How to Become a Man
My brother was in the 6th grade when Dad observed that he wasn’t acting like a real man.
Mom coats my nails with pink nail polish. Mom promises me that on my birthday she was going to take me to the Korean nail salon Magic Nails on Smith Street to get my nails done. My brother is standing beside her, listening to us. My brother turns to Mom and says,
“How come she gets to get her nails done in a salon on her birthday? How come she gets to be treated special on her birthday?”
Dad raises his head from the The Valley Breeze newspaper and looks at Mom. They both shake their heads from side to side. Dad clears his throat.
“Do you want to go to the salon with them and have your nails painted?”
My brother responds with a long drawn out Nooooo
“How many times have I told you that you need to learn to be a man? There are certain things that men don’t do. Real men do not take part in women’s conversation about going to the salon to do their hair or going to the salon to paint their nails, do you understand?”
“Yes what?” my father asked.
“Yes sir” my brother responded.
“If I were you I’ll go pick up a book to read,” dad said. My brother began to shuffle off to his room to read his copy of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. He was reading it probably for the fiftieth time. Dad called him back.
“How many times have I told you that, you have walk like a man? Lift your feet off the floor when you walk. Men do not shuffle and drag their feet.”
One of dad’s earliest attempts to make a real man out of my brother was to enroll him in a karate class with the American Karate Academy. The club was run by a tall blue eyed man that insisted everyone including my dad call him Sensei Jack. He walked with a slight limp. He immediately began lecturing my brother on what great thing karate was. He said karate was for defense not offence except when your life was under threat. He said he was not just a talker but a doer and was gunning to become the kickboxing champion of all New England. He said he threw a party for each of his students on their birthday. We would later find out that this wasn’t anything elaborate. Two cheese pizzas from the Little Caesars’ pizzeria down the road on Mineral Spring Avenue and a bottle of store brand cola. He said that his students participated in the Fourth of July parade float down North Providence annually. He began rubbing his hands together as he talked about money. My brother had to pay for the uniform; He had to pay to move from a white belt to a yellow belt. He paused at this point to tell a story. In the early days of karate he said, the different belt gradations were as a result of the sweat that the belt accumulated as the student trained. As the student trained and sweated the belt gradually changed color and after a really long time, the white belt began to turn brown and then black and thus the student became a black belt. He said the cost of the training was a hundred dollars a month. Dad said this was fine and wrote out a cheque.
My brother started his karate lessons. At night he repeated the new moves he had learned. The sound of kiai, kiai filled the house as he practiced in the basement. My brother picked up some new words like dojo, gee, sensei, jujitsu and would needlessly sprinkle them into our conversations.
One day dad got into a conversation with Sensei Jack and asked him how he became interested in karate.
“I picked it up in prison, man, at the ACI. You know how it is when you are young. I was running with the wrong crowd and I ended up in prison. Karate saved my life. This is why I set up this place to help kids, you know, so they stay on the straight and narrow, you know.”
Dad withdrew my brother from the karate school. He said the only thing an ex-con could teach kids was how to end up in prison.
He soon signed my brother up for football with the Mighty Mites. He said footballers looked like real men. The coach was a burly man with a big stomach. His two sons were also in the team. He did not hide the fact that he favored them. The older one was the quarterback. There was no arguing with the coach. He was a tough coach. Latecomers ran ten to twelve laps around the very big field. He barked out orders. He yelled at kids and shouted down parents who attempted to intervene. He boasted that he had been coaching the Mighty Mites for ten years and they had never lost a game. He benched players whose parents complained. He was inflexible about one rule, when a player was down during a game with another team on no account should a parent, run into the field of play. Only he the coach could go to find out what was going on.
Football was tough for my brother but he was trying to impress dad. I think he was doing his best to be a real man. It was during a game against East Providence that it happened. My brother jumped up to catch the ball, I was watching. He seemed to jump up so gracefully and then he fell. Someone screamed twice that a player is down, a player is down. Dad wanted to run into the field but remembered the coach’s warning and stood biting his nails and blowing into his hands and mopping his brow. A stretcher was taken into the field and my brother was soon ferried out with his eyes closed. The people bearing him on the stretcher placed his hands on his chest. Was he dead? In summer camp one year my brother had picked up a bee that played dead and it had given him a nasty sting. Was he playing dead like the bee?
When my brother opened his eyes, he looked about him and asked – what happened? After that, football was cancelled on my mother’s insistence.
A few days before Thanksgiving Dad came home with two movies. I was not allowed to watch them. He said the language was not appropriate and it contained some mild rude humor.
“Then why was my brother allowed to watch them?” I asked.
“Because he is a man and this movie was for real men,” Dad said.
“That’s not fair,” I said.
“Ok you can watch but I have the remote and will turn off the volume any time I see they are about to say a bad word,” Dad said. I agreed.
The first movie was Scent of a Woman featuring a blind Al Pacino. I thought he looked sad and unhappy and drank a lot. Midway into the movie my brother began to scream Boo-ha like Al Pacino but Dad ordered him to shut-up and watch the movie. Dad said that the movie was not about Al Pacino but about the boy who Al Pacino was teaching how to become a real man. My verdict was that the movie was boring but my dad said that was because I was not a man.
We also watched Grand Torino. I liked the girl in the movie I thought she was strong and could take care of herself. Her brother on the other hand was a wimp. My dad played the scene over and over again where the Hmong boy goes job hunting and starts trash talking the way he’d been taught by Clint Eastwood.
“I don’t mean for you to use bad language. It is not using bad language that makes you a real man, there are occasions in this life that calls for bad language and you should use it then. See, the kid in the movie got the job because the guy who hired him could tell that he was a real man. He talked like a man and acted like a man.”
Dad brought home a series of books and DVD’s titled Exercising Manhood. He wanted my brother to watch the DVD’s.
‘If you bought me a portable DVD player I could watch this and many others on my own all the time,’ my brother said.
“No need to isolate yourself and watch stuff alone,” Dad said. “Doing stuff with me is a way of becoming a man.”
All was going well until my brother was suspended from school for getting into a fight with a kid named Jason Luther. I remembered the kid from summer camp. He had a face like that of a pug. I overheard him telling my brother that he was German. I heard my brother say to him, how can you be German and live in North Providence or do you mean Italian? I am really German the kid responded. That doesn’t even make sense my brother said. Ok, how come you speak English if you are German? Well, my Grandparents are German, the kid said.
I think he had wanted to join my brother and some other kids in the camp in a three a side soccer game and my brother had told him that he could not join them because each side already had three players. He got angry and called my brother a really bad name. One of the camp counselors took him aside and told him to look for some other game to play. The camp counselors were quite young and had no idea how to administer discipline. Even we the campers could tell that they were inexperienced and wanted to be liked one moment and the next moment wanted to be feared, respected, and obeyed.
After the summer holidays, on the first day of school when my brother got on the bus, Jason Luther was already there. As my brother walked into the bus he glared at my brother, smirked and said Ugh it’s you this kid again. And their relationship had continued on that note. Negative weekly report always came back home with my brother on Fridays because of his troubles with Jason Luther.
Mr. Agbile was my father’s friend. Everyone we knew called him Mister Agbile. He spent half of the year in Nigeria and the other half in his house in North Providence. He told us that he had stowed away on a merchant vessel to Europe at the age of sixteen. He had lived in Germany and in parts of Western Europe before finally arriving at the United States. His hair was always very dark. I once heard my dad say Mr Agbile must spend all of his income on hair dye. Some people said he spent half of the year in Nigeria because he had another wife and kids over there. He also had some children from his lady, his nickname for his American wife. His American kids did not call him Daddy. They did not even call him Mr. Agbile, they called him by his first name Femi. He said he went to Nigeria to rest his ears from their constant screams of his name Fay-me, Fay-me, Fay-me. He said he went to Nigeria to spend half of the year because he hated the winter. My bones can sense the winter cold even before it arrives and then my whole body starts quaking.
It was at Mr. Agbile’s insistence that my brother began to watch wrestling on television. This also coincided with the time he began reading the novel Things Fall Apart. He loved some of the stuff he was reading in the book. He loved the fact that Okonkwo the major character was a wrestler. He loved Hulk Hogan and The Rock. Things seemed to be steadying up a bit between him and Dad. He was reading Things Fall Apart and watching lots of wrestling. He was telling Dad jokes from the book about the gigantic mound of fufu that was so enormous that eaters could not see those who were eating from the other side. Looks like that fufu from the book, my brother would say to dad as dad sat on the dining table to demolish his usually big portion of fufu.
There was this day my brother was at the bus stop waiting for the school bus. There were also a couple of other kids there. Jason Luther walked up to my brother and said.
“Hey jump over that fence into that house”
“There is no way I am jumping the fence,” my brother said.
Jason Luther turned to the other kid. The kid lived close to us. He was carrot-haired and quite fat. During the summer his mother sat in a plastic chair smoking as she watched him practice hoops in the heat for hours. He was a quiet boy who didn’t talk or smile much.
“Jump over that fence,” Jason Luther said to the fat kid.
“I’ll jump over it if you jump over it first,” the fat kid said.
Jason Luther jumped over the fence and the fat kid followed. Because he was a fat kid he did not land on his feet like Jason Luther. He landed on his butt, his face turned red but he did not cry.
“Now, it’s your turn,” Jason Luther said turning to my brother.
“No, way am I jumping the fence.”
“Am gonna make you jump the fence.”
Jason Luther turned to the other kid and said “we’ll make him jump that fence even if we have to lift him over it.” As they moved toward my brother the school bus turned the corner and pulled into the street and they all got into the bus.
On the way back from school later that afternoon in the bus, Jason Luther kept taunting my brother. He boasted. I am gonna make you jump that fence so many times you will be begging me to stop. Am gonna make you jump that fence every day.
“You are not the boss of me and you can’t make me do anything,” my brother replied.
“Watch me make you tomorrow,” Jason Luther said as he walked off of the bus.
The next day Jason Luther told my brother to jump over the fence. My brother told him to leave him alone and not bother him. Jason Luther brought out an egg from his pocket and broke it on my brother’s new sneakers.
That night my brother reported the incident to dad.
“And what did you do when he broke the egg on your sneakers?”
“Nothing, I waited until we got to school and went to the principal’s office to report but the secretary told me I should report any incident regarding discipline to Mr. Johnson the vice principal. I went to Mr. Johnson’s office but he wasn’t there. He was away at a conference. I was told to come back the next day.”
“Do you know that God is giving you a sign? Can’t you see that God is telling you something? God is telling you that neither the principal nor Mr. Johnson can help you to become a real man. You have to become a man by yourself. You have to stand up for yourself. You have to fight for yourself.”
“I should fight for myself?” my brother asked.
“Yes stand up and fight for yourself.”
The next day my dad asked my brother if he had any trouble with Jason Luther.
“No, he wasn’t here today,” my brother said.
“He wasn’t where?” my dad asked.
“He wasn’t in school today,” my brother said.
In the bus on the way back from school the next day, Jason Luther leaned over from where he was sitting behind my brother and whispered something into my brothers ears. The word was so bad my brother couldn’t repeat it. What he called my brother was so terrible according to my brother. It was worse than a bad word.
My brother turned toward Jason Luther grabbed his shirt, pulled him forward and gave him a head-butt.
There was blood on Jason Luther’s nose. There was blood on his busted lips. Blood on his black t-shirt that had a picture of a grinning sunglass-wearing gorilla. There was blood on the gorilla’s teeth and all over the bus seat. The bus driver stopped and wrote up my brother and Jason Luther.
The next day my father followed my brother to school. The principal was not smiling.
“Your son did something awful thing,” the principal said.
“No, he was only defending himself,” dad replied
“We have a zero tolerance policy here at this school for such behaviour. Students do not take laws into their own hands. They report disciplinary issues to Mr. Johnson the vice principal and between that both of us we decide on what disciplinary measures to take. I have never had any disciplinary issues with your son but rules are rules. I am going to have to place him on suspension for three days. The other kid has suffered enough because of his injuries so he can return to school as soon as he feels better. We follow rules here,” the principal said.
That night, dad took us all out to eat at the Chili’s in Smithfield.
“You can order a real drink now,” he said to my brother.
My brother ordered a root beer.
My brother had no more troubles with Jason Luther. When they both returned to school Jason Luther said to my brother, guess what? am joining the wrestling team, what about you?
“I signed up for basketball and science Olympiad,” my brother said.
When my brother repeated their conversation to dad later that night dad laughed.
“See, that is how real men talk,” he said.
E.C. Osondu was born in Nigeria. He is the winner of the 2009 Caine Prize for African Writing and a 2011 Pushcart Prize, and his fiction has appeared in The Atlantic and n+1. He received his MFA from Syracuse University and teaches at Providence College in Rhode Island. He is the author of Voice of America
Photo: Victor Ekpuk