself in grief. My preferred customers are those in their 50s and 60s who lost people they had known for decades. It isn’t easy getting over that kind of grief.”
“And you decide to scam them,” I quipped.
He laughed again, “I help them and I make some money. It is like selling weed but with some extra steps eh. You should try to get over your grief my friend. You have the time most of my customers don’t. Some quick advice, anytime you miss your dead wife just put some of her pictures around or even sniff her clothes but don’t let it make you seek things like this at your age.”
He fell silent and, like an afterthought, said, “A man like me only benefit off such desires by selling illusions to people but it pays the bills and nobody gets hurt so it’s all good.” He stood up and walked toward the stack of vinyl. He picked and dropped a couple then yelled “Ahah!” as he finally settled on one and brushed off the dust with his fingers.
“Some Fela, you listen eh?” he asked as he pulled a portable turntable out of a cupboard. I ignored the question. I felt like I was already in whatever world of illusion that he just told me about with all the smoke and choking heat that covered us both.
“What if I tell people what you just told me?” I asked. The man pulled out another cigarette stick, lit it, took a deep drag and puffed out a cloud of smoke that looked like a halo over his head.
“If you go out there and tell people what I just told you, they will either believe you or not but those who seek my type of service will always come to me, nonetheless. That is what hope does to people and I know it well enough.”
As I turned to go out of the room, he gently pulled the vinyl disk out of its jacket, placed it on the turntable that had two small speakers attached to it, and then placed the pin on the vinyl disk. The first note of instrumentals rang out just as I walked out the door of Hope Merchants Enterprises and into the rowdy street. I dabbed my face repeatedly with the sleeve of my shirt as I tried to wipe away the tears that had been slowly brewing in my eyes.