I will never forget the first day I handled dollars. It was the day Chima brought them to school. I took a whiff of the bills. I never forgot the smell either. That was easier to remember. It smelt like shit. The almighty dollar smelt like something I had wiped my butt with. It was no surprise that Chima had been the one to bring them to school. He was the talkative among us. Sometime last month, he had snapped a picture with Toni Tones and somehow lost it before showing it to us. The week after, he held off a gang of five men and his scars miraculously healed before we could see them. Tomorrow, he would probably climb the Everest alone, and dine with the Queen on the way down, with neither proof of the expedition nor the dinner.
“Omo, na dollar be this?” Dele was as stupefied as the rest of us. He spoke for all of us. Dele was always exploring, trying to find what was lost and sometimes what was right in front of his nose. He sometimes asked simple-minded questions, but that day, his amazement was justified.
For me, it was the first time I had held a dollar note, let alone seen one.
“They call it bills, Doyin,” Chima sneered at me.
I tried – and failed – to keep the glare off my face. Chima had a pebble of a brain lost in a bowl of pap, and his mouth was bigger than that pebble. In later years, we never did hear the last of this day. He would rub it in our faces every chance he got, never letting us forget that he saw and held a dollar in his hands before any of us. Even worse was the fact that he was the one who handed it to us. Unfortunately for him, that turned out to be his life’s biggest achievement, along with having a beard fuller than the rest of us. At that point, one thing he had no control over, however, was the fact that even though he gloatedover it, he couldn’t stop feeling the way we were feeling–stupefied, like we had a big sign over our heads as we walked into a ball prepared for us. We fawned over it, and even he stared at the bills in astonishment. He neither carried the billsnor handed them to us with the cocksure swagger of a man accustomed to handling huge currency, or the casual indifference of a man who earned his bread. It was a look I would see many times and come to differentiate from others later in life as money people handed me money. Some had the money, and handed it to you with a smirk, reveling in the fact that they knew they had more than you. Some did it as if they were walking on air–you could guess it was either their paycheck or a gift from a generous lover. Others did it with a bored air of nonchalance, as if they were tired of having money. My job working as a banker put me in a position to witness all these.
“But why do they call it bills?” Abdul asked. His eyes were still the size of pancakes.
Chima was flustered. “I-I don’t know,” he said. For all of Chima’s bravado, he did little, and he knew even less.
“How did you get this money, Chima?” Dele asked. We all turned to Chima. Dollar bills in hand, all eyes swung to him. We were interested in how he came about the money. We all knew his father was a senior level civil servant – rich, but not dollar-rich, unless he made money in one of those many, unspoken, easy ways to make money in Nigeria. His mother ran a huge spa somewhere on Adeniran Ogunsanya street, in Surulere.
As always, Chima loved the spotlight being turned back on him, even if he had nothing meaningful to say.
“Don’t worry, I just found it,” he said. He had a self-satisfied, smug look on his face I had never seen before.
“Guy, talk na,” Abdul prodded him.” He shifted in his seat, squinting against the sun. He held the dollar up to the sun as if to inspect it more closely. “Abi na fake? You sure say this dollar na real dollar?”
Dele and I laughed, as we knew what was sure to follow, as sure as wet ground follows rain.
“Your papa,” Chima spat. His face was contorted with rage. You could insult Chima’s parents, but one thing he couldn’t stomach was insult to his pride. That was why reminding him that Stella, one of the ladies who worked in his mother’s spa had turned him down when he was on the verge of getting in her pants, was a big sore point. That was a cattle prod that always lit a fire under his ass. We were boys, going through that period in which we had overblown egos and larger-than-life beliefs. Insults to our pride was mortal, something we could have killed for. Only much later, when life’s stark realities and winds had buffeted our egos were we able to take perceived slights and rebuffs more easily.
“Chima no mind am, he just dey whine you jare,” Dele said. He was the peacemaker among us, till one of Chima’s brawls with Abdul left him looking like a chipmunk, his lower front two teeth broken.
“Should we change the dollars?” I asked, trying to defuse the tension. As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I was way off base.
Abdul looked at me like I had grown a third nipple.
“What?” I asked.
I turned to my left and Dele and Chima wore the same expressions. “O boy na wa for you o,” Dele said. “You wan change am? You just dey hol’ am and you wan change am sharp sharp.” Chima shook his head.
“I wonder o,” Abdul said. I felt foolish.
Apparently, my rationality was stupid. I felt my ears burn. I learned a very important life lesson that day; that rationality didn’t always make sense. Right there, beneath the huge almond tree, in our school uniforms, chewing badly done doughnuts, holding dollar bills, we were the lords of all creation. Nothing could have knocked us off our perches. If you had asked us the biggest thing we had done so far in secondary school, it didn’t live up to this. For Dele, it was scaling a fence in the dead of the night to head off to a bash everyone was talking about, and yet too scared to go. Abdul had earned legendary status in school for rocking a girl at socials night. Not just any girl, it was Damola, the hottest and in his words, the “stylishest” girl in our school. Chima, on the other hand, wouldn’t forget cavorting with prostitutes when we were in S.S. 2. I doubt any woman could have lived with his braggadocio, but with money, he had gotten a prostitute to spread her legs for him. For me, it was standing up to a teacher everyone feared and detested.But none of those equated to holding foul-smelling dollar bills. It was power. We were Zeus with lightning dancing around his fingers, untouchable.
In later years, when we all philandered, I remembered this day, and cursed this moment, when we held dollar bills and kept those shit-smelling, stinky notes simply for the thrill and fun of it. Their stench defiled not just the air around us, but also blew dark winds into our minds. The power it gave us was almost regal. Not even the weed Dele stole from his elder brother’s stash could get us that high. We kept beautiful women apart from our wives simply because we could, because we wanted to. They were prizes, playthings we could have discarded, done without, like those bills, and exchanged for a saner, grounded existence, but we didn’t, simply because of the power we had, keeping a steady roll of beautiful women on the side.
“Omo me I no dey change anything o,” Abdul asserted. Here we were, dreaming of one day becoming more, and dollars landed in our laps. The boys were in agreement with him. The thrill of holding the dollars was too much for reason to shine through. By unspoken rule, I was in with them too.
“No wahala,” I said. I saw their point. “We go keep am,” I agreed.
The smell of the money didn’t seem to bother the boys. Maybe it was the buzz of holding that revered currency that made them consider the stink a tolerable irritation. Or they believed dollars were meant to smell that way. I believe it was a little bit of both. I can’t believe they didn’t smell it too.
It was many, many years later before I would lay my hand on a dollar bill again. And yes, just like before, it wasn’t mine. It smelled just like something that exchanged hands, and I only remembered that day in relation to the day lightning danced around my shoulders. And I realized something, that money wasn’t evil, it also wasn’t powerful. Rather, it only shined light on dark corners, hidden in deep recesses inus. Just like money didn’t stink also. My wife would sometimes stick her hand into her dress, and pull out carefully-folded notes beneath her bra strap, near the top of her shoulder. The butcher whom we often patronized would hand us money, his hands soiled with gore from handling bloody meat. I never got used to it. However, they smelled like the notes that passed my hands every day at work, not too good, but not too bad either, unlike the notes Chima handed out, which came forth from a vile place, where rotten things festered.
I could already see the gears turning in Chima’s head. He would probably flash those bills at the next brothel he went to, and the girls would give him a fat discount, even if he wouldn’t give them any of the bills. I could also indulge myself a little with more. Was there more of it?
“O boy, you get more?” I couldn’t help asking him. Dele and Abdul laughed at me.
“See this guy sha,” Abdul said, “no be now you wan been change am na.”
Chima couldn’t resist gloating. “Dollar don enter my guy head.” He grinned.
Just then, the euphoria of holding money wore off a little, as Dele wrinkled his nose. “But Chima, why this money dey smell like this?”
“I think say na only me smell am sha,” I chipped in.
Abdul was dumbfounded. “Na the dollar dey smell?” He put the bills to his nose and gagged. “Na shit money be this o,” he said. He looked at the rest of us as if to confirm the stench.
Chima shrugged. “Na the money dey smell,” he said, as if that explained it. He had a look on his face that we hadn’t seen before. That was the only explanation we got, and we didn’t care. Although I didn’t put those bills in my pocket, I kept them in my bag, for fear of a nifty pickpocket.It wasn’t pickpockets I should have been worried about, but for myself, ourselves. I can’t remember where I kept those dollar bills. They were with me for the rest of my secondary school days. They got lost sometime in my undergraduate days. Nonetheless, we couldn’t rein in our galloping youthfulness, those desires that took root in our mind, as a result of the stench of those dollar bills.
I remember the first day I handled dollars. It was the day I took a whiff of them.
Adedoyin Ajayi is a young Nigerian writer. He loves the feeling of taking hold of a reader’s mind and taking them to a world of his making. His work has appeared in Brittle Paper, The Kalahari Review, Afrocritik and Livina Press. His short story collection, ‘Too Short a Tale’ was published earlier this year. He tweets @AjayiAdedoyin14.