Take a walk down the street and discover a shop unique in all the world. This world, that is.
Gbanger James was a very careful man. He always locked his apartment door. But before he would get halfway down the hall he always went back and jiggled the knob just to make absolutely, positively sure the door was, in fact, locked. Any time he awoke during the night he checked the alarm, to make certain he had set it correctly. He never married because he had been unable to find a woman who wasn’t “frivolous to a fault.” He never ate food he didn’t either prepare himself or watch being prepared because “you just never know what filth they might put in it.” He never drove in the rain, walked under a ladder, or went hatless on a sunny day.
One morning after brushing his teeth for the second time he felt a slight tickle in his throat and decided he was coming down with a cold. For most people, a cold is simply an occasional annoyance, but not Gbanger James. For him a cold is a crisis, an unwelcomed reminder that life is not infinite. A cold, after all, can be a precursor to pneumonia, and that is just a cough away from death. He checked his medicine cabinet and noted that the bottle of aspirin was half empty. If the cold lasted more than a week, that would never be enough, so he decided to buy some more at once, before the cold had had a chance to fully manifest itself.
It was a lovely cold morning, so rather than foolishly waste money on fuel, James wrapped a wool scarf around his neck, lifted up the collar of his coat, tugged his hat down tightly on his head and set out to walk the mile and a half between his apartment and the drug store. Walking was the only form of physical exercise he enjoyed. He doubted the physical as well as emotional benefits of jogging and lifting weights. The sweat, the pain, the huffing and puffing and groaning all seemed rather crass and undignified. On the other hand, the simple act of placing one foot in front of the other felt elegant and purposeful.
James lived in the low-cost area of a large city. When he walked, he liked taking his time and studying the people and places he passed. The city was an ever-changing tapestry of movement and colour and sound. It invigorated him and gave him a sense of renewal and safety. Being just one person among thousands made him feel less of a target for fate, the devil or whatever malevolent spirit was up there doling out misery and misfortune.
At about the halfway point of his walk as he was warily crossing a street, he glanced up and noticed a shop he couldn’t remember having seen before. It seemed odd that he would never have noticed it. It had a garish red and white striped awning flapping in the breeze above a heavy wooden door that had elegant carvings of cherubs surrounded by flower petals. A hand-lettered sign in the window read, “Ask About Our Ultimate Money-Back Guarantee.” There was no name on the shop window and no hint at all of what they might sell inside. Visiting new places was not something he liked to do, so instinctively he walked past. But then he paused, and turned around. For some reason he was intrigued. Intrigued enough to make what he would usually call a reckless decision. He took a deep breath, reached for the knob, turned it, and stepped inside.
An old fashioned bell tinkled, signaling his arrival. On the wall to the right of the door was a shelf full of very old magazines. On the left was a table piled high with used shoes. There was a sign on the table “Buy one get one free.” On the walls there were old photographs and crude childlike paintings. There was nothing he could see that would peak the interest of a buyer. He still couldn’t understand the purpose of the shop.
At the back of the store was a counter. From behind it an elderly man who couldn’t have been more than four and a half feet tall was smiling broadly and staring back at him. “Customer, good morning o,” said the man,“and how today na?”.
“I’m coming down with a cold.”
“Eyaa, that one bad o,” said the tiny man,“make you buy aspirin na.”
“That’s why I’m here.”
“Ah! Sorry o, but I no dey sell that one here.”
James walked up to the counter. “Are old magazines, shoes and cheap pictures all you sell here? Surely there can’t be much profit in that.”
The man laughed, in a way that told that he was Igbo. “I dey sell plenty things. No aspirin. But plenty, plenty things wey dey unique. My kaya na the ones wey dey fanciful, wonderful and beautiful. No other shop dey like my own for this world. And oga, the one wey you suppose know be sey everything wey I dey sell dey come with ultimate money-back guarantee.”
James studied the face on the other side of the counter. It was fair and round and trimmed with tufts of grey hair that peaked out from behind his ears and then disappeared, leaving behind a broad expanse of ancient scalp. The smile was warm and seemed genuine, not a typical shopkeeper’s nice-to-take-your-money smile. The pure brown eyes almost twinkled in the light. “Tell me about that,” said James. “What’s so special about your guarantee?”
“Very simple,” said the shopkeeper. “If you no happy with any thing wey you buy, just bring am back. I go refund two times the money wey you pay for the kaya.” He leaned back on his heels and puffed out his chest proudly. “And errmmm, I go kill myself add on top sef.” The wave of skepticism that James felt must have shown itself on his face because the man quickly added, “And no even doubt am, oga. I dey take my guarantee very, very serious.”
“I see,” said James, absently tugging at his ear. “I’m impressed. But how can you make an offer like that on used shoes? How can anyone be completely satisfied with a shoe that probably stinks with a stranger’s sweat?”
“Hehehehehe, good point, oga. The thing be sey, if I allow make people dey pick wetin they wan buy, e go become problem. But I no trust people, so I dey pick for them. And me I no dey ever make mistake.”
“Yes nan! I no dey leave anything to chance. Not with this my ultimate money-back guarantee. You go like make I pick something for you?” The shopkeeper rubbed his chin thoughtfully and studied James’ face. “Hmmm. You know wetin?” He slapped his hands together and rubbed them excitedly. “I think I get wetin you go like. You go like see am?” Without waiting for an answer he disappeared through a door behind the counter. In less than thirty seconds he came back carrying a package wrapped in brown paper. “See am,” said the man as he put the package down on the counter. “I no dey charge for lookery,” and started laughing.
James picked up the package. The paper was tattered and very dirty. There were stamps up in the corner. The post office had cancelled the stamps on September 3rd, 1982. When James glanced at the delivery address his hands began to tremble and a prickly sensation shot up the back of his neck. The addressee was Gbanger James S. and the address was his own. He dropped the package back on the counter. “This is a very peculiar joke,” he said angrily. “Clever. But peculiar.”
The shopkeeper frowned. “Hm! Na joke?”
“This package is addressed to me. And it was mailed in 1982. I wasn’t even born until 1994. And I have only lived at this address for five years. This must be a practical joke of some kind.”
“I dey assure you, oga,” said the shopkeeper, “this one no be joke. I no dey smart to dey joke. Wetin I do na to search wetin you fit like. You wan buy am?”
James stared down at the package. This must be a dream, he thought. It makes absolutely no sense. He ran his finger across the address on the package. It was badly faded and the brown paper was covered with a layer of dust. This simply cannot be. He looked back at the shopkeeper. “How much?”
“One hundred naira.”
“One hundred naira?”
“Hian!” exclaimed the shopkeeper, “I fit tell sey you hard man. Oya carry am for eighty naira.” He shook a withered index finger in James’ face. “But not a naira less.”
James pulled four notes out of his pocket and handed them to the shopkeeper. “Thank you,” said the shopkeeper. “I dey happy sey you like am.”
“I’d like to open it here,” said James. “Right now.”
“Sure! You be my customer. I go wan see wetin dey inside myself.”
James tore off the wrapping paper and revealed a cardboard box that was sealed with a cracked yellow tape. The shopkeeper handed him a pair of scissors. James sliced open the top of the box. Inside was a wooden box that had been decorated with very intricate carvings of animals. They were animals no zoo on earth had ever seen. They were nightmarish animals with long teeth, sharp claws and menacing eyes. On the front of the box was a brass plate with a keyhole. James licked his lips nervously. “There is no key,” he said.
“Sometimes,” said the shopkeeper, “just to dey wish make something open dey enough.” Suddenly the top of the box sprang open. Startled, James dropped the box back on the counter. He took a step back and stared down at it. A long moment passed. “You no wan look inside again?” asked the shopkeeper. “No forget my money-back guarantee. If you no like am, I go owe you one hundred and sixty naira.” He smiled. “Even my life sef.”
James stepped forward and looked down into the box. What he saw took him back to his boyhood, a time of comfort and warmth and hopeful tomorrows. It was a very old rubber ball. It was white with blue stars. He picked it up and turned it over in his hands. The initials GJS had been scraped into it with a rusty nail he remembered.
“You like am?” the shopkeeper asked.
“Such a harmless thing. In such a scary box,” said James.
“Yes,” said the old man, nodding. “Na so life dey.”
James turned the ball over and over in his hands. “I lost this many years ago,” he said. “I couldn’t have been more than five or six. I remember crying about it. I was sure it was gone forever.”
“But you don find am,” said the tiny old shopkeeper. “Na im be sey you dey satisfy? And I fit keep the money? Even my life ba?”
“I dey happy sey you sef dey happy. Because today for no good to die at all.”
“But how? How could you get it? How could a ball be mailed to me before I ever owned it?”
“If sey I fit answer that kind question, na im be sey I for dey more than shopkeeper be that na.” He lifted his hands, palms up toward the sky. “Sometimes,” he said, “e good make you no dey question. Just accept am.”
James nodded silently and walked slowly to the door. He opened it, paused, and turned back to the shopkeeper. “I may come back,” he said.
“Sure! If you fit find me again. My small shop get as e be.”
James walked out of the shop and into the cacophony of the city. The afternoon sun was warm. He turned the ball over and over in his hands and then bounced it on the pavement. He caught it, bounced it, and caught it again, just like he had done so very many times so very many years before. He felt flushed with an emotion that he had experienced very rarely in life. Happiness. Simple, sweet, childlike, almost giddy. He smiled and turned back toward the shop. The red and white striped awning and the wooden door had vanished. The sign in the window now read “Cheks & Sons Cleaners.” James opened the now-glass door and walked in. There was no tinkle announcing his arrival. There were no old shoes or magazines, or pictures on the walls. The sound of steam presses filled the shop. A middle aged woman stood behind the counter, sweat beading on her forehead. “Can I help you?” she asked cheerlessly. “You’re here to pick up your clothes?”
“No,” said James. “I think I have everything I need.” He waved at the woman who stood there stooped, weighted down with work and the world. “Good day,” he said, then turned and left. He forgot about the aspirin and walked home, whistling, almost skipping as he went, drawing stares he didn’t notice.
Now I need an interpreter.