Celebrating East African Writing!
Written by Tabitha Makumi
No one told me about this when I was growing up. I grew up clueless until it was too late. I was in too deep now. No one and nothing could pull me out. Maybe if someone had told that was something out there than what I was used to, life for me would have been different. Maybe I could have been a someone, maybe…
Nobody told me that I could have dreams, a vision, someone I wanted to be in future. Not a single soul uttered that mighty word that could have saved my life. My mother was too busy to have uttered the word; I doubt she knew the word existed. She would put on the tiniest clothes known to man, powder her face in our little broken mirror fixed near the door, apply cheap flaky lipstick on her chapped lips and hit the streets with her too high shoes.
“I am a hooker son, a prostitute, a good for nothing, that’s what I am. I have to feed you, I ain’t gonna let you die now. I am a good freaking mother, don’t you ever forget that.” Her slurred words are what I grew up hearing. When she was sober it was much the same thing “If it wasn’t for you, boy, I would be living the life. Your father would not have left me. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have to do this shit” she would utter the word with spite.
I was the reason my mother was a prostitute; I was the reason she wasn’t a model or an actress. If it wasn’t for me she wouldn’t have to sleep around with every man to feed me. Oh she made it all clear; I was the reason for all her misery. She never let me forget that.
“What do you want to be when you grow up, John?” I was in class six when a teacher asked me that question. I loved going school. I loved getting away from that little, dingy house I called home. I yearned for the time that I would be away from my mother and her hurting words if only for hours. The teacher was waiting for my answer, everybody was waiting. What do I want to be? I had never thought about what I wanted to be when I grew up. My small mind was racing, what was I going to say that I wanted to be?
“I want to live.” My voice was soft but audible enough. “Excuse me?” the teacher asked again perplexed by my answer. Of course he had heard me clear and loud. He wanted to hear it once more.
“I want to live, sir.” Everybody was laughing now including the teacher. The other kids wanted to be surgeons, lawyers, doctors, but me John, I wanted to fucking live. No one understood the depth of my words, even the teacher who should have known better, didn’t.
“So you think you are better than me, going to school, you think you are going to have a different kind of life than what we have here? If I were you, my dear boy, I would thank God this damned government made education free. I wouldn’t waste a dime of my hard earned money on your freaking education. Look at me, where did it get me? If anything I wasted my good years while I could have be earning some cash doing what I know best. You are nothing, boy.”
Her face always had bruises, a black eye, a cut always deeper than the previous one and her words to me more spiteful. Her life story was blurred to me. Both her parents were dead and she had never heard a word from my supposed father since she uttered “I am pregnant.” He had run for the hills and she had turned her hatred towards me. I had ruined her life.
My mother died and I didn’t cry. I never shed a single tear for her if anything I felt relieved. It was over. Her hatred for me was gone. I was all on my own and for the first time in my life I was happy. I didn’t have to escape anymore. My life was just getting started. So I thought.
Free education was over. It was the end of the road for me and for many others. Few continued with their dreams of becoming surgeons and lawyers. The rest joined me in my dream “To live” maybe now they understood. Maybe now it wasn’t too funny.
It started with snatching bags from unsuspecting victims in the dark. Grabbing and running and looking for a place to empty the bags. It was a poor neighbourhood I didn’t expect much from the bags, a hundred maybe, rarely a thousand. It was better than nothing. The few that I would get I would buy second hand novels on the streets. I loved losing myself on a good book. Jeffery Deaver, Jackie Collins, James Patterson I relished their writings like my mother had her cheap makeup.
I didn’t mind taking odd jobs to earn some Gs. Cleaning filthy toilets in the city, pulling carts for business people to various city markets, I didn’t mind, it was a worthy course for a good book. I never did drugs. Popping pills or pulling a needle through my veins wasn’t my thing. I was terrified of becoming my mother. There was no way in hell I was going to become her.
Lucca was ahead of me with one class while in school. I knew it was him because of his Forest Whitaker lazy eye, the way he walked, the swag, it was all him. I wasn’t looking my best and maybe he wasn’t going to notice me. He had a briefcase by his arm and a black suit to match it. “Dude, how are you. It’s Johnnie, right?”
Apparently he had noticed me and I was embarrassed of what I was wearing and how I smelt. Lucca didn’t seem to mind, if anything he took me to a hotel which was way out of my league and ordered me some food. People kept staring at me, what the hell is he doing here? Why is he with that looking gentleman? For the good in him, Lucca pretended not to notice their stares.
“I have a job offer for you Johnnie, just say the words and we will make magic, together” I didn’t have any qualifications, hell I was a primary school leaver. I tried to explain it to Lucca but he didn’t seem to mind my level of education. “Okay, what do you have in mind?” I asked, excitement making me blind.
The house was like a dream, something out a movie. Lucca and several others lived there. Four guys and three ladies, who I guessed to be my age, “We are bank robbers.” Lucca who seemed to be the leader of the group explained after handing me a can of Coca-Cola from a huge white fridge.
“WHAT?” The can dropped on the marbled floor and my mouth hung open.
“We rob banks, with guns actually, but never hurt anyone. We tie people up, threaten them with the guns, take the money and leave. So far every operation has been successful. Look at all this, the house, the cars you’ve just seen, you can have it all if you join us.” The words seemed to be flowing out of his mouth with ease, like he was used to reciting them often, there was no doubt that he was the pied piper of the group.
I said yes. I said yes to Lucca. I said yes to become a bank robber. What did I have to lose anyway? A little dingy cramped house was all I had. I didn’t have a dream to live for. My life was going nowhere and I was afraid my mother’s words were coming to pass, “You are nothing, boy.”
The first time I shook like a twig, pointing a gun to an officer’s head. I wore a mask just like the rest of the crew. If the officer noticed my shaking hand, he didn’t flinch. I had seen Lucca load the gun and he had shown me how to pull the trigger. I wasn’t sure if I could it if it came to that.
We all had the same story to tell. We all wanted to live by whatever means necessary. We were running away from our demons of poverty and abuse. We were living the dream, even if a short-lived one.
On July 23, 2001, Lucca parked our van on the corner of Kimathi Street. It was my fifth job. True to Lucca words, the operations run smoothly, it was in my blood now, I didn’t shake and I was not afraid to pull a trigger if it came down to that, I prayed it wouldn’t. We should have known something was wrong when we entered the bank but we didn’t.
We ordered everyone to lie down then Jimmy shot the cameras and we were on to work. I saw movement on the corner of my eye but it was too late. I heard gun shots and Lucca went down, blood spattered everywhere, I heard screams. I didn’t realize I was pulling the trigger but I was and the officer I had been pointing the gun on fell on the ground. I had shot him. From bank robber to killer, I had climbed the ladder.
What followed is still blurred to me. I remember my face being covered in blood, not my own but the officer’s I had shot. I woke up my hands cuffed to a hospital bed. Lucca was dead, so was the rest of the crew. Why had I lived, why hadn’t I died like the rest of them? I had denied someone the privilege of growing up with a dad by shooting the cop; I had denied someone a husband or a son. Clearly I didn’t deserve to live.
Forty five years without parole is what I got. The jury read my sentence and I didn’t flinch. How many would follow this path, how many like me would want to live by any means necessary? My prayer is none. No one told me I could have dreams beyond my wildest imagination, that I could beat poverty and abuse to be whatever I wanted to be. Instead I lived up to society’s expectation and my mother’s as well. I became nothing. I would have been a someone, maybe a fiction writer, but that we will never know.
©Tabitha Mukami 2011
This short story was submitted into the Storymoja Urban Narratives : No One Told Me… Short Story Contest. Please comment on the short story for the author’s benefit and then vote on the story. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being weak and 10 being excellent, please indicate where you rank this story. Points will be tallied on the 6th of August, and the winner announced on the 7th of August 2011.