The landlady knocked on the door. Keselly came out of the room, bare from the waist up and wearing only a pair of shorts. Moments later, his girlfriend Musu, wearing only a lappa and nude from the belly up, also came out of the room and stood beside him. In Musu’s arms was her nine-month-old child, sucking from one of her full, succulent breasts.
“So, Keselly, you refused to pay your rent enh?” the landlady asked, cocking one eyebrow, as though surprised that the young man had not yet paid his rent.
“Ahna refuse to pay my rent oh, Ma,” Kesselly said, scratching the back of his head.
“Please bear patience with us, Ma Parker,” Musu said. “Kesselly lookin’ for job.”
“Yes, I know,” Ma Parker said scornfully. “And by the time your boyfriend finds his job my family and I would fini die from hunger, enh?”
“I beg you, Ma,” Kesselly said. “By the grace of God—”
“By the grace of the devil you are out of my house today,” the landlady shouted. “So, if you know what I know, just pay the five-month rent you owe and start packing your things now. Or I will go to the court and then you will be sorry.”
“Don’t do so, ol’ Ma, please.” Kesselly took a step and gently held the landlady’s arm.
She pushed him away. “Don’t touch me! When I say you’re out, you are out! You saw what I did to those other people.”
“We will pay, Ma,” Musu said, as tears watered in her eyes. “Please don’t go to court. We will pay.”
But the landlady was already rushing down the dirty hallway of her rental house, ridden with cracks in the floor and paint peeling off the walls. Seconds later, she vanished outside, slamming the rickety front door behind her.
Kesselly shook his head, looked up, and stared vaguely at the huge holes in the ceiling and the pieces of cardboard that draped over the hallway.
“Wuhtin you will do na?” Musu asked, shifting the baby to suck from her right breast.
“Nothing,” Kesselly said. “Leh just go pack our things and wait for deh court people.”
“Dey will seize our things and put you in jail.”
“So wuhtin you wan me to do? Run away?”
“Who talkin’ ’bout running away?
“Oh, I thought dat wat you wan me to do.”
“Dat na wat I talkin’ ’bout. Leh call some of deh neighbors dem to beg the ol’ Ma.”
“She will na do it. She put deh other renters dem outside for only one month rent bizness, and we owe her for five months now.”
“Ayee God, please help us oh.”
“Come leh go pack the things, Musu.”
They went back into the room.
The room was very small, almost like one of those cells at Monrovia Central Prison, the floor as much filled with cracks as the hallway and paint peeling off the walls as well. Kesselly and Musu had only a few things
in the room: a small, dirty mattress in one corner. It was so small that went they lie upon it with the baby Kesselly had to lie down with half of his body on the mattress, the other half on the floor; while Musu squeezed against the wall, the baby between both of them. In another corner were a plastic container used to stow drinking water, a small rattan basket filled with the baby’s clothes, some cooking utensils, and a plastic bath bucket. Kesselly’s and Musu’s few clothes hung from a makeshift clothes rack, a strip of plank nailed to the upper corners of the room.
Kesselly folded the mattress and tied it with one of Musu’s lappas. Then they sat down on it and waited, Musu cradling the baby in her arms and trying to put him to sleep. Soon the landlady would come with the sheriffs from the court, and their fate would be sealed.
As he sat with his head in his hands, Kesselly thought of the menial jobs he had done that had not amounted to anything, even as far back as he could remember. One of his jobs had been the one at CEMENCO, where he had gone to unload bags of cement the day before. The work had been tedious and terrible. When he finally finished late in the evening, covered from head to foot with cement, he could not straighten his back and began to fear he had grown a humpback. Somehow he managed to crawl to a nearby cold bowl shop and eat like a stray dog, and then take his meager wage home only to use it at a local clinic because his child had suddenly fallen ill.
Then there was that other job he had gotten at Benson Street, serving as night watchman for a lady’s shop. For hours on end he could not sleep, from mosquito bite and the cold at night. And yet at the end of the month the lady had accused him of trying to break into her shop and refused to pay the substantial sum she owed him, whereupon she had called and bribed the police, who had then warned him to keep off or he would be thrown in jail.
Sometimes things were so tough Kesselly turned car loader. But even the one or two hundred dollars he got everyday could not pay the five months’ rent he owed his landlady, which had increased to seven thousand Liberian dollars. He and his family had to eat, and it was quite impossible to save that kind of money. As the days came and went and it became more and more obvious that he would be evicted and imprisoned, Kesselly could only resign himself to his fate.
Musu was also thinking. She loved Kesselly, but she hated his never finding something stable to do, which put them in and out of one financial woe and another. He was always finding a job, losing it, finding another one, and losing that as well. He could never sit one place doing one thing at a time. And he liked drinking, especially if he were lucky to get a good contract that paid handsomely. She had talked to him again and again but in vain. Sometimes she thought of leaving him to go back to her aunt but knew it would not do her any good either. After all, she had left school when she got pregnant for Kesselly, and her aunt had vowed that she would have nothing further to do with her. She hoped the landlady would not go to the court, because if she did and Kesselly was thrown in jail, she could only imagine the worst for her and the child.
She was not long thinking of her problems, however, when the landlady, accompanied by two sheriffs, entered the room.
“Dat deh man here who owe your rent?” the older of the sheriffs asked, looking from Kesselly and then to the landlady.
“Yes, dat him here,” the landlady said, arms akimbo and tapping her foot impatiently.
The sheriff’s gaze returned to Kesselly. “My man, you are going with us to deh courthouse.”
“But, my friend –”
The younger sheriff cut him off. “Hey, we na cam here for plenty talkin’ my man,” he said to Kesselly, pointing a finger at him. “Jes get up and go with us or I will handcuff you.”
By now the hallway was crowded with the rest of the tenants, and even some of the neighbors, who had come to watch the spectacle and make one comment or another.
“My people yor please beg for us,” Musu sobbed, tears running out of her eyes.
But most of the onlookers only laughed at her.
“I will teach you and yor boyfriend a lesson yor will never forget, Musu,” the landlady said, and began to tap her foot more impatiently.
“Please feel sorry for us,” Kesselly said. “I will pay deh rent. I swear.”
“Shut up,” the older sheriff shouted at the top of his lungs, gesturing to the younger one to handcuff Kesselly.
The younger sheriff took a step toward Kesselly, twisted both arms behind him, and locked them with the handcuffs.
Musu followed them out of the house and into the yard, weeping hysterically, as the sheriffs dragged Kesselly behind them. At the main road they bundled Kesselly into a taxi and sat on either side of him. Then the
landlady sat at the passenger’s front seat, and the car sped off down the road.
Once they got at the courthouse, Kesselly was led into the magistrate’s office and told to sit on the “prisoners’ bench”, which was crowded with some people who were only waiting to be transported to Monrovia
Central Prison. But most of them had never been tried, and a few of them had already been released through bribes. The others would languish in prison for months, waiting for trials that never seem to materialize, like a man anticipating a rainstorm in the desert.
The magistrate’s office was a shabby, crammed place, filled with furniture, pem-pems, ice boxes, and God knows what else, so that the magistrate seemed to be perched precariously on the jumble of personal effects he had seized out of one house and another — and like a dwarf jealously guarding his heap of gold.
A few minutes later, the sheriffs who had brought Kesselly came in carrying Kesselly and Musu’s meager belongings — the mattress, the plastic bath bucket, Musu’s and Kesselly’s clothes, and their cooking utensils. Even the baby’s clothes had not been spared. The sheriffs threw them onto the pile in the magistrate’s office and left.
At quarter to five o’clock Kesselly, along with the other prisoners, was finally led out of the magistrate’s office — with no prosecutor appointed to oversee his case — and out into the yard of the courthouse. He met
Musu outside, still weeping, but he could only stare at her vaguely. Then he was bundled into a police van, and the car drove off and disappeared round a bend in the asphalt.~
As Musu left the yard of the courthouse and made her way along a footpath that led past a garbage pile, sobbing quietly with her child on her back, a sudden thought occurred to her. She stopped and looked around, wondering if anyone was around. But there were only a very few houses in the neighborhood, and they were far off from where she was; so that if anyone had seen her she would be only a distant figure they could hardly recognize.
Furtively, Musu approached the garbage pile, and then carefully removed the child from her back, for he was asleep and she did not want to disturb him. With a last cautious look around her, she laid the child on the garbage dump, rose, and fled down the footpath.
But immediately after she had left, the child was suddenly wild awake, his shrill voice ringing loud and clear like the cry of a hyena in the middle of the night. Surely he would be found — as Musu had hoped — like
Moses in a raffia basket on the waters of the Nile.