“Iben,” is a compelling 60,000+ word, contemporary fiction novel. In this novel you walk hand-in-hand with our main character as he reflects back on his life. Now, in his early thirties he prepares to give a lecture to some aspiring young minds at the ‘House.’ The ‘House’ is an urban community center. They are always in search of inspiring mentors. Iben is the perfect match. He’s married and an aspiring lawyer in the community.
Through this novel, Iben looks back at his life. He was the youngest boy in a family of four kids. Two boys and two girls. Iben and his younger sister shared the same dad. The older siblings had different fathers. However, they all shared one common parent, Momma. Her government name is Ava Manning. Ava Manning is one of six children and hotter than a firecracker.
She is a single-mother and very outspoken. So much so, it makes one wonder if she may be bipolar or just plain mean. Iben’s encounters with Momma are pleasant and surreal. However, his older brother, J or Jermaine and Tai have different experiences with Momma.
Through the telling of the story, Iben realizes how much he can relate to the disadvantaged youths he will now be mentoring and how much he overcame to make it to where he is now. He experienced the loss of his older brother at a tender age, his sister leaving the family and his mother’s demise all within the same year. Yet, he and his younger sister, Cassidy survived.
Walk with me, as we see life through Iben’s eyes in this novel, “Iben…I’ve been through some sh@*!”
I looked at myself in the rearview mirror one last time before entering the building. The gym was packed. As I took the podium, one young man, then another, clapped. “Thank you,” I said before beginning. “I’m Iben Okafor and it’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to address you today. Before I get started, how many of you have brothers and sisters?”
More than half the hands went up.
“How many of you have big brothers?”
Nearly, a third were up now.
“Okay, how many of you have lost an older sibling due to drugs, violence, or anything else?”
A good number of the hands remained in the air. “Okay. Thank you for your honesty. I want to share a story with you. I promise not to take up too much of your time. However, I can relate to the loss of a sibling.”
I paused for a moment. I could feel beads of sweat forming on my forehead. I wasn’t nervous. I’d just become overwhelmed with emotions. Until…a voice in the back said, “Take your time, sir. We got all day.”
“Thank you, young man. I appreciate that,” I said.
Some kids laughed. I adjusted my tie and cleared my throat and took one more look around the room. Their faces reminded me of J and my sisters. We were full of curiosity. There was confusion and anguish and heartbreak. Confusion because J wasn’t the oldest, but he was always blamed for everything. Anguish because I was so young when this tragedy took place and heartbreak because of the mental and physical abuse in my family. My name was always Iben—not bitch, heifer or mother fucker. I never felt the palm of my mom’s hand across my face, but J did along with Tai. My memories of her were always pleasant with some exceptions.
Each child in that gym had those same looks of despair, if not one look, maybe more, written on their face. I was there to let them know it was okay. And how you dealt with those emotions would determine your fate.
I cleared my throat one last time.
“Before I start, I want to tell you a little about myself. I was one of four kids. The youngest son. My younger sister Cassidy and I shared the same father. He came over once a month. However, J’s father only showed up once that I can remember, and Momma met him in the parking lot of McDonald’s. He was tall and dark. A man of little words. Tai’s father. Well–I didn’t know she had one. As Momma would say, “He won’t even claim you.”
“I was also the runt of the family.”
“What’s a runt?” a kid in the back asked.
“A runt is the smallest one, or a deformed one, in a litter,” I said.
“You’re still small.” another kid replied.
A few kids giggled.
“Yeah…I know, and a nerd.”
“I’m a nerd, and I have glasses like you,” the same kid said.
I nodded. “I see. Unlike my siblings, I was also a bookworm. I loved books. Especially those written by famous Black authors like Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou.”
There were some oohs…ahs throughout the auditorium.
“My siblings joked about me being the favorite.”
“Why?” a younger kid in the audience asked.
“That’s a good question. I believe it was because my mom liked me and my younger sister’s father more. She always said we had good hair. It was easier to manage or maybe because I did well in school. Either way, it wasn’t fair to my siblings.”
“Is that why you have on that fancy suit and shoes?” another older teenager asked.
I chuckled. “You can say that, and hard work, I may add. I went to Howard University and obtained my law degree.”
“Wow, man. That’s amazing,” the older teen said again.
“It was after I graduated. Thanks.”
“So…how old are you, Mr. Okafor?”
“Wow. You look good. Are you going to tell us what we can do to be successful like you?”
I laughed. “That is my goal, young man.”
I looked around at all the inner-city kids in the audience. They were as young as elementary school age and as old as seniors in high school. These kids took me back to when J and I were kids. We could’ve used a mentor to get us through those tough times or an organization like this one. Tai and Cassidy could’ve benefited too. Although "the House" was just for boys, there was a place for girls also. It wasn’t that it didn’t exist when we were growing up. Momma just wasn’t gonna let anyone or thing in her bubble. So, we suffered in silence.
A hand rose in the back.
“How long have you been practicing law?” the young man with freckles across his caramel skin asked.
“That’s a great question. I’ve been practicing five years now.”
“Just five years?” the same kid with freckles asked.
“Yes. Law school isn’t just four years of college. You have a few more years added to that, plus you have to challenge the bar.”
“Challenge the bar?” a kid closer to me with a shirt and tie asked.
“Yes. The bar. It’s an examination, or test, all law students must pass to become a lawyer. Not everyone passes it on their first try.”
“Did you?” the kid with the tie asked.
“I did. Well, enough about me. I want to tell you about why I can help you, and a little about how I grew up.”
They all seemed more attentive to my last sentence. All eyes were on me now.
“It’s been twenty plus years, but it still seems like it was yesterday. My mom finally drove him to his death. Yeah, that’s what I said. He couldn’t take it anymore and she couldn’t understand. But I did. Jermaine had grown tired over the years. She expected more from him than any of us. You may call it the responsibilities of the older sibling, but this was extreme. There were four of us. I was the youngest boy. It all started in Atlanta. I mean…that’s when I noticed Jermaine, or J as we called him, deteriorating.”
The room got quiet. All those kids, but not so much as a whisper. They knew I had been through what they were suffering, and they looked to me for answers. Because I looked like them and they could relate. As I spoke, my mind went back to the past, to my childhood, to Atlanta.
She had just walked in the door, a cellphone stuck to her head as always, laughing and giggling to whatever girlfriend or client she claimed she was talking to when she walked in. And then it happened. It was almost like the world stood still for a moment, and her whole demeanor changed. All hell broke loose. She was Momma.
“Jermaine—get your ass over here!”
Jermaine was in the bedroom lying down. He scrambled up and threw on his shirt and shoes before going out to the front room to see what the commotion was about.
“Why the hell are all these dishes in the sink?” Her face was distorted.
“I…I….I, what?” She held the phone to her ear and said some words and placed it on the nearby counter.
“I was going to take care of it in a lil’ bit, Momma. I was tired.”
“Tired? Did you say tired?” She paced from side to side. “I don’t see you in here working no five to nine. Do you have a job, Jermaine?”
“No, ma’am,” Jermaine said. His head seemed to sink into his neck when he responded.
“Hold your head up when I’m talking to you.”
“So…Jermaine, why are there dishes in my sink?” she asked again, hands on hips.
“No excuse, ma’am,” he whispered.
“You damn right.” She slapped him as the last word left her lips.
I could feel the tears hit me, one by one. His ego fell to the ground, never to be recovered again. It almost seemed as if Jermaine had grown numb to the constant physical and mental abuse, as if he just tolerated it until he could go somewhere else or get out from under her roof. She continued past him and into the hall. Her five-foot-seven frame towered over all of us except Jermaine. They were eye to eye. I peeked out my room and saw her go down the hall inspecting the place. She stopped again.
“Why the hell isn’t the floors vacuumed?” She stopped in the middle of the hall. Jermaine had his back toward her.
“The floors, Jermaine. Why haven’t they been vacuumed?”
He turned slowly in her direction as if it hurt to face her. “Tai was supposed to take care of that.”
She walked in and out of the bathroom we all shared. “And what’s wrong with this bathroom? Hair is everywhere, toothpaste splatter all over the mirrors. The bathtub hasn’t been clean. It’s a mess. Did you say Tai?”
She stormed toward him again. “Yes, she is supposed to take care of it, but you’re in charge of seeing all this gets done. Where is she anyway?”
“I don’t know. She was supposed to be here by now.”
“What? What do you mean, she’s not here?”
Momma stormed back to Tai’s room and pushed the door open. The doorknob slammed against the wall causing an indentation. She looked around and came back out. She approached Jermaine, stopped, and looked down at her watch. “It’s after seven p.m. Did she come home from school at all?”
“Did you call her?”
“I called her almost every hour since three, but she’s not answering her phone, ma’am.”
“Really? Well, call her again and give me the phone.”
“Ma’am?” Jermaine asked.
“Are you hard of hearing, Jermaine?”
“Well, okay, then. Call that bitch again and pass me the phone. Do you understand?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Jermaine walked to his room and came out immediately with his phone in hand, dialing his sister. He handed the phone to Momma and she listened to it ring a third time. Momma put the call on speaker.
On the fifth ring, Tai answered, “Bitch, I already texted you and told you I’d be there before Momma gets home.”
“Really, bitch?” Momma answered.
Silence hung in the air like the calm before the ass-kicking.
“Momma, I was just playing with J,” Tai finally managed to get out.
“Playing, huh? If your ass isn’t here within five minutes, you’ll see who’s playing.” Momma hung up the phone and tossed it to J.
I knew Tai was petrified now, ‘cause a butt beating was in order. It didn’t matter that she was fifteen. Momma didn’t give a damn. Tai wasn’t home, J hadn’t finished all his chores, me and Cassidy hadn’t eaten, and it was past seven. Hell was just getting warmed up. I came out of my room to take the load off J for a moment.
“Hi, Momma,” I said. She was now sitting on the couch.
“Hi, baby. How was your day?”
“It was good.” I sat beside her and she rubbed my head.
“Did you have any homework, baby?”
“Where’s your sister Cassidy?” she asked looking at the coloring book I brought out.
“She’s in her room playing with her dolls.”
Momma paused for a moment, then let out her scream, “Cassidy–get your butt out here!”
The pitter-patter of little feet could be heard running down the hall. Her pigtails were bouncing up and down like they were doing jumping jacks as she ran in our direction. She stopped in front of Momma with a black Barbie doll in her hand, its hair all over the place, and its pants missing.
“Where have you been, little girl?” Momma asked her, with a slight smile on her face.
Her breathing was a lil’ heavy from running to the front. “I was in my room playing with Natalie.”
“Natalie? Is that what her name is this week?”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said, holding her doll by the legs.
“Let me see her.” Momma held out her hand.
Cassidy laid the doll in her hand and looked on.
“Did you comb her hair today?”
“Yes, she just woke up. She was taking a nap.”
“Oh…is that why she doesn’t have any clothes on also?”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said, nodding.
“Do you have any homework, young lady?” Momma asked, passing her back the doll.
“I did it already.”
“And what was that?”
“Math. Times tables.”
“Good. Well, since you’re finished with your times tables, go and help your big brother in the kitchen ‘til Tai gets here.”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said, looking at Jermaine, now in the kitchen rinsing dishes he had washed by hand. He looked on at Momma and me. I could still see the imprint on his chubby face from the slap.
Cassidy threw her doll on the couch beside Momma and started drying the dishes when Jermaine passed them to her. She got a step stool and placed them on the counter when she finished. I don’t know why Jermaine didn’t do the dishes before now. He knew the consequences were not going to be good. It seemed to be getting worse. Not to mention my older sister, Tai. I was wondering if she was going to come home. Her situation was going to be dire. Who doesn’t show up after school knowing you have a crazy mom? She doesn’t.
Momma had started working on her laptop. She was a property manager at some big company in Gwinnett. It’s a suburb outside Atlanta, ‘bout thirty minutes away. She was doing long hours at the firm, but she seemed to love it. It was much better than her retail job. Plus, we got more clothes and toys with this job. That part I loved.
My stomach growled. It was after eight p.m. I still hadn’t eaten anything, and Tai was not home yet.
Momma stopped typing and looked at me. “Boy, was that your stomach?”
I nodded. The kitchen was empty now. Jermaine and Cassidy had finished up the dishes and I could hear him in the bathroom cleaning it. I just knew Momma was going to call him back into the kitchen to cook something. But not this time.
“What do you want to eat, sweetie?”
I hunched my shoulders.
“Well, that doesn’t tell me much,” she said. She stood and walked toward the kitchen. She opened the pantry first and scoured through it. She placed a box of Hamburger Helper on the counter, followed by a can of pork and beans and some other items that could be fixed in fifteen minutes or less. “How ‘bout some Hamburger Helper?” she finally asked, after opening and closing the freezer and placing a pound of ground beef in the microwave.
“Yes.” I was filled with delight, ‘cause Hamburger Helper was my all-time favorite, especially when Momma cooked it. She always added her extra spices that made it that much better. Jermaine tried to cook it the same way, but it never tasted as good as hers.
She put four plates on the bar and began her magic. Within fifteen minutes, it was ready. “Come and eat,” she called out for Jermaine and Cassidy. Jermaine knew what that meant. He came in the kitchen first, grabbed the plates, and dished out helpings for me and Cassidy. We took our seats and started eating after blessing our food. He also fixed a plate for Momma, then himself.
Momma took her plate and sat on the couch and was back on her cellphone, eating and talking to some girlfriend of hers from New York or someone she’d worked with on the job. Jermaine finally sat down beside me and ate his food in silence. Tai still hadn’t brought her butt home. I was feeling some kinda way about that, ‘cause I knew when she arrived, it wouldn’t play out well. I think she was with that boyfriend of hers she and Jermaine were fussing about a few days ago. I hoped Momma didn’t find out.