I’m not sure where Macmillan got his name from, but Macmillan Publishers printed all our text books in primary and secondary school. I never met Macmillan’s parents, but I imagine they must have considered it a smart name for a child to have, a good omen for a son who would eventually grow up to go to university, and land the kind of job that would secure the family’s future.
Macmillan was a slender boy who had a thin and arrow-like face that seemed to point downwards. Despite his oddly shaped head, he always had a smile on his face, and at school he’d call out my name in that high-pitched voice of his whenever he saw me. Even when he was in the middle of a football match or with a group of his friends, he’d leave everything and run over to talk to me. He liked to ask the sort of questions that didn’t go anywhere –Where in America are you from? What is America like? Macmillan belonged to that group of people who assumed I had been air lifted to Africa and dropped there, totally oblivious of the world they inhabited. I didn’t ask him any questions about his family, not because I wasn’t curious, but because I assumed we were part of the same world, and that there was nothing else about his life that I didn’t know already. Every afternoon after school, our ways would part where the road made a fork, and I would continue on home with my other friends.
Macmillan was one of the few friends I had who wasn’t shy about coming over to my house whenever he pleased. He would shake our iron gate until someone went out and let him in. Whenever I was alone and could get away with it, I refused to acknowledge Macmillan’s indignant knocking, and eventually he’d get tired and leave.
Macmillan came over to our house enough times to know my mother’s rule about no shoes beyond the front door, and he’d instinctively remove his old slippers, the soles of which had almost completely flattened out, and place them neatly on the veranda.
Macmillan and I spent hours on my front porch playing my Game Boy, passing it back and forth. Whenever it was my turn, he’d watch me intently, while providing enough running commentary about my playing tactics that I felt like punching him. He didn’t have a Game Boy, and it was easier for me to beat each level, and take him to much more challenging rounds where he’d lose faster and more frequently. He was always a gracious loser, and was more than happy to pass the game over to me.
My father was always in the background, catching up on some paperwork or grading his students’ assignments. Unbeknownst to Macmillan or any of my other friends, my father was also an avid Game Boy player. My father and I would play multiple rounds of F1-Race, and I’d watch as his body swayed and contorted with each turn he took. Eventually, he’d get bored and move on to other things he had to do. My father was a quiet person by nature, and he displayed more exuberance playing Game Boy than he did with most other things in life.
The very idea of playing a video game with one’s father would have been completely alien to many of my friends. Theirs was an existence of inherited hierarchy between parent and child, and anything to upset that sense of reverence, which characterized so much of that relationship, would have been deemed unethical. As children, we seized every opportunity to turn life into a game, and parents’ first duty when they arrived home was to rob us of that happiness, and instill a seriousness that could sometimes only be indoctrinated by the cane. Of course, these are generalities, tempered by numerous exceptions of mothers and fathers who found a way of remaining both tender and firm with their children.
One day, Macmillan was over at my house and, because it was Friday, we played all afternoon without much interruption from my parents. At one point, I had gotten tired of the Game Boy, and focused my attention on building a Lego car that was capable of flying to the moon. It was almost dark outside when Macmillan finally decided to go home, and I was relieved when he walked out the front door. After dinner, I went back to my room, which was in a state of disarray. My mother had asked me to put it back together again, and as I filled the Lego bucket with all the pieces strewn across the floor, I noticed that my Game Boy wasn’t on my bed where Macmillan had been playing all afternoon. There were a few cartridges on the ruffles of my blanket, but the Game Boy itself was not there. I padded down my mattress, checked under the bed, in-between my sheets, and under my pillow. The more I searched, the clearer it became that Macmillan had in fact taken my Game Boy.
When I told my parents, they didn’t want to believe that Macmillan would do such a thing, but after searching every corner of my room, they, too, came to the same conclusion.
I imagined Macmillan showing off my Game Boy to all his quartier friends, claiming it was his and basking in the newfound attention and glory. I imagined him passing it around his group of friends, their sweaty palms smearing streaks of grime across its cream-colored surface.
I didn’t even know how to get to Macmillan’s house. I knew he lived near the school, but I had never visited him. It was the weekend, and I knew that if I waited till Monday, there was good chance I’d never see my Game Boy again. By Monday, he would probably have sold it, or worse yet some older boy would have snatched it away from him, knowing all too well that Macmillan must have stolen it himself. Good things never happened to boys like Macmillan.
On Saturday, I asked my father if he would help me find Macmillan’s house. It was late in the afternoon when we set out to the place where the road split. Once we made it to the fork, and down the dirt road where I imagined his house would be, we found a few incomplete cement structures that had long since been abandoned. As we continued, the road became narrower, and there appeared more houses and a beer hall blaring Makossa music. There were a few men standing outside, beer bottles in hand, staring at us as though we had just crash-landed from a distant galaxy. I asked some children if they knew where Macmillan lived, and they pointed in the direction we were going.
We passed clusters of houses with children running around, who stopped in their tracks at the first sight of us approaching. I asked if they knew Macmillan, and they all pointed to a little green house that had a flight of stairs leading up to the front porch.
As we went up the stairs, we could see that the windows were closed, and dark curtains blocked any view of the interior of the house. My father went ahead and knocked on the door, and as we waited I realized I had no idea what I was going to say to Macmillan or his parents. When no one answered, my father knocked again. This time, we heard some movement, and then the door opened. It was Macmillan standing there with that big smile on his face.
“Ramin!” he blurted out, as though it was a normal occurrence for me to visit him at his own house. He opened the door wider for us to enter.
The house looked even smaller from inside. The living room had a few wooden sofa chairs and a coffee table at the center. The walls were covered with cheap family portraits, and a giant painting of a white, blue-eyed Christ on the cross. There was another door that led to what looked to be a bedroom.
We sat down, and Macmillan sat across from us in one of the larger sofa chairs, his feet dangling above the floor. His smile slowly disappeared as he noticed the grave looks on our faces, and in those short moments, he seemed to have become much smaller than I’d ever remembered him.
My father wasn’t one to beat around the bush about anything, and so he was the first to break the silence. He asked Macmillan about the Game Boy, and if he had taken it from the house.
“I didn’t take it, mista Gillett,” he replied as he shook his head.
“Are you sure about that?” my dad asked again.
“No, sah. I didn’t take it,” he protested with a voice whose confidence was quickly faltering.
When my father asked him again, Macmillan once more denied the charges. I watched as my father’s hand began to twitch and curl the way it did when he’d get impatient with me.
“Listen Macmillan, you will be in a lot of trouble if I find out that you took it,” my father finally told him, as he leaned forward, closing the distance between the two of them. “Your parents will not be happy with you.”
It was then that, for the first time since I had known him, Macmillan lost that annoying sense of comfort, that uninvited brotherliness he had felt towards me for so long. He stared straight through me as though his world was slowly crumbling around him.
As a cold silence descended upon us, I looked around at the room we were in, at the bare concrete floor, and the austere family portraits housed in glittering plastic frames that did little to cover the cracked and stained living room walls. There was a picture of a man and a woman who looked to be the same age as my parents. There was sadness in their eyes, in the way they were looking at me.
When Macmillan finally got up, his spindly legs were shaking, and he looked as though he was about to tip over. He climbed on top of one of the sofas, and reached for a picture frame, a black and white photograph of an old man in a suit, that rested on the mantle above him. From behind the frame, Macmillan removed what appeared to be my Game Boy.
When he got back down, he handed the game over to my father, and for a brief moment, we all stood around staring at it, as though something shameful and profane had come to pass.
As we walked down the stairs, my father handed the Game Boy over to me, but my fingers were too weak and clumsy to hold it. The children were still playing outside, and they looked on as we walked away. We passed the beer hall with the loud music, and this time the men waved at us. As we approached the fork in the road, and turned in the direction of our house, I looked at my father and how quiet he was. I looked at the Game Boy in my hand, but all I could see were those sad eyes staring back at me.