The Man of the Last Word
He's just an associate member of the widower's club. That entitles him to attendance at weekly meetings – attended by Widowers alone – but not the far more crucial Finding Love Again get-togethers, where the opposite sex is the cover story. If he were to attend, it's certain that Matilda would know before the end of the evening. Those damned old widows – at least the privileged few who warrant invitations to the once-monthly Finding Love Meetings – sexy as they might be, can't keep half a secret, if their lives depended on it.
There's nothing like Associate Membership in the Club Charter. It's a concession for him. And it's for him too that meeting venues change every week, and hold at different times. It's all so Matilda, his sweetheart of fifty-plus years, doesn't get too suspicious.
She'd skin him alive if she heard he was a member of the Club. Don't blame her, any wife would. He shares his guilt alone (despite the fact that all the members also bear the burden of knowing his secret, and having to keep it as such), being the only member whose wife has never died.
So, every week, at different times each week, he steps into his shorts – he wears shorts anytime he's going out of the house – blows a perfunctory kiss at Matilda, and saunters off "for a walk". He loves walks, and could be gone for hours. He and Matilda used to take those walks together, but now, at seventy-seven, her arthritis won't let her any longer.
At their ages, there's very little they do together anymore. Except fight, of course. Sex has dwindled to its soulless-ness of plug and socket – plug and socket in an un-electrified apartment, that is, not helped of course by Matilda's arthritis. He worries more about how Matilda is handling this than about himself. Sometimes he feels pity for her, and wishes himself dead so she would be free to re-marry, and hopefully rediscover electricity – maybe with an equally arthritic lover. But then, with regards to feeling pity for people, that's perhaps the thing he has found easiest to master in his life. You feel too much, he has been told by perhaps every third person he has met in his life.
He sometimes thinks of Matilda as a prostitute. Which is not fair, since her appetite is, no more than any normal, well-adjusted almost-eighty woman. But he can't help thinking that way as long as he feels his wife's behaviours can be neatly classified into a sex-for-cash box.
There is only one very good thing about it. He has always happened to be her sole client. Not just her most favored. No. Her only client. How does he know? He just does. Matilda grew up watching her sisters test the boundaries of female liberation, on the bed, in the kitchen, at work, and she didn't like what they reaped. Or what reaped them. So she decided that, in her own life, she'd break the rules only within the safe confines of Law, of Tradition, of Modesty. She'd redefine her sexuality, but only in her marriage bed. Sex should be invested with adventure, but Marriage remains honorable, and the bed undefiled.
They used to have horrible fights back then in the early years of their marriage. Wedlock. Deadlock. Wedlock. Deadlock. Weddeadlock. Padlock. All because they did not understand each other. But that was fifty years ago, no, fifty-seven to be extremely precise. She too must have known he had a soft spot for homespun prostitution. He still feels a twisted glee when he remembers he could very easily afford the brand new Peugeot 404 that their third child cost him. Sex for child naturally costs more than sex for sex. There are so many things about genre of paid-for marriage-bed sex. For one you don't get to hear complaints of those mysterious ten o'clock headaches that female hormones trigger off by some equally mysterious internal clock. Another advantage - all monies spent remain within the family.
After fifty-something years of wedlock, he has no regrets. If he had to come back to this world, he'd marry Matilda again. One thing though. He is always telling the WC crowd that he'd definitely renegotiate the rates. "We never negotiated the present rates. Everything just kind of fell into place. But next time, if there will be a next time, I'd prefer we drew up a contract, and spelled out in concrete terms everything we have taken for granted for fifty-something years. We'd include such details as BOGOF (buy-one-get-one-free), Credit transactions, Discounts, Two-for-the price-of-one, Third party options and so on..." he likes to joke. He has said it so many times that no one thinks it funny anymore.
Up until last week the only thing that drove him mad about Matilda was how she fed him. The way she dragged her feet as she shuffled about in the kitchen – whenever she was preparing his food. (Other times, like when she washed the dishes, her feet didn't make a sound). The way she piled his food like overflowing garbage in a dustbin (he couldn't shake off the thought that his plate actually had the architecture of an experimental dustbin), the angry way she scraped the burnt bottom of the pot...her manner had even rubbed off onto the food itself – the nonchalance of the grains or lumps of the food as they tumbled upon one another into his plate.
Lately he'd been hearing himself growl whenever she approached with his food. She'd stare at him, not sure whether to ignore him outright or pretend she didn't hear, or even question him and by so doing, shake the puzzle off her mind. She ought to thank her stars he only growled. When what he knows he really should be doing is barking!
That was his only major grouse against her till the incident that happened two weeks ago. He had gone window-shopping at the mall on the other side of the estate, when he ran into, or rather, had some journalist run into him. Said he was conducting interviews for the vox-pop section of his TV show. His question was quite straightforward.
"How would you like to be remembered Sir, after your demise?"
He bit his lips for like a minute as his mind searched for a fitting, perfect answer.
Later that night, back at home, they stayed up till eleven to see the show. First time he was appearing on TV in ages. There he was, uhm-ing and uhm-ing like some schoolboy who hasn't prepared well for his test. All of a sudden, there's Matilda choking on her garlic soup.
"Dear, you'd love to be remembered with a postmortem award for environmental activism...?" she says, eyes glinting cruelly, animating her wrinkles.
"Yes." He's wondering what's getting her so excited. He picks up the remote control that's without reason slipped out of his grip.
"You meant a posthumous award?" The way she deliberately does not stress any words makes it difficult to get what she's saying. And then all of a sudden, he gets it. And in that moment of getting it, he desired nothing more than being rendered posthumous. Now no one would care that he had made an effortless distinction in O-level English. Or that Matilda had been the one who managed a C. By eight the next morning, all their friends had heard. And considering the fact that none of them had watched the show, he acknowledges Matilda's broadcasting prowess. She worked the phones better than a presidential candidate, sharing the latest joke. And she made it all the more maddening by lying to them that he hadn't stopped laughing at himself since then. When the truth is that he hadn't even slept more than like twenty-seven minutes in all. So he wonders where he got the courage to laugh. Liar.
He knew he had to fight back for once. Teach her one lesson, the first he would attempt in their fifty something years together. OK. Not the first lesson. Maybe not. But at least the most er, er, ...the most... well, the most!
His chance came soon. A few days later. Like most opportunities, it didn't announce itself, and so it depended on his apprehending it himself. Esther, their youngest daughter, and her husband were traveling abroad for a holiday, and so it fell upon them to take care of Bayo, their nine-year-old grandson for the two weeks.
He wakes that morning to find Bayo tugging at his feet, almost in tears.
"Grandpa, there's a monster under my bed."
At once he knows his chance has come.
"There isn't any monster honey...." answers Matilda, ever wanting to be The Heroine. He doesn't know what her bloody business is.
"Your grandmama's right Bayo. There ain't no monster under your bed."
"There is grandpa...I'm scared."
"Okay sonny, let's go look. You'll see there's nothing to be scared of..."
Of course there is no monster. At least not under Bayo's bed.
He waits until they are back in our bedroom, well within Matilda's hearing.
"See, Bayo. I told you there wouldn't be a monster there. The monster is not there anymore..." He starts to feel the thud of his heart against the walls of my chest. Before Bayo can wonder where the monster vanished to; before Matilda can scold him for scaring the poor boy by making him believe the monster is real, he adds his punchline, gaze fixed hard on Bayo.
"Bayo. The monster has climbed out from under your bed. She is now in mine..."
*Bayo of course does not get it. He only seems content that grandpa has assured him of his safety. Matilda hears, of course, as intended, and understands. She stares at him for a microsecond, allows a smile to alter the layout of her face for the next nano-second, and lapses into silence.
Matilda's silence may mean any one of a lot of things. It may mean anything. That much he has learned in fifty-seven years. Especially a silence that rises from the ashes of the ghost of an almost-smile. He will wait the days out, and see what will happen. Till it happens he'll content himself with savoring the exhilaration that he wallows in, that tastes like mint, and feels to him like something he should have enjoyed decades ago, but put off till now. What exactly it is that exhilarates him, he can't lay my finger on, but then, what the hell? The last time he felt this good was when Matilda had twins as their last issue, 1960 or thereabouts. She wasn't expecting twins. For once he felt like he did the cheating.
*He has a feeling he would not be attending the Widowers' Club any longer. He has killed the ghost of his undead wife, the ghost he has lived with for almost sixty years, that pushed him into a Club he didn't belong to. By virtue of the 1st Law of Life and Death – For every Death there is an equal and opposite Resurrection – he has resurrected a man, whom he's obviously never met (this not-meeting caused by some inexplicable derailing of serendipity), but whom he feels he's known for all of his eighty years. He doesn't have many years to live anymore. That much he is sure of. Making a new friend just now comes with the certain melancholy of anticipating the End – the hovering, buzzing, descending end. He'll stay home to spend quality time with his new friend. They won't see him anymore at the WC. He won't give any explanations. He'll tell Matilda he thinks she's infected him with her arthritis. He can't take walks again. His health is failing. Anything to make her forget he now has the upper hand, holds the aces, the last word. Literally, that is. She hasn't said a word to him since then. But she's not angry, he's sure of that. She's just trying to adjust to the new man her husband brought home. The man of the last word.
About the author:
Tolu Ogunlesi was born in 1982. He works in Lagos, Nigeria as a pharmacist. He is the author of the collection of poetry Listen to the Geckos Singing From a Balcony (Bewrite Books, UK). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Wasafiri, Sable, Inkpot, Banyan Review, Mississippi Review and Narrative Magazine.