Ikechukwu Uzondu, “Ike for short,” parked his Lincoln Continental cab at a garage that charged twelve dollars per hour. Before shutting off the engine, he looked at the car’s electronic clock. Nine forty-seven a.m.; it meant the gallery would have been open for a little less than an hour. Perfect, Ike thought, for he wished to be done transacting his business before the place started buzzing.
He walked a block and a half to 19 Vance Street. Had a small animal been wedged in his throat, his heart could not have pounded more violently.
The eave over the door bore a sign etched in black over a bluish background: foreign gods, incorporated. It was written in tiny, stylized lettering, as if intended to create a tactful anonymity. Few would stumble upon a store like this; it would be found, it seemed, only by habitués and devotees.
Across the street was a bar. Ike contemplated a quick drink or two to calm his nerves. How odd to flack for a war god while jittery. Yet, to go in smelling of alcohol might also be a costly mistake.
The gallery door clicked, and a tanned woman walked out. A squat carved statue was clutched close to her breast, held in a suckling posture. At the curb, a gleaming black BMW pulled up. She opened the rear door and leaned in, arched backside revealing the outline of her underwear. Her black high-heeled shoes were riveted with nodes of diamond. She strapped the deity in place with the seat belt and then straightened. The car’s front door was opened from inside. She lowered herself in, and the car sped off.
Ike pulled at the gallery door—surprisingly light. A wide, sprawling space unfurled itself: gray marble floors, turquoise walls, and glass-paneled showcases. A multitude of soft, recessed lights accentuated the gallery’s dim, spectral atmosphere. In the middle of the room, slightly to the left of the door, a spiral staircase with two grille-work banisters rose to an upper floor. Ike knew from the New York magazine piece that people went upstairs only by invitation. And that those invitations went only to a small circle of long-term collectors or their designated dealers.
There was an otherworldly chill in the air. There was also a smell about the place, unsettling and hard to name. Ike froze at the edge of the run of stairs that led down to the floor of the gallery. From the elevation, he commanded a view. The space was busy but not cluttered. Clusters of short, squat showcases were interspersed with long and deep ones. Here and there, some customers peered into the glass cases or pored over catalogs.
In a matter of two, three weeks, his people’s ancient deity, Ngene, would be here, too. And it would enjoy pride of place, not on this floor, with the all-comers and nondescripts, but upstairs, in the section called Heaven. Ngene was a majestic god with a rich legend and history. How many other gods could boast of dooming Walter Stanton, that famed English missionary whose name, in the syllable-stretching mouths of the people of Utonki, became Su-tan-tee-ny?
The thought gave him a gutsy boost. He trotted down the steps to the floor of the gallery. Walking unhurriedly, he cast deliberate glances about him, so that an observer might mistake him for a veteran player in the rare sport where gods and sacred curios were bought and sold. He paused near the spiral staircase. A sign warned please do not ascend unless escorted. He walked on to a chest-high showcase. A hefty wooden head stared at him from atop a rectangular stump. The face was pitched forward, like a tortoise’s head poking out of a shell. On closer inspection, Ike saw that the carved head was deformed by a chipped, flattened nose and large, bulgy eyes. Inside the case, four fluorescent puck lights washed the statue with crisscross patterns of luminescence and shadows. A fork-tongued serpent coiled itself round the statue’s neck.
There was an electronic key code for the showcase’s twin-winged door, and several perforations in the glass, small and circular, as if designed to let in and let out just enough air to keep the glum, rigid statue from suffocating. A strip tag glued to the glass cage identified the deity as C1760. Ike picked up a glossy catalog and thumbed to the C section. Each page was columned, with sections marked “inventory code,” “name,” “brief history,” and “price.” He ran his finger down the line until he saw the tag number. Then he drew his finger across to the price column: $29,655.
He flipped the pages to the catalog’s last section, marked “Heavenly Inventory.” The lowest price in the section was $171,455; the highest $1.13 million. He studied the image of one of the deities in that section. Carved from soot-black wood, it had two fused figures, one female, and the other male. The figures backed each other. The female was big breasted and boasted a swollen belly. The male figure held a hoe in one hand, a gun in the other, its grotesque phallus extending all the way to its feet. They shared the same androgynous head, turned neither left nor right but forward. A pair of deep-set eyes seemed to return Ike’s stare. It was listed for $325,630. Ike read the short italicized description: A god of the crossroads, originally from Papua New Guinea.
“Wait until they see Ngene,” he said under his breath, a flush of excitement washing over him. Surely, a legendary god of war would command a higher price than a two-faced crossroads idler.
At the thought, the catalog slipped from his hands and thudded on the floor. He hastily picked it up, glancing all around. Perhaps the gallery’s surveillance camera was beamed on him, trailing his every movement?
He moved to another showcase. He squatted, bit his lip, and peered intensely at the encased quarry, nodding like a connoisseur. From nowhere some foul whiff brushed his nose and he recoiled.
He heard a woman’s low voice and stood to look, but two showcases blocked his view.
“Have I ever—ever—been too busy for you?” a man answered in a stentorian voice.
A pair of sequined magenta shoes descended the staircase. These yielded toned calves, then sturdy thighs that disappeared beneath a tight purplish skirt, and then the tanned, tight upper body of a blonde. Then, behind her, the man appeared.
Ike recognized Mark Gruels, the owner of the gallery. He did not panic, his poise a remarkable feat, considering what was at stake. Neither the woman nor Gruels looked Ike’s way. Her right arm was around his waist, his left arm draped over her shoulder. They circled the staircase and walked down another aisle, toward the far wall.
Ike watched them but pretended to be riveted by the catalog. Gruels was a head taller than the woman, even though she looked at least five nine. Cerise pearls adorned the woman’s neck. Gruels’s groomed appearance seemed to leave some room for cultivated ruggedness. He had a full head of black hair, garnished with dots of gray. He wore a dark green down vest over a bleached green shirt, one sleeve rolled up to the elbow, the other left unrolled.
Gruels and the woman spoke inaudibly for a moment, entranced by the same object: a mammoth, snout-faced statue in a showcase.
“So?” the woman finally asked.
Gruels swayed side to side, as if in deep thought. Then he shook his head doubtfully.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Not that one,” he said in the tone of a man accustomed to confident judgments. His voice was deep, even a little gravelly. “You’re looking at a goddess. She’s definitely not a good fit. Not for you. You do better with strong male gods. You’d find her—shall I say—a bit too feisty. Too cranky.”
“She’s quite the cutie,” the woman said, leaning into Gruels. “No question, but she’s not your type. Trust me.” He pressed
her closer to him. “You don’t want a goddess that clashes with your personality. Plus, it doesn’t jibe with your other acquisitions.”
“It’s actually not for me. I’d like something amazing for my brother. And this should do.”
“Birthday?” Gruels asked.
“No, he’s never been big on birthdays. He’s just having a tough time rebounding.”
“Has he been sick?” “No, divorced.”
“Josh?” Gruels sounded incredulous.
“Yes, darling—you know I have only the one brother.” “He and Heather parted ways?”
“Oh, Mark, have you been living in a cave again?” “No, really,” said Gruels. “I’m sorry to hear it.”
She turned sideways and rested her body against his. Gruels rubbed and kneaded her shoulders. Ike felt a tug in the crotch.
She related how Heather had run away with another woman, leaving Josh crushed.
Finally, Gruels said, “A man dumped by his wife for another woman deserves some spectacular gift. You can’t get better than this.” He glanced up at the deity. “This, here, is a Mayan marvel.”
“And what are you asking for her?”
“Twenty thousand—eighteen thousand for you.” “Sir, can I help you with anything?”
Ike turned, startled. A petite woman stood behind him. “How may I help you?” she asked again.
Her nose was pierced midridge with a toothpick-sized coppery crossbar. Her head was shaved close to the scalp. A whorl of tattoos ran all over her arms and neck.
“I came to see—” “Mark?” she interjected.
“Mr. Gruels,” he said. Despite all his years in America, he’d never become comfortable with the idea of calling strangers by their given name. “Yes.”
Her eyes lit up. “Did you call two days ago?” “Three. Yes.”
“I recognized that accent!” Ike stiffened at the word “accent,” and his eyes blazed. Oblivious, she continued: “Listen, Mark’s busy with a customer right now. You can wait for him right here. Unless it’s something I can help you with. My name is Stacy.”
“I’ll wait,” he said, still vexed by that reference to his accent.
He turned and nearly bumped into Gruels. The gallery owner held the blond with one hand, the Mayan deity with the other.
“Mark, this gentleman wants to see you,” Stacy announced.
Letting go of the blond’s hand, Gruels seemed to whirl round to Ike.
“You want to see me?”
Not in everybody’s presence, Ike thought. “I’ll wait until you finish. With her.” He pointed at the blond.
Gruels smirked and then retook the woman’s hand. “Until I finish with her? What makes you think I want to ever be finished with her?”
Gruels laughed, and the woman followed suit, her head thrown back. Gruels whispered into her ear, released her, and circled back to Ike. “Yes, I’m listening,” he said.
Ike’s tongue felt coated. Why didn’t Gruels invite him to an office or some secluded corner?
Gruels folded his arms. “Yes?” “I have—”
“Yes, you have what?” “A business proposal.”
Gruels slapped both hands, bemused. “You want to invest in my business? Great! How much are we talking here?”
Ike gave a short, awkward chuckle.
“It’s a busy morning for me,” Gruels said. “Business proposal. You’ve got to spell out what you mean. And you’ve got to do it quick.” He glanced at his wristwatch. “I have a meeting to run to—in, like, now! So?”
“I have a god I can bring,” he said. “You have a god?”
“Great. Let’s see it.”
“I’m traveling to bring it.” “You don’t have it?”
“So what’s the point of this discussion?” Ike swallowed hard. “I want you to buy it.”
“Buy what? I can’t buy what doesn’t exist.” Gruels glanced at Stacy, who tightened her lips and shrugged.
“It exists,” Ike cried, his voice close to combative. Then, checking himself, he added, “It’s a powerful deity, too.”
Gruels regarded him with intense eyes. “I don’t buy stories; I buy things. You see what I mean?” He glanced at his watch again and turned sharply sideways, as if to walk away. Instead, he tarried and addressed Ike. “Bottom line, you have nothing to show me.”
“In less than three weeks, I will have it.”
“So why are we holding this discussion now? Why don’t we have it in three weeks—or whenever you’ve got something to show?”
Ike said, “It’s a god of war.”
“It could be a god of shit for all I care.” Gruels paused, his eyes danced, taking in Ike with curious interest. He put a left hand on Ike’s shoulder. “I don’t mean to insult you. That’s not what I’m about.”
“It used to lead our people to war,” Ike explained, determined to capitalize on the indirect apology.
“That’s great,” Gruels said, his tone flavored anew with sarcasm. “Great for your people.”
Thoughts tossed about in Ike’s mind. He foraged for the magic words that would kindle the other’s interest. He saw Gruels’s lips quiver, about to speak. Anxiety overcame him.
“Trust me,” he said. “It’s a very, very ancient deity. A very powerful god.”
“So you say. Great! Nobody ever sold me a shitty god. And nobody ever bought one from me. Every god I ever bought or sold had the greatest mojo in all of time. So, what’s new?” He took another look at his watch.
“How much are you willing to pay for it?
Gruels scratched his forehead and then gazed at Ike, silent. “Trust me,” Ike said, unable to bear the silent exchange of stares.
Gruels spread his arms in a sweeping gesture. “This store has great inventory. Look around, see for yourself.” He paused, as if to permit Ike to take a look. “You don’t seriously expect me to discuss the buying of—nothing! It doesn’t even make sense.”
“I told you about the—”
“Yes, you’ve told me a lot. You’ve said how powerful this god is. You’ve said it’s ancient. You’ve said blah blah blah.” He spread his arms again. “Well, guess what? My entire inventory is made up of powerful, ancient deities. I ask again, what’s new?”
“In olden days, this god—it’s called Ngene—led our warriors to wars. And they never lost one.”
“Ngina—that’s the name?” “Ngene.” Ike spelled the word.
“Are there written accounts of these wars?” “My uncle told me.”
“You expect me to do a deal—based on something your uncle told you?”
“He’s the deity’s chief priest. He knows everything about Ngene.”
Gruels crinkled his brow. “Did you say your uncle is the chief priest of this same god?”
Ike nodded and looked away.
“So, is he offering to sell this—what’s its name again?” “Ngene.”
“Is the priest offering to sell this god?” Ike shook his head.
“So, you’re not acting as your uncle’s agent?” “No.”
“Let me ask a different way. Do you have your uncle’s permission to do this deal?”
Gruels gave a mirthless smile. “Listen, don’t think I’m judging you; that’s not my thing. I’d love to do business with you—and I mean it. But you’ve got to show me something. Not just stories your uncle told you, something. We have a process of authentication, and it’s fairly rigorous. The gallery’s policy is to insist on things that are written down.”
“I know,” Ike said. “There’s a story about the first British missionary who arrived in Utonki.”
“What about him?”
“He threatened to destroy Ngene but drowned in a river owned by the god.”
“Your uncle told you this?”
“Everybody in Utonki knows the story. But it’s also in a booklet.”
Gruels nodded eagerly. “Great! Now, if that booklet exists, bring it along with the inventory.”
“Mark, remember your meeting at Elbow Room,” Stacy shouted. “Thanks, Stace,” Gruels said. Then to Ike: “We’ll see you when
you’ve got the stuff in your hands.” Ike raised a hand frantically. “Yes?” Gruels said.
“We haven’t discussed the price. Could you tell me the range?”
Gruels’s brow became furrowed in exasperation. “No, really,” he said, slowly. “I discuss prices only when the inventory is in front of me. That’s policy here at foreign gods. But you can be sure of one thing—no dealer tops our offer. You said you’ve got great merchandise. You get me a great item, you can count on getting a great offer. That’s a promise.”
He extended a hand. More out of confusion than design, Ike hesitated for a moment and then took it. Again Gruels placed his left hand on Ike’s shoulder.
“Don’t think I doubt that this is a great god. But this gallery is huge on authentication. Remember that. Nothing beats seeing things on paper—photographs, books, documents. If there are mentions in one or two scholarly texts, that’s terrific.”
Ike’s heart chugged as he headed for the exit. Once outside, he drew deep drafts of air until he felt steadied. And then, in quick, springy strides, he hastened back to the garage.
Ike’s body was belted to the car seat, but his spirits soared. For a moment, it seemed unreal that this was his last day as a cabdriver. His meeting with Gruels had not gone quite as well as he had hoped, but it was far from woeful. The man had said he’d love to do business with him. That, in the end, was what counted. All Gruels asked for was to see Ngene—to see something. Fair enough, Ike thought. After all, everything was set for his journey to scoop up the wooden statue of that ancient god of war named after a moody, mud-colored river.
It was already 11:36 a.m. There was the option of retiring to his apartment, but Ike dismissed the urge. At all hours, the noisy street intruded into the apartment, breached his solitude. It was better to roam the streets awhile, perhaps pick up a few last passengers, and trust the accustomed routines of work to contain the thoughts that sawed through his mind.
He’d worked as a driver for thirteen years, ever since graduating from Amherst College, cum laude, in economics. Now, it would be over. He had a confirmed seat on a KLM flight bound for Lagos, with a stopover in Amsterdam. From Lagos, he would travel east to Utonki, the riverine town where he was born and lived through secondary school. He’d wait for the perfect accomplice: some dark, moonless night. Then he’d tiptoe into the doorless, rectangular shrine. He’d sneak away with the war deity and be on his merry way back to New York City, where he would sell it to foreign gods, incorporated. Gruels had refused to name a price, but Ike expected the gallery to offer far more cash than he ever made in any two or even three years he worked as a cabdriver, first in Springfield, Massachusetts, then Philadelphia, Atlanta, Baltimore, and, now, New York.
After driving past several passengers, he finally stopped for two young women who hailed him on Chambers Street. They were headed for Mansoory Deli on East Fortieth Street. Settled in the backseat, they chattered. One had pale skin, a freckled nose, and dimpled cheeks. She prattled about visiting the Alps with two Norwegian friends but failing to ski even once; about different pubs in London; and about “making out with this mad cute guy” at a nightclub in Amsterdam.
Whenever she paused, the other—tanned and big boned—filled the silence with pieces of an extended story about private tango lessons she’d taken in Buenos Aires with one of the city’s most famous dancers. The lesson was a birthday present from her grandmother.
When they got off, the tanned girl handed Ike a twenty-dollar bill for a fare of eighteen dollars and seventy-five cents. “You too,” he muttered, in response to the freckled one’s spirited wish of a great day.
For a moment, he again entertained the idea of heading for his apartment. He intended to turn right on Second Avenue. Instead, he turned left, toward United Nations Plaza. Nearing the plaza, he fixed on a man who seemed at once part of the familiar bustle and outside of it. The man, in turn, sought him. There was a certain air about the man, the more powerful for its oblique quality. A diplomat, Ike thought, most likely European. The man seemed to possess an inbred, controlled charm. He was tall but with the suggestion of a stooped shoulder. In Ike’s eye, the shoulder’s slight curvature was a flattering feature; it hinted at personal gravity and the shouldering of diplomatic burdens.
He would make the perfect last passenger.
“Columbus Ave,” the man said. “Three twenty-two.” His voice was so soft and muffled that Ike couldn’t tell whether his accent had a trace of foreignness. He trailed a rich, spicy fragrance into the cab. “Hello,” Ike said. When he heard no response, he added, “Good afternoon.” Then, “Welcome, sir.”
Not even a cough came in acknowledgment. The passenger held open a paperback book, hands raised in a boxer’s defensive stance, a sparkling golden watch at his wrist.
Ike released his foot from the brake, and the car jerked forward, rolling up First Avenue. He had only gone a block when he was forced to stop. Ahead, a long line of cars shat a smashed omelet of red brake lights.
For the next ten minutes, the car did little but idle.
The passenger turned on the overhead light. The sun had vanished. Dense, lumbering clouds loomed. Lightning signed the sky. There followed a slow, liquid growl, a sky-sized monster’s after-meal belch. Ike wanted to fight off the word rainstorm, but couldn’t.
He sat up from his slouched position. Spine straightened, he pulled forward, as if hugging the steering wheel. The sky unleashed its torrent. The first sheets lashed against the car’s roof and windshield. Then, as if some invisible conductor had given a cue, the storm seized, leaving a mizzle of long, tiny darts.
He was a second-year student in secondary school when the first assault happened. He was in the school’s crowded cafeteria. A rainstorm began. Its doowah, doowah made him groggy, turned his limbs weak. Before shocked onlookers, he staggered this way and that, like a senseless drunk, and then fainted dead away. “You seemed to be sleeping,” a friend told him later. “You even had a smile, as if you were having a sweet dream. Or just playing a game.”
Ike remembered the sensation of absolute calm. That, and a feeling of being carried on something soft like a cloud, calm as a lake’s surface on a windless day. And he remembered seeing many things that shimmered with such heartbreaking beauty there was no language to describe them.
The next time it happened, four storms later, he was in the classroom, taking French. Later, a classmate told him that the irate French teacher, Robertson Iwu (Monsieur Iwulili Iwuliti, the students named him) had rushed at him, trademark cane at the ready. The teacher was certain that Ike was up to some folly. He released two or three strokes on Ike, who lay there, motionless. His body absorbed the lashes without as much as a twitch. The furious teacher fled the classroom, convinced that his famous cane had flogged a corpse.
It was after this episode that the principal sent Ike home to seek medical treatment. His parents took him to a doctor. Numerous tests later, the baffled doctor said he had found no explanation.
One day, Ike went to visit his paternal grandmother, Nne. He told her about the strange force that snatched him away sometimes during rainstorms, and about the indescribably beautiful things he would see during his raptures.
“Ngene has favored you,” Nne said.
Taken aback, Ike asked, “What does that mean?”
“You’ll find out once you’re old enough to understand. The same thing happened to your uncle, Osuakwu. Be patient.”
“Are you saying I’ll be the chief priest, like my uncle?” “I don’t speak for Ngene,” said Nne.
Ike never shared her words: not with his parents or anybody else. In the intervening years, the storm-triggered spells happened less frequently. Sometimes, a few years went by without one episode.
There had been only a few public incidents in the United States. After each episode, he awoke in a white room filled with bright lights and to questions about illicit drug use. While a seizure happened, it was close to rapturous release. Fear was in the anticipation. And then shame followed, when he noticed the curious glances of witnesses, their fear-filled whispers. It was that shame that made the experience anguished, impossible to forget.
That was why Ike never worked any day a storm was in the forecast. He remembered the anchor saying last night, “Keep it right here and stay tuned for pinpoint weather, coming up next.” And then there was Derek Jeter pitching some credit card. Ike had dozed off. He startled awake as a sports reporter screeched about the Yankees’ tie-breaking home run in the second game of a split doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.
His hands shook. Sweat pooled in his armpits, and then licked his sides. If only the passenger would hold a conversation, he might be able to keep his focus off the storm, and fight off an attack.
The cab’s electronic clock blinked 1:32 and then changed to 1:33. A frantic idea chimed in his mind. Music! He would use music to hold off the storm’s paralyzing doowah, doowah. He clicked open the glove compartment, shuffled through several CDs, then slotted one in. The sound deafened. In the haste to set down the volume, he mistakenly raised it.
The passenger banged. “What’s that?” he cried over the amp of the music.
“Music.” Ike twisted the knob sharply left. Then, in a calmer voice, he said, “Shakara.”
“Chaka what?” the man asked hotly. “Ra.”
“I don’t care for it.” “It’s by Fela,” Ike said.
“I don’t care for the fella.”
“Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. That’s the musician’s name.”
“Turn the damn thing down,” the man said. “I’m reading.”
Ike’s foot beat a tam tam on the accelerator, in time with the music. The traffic eased slowly forward. Ike switched off the CD and rolled down the front windows.
A blustering breeze whistled. The scent of rain on sun-baked asphalt swelled his lungs. He marveled at the storm’s tease, how it started and ended with equal suddenness.
In the midst of his thoughts, a bolt of lightning flashed, followed by a slow belch of thunder. Then the storm resumed, fiercer. Soaked pedestrians dashed for shelter. Ike’s windshield and windows turned blurry with vapor. He clicked on the cab’s headlights. He wiped the windshield in large, circular motions.
A blind woman walked across the street, led by a Seeing Eye dog. First dog, then woman, stopped at Ike’s car. Skirt and gray sweater drenched, she tapped her stick on his fender. Then she used the stick to prod the dog. Tongue lolling, the dog feinted left, then right. It was all futile—Ike was bumper to bumper with the next car. He felt stirred to hop out and help the woman across. But he was sure that if he stood, he’d pass out.
In a fit of desperation, she hit the fender harder. Then, her hollow gaze in his direction, she raised a finger, her lips formed to deliver a curse. Ike drew the gear up to reverse. From behind, a long blast of horn rasped. He lowered the gear once again to drive, foot firmly held to the brake. She delivered another curse. Then she turned the same direction as her dog and let herself be led back the way she came.
“Is it good?” Ike asked.
“What?” The response came after a moment’s silence. “I mean the book,” Ike said.
The passenger muttered inaudibly.
The rain beat against the cab’s windows. Ike would not stand for the looming spell of silence. He’d talk and talk, do whatever it took to draw the man out. Even if all he got in exchange were listless grunts or bored silence.
“I will write a book someday,” he said.
“You will?” the passenger asked quickly. “What about?” “About foreign gods.”
“Foreign, did you say? Foreign what? It’s hard to understand your accent.”
Ike brushed off the hurt. “There’s a gallery called foreign gods, incorporated. They buy and sell gods. That’s what I plan to write about.”
The passenger guffawed. “Why, that’s a neat idea.” Ike felt elated, awake. “It’s going to be interesting.” “Where?”
Confused, Ike gave no response.
“Where’s the gallery?” the man elaborated.
“Oh, here in New York. On Vance Street, number 19.”
“You don’t say,” the man said. Then he coughed, eyes fixed on his book.
Ike felt let down. He wanted to keep talking, to keep the conversation going. In fact, it didn’t matter whether the passenger spoke back or not. Let the man just listen: that would do do do. Doowah, doowah, sang the rain. From somewhere deep inside of Ike, tales surged to the surface, weaving in and out of the storm’s refrain. A torrent of words to repel the storm’s doo wah. The words spun, chasing down several stories that, in midstride, suddenly changed contours. He had many stories to share, too little time. There was his former wife, Bernita Gorbea; he recalled how he could never equal her lacerating tongue, his dread of her fiendish lovemaking, the sheer nastiness of their divorce. There was his friend, Jonathan Falla. It was Falla who, back in college, first sowed in him the idea of looting his people’s ancient god, a war deity at a time bereft of wars. There were a lot of wars it could fight for us here, Falla had told him. Think of all the shit it could do for black folks in the States. How it could sneak into the White House or Wall Street. Cause mayhem and shit. Help overthrow this whole unjust system and shit. And it was Falla, too, who had sent him the copy of New York magazine that profiled Mark Gruels, the owner of foreign gods, incorporated.
Ike found himself telling all these things and more to his passenger—whatever came into his mind, no matter how inappropriate or fragmentary. Anything to fight back the power of the storm pelting his windshield.
He talked about old friends and classmates back in Nigeria. About his mother who bombarded his e-mail address. Each new e-mail bore the same message as the preceding ones: it reminded him of a promise he had failed to keep. And there were his forays into gambling, a venture driven by dreams of great fortunes that always ended in huge losses.
Ike started at the man’s voice. “Yes,” he said. His voice sounded weary, distant, and unfamiliar.
“And you blame your mother for your gambling?”
Ike’s eyelids blinked uncontrollably. Fingers entwined, he raised his hands behind his head, thrust out his chest in a fatigued stretch, and yawned.
“You gamble, you gamble. To blame your mother . . .”
Doowah, doowah, raged the storm. Ike reeled, as if struggling to jiggle free of the seat belt. His body settled into a sweet laggardness.
“To blame your mother for your choice is foolish,” the passenger said.
Ike was helpless. He tried to raise his eye to the rearview mirror but failed.
He heard his passenger ask if he was all right. But the storm’s wild, whirring music was already sweeping him up to that terrain of enchantment, up in the cloud, way beyond the wet, weeping skies.
A sharp metallic blare sounded. It was not just one driver honking; there were three or four.
And it was over: the storm had calmed, and a faint, vague light hovered in the sky.
It seemed he had been driving on autopilot.
“I’m going to guess,” he heard his passenger say. “Jamaican, right?”
“Nigerian,” Ike replied, surprised by the calmness in his voice. “Nigerian!” the passenger exclaimed, filliping his fingers at the same time. “One of our smartest attorneys is from there. His name escapes me, but he’s a smart, smart kid. Not a bit of an accent.” He slapped his palms. “None at all.”
The sky glowed, its vast dome tinged with turquoise. Now that it no longer mattered, the man seemed interested in talking. He said his name was Giles Karefelis.
“Ikechukwu Uzondu,” Ike responded.
Three times Karefelis tried to pronounce the name. Then he protested, “It’s too hard to say!”
“It’s Ike for short.”
“Eekay,” Karefelis said, mangling the pronunciation. “How do you spell that?”
“That’s Ike,” the passenger said in an excited tone.
“It’s the same spelling,” Ike explained. “But mine is pronounced
“Eekay,” the man repeated, omitting the hyphen.
Ike winced. “Your way of saying it means ‘buttocks’ in my language.”
Karefelis roared with laughter.
“But my name means strength,” Ike said. “Ee-kay, not Eekay. It’s short for Ikechukwu—God’s strength.”
“Ike’s a proud American name, too. It was Eisenhower’s name. He was a great American general and president.”
Ike eased forward and pulled up outside 322 Columbus Avenue. “Here,” said Mr. Karefelis, holding out two crisp bills. “You’ve been a great sport, Ike.” He strode away in a brisk gait, leaving Ike with two $50 bills—and a venerable American name.
* * *