4 SHORT STORIES
THE FIRST REPORT
He came in from the cold.
She asked the usual questions when he came in to help her with her youngest daughter’s children: was it cold out there? Still minus-minus? Did we get some mail? He kissed her hello and said, Yes, it is cold. Yes it is still minus 12 Celsius. Yes, I got your mail – bills and statements from our banks. Junk mail. One for me, though. Reader’s Digest’s announcement that I am finally a contender for the million dollar jackpot, and another, I think, from Old Age Security, or pension, or something, he mumbled. He tried to be cheerful, but he mumbled.
His 30-minute walk through the chilling streets from their townhouse left him breathing hard. Like a wheezing old man. Like the wheezing old man he has become, really. He called it his “constitutional”, but everybody knew (his family in Canada) that he had to be there before lunch so could eat with her, and be off with her car to the other daughter’s house to sit for still another set of grade school girls. Saucy ones who were always fighting.
He did not have his own car, and he must depend on the functional Japanese car parked where she left it, coming in earlier to relieve her youngest-teacher-daughter who must run to her class. She’s late. The engineer-husband had to commute. Bad traffic. He’s late.
The walk did him good, though. He needed the long, daily walk, to cut through his enervating depression. Or to take his mind off his ageing ailments, his aches, his IBS, his occasional chest pains, tingling left arm, crinkly fingers, forgetfulness, and obsessive compulsive symptoms of Alzheimer’s, etcetera. He goes through this list with his bemused physician, the Chinese family doctor at the mall, every time he consulted him. It was often, of course, because it was free. Won’t get this in the old country, “un ventaje, hombre!”, his wife would drill this health-care advantage into his head – if she was lucky to say it to a good ear. He did not wish to immigrate to this cold country, in any case. Nor dreamt of it.
He said he also needed it to think. To keep his porcine heart valve working, he must do all that walking, his only son would tell his kibitzing sisters.
He coughed. He came in from the cold. He will be fine.
His “tesoro”, the one he calls Nicky 2, stopped her “Dora the Explorer” TV session, and ran into his arms " ‘Lolo! ‘Lolo! I’m watching “Dora”! She ran back as quickly as she appeared at the door. Where’s, the big, bad boy, he asked, pretending to look for the younger sibling, his “assignment” in this babysitting partnership.
The chubby boy remained motionless in front of the idiot box, ignored his inquiring abuelo (No ‘Lolo!-‘Lolo!- yelled-greeting this time. No hugs, no kisses. Just a mindless act of ignorance that felt like a freezing icicle between his testicles. Watching Dora, he protested when the old man made his mock-call: O, Louie, whey ah youoooo?
Have you had your merienda, he asked the reception line, now transformed into a puttering woman rushing through the preparation of a pot of chicken stew. Not yet, not yet, was the harried response. She called out to the boy: go kiss your abuelo or no cookies for you! No! was the prompt retort from the motionless boy in front of the idiot box.
He saw she saved some of the crispy fried chicken skin for a snack. She plunked the saucer of skin on the table, muttered for him to sit down for his snack, and, with an unctuous tone she said, after lunch, let’s talk. Let’s talk. That was like a stalactite shoved up his frozen ass. It occurred to him that she was issuing another warning: Let’s talk, asshole!
He knew this was coming. One of those “fearsome” ones. She lay sleepless last night, fuming that he had this talent of taking the joy out of everything, even out of the late television show. I know it’s late! I know I’d be sleepless. But do you have to harass me? He promised that they would not go to sleep fighting. Well, she hated him, she said last night.
Let’s talk. He did come in from the cold.
After a perfunctory, ominously silent lunch, he quickly washed the pots and pans, dishes, utensils, the children’s’ bibs, and anything she thought should be in the sink. Gary’s job, he muttered. Huh? She challenged. He snickered, snorted really, and said, that’s the South Afrikaner’s name, remember? The Disney Cruise waiter, remember? He hastened to explain lest she fly the handle for his insolence. Huh! The guy who did not do a good job, she said. I’d get that label as his second fiddle, she said, she being the Mario, the main waiter on table 137 at the cruise. Some baby waiters, he said. Caregivers, hombre! She shot back. Besides, don’t you love your grandchildren?
Let’s talk. She said, we should get it over with before the children woke up from their mandatory naps. (A downtime for the sitters, uh, caregivers, all right?) It was going to be a long, painful one, he suspected. The last time she required this communication, she demanded that the almost 50-year marriage be done with, over – kaput. She said she could not take the moods anymore. Why are you so unhappy? Why have you become a hermit? You would not even want to socialize with your children. We have no friends in this country at all!
As soon as he slumped on the leather sofa which doubled as her napping bed, she asked the same questions again. This time, however, they were surprisingly doleful. What, no fury, he thought and got confused. The last time those questions were asked, he thought he lost his keys to the house. He was left twisting in the wind. She did not see the keys, she harrumphed. Was she getting ready to kick me out? If she changed her mind in his favour that time, she did not let on. A homeless husband is harder to explain to the children and grandchildren. Maybe.
He felt so ineffectual. In the old country, he was a brilliant academic, a writer, a journalist, and author of books and scholarly papers. Now, I could not even write my epitaph! He sighed.
Even the children make fun of me. They speak to me like I was out-of-it, dumb. Or suspect that I only choose to listen to what or who I wanted to pay attention to.
And do we still touch each other?
He felt a tug at his sleeve. Are you sad, ‘lolo? Are you crying? I will protect you. The little girl’s voice was gentle and strangely solicitous. Those were words he whispered to her one summer when she wept over a dead bird in the now snow-bound yard. Then, she went back to her strewn toys, books, cups, saucers, plastic things. She was singing a French ditty. She was counting in Spanish. She was saying “mahal kita, mahal kita” to her rag doll. A quadrilingual delinquent one day? She must be listening. Little ears. But at three, she will remember. Why is she not napping yet, he asked the woman who had just wrapped an arm around him.
You have to move on, darling. Past is past. What you have achieved then is a large part of your life. But move on. There are more poems to write, more stories to tell. What about children’s books? She surprised herself with her mellow coaxing.
The tears were there. There were affairs. But they got back together. In this new country, she promised to build a new life for both of them. This was his covenant, he pledged likewise.
Why don’t we get you occupied with something you have always loved? Write me something everyday or every moment you get. It does not have to be a poem, a story, or play. Remember your notebooks? What about journals. Why don’t you start a memoir? Or just get into the business of writing once again. I’ll tell you what…Do your writing. Send me a copy of anything you have done. One click on the computer. Every day. You know, like writing a report. She stroked his wrinkled temple.
Because he could read the plea in her conches-like eyes, and the old ardent faith she would tell him about when his blocks would torture him no end, he asked: What could I give you in return for this kindness?
What about a 10-minute massage before we go to sleep? That should help me go to sleep. I do not sleep well, darling. I need to sleep.
The little girl kneeling by the fireplace let out a sudden shriek: I am not tired, ‘lola. I don’t want to sleep.
She took her little hands into hers and said: Go kiss your lolo, nighty-night. When you wake up after your nap, we will have hot chocolate. Deal?
Nicky 2 moved hesitantly to the wheezing old man and said: Abrazo! Beso beso, abuelo.
He came in from the cold again the next day.
From the curve, he could see her and the little bobbing heads. They were waving at him. Blowing him kisses.
When he got to the door, she did not ask for the mail. Nor the weather. She wanted to know if he had the “report.” See your email, he said.
When they sat down for a snack, precious minutes before the tandem feeding of the children, he asked: Do you know that the first time I saw your undies was when we were chatting in the living room of your old San Juan house ? You were wearing a striped pair of grandma panties. Your thighs were silken white, my mestiza!
She gasped. Aiee, que loco de cabeza! The children will hear you. She snickered.
He knew she blushed, but he continued: And my most cherished moment was that time you asked me while we kissed saying our stolen, endless goodnights, before your father would come down those stairs to signal my leaving, it’s midnight-you-know…was when you asked me if what you felt down there was a hard-on, and I said: it was a tumescence. You asked to see it. But it was dark, and we heard your father’s footsteps.
But that’s for another “report.”
Are you ready for your morning stroll, Mr. T? In a minute, he bristled unable to get his arm into his heavy cardigan.
It’s not that cold, you know, the Filipina caregiver reminded the harrumphing octogenarian.
He was in the process of making a 180-degree turn, trying to fix the pictures atop his credenza while he struggled with his sweater.
Did anybody move these pictures around, Luisa? Er, Maria, is it?
Dolly, Mr. T, she introduced herself as she does every morning now, her conches-like eyes widening in a bit of apprehension; he did not particularly like these pictures rearranged. That would ruin his day. He would have to be re-oriented to the east-west-north-south co-ordinates of his room. He was a “topgun” fighter pilot in WWII in the Pacific war, in Corregeedoor. You know, in your country. He never tires of reminding her or any of her Filipina compatriots who work at Erin Mills Lodge for Seniors.
I particularly like the picture of my late wife on this spot, Luisa, uh, Maria, or whatever you called yourself --- sorry --- It points me to where I get my underwear. You know -- undies? He tried to smile the scowl from his face away.
She’s just taken over. The nurse from Trinidad just upped and went complaining loudly that she’s sick and tired of being groped by demented perverts who should stop hoping they could still do it.
Dolly, Mr. T. And by the way, your walking partner, Mr. Alex, called while you were in the washroom. Said he will wait for you at the lobby. He said the sooner you get out today, the more sunshine you both would get. You’d have to get back quickly for a late breakfast.
Thanks for letting me know, Luisa. He must have something going for that name Luisa, she figured. But always a gentleman, he would say thanks for anything helpful coming his way. After a fashion, though. This is a community of civilized old farts, he would say.
Alex is always late anyway. His cane trips him up when I tell him to walk a bit faster. Between us we’ve got six feet, you know. Four crumbling ones and two wooden ones. Get it?
She laughed, relieved that he had been distracted away from the misplaced picture. She’s pretty, she remarked, by way of thanking him for not exploding. My son says, I use it to scare the mice away, he giggled.
At the lobby, that morning, his buddy and next door neighbour, and fellow three-legger, waited with a pained look on his face.
Got boils on your derriere while waiting, Alex? What’s with the face?
Don’t even go there, Teague, the bent, scowling man sprawled on the lobby steps snapped.
It can’t be that bad, old chap.
My son did not pop up again. He’s got this wife problem, my daughter says. It’s been two months now. He’s still in the Philippines, you know. Teaching at that protestant university in the southern Philippines. Dumaguete.
He could pronounce Philippine words better than his buddy – he’s been there, too, in Corregidor, in Bataan, the last stand of General MacArthur. They were GI soldiers from Michigan. Both immigrated to Canada after WWII (so that their sons would not have to go to war -- Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and all that s...)
Yeah? I have a son there, too. Teaching fine arts, painting, you know.
Of course, he got my son in there, too. Reverse brain drain. Canadians teaching the little brown people. Remember? Oh, no, you don’t. It figures.
Let’s walk. Oh, wait. Here’s the slow mailman. Doesn’t he look like Robert De Niro?
The ambling postie greeted the gentlemen with canes, and said he’s got only one letter for youse, gents. For you, Mr. Teague, sir. Urgent . Express Post. From the Philippines. The last syllable pronounced like “pines”. Paayns.
Teague knew it must have come from his son, the painter in the Silliman University school of fine arts. He cracked it open. He fell silent.
I’m going upstairs, he said.
What about our walk?
I’m going to my room.
Wait up, Teague. What’s wrong?
Dolly was still there when he got back. Please leave me alone, Luisa.
What’s wrong, Mr. T?
He sobbed into his pillow as his panting partner ambled into his room.
Did we have to take separate elevators, Teague?
He showed the half-crumpled letter.
God, no! Alex grimaced and fell silent. I’m going back to my room, Teague. You don’t need me here now.
* * *
Both men stayed up that night. They did not answer calls.
The following day, at the breakfast table, they exchanged envelopes.
Read it before your nap, they almost simultaneously prescribed.
When Alex opened his envelope, he read:
Mr. Teague of Siquijor
Teague’s sandbox at Lo-oc beach spills
over to the slopes of Siquijor –
a kind of walking out on infancy
or bright courage, the carcass marching
nude to humour a carrion God
astride Siquijor’s dark mountain loins.
“O, when will the lad get out of his sandbox
to walk towards the mountain slopes?”
By the way, Teague’s body was fished out
of Lo-oc the other day, near Siquijor.
It is a poem from my son. Teague signed his single-sentence note.
In his room, Teague used a magnifying glass to read Alex’s note. A former CanLit professor, his partner wrote:
The Habit of Mountains: A Dirge
It was his grief pursued the habit of mountains:
It moved the world with quietness. Quietness moved them.
No dearer madness there is than which he died for:
A will to perish in time and manner he chose.
It could not have been any kinder than this falling,
A manner of bargaining one’s way
Into a choice between a kind of dying and feeling dead –
No option for us who learn, too early perhaps,
That death prorogues a dream of fancy
Or a prayer of willing our pain stay
The ramrod poised to rend out days descending
Foglike upon us decreeing silence for our bed.
Earlier that day, Alex received a call from his son in the Philippines, a colleague of Teague’s son at the Silliman University. Dad, Teague Junior committed suicide the other day.
Why? Asked his buddy that evening. There was just the two of them like crumpled shadows beneath the dining room light.
He could not abide his being different. He went away, as far away as he could from me. He was gay, Alex. He promised he was going to see me here before accepting that teaching job in Mexico. He said he will exhibit his paintings here at the Lodge.
He fell in love with one of his male students. There was a case filed against him. Corruption of a minor.
They don’t have same sex marriages in the Philippines, do they?
From eyewitness reports, the Governor cowered behind the outhouse. He did not bother to plead for his life, nor remind the young man that they were fighting for the same thing. He remained ominously silent on his knees as his executor emptied the home-made pistol into his head.
He had stepped out of his boathouse office for some air; his weeping wife told the military commander who arrived at the scene an hour after. Preciosa and her six-year old birthday girl curled up on their rattan papasan chair. She said the Governor suggested they celebrate their daughter’s birthday simply – just the immediate family and abuelo and abuela – at his office. The river was calm and police security was available.
There was no sense flaunting his in-laws’ wealth by celebrating at their Negros mansion out of town. Times were hard. Unverified security problems bothered the Governor who had just pronounced fiercely in the papers that the assassination of the President’s avowed rival at the Manila International Airport was dastardly, cowardly, and as sure as the damned military can make certain, the martial law dictator had him killed.
Pain in anybody’s ass, this local, Jesuit-schooled, politician – a governor by the grace of his in-law’s blood money squeezed out of the brown backs of the measly-paid hired hands and farmers in their hacienda – was the Governor’s capsule resume among the province’s officialdom. He was a lone-wolf, a maverick. Not even his father-in-law could get him to pipe down about criticizing the martial-law strongman.
* * *
Who shot Vel? The commander asked the police chief who was nowhere near the scene of the shooting.
Our initial investigation, sir, points to a kid maybe in his twenties. Could be NPA. No ID.
Who shot him?
My men, sir. Police sergeant Kalima, sir. He was patrolling near the office of the Gob when people started running and yelling that the Gob was killed.
Keep these from the press. By the way, we are taking over the investigation on orders from National Defence.
* * *
Evelio Falco had just passed the Bar when he ran against the ten-term governor of the province. He was popular with the university students and generally the restless youth who practically abandoned their classrooms in favour of the streets. They wanted the martial law government to give way to honest and clean elections. Poverty and injustice must be eradicated. Corruption in the government and in all levels of society must never be a way of life.
Avenge the murder of Ninoy! Throw the military rulers out! Down with dictatorship! Kill the bastards!
Falco took to the streets, marched with them, stoked their anger, and organized cadres among the young men and women who trooped to his office to volunteer their services and battering sticks disguised as placards..
He was their champion, their hero. He beat the incumbent governor to his father’s chagrin because the old and doddering politico was also his own uncle, his father’s eldest brother.
Disinherited, he found an unlikely supporter in his father-in-law who could not bear to see a pregnant Preciosa bring home a loser for a husband.
They met at the university, and she was curious about how a rich man’s son could also rant and rave about the rights of the poor and the exploited labourers in the wealthy encomiendas, the enclaves of the idle rich. Born to one of the oldest families in their region, wealthy landowners who raked in money from their vast rice and sugar cane plantations, he was himself an ilustrado.
Come to think of it, she would muse, the Philippine Revolution against the Spanish colonizers were hatched by the Filipino ilustrados, the students who won scholarships to study in Spain and in the Spanish-run Royal and Pontifical University of St. Thomas, a Dominican bastion of intellectual and religious colonialism built by the Papacy in Manila.
* * *
He was about to smoke one of those American cigarettes he resolved to give up, when this gaunt, shaggy-haired, swarthy and unwashed young man pointed a gun at him.
Traidor! You betrayed us! We believed in your land reform. We got you elected. Putang inamo, Mamatay ka! (Die, you son-of-a-whore!)
Falco yelled for his bodyguards, but only Preciosa came running from the boathouse. He bolted and ran through some houses across the town’s main street. The young man, in relentless pursuit, saw him hide behind a well-built outhouse with one of those cemented vertical culverts serving as its main pipe – a two-storey wonder of an outhouse – and cornered his fugitive then kneeling for cover behind the massive concrete pipe.
After pumping all the bullets into the Governor, he ran from the outhouse like someone about to suffocate from the stench of the septic tank.
Earlier, he had taken the ferry from the other end of the island province, dropped by the Jesuit-run University for some last-minute arrangements, filled his knapsack with canned goods, and took time to scribble some notes. He got to Falco’s office by noontime and saw him struggling to light a cigarette; gusty wind from the bay made him cup his palm over his face. Caught unawares, he got startled by the shriek of the young man with the pistol.
The police could not find any contacts, they reported to the military commander. Sergeant Kalima was passing by when he heard the confrontation. He saw the Gob run through the fences and the houses, lost sight of him, and finally heard the rapid cracks of gunfire.
Almost running into the assailant, the portly constable shouted for the young man to stop; he would not. Kalima shot him, and was surprised he got him.
Searching for an ID while rummaging through the youth’s knapsack, Kalima found some dried fish and canned sardines. He also surrendered a notebook to the military commander who leafed through it, and fall eerily silent, when he came across what was later described as lyrics to a song.
Dawn is red on this ruddy face
Sun dogging his craggy trail,
The song deep in his throat:
“The last best fight, my brother;
Our blood on the tip of steel!”
Brother to the pulsing spring,
To the bushes and rocks, the wrath
Of days, of quietness descending.
“The last good fight, my brother;
Our blood on the open trail.”
A song arrested in his throat,
The steel tensile in grace,
His still point is a point of steel.
--- by Ka Ric Fernandez, University of San Agustin
He was a student, the military man whispered. Must be one of the cadres in town. But why Evelio?
* * *
News of Falco’s killing spread like wildfire throughout the province. Students from the capital city’s schools poured out of their classrooms, burned tires in the streets, and accused the martial law government of having their hero assassinated. Domestic fury was, indeed, in use.
Falco’s office television, turned on it seemed throughout the days and nights (as was the Governor’s standing instruction), blared with harried, continuous coverage:
Evelio Falco was gunned down today by elements of the military according to student activists now marching around the capital city of Silay because of his opposition to the martial law regime.
At the boathouse, the Governor’s widow wiped his riddled face as she absently wailed: Why? Why? You were right again, Vel. We are ourselves our war!
* * *
A Death in the Afternoon
From a 22-hour plane ride, my wife dragged me on the first day to a parlour to get a haircut and a foot scrub.
That afternoon was abuzz with fearful banter among the “aestheticians” (haute term for today’s barbers, hair stylists, foot spa attendants, pedicurists, manicurists, and the kibitzers to garner bigger tips) --- “Who will bring that homeless man sprawled near the parlour to the hospital?”
The attractively transgendered manager called the barangay tanod (village watch) to come pick up the distressed man whose gangrened leg (from a diabetic reaction to an earlier amputation) precariously dangled from a pushcart he fashioned from scavenged debris or termite-eaten lumber from abandoned houses.
The barangay bureaucrats said it was a job for the Department of Social Services and Welfare, not theirs. The security guards at the nearby Jolibee fastfood restaurant harrumphed that something must be done quickly to get the “wreckage of a derelict” out of sight – the munching customers inside are beginning to squirm. Who will help him, the fluttering beauty parlour attendants chimed in with feigned concern (How come even the females talk like tarty maricones (gay)?).
What’s this fuss all about? My foot-spa-treated missus enquired in the busy-body unctuousness of the parlour denizens.
It’s about a dying man outside, I barked from the barber’s chair.
No one wants to take him to the hospital, the transvestite parlour boss said. No one wants to shell out money to the hospital – before the man is admitted. You know, he’s got a son in the States and another working in Dubai. They must have abandoned him. Or he was too crazy to even get in touch with them.
The parlour kibitzers chorused like cackling hens. That’s what’s wrong with our system --- no money, no health care. Even the village officials would rather pass the buck to the distant national government DSSW (they are fond of abbreviated names here) who likewise passed it back to the barangay (village) government.
Dios ko, naman, baka mamatay na lang diyan! (Good Lord, he might just die right there!) sighed the outraged parlour overseer.
Done with my haircut and foot scrub (to remove calluses from ill-fitting shoes, my wife prescribed, and “to restore epidermal softness common to the ruling class”! ), I stepped out of the noisy marketplace of rubber-nosing fencesitters. It was about that time that a small crowd started clucking collectively angry tongues. Patay na siya! (He is dead!) Huli na’ng lahat. Saan ang tanod? Ang DSSW? (It is too late. Where is the village watch? The Department of Social Services and Welfare?)
Sprawled helter-skelter on the makeshift pushcart is a diminutive, unwashed, half-naked old man who must have finally gasped his final breath begging and waiting for help while balik-bayans (citizens who have come back from their homes elsewhere abroad) like me had their foot-scrubbed into baby-pink like smoothness inside the air-conditioned, perfume-scented beauty parlour.
I shuddered at the microcosmic likeness of the “moment” to the macro situation of the old country --- nobody steps up to answer the critical question: Are you your brother’s keeper?
My wife averted her gaze away from the crumpled body on the pushcart. I heard the Jolibee “sekyu” (security guard) yell at the now het-up barangay representative who has just wheeled in to ask – where is the man who needs to be brought to the hospital? Ayan, patay na siya! Pulutin na ninyo, o kami na ang pupulot sa kanya bago mawalan ng gana ang aming mga parukiyano! (There he is. He’s dead. Pack him up or we will do it ourselves before we lose our clients in the restaurant who will surely lose their appetite from seeing him there!)
A death in the afternoon, I muttered to myself. The crowd dispersed; the transvestite parlour boss went back into the parlour, and asked who’s next in the foot spa.
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