THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ARTHUR
I met Arthur at the light-rail station on a Saturday night. I was on my way home. It was raining, the weather was cold, and I had run out of cigarettes. I saw him smoking and asked him for one, and he gave me without looking at me as if I was vagrant or something. I stood by the lamppost, and started smoking. I was listening to Eartha Kit’s, C’est si bon, with my earpiece.
“That’s Eartha Kit,” he said.
“Yes, that’s her,” I answered.
“You have a great taste in music,” he said, smiling.
I had seen Arthur around for a while, at this particular station. Whenever I was coming back from work, at night, he stood there, smoking, and whistling through his trimmed moustache.
“Thank you. Funny enough, I learned about her from my grandmother,” I said.
“Yes, growing up, I played great music’s too, really great music. Eartha Kit was a powerful woman who said a lot about feminism without even wearing the tag, she just lived it,” he said smiling, his eyebrows rowed up. I could tell that he felt nostalgic.
He continued, “Like when you listen to her other song, Champagne Taste, you will definitely feel her, as a whole, standing on her own and building her own world, no man needed.”
I never thought him to be educated as such, or have an in depth mastery and interpretation of songs from the 50’s. I felt like I was listening to a music/history professor. A man, probably around fifty nine years, waiting for buses just like me, seemed to me like the last person I could have an intellectual conversation with.
“You have spoken well, indeed. I haven’t really thought about her through these lenses,” I said. “So where are you from?”
“I am from Columbia, Bogata. I have a house there too, I go there every summer with my daughter,” he said. He checked the time on his watch. I bet we had like five minutes more until the bus arrived, and we were going in the same direction.
“Honestly, I thought you were from Mexico,” I said.
“No, I am not from Mexico. And where are you from?” he asked me.
“Nigeria,” I said. “And my name is Damian.”
“So Arthur do you like it here in Houston?” I asked. I myself arrived here a few months ago from Nigeria.
“Well, my life is here. I have lived here for close to twenty years. I work at the medical centre down the road,” he said.
“So, what do you do there?” I asked.
“I am a technician, I do the repairs mostly,” he said, and threw away his cigarette, coughed.
“So, and you? What do you do?” he asked me.
“I came here three months ago from Nigeria. I recently got a job in Downtown, Houston. I mean, something to do for now, while I wait for something else,” I said.
Arthur shook his head in agreement.
“Back home in Bogota, I have a collection of books, and music’s. Mainly discs from the 50’s and 60’s. But what I am most proud of are my books, I read about Africa a lot. I know that Nigeria is in West Africa. I also read about the Egyptian pyramid. I think that, all religion, all civilization started from Africa,” he said.
“Yes, I have read a lot about that too. I don’t know about the religion, Christianity isn’t ours, and we don’t lay claim to it in any way,” I said.
“That is true, but I have personally studied all these things, on my own. The truth is that, they are all pointing at one thing, love. No one knows what God looks like,” he said, a strange smile lit up on his face.
The bus arrived. I threw away my unfinished cigarette, and walked onto the bus with him. We didn’t talk on the bus. He played music like I had always seen him do most of the time. The thing about Arthur was that I never expected to have an intelligent conversation with him, but now, I was left with a lot of pieces to piece together. I kept staring at him.
“Good night my friend,” he said when the bus got to his stop. I watched him walk down the street while the bus sped off. There was something admirable about him; the wealth of knowledge he must have amassed. I wanted to ask him more about his records and books. I wanted to ask him the type of books he had been collecting. Maybe tomorrow, I said to myself.
As an immigrant, life wasn’t easy for me. I still had a lot to meet up with every month, like bills and rent. I lived alone in a one bedroom flat close to Willow Station, the place that I met Arthur. But there was nothing better than a Saturday. For a man like me that wanted to be a photographer, that was the only day I had to explore the other sides of Houston, and America, that was permitted to be seen.
I took the bus to downtown Houston, and walked towards Travis and Preston streets. I recently bought a new Nikon Camera with a fifty five millimetre lens. I wanted to capture the best images I could, possibly, sell them, or frame them for my own amusement. I walked around looking at the wall arts. I was greatly impressed by the graffiti of God as a Graffiti artist. I stood there, observing. God had a can of spray paint in his hand that was leaning forward, white, strong, bold, and a card on the other hand that leaned towards the back. It seemed More like a persona we had given him, than actually what he was. I remembered Arthur’s word, “No one knows what God looks like”.
I took several photos of the graffiti from several angles; I couldn’t tell what I was actually looking for. In my observation, I felt lost. I felt erased, as a being, black, staring. Was God actually white? The personae that he was often represented in, raised questions in me about the nature. I was raised by Catholics, in Catholic. But my view of God had since changed. The concept of pantheons, seemed more likely to me. My ancestors had a different definition of what it could be. Along with my personal studies, I found him in another way, like in Buddhism and others. Arthur’s words were illuminated in my mind, brightly.
I sauntered towards the vintage antique stores by the side of the road. I captured a lot of images. I took my time examining artefacts, like an archaeologist. The various totems that could pass for a mini-god in my native land, the clocks, the pictures of the early Houstonian search, the pictures of the first light rail to ever waltz down this path. There were also arrays of Ceramic cups, spoons, plates, forks, knives. Paintings spawning brilliance of an art reconnaissance, showing promise in the formidable landscape of the city. Houston breeds magic, even though it never looked like magic.
I walked over to the coffee store. I sat down, and watched gentrification taking its turn down the road, buildings being bulldozed. Here, hipster culture was on the rise. The fashionable Houstonian gathered for a coffee. I sipped and watched. Occasionally, the light rail waltzed past. Life was magic, and moments like these provided me an opportunity for self-reflection. I drank a coffee, and smoked a cigarette before heading home. I reassured myself that whatever God was, I believed he doesn’t look like the painting. That would be unfair to me, and others who weren’t white.
Each day, I looked forward to seeing Arthur again. I had grown accustomed to all the people that always waited for the night bus apart from Arthur. There was another lady, Hispanic too. We spoke a few times, she told me how she works two jobs to be able to afford her home, and take care of her special need child.
There was another guy, a black man. He worked at café downtown of Houston. I only met him occasionally. He walked with a slight limp, and always had a lot of weed in his bag. He was a reasonable man, and gentle. The few times we spoke, he told me about his ex wife, and a son, and how much he couldn’t forgive himself for failing from grace, and losing his job. Now he had to work twice harder, to be able to pay child support, and also go back to school for a degree in Criminal Justice.
When I arrived at the bus station, I was the only one on willow route bus 25. A few passersby walked past me, vagrants mostly. They asked me for a cigarette, and I gave them. But then, I noticed they would tell the others, so I stopped giving. I played the music of Benjamin Clementine on my phone. There wasn’t any moon in the sky, just stars, twinkling. A tall mast stood in front of me, a big bird was crying atop. The light from the fast food store, Jack in Box, cast my shadows. I sat down and nodded to the surreal voice of the Londoner, Benjamin Clementine.
I saw Arthur get off the light rail. I was eager to talk to him again. He walked up to me, we greeted each other, and shook hands.
“I haven’t seen you in a while?” I said.
“Yes, I was sick. So I couldn’t go to work,” he said and coughed.
“You will be fine my friend,” I said.
“Yes, I will, my friend. But again, I don’t mind, I am not getting any younger. I came to the United States as a boxer many years ago. I trained in Houston and fought in many other cities. I was so fast and could beat anything that stood in my way. But look at me now, do I look like a boxer?” he asked.
“No Arthur,” I said. He was a small man, and looked a bit frail.
“Life will trick you, a lot. I made so much money, married a wife, and slept around a lot. I was the talk of the town among Colombian communities in the USA, many years ago. Who would dare Arthur? But, look at me now? I wasted most of my money. Lucky enough, I bought a home in Bogota. I destroyed my first marriage, and the second isn’t the best of it. I go home, and sleep alone these days, because I have no one around. My only daughter is now married, I have taken a lot from her already, and I will not stop her life for the sake of a damn old man like me. See, life is already life, just be careful and treat everyone well, I can tell you are a good man and will go many places,” he said and tapped my shoulder thrice.
I was silent for a while. I needed time to digest everything he was telling me.
“So Arthur, tell me about your library in Bogota, what types of book do you have?” I asked, I had this question in my mind for days, and now was a perfect opportunity to ask it.
“Yes, I collected literary masterpieces, like Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Joseph Conrad, Chinua Achebe and many others. And no, I didn’t go to school; I learnt to read on my own. I prefer to read alone. Moreover, I had no opportunities to go to school. It was when I had an injury from boxing, and couldn’t fight again that I decided to go back home, and examine my life properly. I learnt how to read English on my own, and subscribed to literary journals. I read heavily for a year. Well, every work of literature is its own philosophy. For example, look at Fyodor, all he was trying to do was philosophize; examine life, even from the underground. And then tie it all to the question of God. The question of God opens philosophy and closes it. You see, it’s either we are leaving to go to heaven, or we are just living. That takes me to Nihilism. But you see, no matter what we try to call it, the truth is my friend, be a good man. That is the only thing that will suffice in all eventualities…” he coughed again, spit on the floor and continued, “so my library is a serious one my friend.”
The bus came, we walked inside. I sat down quietly and started playing music. Again, at his bus stop, he got off and waved at me. He looked extraordinary to me. He looked like a teacher, like someone I wanted as a professor, and a father figure.
The last person I expected a man from Bogota to know was Chinua Achebe, Arthur continued to surprise me. Arthur had seen it all; I looked forward to seeing him again.
Every day, I came out, expecting to see Arthur, but I never did. Two months passed, yet still no sign of him. I asked the other people if they had seen Arthur, anywhere, they said no. Whenever the bus got to his stop, I looked around, deep into the street, hoping to see Arthur. One day, I actually stepped out of the bus, and walked deep into the street, hoping that I would find Arthur, but no.
Soon, I got tired, and stopped searching for him. Whenever I got to the bus stop, I imagined that he was there with me, coughing, with his blue collar shirt, tucked in. Wearing his usual round rimmed eyeglasses, a moustache, and a smile that traced the lines at the side of his eyes. I could assume the worst for him, like death, but no, he was alive. Arthur was there with me, every day, whenever I arrived at that bus stop, whenever I was listening to music, or reading books. Sometimes I imagined him reading a book to me with his strong voice, clanking endlessly like a splitting glass.
CHIKA ONYENEZI is a writer living in United States. Born in Owerri, Nigeria, he holds two degrees, including an MA from European Peace University. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming in Evergreen Review, Apogee, Ninth Letter, Numéro Cinq, and elsewhere. He received Honorable Mention in the 2016 Glimmer Train Fiction Open. In addition to writing short stories, he has a novel in progress.