Hallelujah and the Other Side
Serial Short Story
Hallelujah is a ravenous woman; whatever she eats, she consumes thoroughly. Fat mangoes are reduced to moon-shaped seeds scraped so clean that streaks of fuzzy white fibres lay flat in the tracks carved by her teeth. She speaks with a stutter, which can have the effect of making her seem timid, but only until you witness her command a room of students. Her father, Patrice, calls her by doubling the fourth syllable in her name—Lulu. He calls her every Sunday at 4 PM to ask if she happened to make it to the morning Mass or to remind her that she still has time to make it to the evening one.
And her lover, Tafa, only calls her by the first two syllables of her name—Halle—when they try and refrain from tearing each other apart in cruel ways during their rare but heated arguments. Or when they surrender to ripping each other open in desperate and gorgeous ways in lovemaking. Otherwise, Tafa calls her Babe or Guapa or some other tender term of endearment.
Hallelujah insists that her students call her in full proclamation—Hallelujah!—which she prefers. Or Ms. Mamadou—which she finds acceptable. At twenty-nine, she is one of the youngest postdocs in the Biology department of Saint Agnes University. And even though she has instructed classes since mid-way through her Master’s degree, she feels that she must prove her authority to teach, as if a doctorate in her field is not sufficient.
Hallelujah speaks with a stutter that she developed rather suddenly at the age of eight. Her tongue began to stumble around consonants when she witnessed the aftermath of her mother, Caroline’s first attempt at ending her life. She woke from an afternoon nap to find her mother in the bathtub, convulsing and foaming at the mouth. Caroline was fully clothed; she had been warding off something dark since she was an early teen, something that wanted her body cold, rigid. That day—in a moment of clarity that one might also call sheer exhaustion—she thought, why not? She’d only gone to the bathroom to urinate, but she decided it was as good a place as any to do the deed. So she gulped down the entire contents of five pill bottles—prescription SSRIs, antidepressants she’d refused to take for the last few months because the sun should have been enough, her love for her family should have been enough, she felt fine! Caroline had eaten all the pills and sat in the tub, waiting. Her eyes had just started to roll back in her head, and her limbs jump involuntarily when she heard her daughter’s footsteps coming towards her. She regretted only that Hallelujah would have to see her go. She failed that day, but would succeed a few years later, on the very day that Hallelujah wrote in her leather-bound diary:
If she wants to die so badly, maybe it will give her the quiet she’s always shouting about.
She'd done it in a fit of frustration after having been scolded for singing too loudly. When she learned of her mother’s death, Hallelujah tore the page out of the dairy and ate it. She let her warm saliva soften the stiff paper before she chewing and swallowing quickly. She vomited violently when she found out that her father had been in the car when her mother decided to drive it straight into the mouth of a truck that had been transporting pineapples and oranges to the Nigerian border. Her father survived, but he lost his sight, the head trauma he suffered from the impact was so severe, his eyes so badly ruined that they were removed entirely. He also lost his memory and still refers to the incident as an accident. Hallelujah never corrects him.
For one semester in her fourth year as a Ph.D. student, Hallelujah taught an undergraduate course titled Principles of Ecology. She felt the prickly warmth of her most diligent student’s gaze lingering on her face throughout the semester. The student's name was Tafa. Tafa, who was intent on completing the degree she had half-heartedly pursued for the better part of a decade, was entering her early thirties with some quiet success as a novelist. And while she was finally able to afford to take courses without any need for a day job, she suspected that she would never grow accustomed to surviving without one. So she kept a few hours as a cashier in a second-hand bookstore off Cunard street. It was a damp and narrow shop sweetened by the honey yeast aroma from a Cantonese bakery just below it.
Tafa was taken with Hallelujah right away. First by her name, Who the fuck is named Hallelujah? She thought and chuckled as Hallelujah stood before the class introducing herself.
Second, by her stutter, which was mild but noticeable, and to Tafa, deeply endearing. She, too, has an impediment in her speech, a lisp that goes mostly unnoticed, but reveals itself more boldly in direct proportion to her exhaustion or intoxication.
Third, something Tafa found inexplicable, like chemistry or lust or the longing to belong to someone that moved like Hallelujah. She figured it would be wise to wait until the semester ended before doing anything rash like ‘coincidentally’ bumping into Hallelujah at the dimly lit blues bar by the waterfront. Where she, allegedly, went every Thursday to watch her father play the saxophone in a four-piece jazz band named Butter.
She didn’t bother to act surprised to see Hallelujah sitting alone at the bar, with her round chin resting on her palm, swaying and watching the band. Her lips curved in a serene smile. Tafa simply pulled up a stool next to her and sat.
“Ms. Mamadou, hey.” She said with a tentative smile flickering on her face.
“Oh,” Hallelujah straightened her body in surprise, “Tafa, hello.” Her face was a question mark softened by dimples that revealed themselves on her plump cheeks whenever she smiled.
The music slowed for a moment, the pianist tapped his keys only gently, to sing in a swelling crescendo that vibrated in Tafa’s chest like an earnest howl for something crucial or primal or, or…
She felt dwarfed and uncertain why. Perhaps it was on account the sheer grace of the music. Perhaps it was Hallelujah’s curious gaze on her dark face.
She turned towards the stage, where the robust voice of the saxophone joined the piano in a consolatory duet and asked: “Which one is your father?”
“Which one do you think?”
Tafa shrugged, “no idea.”
“The sax p-player, the black one. Ha-how did you know my father was playing?”
“Someone from class mentioned.”
“So you decided to c-come see for yourself?”
“That’s a b-bit creepy, isn’t it?” She bit her smile, but Tafa caught on without a flinch.
“Is it?” Tafa shrugged again, “I thought it would be less inappropriate to ask you out here than during class.”
Hallelujah’s eyes widened, her surprise bubbled out in nervous laughter “you’re here to ask me out?”
“Only if you’re into it.” She raised a bushy eyebrow and cocked her head to the side. The thin elastic that kept her locs tied snapped and let her fat chin-length locs swing with each turn of her head.
“I like your hair.” Hallelujah evaded the question.
“Thank you! I’ve just cut it.” She jerked her chin slightly forward in a question, “So, what you saying?”
“I haven’t m-m-marked your exam yet, ask m-me after you receive your grade.” Hallelujah tried to keep from smiling but failed and fell her face into her hands, chuckling at her own keenness.
“Okay,” Tafa nodded, “is it cool if I stick around for the rest of this song, though?”
“You c-can do whatever you want.”
Hallelujah had trouble sleeping that night. Sometime after 2 am she found herself at her desk going over Tafa’s final exam. She scoured her answers for faults and found too few; the student earned an A fair and square. Hallelujah docked it down to a B +, perhaps you can imagine why. She sent a message from her personal email:
Just marked your exam, well done.
Grades won’t come out until next Wednesday. I’m available on Friday at 7:30 PM. There's a Tapas bar on Barrington street, sound good?
Let me know.