Thiong’o K. Ngugi is an eighteen year old writer based in Irvine California. He is a Contributing Writer at Foodbeast.com as well as a performer at ImprovCity. He has published an article in The Guardian (Nigeria) entitled Why I Read and Write. His short story is called ‘The Business Card’.
The Business Card
Five million dollars. Two point five of which went to a Margaret Brown, the other to an Ernest Brown. But what do I get, Jake Brown asked the television screen that played the will of his old man: a business card. A yellow edged, flimsy worn down business card folded over so that the creases formed tear marks. In many ways the card complemented Jake, the type of person who picked the dirt out of his fingernails as he walked.
“It’s mine,” Jake had told anyone who wanted to see it.
“It’s mine,” he’d told his brother and sister, Ernest and Margaret. “If you want it you can see it: for the small price of two point five million dollars.”
His siblings had glanced at him sympathetically.
“We’re here for you if you need anything,” they said, which just led to further resentment from Jake; resentment that became audible when he firmly turned down their offer to live with either of them in their side by side houses in the posh residential suburb of West Orange, New Jersey.
Sure, sometimes he worried that he would die a poor man, but he preferred his small apartment near the Lincoln Tunnel where he could safely let his resentment fester, resentment towards his passive siblings, his distant and now dead father, and the business card. Still Jake held onto the card, it was the only thing his father had chosen to give him.
“Stupid car,” Jake said as he kicked it open to start heading home from the funeral. He didn’t bother with the key. With his crappy car, the only sure way to open it was to give it a good kick just below the handle.
It was an old silvery black 1968 Rolls Royce, Phantom VI. But don’t let the name fool you, the car looked far more impressive than it was worth. The people he’d bought it from had seemed a little too eager to sell; they nearly gave it away.
“Stupid traffic,” he said as he was caught behind a long line of cars.
“Stupid horn,” he said as his car denied him the ability to alert those around him about his obvious and mutual unhappiness being caught in the rush hour.
As Jake finally reached his closet sized apartment room and lay on his bed, he came upon the observation, and not for the first time, that he had a “stupid life.”
Jake uncrumpled the business card from his black funeral pants. It didn’t advertise any business that Jake had heard of. In the corner was an address, 4842 Lockwood Street, Manhattan, New York.
I’ll visit it tomorrow, I don’t have anything better to do. Jake slept and dreamed dreams that were of no particular interesting nature.
Pulling up to the address Jake stopped to check if he’d got it right. He had expected a five-story building with the business logo on a plaque out front. But instead he had pulled up to a single-story windowless cemented building. A rusty beat-down fence that no one had cared to fix “guarded” the building. Slamming his car door, Jake walked up to the steel door.
Do I…. knock? A security camera just above the door turned and looked at him. A moment later a slit opened in the door, about eye-level to him. Two dark eyes peered at him.
”Waduyuwant”, a voice grumbled.
Jake didn’t know what to say so he just lifted the business card to the eyes in the slit. The eyes instantly lit up.
“Ahh! You must be the old man’s son! He came here a lot. Come on in!” the voice said, as the steel door swung open with a high pitch creak.
Jake watched lot of mafia movies (back when his TV used to work, before cable switched to digital) and he knew that if the man he was looking at were in one, he’d be the hit man. He had a five o’clock shadow and an expensive suit. He smelled of wine.
The inside of the building was a wreck; the walls were chipped and cracked, and the place held the strong stench of macaroni, which mixed grossly with the smell of wine coming off the man, creating some sort of wine–and-cheese mixture.
“Ya don’t wear glasses like your old man did,” the man stated.
“Yeah, guess I got my mom’s vision,” Jake grumbled. His father’s glasses were one of the many small things he didn’t like about his dad, the way he always kept on pushing them up his nose. “Ahh, um, nice place you got here.”
The man gave a deep belly-laugh, the kind that you’d expect from Santa. He laughed himself into a coughing fit and Jake started to worry that the man would die on him, but he staggered and stood upright again.
“I’m fine I’m fine. Yeah this place ain’t the best, or the prettiest, and God knows it ain’t sanitary…but it’s what I got.” The man gave him a smile. “ So you got a name? That question’s rhetorical, cuz a’ course you got a name.” The man stretched out his hand. “I’m Steve. Steven to some, but your father always called me Steve.”
“Oh, ah, hi Steven,” Jake said, and then added, “I’m Jake.”
“Well Jake, its nice to meet you. Sorry ‘bout the old man, great man, but old he was. And couldn’t lay off those party weenies too.”
Jake sniffled: “No he couldn’t.”
“The silent killers those there party weenies are.”
Steven and Jake stood in awkward silence for a minute. Steven scratched the side of his nose.
“So ah, any reason you stopped by? Wasn’t expecting company till tomorrow’s auction.”
Steven’s eyes widened with surprise. His eyebrows knitted.
“Your old man didn’t tell ya? How’d you find your way over here if he hasn’t mentioned me?”
“Left me that business card in his will,” Jake said.
“Man of few words your Pops was.”
“I see you’re the same way.”
Steven scratched the side of his nose again.
“So were you business partners?” Jake asked.
Jake’s father was a successful businessman; he invested in several companies, mostly in Asia, Africa and Latin America, but also invested in America and Canada. With him on board, the companies he invested in exceeded all others without fail. Ironically, his most prominent investment was in a popular company called Pete’s Party Pranksters, which was known primarily for its party weenies.
“Guess you could say we were business partners. Guess you could say I’m a lot of people’s business partners. How about this Jake, you swing by the auction, it’s at six thirty tomorrow, don’t forget your card though. You’ll need it to get in. Come by and you see for yourself what goes on. Hell, if you’re quick enough,” Steven put a hand on Jakes shoulder “maybe we could be business partners, too.”
Jake rifled through his closet his other suit. He didn’t know much about the auction other than that his dad went to it. When he asked Steven what he was auctioning he had simply replied, “The most expensive words you’ll ever find.” Going to the address on the business card had only led to more questions, so maybe this would be his opportunity for some real answers. Jake allowed a little excitement to leak into his life. He walked out of his apartment with a spring in his step and trotted to his car, gave it a kick just below the handle, sat down and checked his watch: six o’clock. The drive to Steven’s place wouldn’t take too long.
As he was revving up his car he noticed a van pull up behind him. It quickly parked and a large, heavy man, built like a wrestler with arms and legs so thick you could barely imagine them human, shot out of it. Now, Jake was not a man of fast reaction time, nor did he possess the inner-instinct that should have quickly told him danger was afoot. So he was very surprised when he heard his rear window being smashed. In a thunderous parade of noise the glass shards went flying, slicing Jake’s skin.
“Woooh! What! Who are-”
His second passenger window exploded showering the car in another rain of glass. The man worked his way up, baseball bat in hand, smashing all windows until he reached Jake’s, where he crouched down and looked at him through the thin layer of security that divided them. Jake shut his eyes, waiting for another clash of noise and glass but he got none. Jake opened his eye to see that the man was trying his best to open the driver side door. Jake smiled; for once the flaw in the manufacture of the car had worked to his benefit. Jake launched himself into the passenger-side chair, opened the door and ran with all the power that was in his body, but the man caught up with him and lifted him up in the air by his shirt.
“What do you want with me! Is this about my college loans? I’ll pay them back soon I just-”
“Quiet! I’m not here about your damn loans. I’m here because you got something the boss wants.”
The man shoved his hand into Jake’s jacket pocket, then he tried the other, and finally the pants pocket. The man let him go.
Looking up, Jake saw the man uncrumple a familiar yellow-rimmed card. If Jake wasn’t so afraid he would have laughed at how anti-climatic it was. All this for a business card?
The man walked back toward the van, not giving Jake a second glance. Jake watched as the man held a brief conversation with a person in the passenger-side of the van window but they were too far away for Jake to hear the specifics of the conversation. The man crawled into the back of the van and they drove off.
The sun started setting but it was still bright behind him, so it must have been a trick of the light, but for a second as the van drove past him, Jake could have sworn he saw Pete, CEO of Pete’s Party Pranksters, sitting in the front of the van, triumphantly holding up the stolen business card.
Pete? Really, truly, Pete? The man his father had trusted with countless endorsements?
Getting up from the ground, Jake cursed his car for not having an alarm system. He tried to throw a rock at the passing van, in an attempt to get a small piece of satisfaction from at least scratching it, maybe denting it. But he missed completely, hitting a tree that then rained leaves down upon his own smashed-up car.
Not knowing what else to do, Jake just stood there for a couple minutes, him in his dust covered business suit, and his windowless, yellow red leaf-covered car. Gotta do something, my car’s completely busted! Gotta get help. Gotta call the cops, file a police report and see if insurance can help with the damages- Then something deep within him stirred. Can’t call the cops. Not yet at least. They want my card? They want to go to this auction? Fine. Jake thought with a smile. Lets go to the auction.
Jake ran to his beat-down car. The thing was painful to look at in its condition, but he was filled with a type of determination he had never felt before. He sat back in his car, careful to dust the glass off his seat, and, out of the glove compartment, he pulled the directions he’d printed off Mapquest.
He paused for a moment, would he be let in without the business card? No, can’t worry about that now: he had an auction to attend, and a man to beat.
All available parking spaces were filled, apparently from all the people at Steven’s auction, but Jake didn’t care. He parked his car right there in the middle of the street and ran the rest of the way to Steven’s house.
Jake imagined that perhaps Steven would have made an effort to clean the place but he hadn’t. The place was as beat up as it had been the day before, from the stack of pizza boxes in the kitchen, to the ant colony on the side of the fridge. Even if Steven had fixed all that, the chipped wallpaper, revealing moist black spots of wood, would have been too much to fix in one night. Maybe that’s what had made Steven say, ‘screw it to the whole thing’. But do not let that fool you, my friends: The place was packed.
People laughed and drank wine. Waiter’s walked around with plates of five, offering champagne to people gathered in small clusters. You had to give it to Steven, he could pull in a crowd.
Everyone there gave Jake a sense of déjà vu. Some of them were in his memory, but distant ones, memories that went back to when he was a child and his dad brought guests over. Jake was required to stay in his room but he often went down to the halfway point of their long wooden stairs, gazing through the bars like a prisoner, he looked at the men there. They were business associates of his father’s. They were older now, most possessing grey hair where they hadn’t last time, but they were the same crowd. He remembered seeing them huddled around his living room table, looking at maps. His father would draw circles around certain areas, and the men would nod from time to time. They always left smiling. It was strange for Jake, because although they wouldn’t recognise him, and he’d never officially met them, they took him back to a simpler time. Back when he didn’t have to worry about rent and his job; back when his father was alive.
“Quiet down everybody! Quiet down! We’re about to get started!” Steven shouted. “Now, if you all will follow me around the back you’ll find your seats…”
Everyone flooded out of the room and into the backyard. Jake tried to catch Steven’s eye to explain his lack of an entrance card but Steven waved him in impatiently. The sun had crept it’s way out of sight and it was now dark. There was nothing unusual about the backyard. There were lawn chairs and foldable beach chairs for everyone to sit on. Jake found it almost humorous to see some of America’s most industrious and successful men, wearing suits of the most expensive brands, sitting in lawn chairs so casually.
All the chairs were taken so Jake sat on the grass. They all were facing Steven who had set up a desk with several white envelopes on them. Sealed tight. Steven continued to talk, with a professional cadence Jake hadn’t expected from him.
“Now, a lot of you know how this works. But it’s been five years since the last auction, and we have some new faces. So I’ll explain again. Inside these envelopes are secrets. Secrets men would die for. Secrets that could boost your business financially to levels comparable to the Pharaohs of Old Egypt. Now some of you are wondering, ‘How can you be reassured that there are such secrets in these envelopes?’ The answer is you can’t. But you can take word from some of my satisfied customers.”
As if on cue, a man stood up in the crowd. He was wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap, but when he removed them, everyone gasped. Jake had no clue who he was, but everyone else there seemed to be in the loop. Listening closely to the whispers, Jake quickly learned that the man had supposedly gotten really rich after buying land in the Congo. Apparently the piece of land had considerable quantities of minerals, but there seemed disagreements about the type. Lithium, some said. Uranium, others whispered. Gold, copper, and even diamonds were suggested in turn. But from what Jake gathered from the crowd there had been some controversy as to how the man could have been so lucky as to buy that obscure piece of land, while its surroundings hadn’t a shred to offer. “Just a hunch,” the man would simply say. There were rumors he bankrolled the mercenaries that guarded the mines. Profiting by civil war, one snorted. Crime pays, others said.
Now here he was, standing before this crowd to bear witness in defense of Steven.
“It’s true!” he started, “I couldn’t have come as far as I did if I hadn’t been as lucky as to find Steve over here.”
Another man, short with large horn rimmed glasses, stood up. Even before he started talking the crowd could see from his facial expression that he was skeptical.
“And HOW, exactly, do you get this information?” he asked.
Steven’s face looked grim but calm.
“There are forces in this universe, beyond the natural, and sometimes they draw closely to a particular person, tell them things that others don’t know. Give him access to knowledge of things that are yet to come. Fate is not…”
“Magic? Witchcraft?” The skeptic cut him short with a laugh. “Is that how you gather your so-called ‘secrets’? You are mad, thinking you are some sort of magician! A magician of instant profit and loss. You are either mad or a con!”
Steven’s face remained calm; not the kind that conceals anger, but the type that comes from the experience of doing something dozens of time. A sigh belied the calmness.
“Ah, It’s been a while since a sceptic has managed to acquire an invitation, but it happens from time to time. You’re new, and you don’t know the ways that we work. No harm done, just understand that with all due respect sir, you’re free to leave at any time,” Steven said, gesturing toward the front of his house.
As the sceptic left, he was followed by a few others who muttered something about their tight schedule and valuable time, about being real investors in real companies that produced things, not believers in magic in envelopes. Steven politely asked them to leave the business cards they received by the door as they left.
After that Steven got down to business, lifting the first envelope in the air.
“One million!” a lady in the front row declared.
Someone upped her price, and then another. Eventually the envelope was given to a small man sitting in the front for the price of three million dollars. Jake nearly fainted from seeing so much money tossed around like that.
As Steven was moving on to the second envelope, Jake noticed how carefully people were bidding, if tossing up millions could be called careful; but Jake had the feeling that some of them could have leapt to billions, except for fear that the envelopes might turn out to be worth millions only, or less. Jake felt weak in the face of such power.
What do I do? Jake thought as he watched the second envelope go to a grey haired lady in the middle of the crowd. I got no money. I can’t buy anything.
At that moment an oily skinned man with long black hair, slicked back with too much gel, stood up. As he spoke sausage bits spilled from his mouth, and shot out past his bloated stomach, onto the people around him. It was Pete.
“Three million!” he said.
Steven’s eyebrows pulled together.
“Pete? I don’t remember sending you a card?”
“Damn straight you didn’t,” Jake murmured.
“Well here I am,” Pete replied.
“Very well then, three million, any challengers?”
Jake stood up.
He did not have that kind of money but he trusted that if he begged them, his brother Ernest and sister Margaret would pull their cash together, and rescue him. After all they had promised him at the funeral that they’d be there if he ‘needed anything.’ He hadn’t thought this through, he just wanted to prevent Pete from profiting from crime.
“Five point five million dollars!” Pete shouted.
No one challenged him. As Jake sat, he calmed down; he did not want to ruin his brother and sister by gambling further with their inheritance. No matter how bitter he was.
“Any challengers? No? No one? Five point five million it is!”
Defeated, Jake thought of walking away but somehow he remained glued to his place. He sat quietly and introspectively throughout the rest of the auction, without taking in the details. Everything remained a blur. By the time it was done, it was nine o’clock at night. A full bright moon was high in the sky.
Everyone left to find their fortunes or to attend to their companies, but Jake stayed. As Pete passed him he tossed the business card back at Jake, and sneered a thanks, another gesture of contempt and triumph.
Soon, Steven and Jake were left alone.
“Care to lend me a hand?” Steven asked as he started putting away chairs.
They did this in silence until Jake asked.
“So, are they off to be America’s next Bill Gates?”
Steven laughed again.
“Bill Gates, nice guy. Never came back to say thanks though, but they never do. Anyway, the envelopes are just…fate’s helpful hand.”
“If you can see all this stuff, like where oil, or diamonds or gold are going to be found. How come you live in this crappy place? No offense.”
“Well for one I don’t have the sight.”
“The sight, that’s what your dad called it. I wasn’t given that gift, trust me, if I had I would be outta here. But maybe that’s why fate didn’t give it to me. Your dad always said you gotta stay humble. Even invisible. Let ministers and leaders of government strut about in pomp and ceremony, but believe you me, we rule the world. From this crappy corner.”
“What does my father have to do with any of this? No offense intended or anything but, it looks a little….sordid, to me.”
“Oooh, demanding little fella aren’t you? But not that bright. You want your hands clean always, like mama taught you? Good for table manners but not for digging up gold. Haven’t ya pieced it together? Your father had the sight, not me. He said it was like being possessed by the universe, riding on the back of fate. He’d have these moments where he said great power was flooding through him. He would sit in front of a computer, for hours. Then he would suddenly lean back. He’d grab a pen and just write, and then once he was done he’d put it in an envelope. Never told me what was written. Just told me never to peek. We had a deal; I’d put them on auction and sell the envelopes, get a certain percent of the cut. The rest he pocketed but some of it, he put to charity. You see, it don’t matter how you get your fortune. Charity can buy you a seat in heaven, young man.”
Jake took a moment to process this.
“But what now? My Dad’s gone. How are you going to live if there aren’t any more lives to auction?”
“I’ll live, I’ve accumulated enough over time. Here, your Pops told me to give you this.”
Steven pulled out an envelope and handed it to Jake.
“I’ll give you some privacy to read it.”
Jake went inside where there was light and opened the envelope. Inside was a letter. It wasn’t long. Four simple words. Your turn my son. Jake re-read them and re-read them again. Your turn my son. What the hell? Is this all? Playing an elaborate joke on him?
“You okay there, son?” Steven asked after a few moments.
“When my father would go off to the office, was he actually working from here?” Jake asked.
“Why, I believe he was,” Steven responded curiously.
“Can you take me to his computer?”
They walked through the dirty house, to a room in the back that was decently clean. Steven stopped at the wood-framed door.
“Your father’s office. I never really went in. His affairs and all. I’ll leave you to look around.”
Jake walked in tentatively. His father’s desk was covered with paperwork. He took a moment to look at some of it. Out of context numbers. Facts and figures. He powered on his father’s computer, fingers shaking: what would be on the other side of that computer screen? Beside the desk, he saw his father’s glasses, and put them on, huh, he hadn’t realised he was nearsighted too. He tried to open it. Password. Huh. He tried his father’s name.Password invalid. Try Again. He tried a number of combinations of his father’s name. Then his Mom’s, his sister’s and brother’s, and each was invalid. He even tried combinations of his own name.
Password, damn! Password, password! As soon as he mouthed it the four words came back. Four simple words, yes, that’s right. Those four. Your turn my son.
It worked. But the only file was a drawing. Something like a map. A world map, with names of countries, but no boundaries. It was dotted with little flags, different colors. The flags were moving, fluttering like they were in the wind.
Suddenly everything begun to make sense – and this frightened him: The meetings, the secrets the suspicion. He understood it all. He cried and screamed and begged with all his heart not to get involved. But he saw it. His life. In the small apartment and broken car. He saw Pete’s sneering face, the triumph and the contempt, it all came back. And the four words, they comforted him. He calmed down.
Three months later the auctions were back, up and running, but only after two other things had taken place. Jake made Steve paint the walls and install a better ventilation system, to try and stop the constant stench of wine and macaroni. Then a phone call to certain partners, who lurked in the shadows.
Soon it was all over the news that the shares that Pete’s Party Pranksters had participated in some speculative deals to do with the yet to be mined mineral and oil resources in Afghanistan. The land had fallen in value; bad investments, some said.
“And we wouldn’t want that would we?” Steve said, a few days after the news, with a conspiratorial wink at Jake.
Steve looked at Jake for a moment, as they set up for another auction.
“You got the sight, Jake, you really got the sight.” Steve said tremulously, as he fell to his knees.
Jack took off his father’s glasses, cleaned them a little and then adjusted them so they sat properly on his face. The scene of Steve on his knees, made Jake realise he had come to terms with something beyond himself. That force which puts us all where we are for better or worse: fate.
By Thiong’o K. Ngugi