Valentine’s Day, and I knew work would only become even more wearisome. It was always so during the festive season. I could still remember clearly how I had almost collapsed in between the rigors of my work during the last Christmas and New Year celebrations. People teemed at the mouth of the beanery as if Pap’s Place was the only place to have a good meal. I could remember having severe cramps in my thighs after work on Boxing Day. I had waited myself to a severe fever and by the end of the month, Mr. Dom, the restaurateur of Pap’s Place handed me a packet of fifteen thousand for all my dedication.
Albeit, I had reasons to like my job as a waiter in Pap’s Place about as much as I hated it. For one, I waited by the table of dignitaries on a daily basis. Once, I had a lengthy chat with the Personal Assistant to the Governor which had nothing to do with taking his orders. Secondly, I gained the masteries of virtues like sufferance, tolerance, subservience. And that was why when I walked through the booths to get to the table of an elderly man who had gestured at me to come, I wore the deepest of smiles on my face even though there was a roiling of impotent rage in my bones.
I was livid because this was my lunchtime, and I was just about to make my escape through the backdoor when I heard the call. Instinct-in, I knew the call had been for me. I told the supervisor to send any of the other six waiters who were on duty to the table of the man who had to be attended to, but the supervisor told me that the man had called particularly for me. So, walking to him, I hid my provocation behind those smiles, but I was nonplussed when the elderly man smiled back at me, showing a set of uneven, yellowed teeth. He had on a traditional red cap which had a pointy pap on its center, a grey T-shirt, black strides, and gleaming brogues for shoes. Unlike His Excellency’s PA, there was nothing upper-class about this elderly man.
With my lips cocked into a smile still, I asked: “Good afternoon, sir. May I take your order, sir?”
“Happy Valentine’s. How are you?” The man asked. There was a gruffness in his voice that could only have come from age. My guess was that he was sixty-eight.
“I am fine, sir.”
“I would like the paste and okro soup,” the man told me. I made a note and made for the kitchen, but I could feel his eyes following me. A couple of minutes later, I returned with a tray which had his order. I placed it carefully on the table, and flashed him a smile. I was so sure that it was going to be the last smile of mine he would see for the day. I made a mental note to get away as soon as he began tucking away his food.
“You are smart,” the man reckoned as he uncovered the dishes. “That was why I asked specifically for you. I watched you for over ten minutes as you attended to these customers and I could see the grace and wisdom with which you walked.”
“You flatter me, sir,” I said, feeling enthralled by his compliments. “I am not that smart, sir. If I was, I wouldn’t be here. I would be in the University like my friends.”
The man muffled a laugh. He searched me with his eyes as he washed his hands in the bowl. “Well, that is the problem with you young people. Wisdom is not knowledge. Smartness is not intelligence. You could know book, and still not know and understand life.” I nodded in agreement.
“Sit,” he said, gesturing. I shot a look at the counter, at our supervisor, who had been staring at me. She shrugged, so I took the bench opposite the one the elderly man sat.
“You are smart. A smart man will know his kind when he sees one,” the man said, and I laughed.
“You are absolutely right, sir,” I conceded. “You are very smart.”
The man began snatching dollops of cassava paste from the mound, dipping into the soup bowl, and dumping into his mouth. I watched him, and even though I wanted to get angry at why he had decided to keep me waiting on him as he ate, I couldn’t find the potency to get offended.
“But, why have you been failing the exams for University? Do you have a girlfriend?” He asked between mouthfuls of food.
“No sir,” I denied sharply.
“You young people,” he began to say, licking his fingers one after another. I couldn’t imagine why the man felt no shame as he did that. People who came by to eat paste and soup made use of forks and spoons, but here, this man was, doing it the uncultured way. “Everything is love for you guys these days.”
“No sir. Love is not my priority,” I returned.
“It should be. Spread love wherever you go. Seek love in all the right places, and maybe you will find it.”
“But sir, you were complaining just now that love is all what is in today’s young minds, so why are you advising me to seek it?” I asked.
“Oh, I meant lust. That is what is in your minds. Visions of indescribable ecstasies, depths of the most tangible of euphoria, rapture bursting open in her belly. That is all you young guys want. No pain at all and every bit of gain you can come across.”
“Sir, don’t lovers dream and have visions too?” I asked.
“Of course, they do! Lovers are the best dreamers and visionaries, and for love, they push to make the world a better place.” The man took a pick and began chasing holes in his teeth.
“The world cannot be a better place, sir,” I gave back.
“I doubt if you are listening,” he said. “I said, for love, lovers change the world. That is to say, for the one a lover loves, the world must become a better place. Love and lust are not entirely dissimilar. Only that, lust is just like the dame that stares at herself in the mirror for hours, and only a second after putting the mirror away, forgets the shape of her nose. Lust does not chase those visions of happy faces. Love does not give up until those rapturous dreams come to pass.”
“How do I know I am in lust and not in love, sir?” I asked.
“When you get a closer look, and it seems like rapture is just a little like unhappy faces, and you want out as soon as possible. When the depths of euphoria have become wells of burning oil, and you want to climb right out straightaway. When harmattan endures beyond a night, a season, a lifetime, and you become nomadic. When your rose becomes a thorn in your side, and you want to plant hibiscus instead, you are in lust and not in love.” He whipped out his phone from his pocket, and thumbed it for a while. He handed me the phone.
I flinched at the sight on his screen. It was a photo of a woman with severe burns on her face. I couldn’t make out her features through the scars.
“Who is this, sir?” I asked, quickly returning the phone.
“My loving wife,” he said, with a smile on his face as he peered at the photo. He stared on for long, his smile becoming even more honest. “She is the love I live for.”
I nodded solemnly, searching for the right words to say.
“She was unfortunate to be caught in a fire,” he tittered. “And the flame just burnt out all of the impurities that made her less beautiful in the past.” He looked up at me. “Trust me. You need to find a love like mine. Of course, not as purified by fire like mine, but in every sense, a love that is true and pure. You will live a healthier life if you find true love.”
A silence roamed about. I was processing his words.
“I am going to make this woman smile today and I think you would be helpful. I just want to propose to her for the sixth time, watch her say yes again, watch everyone applaud our unique love, take her on a sixth honeymoon, make passionate love to her. Will you help me, my boy?”
Unconsciously, I said, “Yes, sir.”
“Thank you. I am Lawrence Udo. You?”
“Fabian, you can keep the change. I will be back with her. Thank you for helping.” Mr. Udo said, and took his leave. I sat, listening to his voice in my head.
Johnson Onyedikachi is a teenage Nigerian creative writer who has unpublished manuscripts of poetry and plays. He recently picked interest in crime fiction and in August 2019, enrolled in an online course where he gained proficiency in article/journal writing including the use of referencing formats (MLA and APA style). He wrote in via email@example.com