Lost in America: At the bookstore
by Ikhide R. Ikheloa
America. I am at the bookstore shopping for a gift to celebrate a friend’s retirement. She must leave with a piece of me. Procrastination dropped the day on me without warning and I had to go to a bookstore to buy a book. Who does that anymore? I will give my friend Teju Cole’s new book, Open City. She loves New York, classical music, art, museums, classical music, pretty people, gourmet food and wines, and stuff like that. She will like Open City, there’s lots of that in the book.
At the bookstore. There are computer monitors everywhere, you can look up who and what you want and you can even print a map that takes you to the book inside the store. I don’t like going to bookstores. I feel sheepish inside this huge bookstore. I ignore the computers; I did not come to the bookstore to play with computers. Customer Service. I tell a young man, I guess I can look it up myself, but maybe you can help me, do you have Teju Cole’s book, Open City? He looks at me with practiced faux enthusiasm, Oh sure, glad to help! I spell T-E-J-U C-O-L-E and tell him proudly, he wrote Open City. The clerk looks it up on the computer, nope, it is not in stock, I can order it for you. Nope, I say, not unless you can postpone my friend’s retirement party. What about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? I spell A-D-I-C-H-I-E. I do not spell the other names. He divines his computer again. Ah yes, Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, The Thing Around Your Neck. He says they are in Fiction upstairs. Wow, Fiction upstairs! Not in “Black American,” not in “African-Caribbean,” not in the back of the bookstore, gathering dust with losers. Nice.
I decline the young man’s offer to take me to Fiction, and thank him profusely, nice man. I will go to Fiction upstairs, browse around and pick out something nice for my friend. At Fiction, I start with G for Petina Gappah, yes, my friend will like An Elegy for Easterly, I love that book, I must have given away half a dozen to grateful readers. There is no Gappah, too bad. This is why bookstores are dying all over America, who needs this? My laptop Cecelia always has these books, point, click and pay, and they show up in three days, plus free shipping.
I scoot over to the A section, A for Adichie, Chris Abani, Chinua Achebe, Uwem Akpan. Abani’s Graceland is there posing with attitude, no, I don’t want my friend to attempt suicide with such a depressing book. Akpan is there with Say You’re One of Them, no, I don’t want my friend to attempt suicide with such a depressing book. All of Achebe’s books are there; Arrow of God, Things Fall Apart, etc. No more Achebe, please, we have skyscrapers in Africa now and we eat ice cream, she won’t like reading about cute yam farmers. I settle on Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. I also grab a copy of Pablo Neruda’s 100 Love Sonnets; don’t ask me why, it is a long delightful story.
The cashier’s line is a pleasant line, summer is all lined up. A pretty lady behind me keeps smiling at me, I wonder what is wrong. There is a mother-daughter couple in front of me; they seem to thoroughly love being with each other and my heart yearns for my daughters and sons. I wonder where they are, what they are doing. My turn. A cashier with auburn tresses calls me up to the counter. I am a member of the store’s club; I give her my identification number so she can shave off a few pennies from my bill. She pulls up my information and pronounces my name the way my ancestors like it. Her tongue wraps around my father’s name like she owns it and she goes, Mr. Ikheloa! Wow! Lovely! I beam with pride at the mention of my name in all the right places, and I compliment her, Impressive!
She squirms happily like a puppy offered treats. Did I pronounce it right? Yes, thanks! Good! When I was young I had an impossible to pronounce name also so I take care to pronounce impossible to pronounce names correctly. Thanks, I gush with gratitude. From West Africa? Yes, I cry with pleasure, I am going to fall in love with this soulmate! Which country? Nigeria, I say with pride. I passed through Nigeria once. Really? Which Airport? Lagos. Her eyes lower into pretty ice picks, I was going to Senegal and the Congo. They stole my luggage in Lagos, it was awful. She spits out the dagger-words sweetly. Her pain stabs my anxieties. I deflect. How was Senegal? It was okay, a bit too sleek, I liked the Congo. The Congo was innocent. Innocent! Oh Africa! I flee with my bag of books. Memo to self: Please begin to catalogue all the losses you have endured everywhere in America. Beginning with this bookstore.