In between semesters I worked in a furniture shop as a clerk. It was a rickety old place on Hickory Street between a hardware store and an abandoned building that used to be a prime commercial spot before the fifties. I worked there from day until nightfall. Even on weekends, when I was asked by the Chinese couple who owned the place to help out with the workload, I would show up. On weekdays, I would sort out boxes of supplies and carry them to the stock room at the back, and I would bring some out to replenish the display windows. I talked to customers, suppliers, and I was responsible for liaising shipments whenever the delivery trucks came in three times a week.
I lived with my older sister and her five-year-old daughter, Sabrina. It was just a small two-story apartment good enough for temporary living and it was near the market place and a chapel a few blocks away. There were two rooms, a bath, and a small living space, which was used for nothing really, with just a couch and a low wooden table placed at the center. “Please don’t encourage her, Fred.” Was her reaction when I came home one day with a bar of strawberry chocolate wrapped in a tin foil and a fancy ribbon.
My sister was around six when the war ended. People refer to it as a world war, but for the likes of her, it was just simply war. She does not understand the distinction. There wasn’t any coherence to any of it as far as she’s concerned. She detested it. If there was one good thing she learned about human conflict, it would be that all interactions, forging relationships, or any sort of dealings, were always either based on mutualism, grab of power, or survival.
I was married once, many years ago. I was still very young at the time, I was nineteen. It was a decision made by our parents for us. It was customary then. Soon before long, we fell apart like how metal and wood on white glue would break loose.
There was a single-stemmed sunflower cutting in a ceramic vase between us. My ex-wife moved it aside since it was blocking her view of me when we talked. There were only a few words needed to be shared for goodbyes, but I felt she had hesitations about it. She was looking down most of the time. We parted ways on a Sunday of July. It was 1969. It was raining hard when I left our place by the river. I didn’t hear her cry – I wasn’t looking – when the door was latched behind me on the way out. The rain must have concealed it for us. I was at the doorway for a good period of time, waiting for the rain to let up, but it didn’t. I thought I heard a whimper after a while, but I dismissed that thought. It was better that way, I suppose. Oblivion is necessary sometimes. It was a good friend to me that day.
I played duckpin bowling at the arcade to pass the time. I drank beers with a third of my work money and I wasn’t concerned even if I went over it.
There were a few friends there good for conversations but it was the armadillo whom I felt the closest. I merely used the time to get attuned to the universe. The neon lights attracted me most, and I could sit there at the corner in silence — looking at it through an open window, at its glaring, at its changing colors, with its electric lights and fluttering pulses that almost felt it had a life of its own.
After a degree in writing, I soon set out and pursued what everybody was after. I wore a suit and a pair of leather shoes, and a tie to go along with it. It felt like my marriage. I quit in my fourth month.
Down at the arcade, I downed glasses of hard drinks and confided everything with the armadillo. But it wasn’t the time for heartbreaks and soul searching. It was a quaint time to be daring. Hustlers used the armadillo as a duckpin ball to get the better of unsuspecting amateurs, who were willing to bet off their allowance money, their gold watches, and sometimes even their girlfriends. And the money was good. Soon, we agreed to be partners. With my skills with people and negotiation, I soon became his handler.
Before long, my sister grew quite concerned about the direction I was threading. And with respect to her wishes, I quit my racket and went back working for the Chinese couple full time. In return, I was allowed to read my books during my shift — It was my only concession. I found out that they couldn’t find anyone else who could manage their little store as thoroughly as I did. It was alright, I decided, besides, I grew fond of them, but I didn’t let them see that.
It was a quiet but unfulfilling life. It was what it was, and that’s what made everyone happy. There was a long period of peace, but really, it was just an empty silence that prevailed. Even Sabrina got the best of it. She looked up to me as her own father. I would take her to ice cream shops on weekends, and to the night carnivals whenever they were in town. I bought her pinwheels and pink cotton candies and she would scream in excitement every time as if it was the first time she had seen one.
At the bar, the armadillo was the wisest person next to the barman. “You’re so good with kids, why don’t you start your own family?” I didn’t know how to respond to the question I just shed a shrug. I thought about finally pursuing writing, I told him. I think that’s where my heart really belongs to. But all I could write about was women.
“What’s wrong with that?” The armadillo asked.
“All they do is suck your soul. I don’t think I want that. It’s the only thing I’ve got left.”
“Stop overdramatizing it. You’re no Fitzgerald.”
As the sun was setting, the static clouds were of different shades of dark blue until it was gone completely for the day. And the neon sign was switched on and I got the first glimpse of its life that night. I felt a glow warm up from inside of me once again as if resurrected. Like how it was the first time. The lights gave off an electric twitch every now and then. I thought it saved me. I thought that the universe was directly speaking to me. I thought about a dedication, an inscription. I wrote down the first line that dawned on me. It was on a table napkin amidst the hustlers and their victims and the background noise. The words that formed was for the drunks and the poets, for my older sister, and all the hearts that were breaking at that very moment.