This week’s Saturday Short Story is “Apollo” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The author is a thirty-nine-year old Nigerian whose university education was largely attained in the United States. In addition to the University of Nigeria (where she studied medicine and pharmacy), Adichie studied at Drexel, Eastern Connecticut State University, and John Hopkins University. Today she divides her time between the United States and Nigeria where she teaches writing. “Apollo” was published in a 2016 issue of The New Yorker and can also be found in the short story compilation The Best American Short Stories of 2016.
The narrator of “Apollo” is an only child whose parents, both now in their eighties, are retired university professors. The narrator, himself probably close to sixty years old, marvels at how much his parents have come physically to resemble each other and, thanks to the Vicks VapoRub they share, how they even smell alike now. They seemed to him to be reaching that stage of life he calls “the childhood of old age,” and now even his mother’s nagging desire for him to produce grandchildren hardly bothers him.
Too, he is surprised at the willingness of his once staid parents to indulge themselves with rumors and stories involving stolen body parts and wicked relatives using weird poisons on certain family members. The man “humors them,” only half-listening to the stories his parents tell him – until the day they mention Raphael, one of (his demanding mother ran through the hired help quite quickly) the family’s many former houseboys. At this point, the story becomes a flashback to the narrator’s childhood days, specifically the period during which his family employed Raphael.
Our narrator, never as bookish as his parents wished him to be, had an unhappy childhood in which he dreaded being tested on his day’s reading by his mother and father at mealtime. That all changes, however, on the day that the boy accidentally discovers that he and Raphael share a mutual adoration of Bruce Lee’s kung fu movies. Raphael, although it hardly seems possible to him, is even crazier about the movies than the narrator and can even mimic most of Lee’s kung fu moves.
As the two boys practice kung fu together over the weeks that follow, all the while keeping their secret friendship hidden from the narrator’s parents, he begins to feel closer and closer to Raphael, and in fact, grows to love the other boy. But when a case of pinkeye (otherwise known as Apollo here) moves from one boy to the next, everything comes crashing down. Suddenly, in a moment of jealous anger, the narrator must choose between punishing Raphael’s perceived disloyalty or telling his parents the truth about what just happened to him. The choice is his, and only his – and he will have to live with his decision for the rest of his life.