"You must to go far with education, Jigana," the wife said, handing me a new pen and pencil. " Mpaka university!"
Mama laughed, jumping into the flooded alley. She hugged them and allowed them to come closer to our shack. They staggered to our door, swaying like masqueraders on stilts.
" Asante sana! " I thanked them. I uncorked the pen and wrote all over my palms and smelled the tart scent of the Hero HB pencil. Mama wedged herself between them and the shack to ensure that they did not pull it down. Baba whispered to us from inside, ready to slip away, "Ha, they told me the same thing last year. You watch and see, tomorrow they come looking for me. Make them sign paper this time." Mama quickly got them some paper and they signed, using my back as a table. Then they staggered away, the stuffed trousers bouncing along behind them.
Mama began to sing Maisha's praises and promised never to pound on her trunk again. Recently, Maisha had taken the twins to the barber, and Baby to Kenyatta National Hospital for a checkup. Now she had gotten our debt canceled. I felt like running out to search for her in the streets. I wanted to hug her and laugh until the moon dissolved. I wanted to buy her Coke and chapati, for sometimes she forgot to eat. But when Mama saw me combing my hair, she said nobody was allowed to leave until we had finished saying the Ex-mas prayer.
I hung out with Maisha some nights on the street, and we talked about fine cars and lovely Nairobi suburbs. We'd imagine what it would be like to visit the Masai Mara Game Reserve or to eat roasted ostrich or crocodile at the Carnivore, like tourists.
"You beautiful!" I had told Maisha one night on Koinange Street, months before that fateful Ex-mas.
"Ah, no, me am not." She laughed, straightening her jean miniskirt. "Stop lying."
"See your face?"
" Kai, who sent you?"
"And you bounce like models."
"Yah, yah, yah. Not tall. Nose? Too short and big. No lean face or full lips. No firsthand designer clothes. Not daring or beautiful like Naema. Perfume and mascara are not everything."
" Haki, you? Beautiful woman," I said, snapping my fingers. "You will be tall tomorrow."
"You are asking me out?" she said in jest, and struck a pose. She made faces as if she were playing with the twins and said, "Be a man, do it the right way."
I shrugged and laughed.
"Me, I have no shilling, big gal."
"I will discount you, guy."
"Oh, come on," she said, and pulled me into a hug.
Giggling, we began walking, our strides softened by laughter. Everything became funny. We couldn't stop laughing at ourselves, at the people around us. When my sides began to ache and I stopped, she tickled my ribs.
We laughed at the gangs of street kids massed together in sound sleep. Some gangs slept in graded symmetry. Others slept freestyle. Some had a huge tarp above their piles to protect them from the elements. Others had nothing. We laughed at a group of city taxi drivers huddled together, warming themselves with cups of chai and fiery political banter while waiting for the Akamba buses to arrive with passengers from Tanzania and Uganda. Occasionally we'd see the anxious faces of these visitors in the old taxis, bracing for what would be the most dangerous twenty minutes of their twelve-hour journeys, fearful of being robbed whenever the taxis slowed down.
We were not afraid of the city at night. It was our playground. At times like this, it was as if Maisha had forgotten her job, and all she wanted to do was laugh and playact.
"You? Nice guy," Maisha said.
I pulled at her handbag.
"You will be a big man tomorrow..."
She dashed past me suddenly to wave down a chauffeured Volvo. It stopped right in front of her, the window rolling down. A man in the backseat inspected her and shook his bald head. He beckoned a taller girl from the cluster jostling behind her, trying to fit their faces in the window. Maisha ran to a silver Mercedes-Benz wagon, but the own er picked a shorter girl.
"Someday, I must to find a real job," Maisha said, sighing, when she came back.
"What job, gal?"
"I want to try full-time."
" Wapi? "
She shrugged. "Mombasa? Dar?"
I shook my head. "Bad news, big gal. How long?"
"I don't know. Ni maisha yangu, guy, it's my life. I'm thinking, full time will allow me to pay your fees and also save for myself. I will send money through the church for you. I'll quit the brothel when I save a bit. I don't want to stand on the road forever. Me myself must to go to school one day..."
The words died in her throat. She pursed her lips, folded her hands across her chest, and rocked from side to side. She did not rush to any more cars.
"We won't see you again?" I said. "No, thanks. If you enter brothel, me I won't go to school."
"Then I get to keep my money, ha-ha. Without you, they won't see my shilling in that house. Never." She saw my face, stopped suddenly, then burst into giggles. "I was kidding you, guy, about the brothel. Just kidding, OK?"
She tickled me, pulling me toward Moi Avenue. I held her hand tightly. Prostitutes fluttered about under streetlights, dressed like winged termites.
"Maisha, our parents—"
She turned sharply, her fists balled.
"Shut up! You shame me, you rat. Leave me alone. Me am not your mate. You can't afford me!"
Other girls turned and stared at us, giggling. Maisha strode away. It had been a mistake to mention our parents in front of the other girls, to let them know that we were related. And I shouldn't have called her by her real name. I cried all the way home because I had hurt her. She ignored me for weeks.
After Mama stopped celebrating the end of our debt, she fished out two little waterproof Uchumi Supermarket bags from the carton and smoothed them out as if they were rumpled socks. She put them over her canvas shoes, tying the handles around her ankles in little bows. Then she walked out into the flood, her winged galoshes scooping the water like a duck's feet. She started to untie our bag of utensils and food, which was leaning against the shop, her eyes searching for a dry spot to set up the stove, to warm some food for the twins. But the rain was coming down too heavily now, and after a while she gave up.