Derby

I couldn’t remember the last time we spent an afternoon like that. The benches were starting to fill as the Sunday crowd flocked around the cockpit.

Men in stylish shoes sat together with men in rags.

Men of power, money, and influence — mingled with minimum wage earners.

Men of authority in civilian clothing, men of vast lands, towering concrete columns, the strong men, the giants rubbed elbows with the little men —

The little men who live along the railways and by the creeks.

We could catch the scent of intensity, the smell of thin air belching out from empty stomachs, famished hearts, and unfulfilled dreams.

Of mixed warm sweat,

Dry, sticky sweat.  

Arriving, we could see the owners carrying their prizefighters on their sides as if holstered pistols in a duel. Stroking their red and white fowls — their coats like a lion’s mane.

Wagers were in, bets were called.

A few flaps and a lot of slashing.

Fleshes were ripped, blood splattered in the dusty ring.

In a half-chance, winner-takes-all gamble.

All for the pot money and some stiff-meat lunch the next day.

Badong – not a fighting fowl.

The Lost Tale of Johnny Slip-On

This happened when I was drinking in a bar a few years ago. It was on a weekday after a gruelling workday when I felt the need to have a few stouts. I don’t usually drink dark beer, but I guess, the occasion called for it. All I could remember is how upset I was about work and I couldn’t wait to go to the nearest place to unwind. Anyway, I finally found one. It was raining hard out and what’s worse, I wasn’t able to check the weather app before heading to the office. All I had was the day’s newspaper that I used as a shield. As I entered the bar, the bell in the doorway chimed, which prompted the barkeep to emerge from whatever he was doing underneath his station. For a moment there, I had a funny picture of him in my head that he spends most of his time down there, just waiting for the cue of the chime until his services are needed. Of course, I didn’t manifest any of this so as not to get in trouble and thrown out right away. Besides, I wasn’t in the mood to begin with. I ordered whiskey, neat, to shake off the cold. It took three shots before I got settled in, then I ordered beer. Only a few people were in the bar, it being a weekday, which worked for me fine since I could use a lot of quiet that evening.

I stayed as far as I could from anyone. I think most of the patrons there got that. The people who were there had that look. You know, that “leave me alone, unless you’re some hot chic or you can solve all of my problems” kind of look. I was soaking wet from the rain, I felt worse. I was literally dripping from my seat. I sat away from the door and the windows, which meant taking the center of the bar where it was warmer. Behind me, was the aisle and a few tables where customers sat and there was a pinball machine stationed at the south wall. I tried to light a cigarette but my lighter won’t work, so I asked the barman for one.

Half an hour had passed, and the door chimed again. This time, it wasn’t some shady, grumpy guy, soaked in the rain, but someone very different. The man who entered got the same look as I got when I entered, only he wasn’t a stranger. The barkeep told me that he considers it a phenomenon how that chime gets everybody’s reaction on a weekday but almost none when it is a lot crowded on weekends. “Even when the chiming goes non-stop, nobody would turn, believe me.” Then he laughed it off and waited for the man to make his approach.

“Hey, Johnny.”

“What’s up, Barry?”

“The usual?”

“Yes, the usual, please.”

I would have preferred to drink alone but he sat right next to me and downed his drink. I wanted to tell him off, or probably just move at the corner, but I was too tired to make an effort and I didn’t want to give up my warm spot. He was well dressed, he wore an expensive black suit; the linings looked sharp — not lint on it — and it was tailor-fitted, probably Italian. Despite the heavy onslaught the rain was bringing, his hair still appeared to be in place. I thought he must have arrived in a car with a chauffeur perhaps, but it was highly unlikely since the bar was on a backstreet, there was no way a car could pass through. He sported a clean pompadour, like one of those haircuts mafia had during the prohibition. He was like a movie character who decided to step out of the film strip to have a drink.

The pompadour guy was a bit chatty though for my taste. He and the Barry guy went about a lot of stuff and they seemed to genuinely enjoy the conversation. When I unearthed the lighter from my pocket (to give it another try) I noticed something strange, something out of place — Johnny wasn’t wearing any shoes. He wasn’t barefoot, no, but what he had on was a pair of beach slippers. At first, I thought that his shoes were rain-soaked, but I didn’t see a drop of rain on him. He was completely dry. I must have been rudely staring at his feet that he began noticing me. When I sensed this, I immediately looked away and tried to act casual to avoid further damage of any sort.

“They’re pretty aren’t they, old sport?” He talked like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. He’s also beginning to look like him too, except for the choice of footwear.

“Yes they are, I mean, I didn’t mean to stare, I’m sorry.” This I delivered sincerely.

“Don’t beat yourself about it, old sport! I would do the same if I’m in your shoes — only, I won’t wear any.”

“Wh-What? Excuse me, I don’t think I follow.”

“Sorry, old sport. I thought you already knew. It appears that Barry here hasn’t been a very good host.”

“I’m sorry, Johnny, I thought you wouldn’t come tonight.”

“That’s alright; I didn’t plan on going either.”

The barkeep then turned to me and said, “I was supposed to let customers know about Johnny’s choice of footwear before he comes in the bar. I mean if there should be new faces coming in, such as yourself.”

I didn’t know what to say. Then the barkeep continued, “He pays me for it. Adds more tip, I mean.”

“Why is that necessary?” Somehow, I regained the courage to ask a question.

“Simple, old sport, simple. So I don’t have to repeat my sorry tale.”

“I wouldn’t call that sorry, Johnny.” Said Barry.

“No, old sport, don’t worry, we’re good. Don’t feel bad about it, okay? Besides, it’s been a while since I’ve told anyone about it. You’ve done your job well, Barry.”

“Thanks, Johnny. That meant a lot” Relieved, Barry stepped back to resume his bar duties.

“Well, how about it, old sport?”

“What about it?” I replied.

“Do you want to hear the story?” He pulled out a cigarette case and lights a stick. He’s dashing with how he did the whole thing.

Obviously, I didn’t want to hear it. I was still hung up on what happened that day at work, but I also didn’t want to offend the Gatsby guy again.

“Sure, let’s hear it.” I lighted a cigarette myself. My trusty lighter finally worked.

“Well, I have this condition.” He started. “As you can see I dress up for the occasion, and I do it all the time, except of course I don’t wear shoes.”

I nodded to imply that I was interested and listening.

“You could call it a compromise. You see, I’m in sales — international trade if you will. For as long as I bring in the dough, I get to wear whatever I want.”

“I understand.” I readjusted my seat to face him. “But why not pick an attire that would match your… I mean, that.” I of course referred to his slippers.

“Well, old sport, my good friend, it’s because I want to wear suits! Besides, I don’t know anyone, or have heard of anyone having the same kind of style! I’m one of a kind.” He sips on his martini.

“If I may be frank, why don’t you wear shoes?”

“Ah! Straight to the point!” Gatsby guy slammed his hand on the bar top.

“Well, old sport, you know how we all have nightmares? Huh, do you, old sport?” He leaned towards me, it was extremely close, I thought he’d give me a kiss or something. I didn’t respond and waited for what he’ll say next.

“Well, old sport, what if I told you I didn’t wake up from mine? I mean, every time I wear a pair of shoes, it just takes me.”

“Take you to where exactly?” I lowered my tone to match his, we were almost whispering.

“Here goes, old sport. When I was a kid, I think I was in grade 3 at the time; I woke up late for school. My parents were strict as hell, about punctuality most especially. So I crammed and was trying to get dressed even if I was still half-awake. On the way, boarded the school van, I noticed something twitching in my left shoe. At first, I thought it was just a spasm or a throbbing vein from all the hurrying that I did. I was asleep during the second period when I felt the twitch again. But it wasn’t a spasm or a vein that was causing it for sure. I mean, I could feel something moving in there, in my left shoe. It was somewhere mid-foot beneath the arch. I was seated at the back row so the teacher didn’t notice me. It was a public school, and at that time, a class was comprised of forty to, sometimes, fifty students — so no teacher ever noticed anyone. I thought that my foot was rebelling against me, that it wanted to go back home and get the entire body a well-deserved sleep after the baseball practice the day before. So I tried to sneak up on it, I untied the lace, and gently pulled out my foot. Even with great anticipation, I still wasn’t ready for what I saw next. A rabid-looking mouse jumped out of the shoe! I screamed and my classmates did too. The mouse ran off around the classroom but it didn’t know where to go. Many of my classmates climbed up their seats and they were screaming non-stop in disgust. Nobody saw that the dreaded thing came out of my shoe, I would have been so embarrassed. But a bizarre thing happened. The mouse went back to my abandoned left shoe on the floor, to seek refuge, I think. It stayed there for the longest time until our teacher got the janitor to take care of the thing. Of course, the janitor had to take the shoe with him to avoid the further commotion. When he got back, he returned the empty shoe to me but I didn’t want to touch it anymore. I went home barefoot.”

“You were traumatized.”

“Yes, I was, old sport. But not because of the mouse.”

“What do you mean?”

“That’s the wonder about kids, old sport. Things are just so much clearer to them.”

I said nothing.

“Sure I was traumatized about the whole thing, but it wasn’t because of the mouse. It was the janitor’s action that shook me.”

“So that’s the reason why you don’t want to own shoes.”

“What? I didn’t say I don’t own shoes. I said I don’t wear them.”

Dumbfounded, I drank what’s left of my stout.

“You see, old sport, after that day, I realized that the mouse treated my shoe as its shelter, its own home. And after a series of therapy sessions, the doctors and my parents tried out many ways on how to reverse the effects on me. You know, they tried to fix me. Well, you see, I didn’t need fixing at all. It took me a while, but I finally found a way to cope with it. One day, I placed a little piece of cheese inside of a shoe and eventually started doing it for all the shoes I had. And guess what happened next?

The Lost Tale of Johnny Slip-On

Snapshots

 

PA System

They plodded the aisle where the toiletry items were displayed. The smell of antiseptic calmed him down a bit from the argument they just had. The pushcart barely had anything in it; it was still light to swerve around. Then, there was an announcement from the PA system, the store is closing down in a few. The woman rushed to the liquor section and picked up a Jack and four packs of cigarettes. Two of each — gold and menthol. “Something to cool us down.” She said to him. There was still animosity in her eyes but it was beginning to fade somehow. He picked up a single toothbrush and threw it in the cart. “Okay, for as long as you’d share that toothbrush with me, then I’m good.” The PA system ran another round of announcements for the last call.

 

 

Buffet

He learned about Arthur when he was just a little boy during the days when he spent most of his time out in the sun, playing with the other kids his age. Excalibur and the weapons they had were makeshift swords made of wooden shafts, bamboo sticks, and illustration board cutouts. He has never read any of the books that were written about the valiant king and his knights — He still hasn’t. He picked up most of what he knew from watching a lot of cartoons thanks to the neighbor who had colored TV. With friends, he watched from the outside of the house.  He didn’t mind the cramps from the prolonged squatting nor the mosquitoes that saw him and his friends as buffet. For them, they had body armor, their skins were made of bronze and steel.

 

 

Makahiya

A car was moving towards their direction as he and a friend stood at the corner street. It ran slow as if waiting to be announced. The engine sounded like a quiet stream, it had heavy tint on all sides. As it was about to pass them by, one of its windows opened — a woman’s face emerged, surveying the numbers of the nearby houses. ‘There’s an empty house just farther ahead if that’s what you are looking for…” The friend yelled cheekily. As if a shy plant, its leaves folded, the woman’s face retracted from their view.  The tint of the window was even darker in that silvery gloom. The night was closing in and he wished nothing more than to see that face again.

 

Sex Tape

It was a sex tape.  A friend pulled me into watching it before I could ever find out who was in it.  Even if he told me right from the beginning, I don’t think it would stop me and do otherwise.  I wasn’t sure if it was curiosity or the hormones that drew us into it, but my friend’s persuasiveness definitely did not help.  We were intrigued; we haven’t seen anything like it before. Apparently, he was able to download the entire thing before it was taken down.  All he said was that we both knew the couple in the video.  In fact, they were classmates of ours.  We watched it over a dozen times. Probably four or five more times at home.  If there was ever a pop quiz about it, we’d ace it for sure. This happened during the time when smartphones were just beginning to be a thing, and a lot of people were doing a lot of experimenting with them apparently.  There was even a myth that service technicians can extract all of your files out of your phone even if they were deleted or your memory card is out.

Needless to say, it went viral.  It wasn’t even the term that we used then, it just went out.   Everybody in school was talking about it, I’m sure even the grown-ups did too.  It even reached a point when phones were banned inside the classrooms.  We talked about it tirelessly though during the morning assembly, during recess, even while classes were on-going.  It was such a hot topic that some students officially declared homeroom as ‘X and Y’

We didn’t refer to them by their real names to avoid being caught. We used X and Y instead. X and Y are the usual symbols we use for the numbers we don’t know yet in Algebra, in case you’re wondering. In short, to keep them anonymous.

We had fun talking and making jokes about it, heck, it even helped most of us understand the inner workings of that world. It opened our eyes to a lot of things. On my part, X and Y were ahead of their time, they were gods to me.  After the video came out, we didn’t see X and Y ever again.  We heard that they were sent away abroad, never to see each other again. Some even told us that they had their names changed because of the damage it caused.

Looking back, I felt terrible about how we behaved. Yes, it’s easy to say that we were mere children and that we didn’t fully understand what we did then.  But that also didn’t help X and Y at all.   Lately, I think about it a lot. I still see them as kids in my head. On how taciturn and quiet they are in their own happy world, on how contented they are in that shared bubble. I remember how nice and gentle X was; she was once a lab partner in Chemistry, and even if we didn’t speak to each other much, her warmth transcended to me. She helped me with a few school work and she was good at it too – helping others.  And it pains me even now how we all betrayed her, both of them.  We buried them alive, we took part in the murder. I know, saying this won’t do reprieve and penance, but I want nothing more in life than to go back and do better.

Birthday

He visited the woman and her fatherless child on the eve of his thirty-sixth birthday. They had a simple meal of pork tofu with rice, and some slices of ripe mangoes. He caught a whiff of his mother’s hands from the freshly cut fruit, it reminded him of the small farming land of home. At the back of a school notebook, he showed the child how to draw a flying kitten over a brown isosceles mountain. The child gave it a name, changed it, and finally settled with another eventually. After lights out, both adults stayed in the woman’s bedroom exchanging fond memories of their lives around the city. He lay on his side, propped his head on his arm, while the woman was stretched out in bed naked. The room was submerged by a drowsy light coming from the lamppost that directly stood across the window. Every single piece of furniture was caught in that soft gleam; Their complexion was the color of apricots the entire night. She then started talking about her previous inhibitions to allow herself to be with another man. She felt robbed all those years. There were some tears, but these were merely from the strain of letting it all out after all this time. He finally understood her mother’s demise, what drove her mad. At the stroke of midnight, he was reminded again of the same person, the one who gave birth to him on this very day. Her ghost just keeps on coming back like this every year. From her own world, the woman pulled herself out of the abyss and reached for his face. The woman was the first to greet him on his birthday, she made sure of that. They made love once again to forget. He tried avoiding the woman’s eyes, however, when he turned to the windows, the glare of the streetlights was too bright. But just overhead, a moth was fluttering about the room — its erratic movements perfectly matched his tentative gaze.

Always Leave the Exact Amount on the Dresser

“Two tickets please.” The lady behind the window tore two and handed him his change.  The movie wasn’t good, but he loved it all the same. The woman he was with disagreed. She thought that the dialogues were lousy and it bored her to death. He liked how opinionated she was. He gave his rebuttal and she cooly answered them. They had a good, intelligent back-and-forth.  But the truth is, she had seen it over a dozen times already for the past weeks. She had practice. The men who afforded her took her to the cinemas and always preferred they had debates like this at the end of it. Some men are strange, she thought. She always took the opposing view, no matter what side that was.

“The critics hated it.” The woman argued. But he cared less about what the critics wrote. He decided that he was too old for that. In fact, he doesn’t read any of their columns anyway lest it deliberately permits random people to just interfere with the story being told.

It was as good as it could get. Their conversations had flat-lined naturally when they found themselves necking all of a sudden while waiting for a cab. It did not seem to appall her, dating an old foreign guy such as himself.

“But how do you know when someone is being true to you?” He asked.

“Well, that’s easy.”

“Yeah?”

“I guess.”

“Please do tell.”

She sat back as if it drew her more power when explaining.

“At nights, you could always tell.  At nights, the whispers are the most honest thing there is.”

And one thing led to another. Before he knew it, he was being led to this shabby hotel down some dark alley where she was a preferred guest. After all, this wasn’t a real date. It was rather a business transaction.  But he had hoped that it could at least mean something to the woman while it lasted. As they approached their place of accommodation, he noticed that there wasn’t a working sign.  The hotel had none if you want to know the truth.  All it had on was the address number by the glass door which said ‘9316’ with the neons from a nearby KTV gracing light on its facade. He thought that she had probably chosen this place specifically to bury their whispers.

There were some light rains and it was cold. It was dark all around with only a few cars jolting by at the corner street.  He found some shade and waited outside while the woman took care of the room.  He stared blankly up into the dark sky and searched for the invisible source of this unending downpour and wondered like a child. The wind carried the slanted rain. There were soft glimmers each time they passed through the street lights. He thought it was a nice gesture, the slow rain paying their respects like that.

After a while, they went inside and got into a small elevator which barely fitted them. Their shoulders almost touched, he felt nervous once again. Under the bright light, he could almost see her underneath all of that makeup. He thought her dark skin was beautiful, apart from the fact that she looked tired and older. When they reached their room, the woman asked him to place the exact amount on the dresser, or else she would keep whatever he’d left there. She undid her coat while she went into the bathroom to freshen up. He took off his shoes and sat at the corner of the bed where the window was near.

He was shivering when he touched her. He rarely gets the chance.

While on her knees, she looked up to him and then smiled.

But he couldn’t tell if she was sincere or not.

She was preoccupied. She was not whispering, of course.

But he was convinced that she was, that she cared for him.

For as long as the money is good on the dresser,

For as long as she is down there.

It was a good view from the top.

Something inside him stirred, something primal.

This was one of the rare occasions wherein he felt good about himself.

No insecurities.

Right here, he was king.

He felt proud, dignified.

In this third-world country, he was living the great American dream.

He was old and wrinkly. He has halitosis.

But he has a good credit score.

And around these parts, that is all that matters.

High-Roller Suite

I tried to find my sleep but couldn’t.

So I popped some pills and waited for it to slither into my veins.

The rays of the sun were rosy, it shone upon us as it descended into the marsh of the thick plum clouds.

I was looking for the cowboy riding into the sunset.

There was no cowboy.

Only the sun and its entourage of plum clouds.

I remember how warm it felt when the rays touched my face.

Many of us turned to look.

Then the pilot swerved for a better view.

We peered through those tiny holes, sharing the small windows of the passenger seats.

Everybody was still.

Some of us bashfully held our phones and took at least thirty-three pictures each.

The sun hasn’t changed at all; she was as beautiful as ever, I thought.

We couldn’t get enough of her.

I guess I could never get over her.

Sanshiro and Mineko.

The two stray sheep by the stream.

I reached up for the attendant button and beeped to order a beer.  After the fiasco the night before, I still wanted one. I left the hotel room with my puke still warm on the floor and nabbed all the shower gels on the way out.

Some low life I was.  I was up there with the greats.

I put on my earphones instead and ran lines with Bill Murray on my phone.

Why can’t these days be just like in the movies?

No, it won’t work. For we’d all be the protagonists. Everyone would want to be the good guy –

The center of the fucking universe.

I looked around and saw only strange faces.

Tourists were visiting a third-world country for the first time.

The honeymooners.

The retirees.

The mothers.

The fathers.

With their oblivious children.

The left.

The right.

And all the politicians who’d love them all when the time comes.

The manicured men with their man-buns.

All the protagonists.

I looked around me and belched alcohol fumes with my cigarette smoke.

I couldn’t believe I just lighted a cigarette inflight. I wanted to put it out but it was too late.

And as soon as the trail of smoke reached full vertical, I then heard the smoke alarm went off. One of the flight attendants came up to me and asked me politely to put out my Marlboro lights but I wasn’t able to respond right away — I was in shock of my stupidity and I was also distracted on how she had still managed to put a straight face on.

I did what I was told. It was just an accident, I explained. My heart was pounding. The flight attendant pretended to believe me. It was nice of her to do so even though she obviously didn’t.  They informed me that they will hand me over to the authorities as soon as we would land.

I ran. They chased me. I made the evening news.

There was a hotel across the airport. I was flushed, my face was pale and at the same time pink when I saw my reflection in the lobby. I told the receptionist to quit the pleasantries and give me a room right away. This caused a bone on her right temple to twitch a little bit. This has also caused all the cheap rooms to be occupied all of a sudden.

I was offered the only room available that night which was the presidential suite.

The presidential suite.

I guess for the first time I was a high-roller.

A fugitive with the knack for self-indulgence under pressure.

There was no way I could afford it.

I asked the receptionist to just charge it but my card flopped.

I spent the whole night at the bar instead.

I was supposed to be the protagonist of this story.

The center of the whole fucking universe.

The Forest in the Mountainside (A Ghost Story)

This happened to me some years ago when I was still studying at university. On the way home, I decided to take the long way route around the mountainside so I could take photographs while at it. At first, I didn’t think it was a bad idea since I grew up around the area and I mostly knew the people who lived there at the time. If something went wrong, I could just simply go to the nearest residence for help. After all, there hadn’t been any incidents related to mugging or anything crime-related. So with this assessment, I carried on and readied the camera with me.

It was late in the afternoon and the sun was just about to set. I thought the lighting will be just perfect by the time I start. I felt excited about it. Honestly, I couldn’t wait for my classmates to see what I’d have taken after this, and I could already imagine their faces when we meet that coming Monday. Looking back at it now, I guess I thought I wanted to brag about how much I had improved with my photography skills to land an impression among them. Besides, I had nothing to do at home, and I didn’t want to go back just yet.

I remember feeling rather bad that day. My parents had just finalized everything about their marriage annulment and apparently, they had been keeping the details from me up until that morning. They had decided that they would go their separate ways after the school year. I remember exactly how it felt even up to now when they broke the news to me at the breakfast table. It was my father who found the courage to explain to me first.

“We’d still be your parents, nothing will ever change you’ll see. For what it’s worth, we really considered all of the factors here, so there is no need to worry really, we’d make sure that you are taken care of.”

“Yeah… We really think that this will be all for the best, honey… for everyone.” My mother sounded unsure.

I remember seeing my grandfather arrive that day as well. I thought it was odd for him to travel all the way from where our family was from without a good enough reason, I mean, he rarely visited us when my siblings and I were a lot younger, but I thought that maybe he was just catching up for the lost time.

Soon after I realized the real reason for my grandfather’s visit, I tried to convince my parents to reconsider but things had already been finalized and there was no changing it.

My grandfather was a popular photographer during his time, so I was told, but I only saw all about it in newspaper clippings in the family photo album. My parents told me that it’d be probably good if I stayed with him for the summer — while both of them took care of things and made all the necessary arrangements, I could also learn a thing or two from him.

I didn’t have any choice. And what’s more, I barely knew my grandfather. He was more of a stranger to me at the time. I thought, how can someone you know so little about help you in this time of crisis?

To break the ice, he gave me one of his favorite cameras as a present when we met that morning.

There was nothing special about the camera. It was one of those old digital types that you’d just point and shoot with. But I guess he had memories with it, and he probably wanted to pass it down to me as an heirloom of some sort. I’ve got to admit, however, it helped take my mind off things for a while and somewhat made me feel better. I thanked him and decided not to think about it so much and went straight to school as usual.

I toyed with the camera as I went about the stroll around the mountain after school. It was on a Friday, so I didn’t mind strolling around so late.

Maybe I was too preoccupied with taking photographs that I didn’t realize that I had already wandered about deep into the forest. It was way farther than I have ever been into that the rice fields that you’d normally see around our small town were nowhere to be found. The tree branches sprawled above me as if they were locking arms with each other with their stares fixed down at me. As if conniving, the sun behind them cast dark shadows onto their massive trunks that all the more outlined their contoured figures around me.

At first, I thought, there was nothing wrong and that I should just turn back. But when I did, the pathway behind me vanished out of the thin air. I couldn’t see anything at all. There was just grass, and wild bushes, and strange-looking trees all around. They all look the same everywhere. I am lost, I am lost… I heard my voice crackle and at the same time, I was screaming hysterically inside my head. I was scared. The light from the dimming sun can hardly seep through the gaps of the branches and their thick leaves blotted out the light.

Just when I thought that things couldn’t get any worse, I heard a voice. At first, I thought it was some random animal, but when I walked closer to where it was, it got louder and louder — it became clear to me that it was much more like a human’s voice. Cold chills ran down to my spine.

Up ahead, between two crooked trees, I saw a boy curled up as if crying. There was little light but I knew I was right, no doubt about it. It really was a child! He had his back against me and he was muttering words I couldn’t understand. I froze on the spot. There was no way a child can get this far, I thought. And what’s more, he had no clothes and his back was filled with wounds, as if claw marks had caused it. When I tried to move in closer, I accidentally stepped on a twig. It was dry so it made a sharp snap when it received my full weight. I held my breath for what happened next. The boy’s crying suddenly stopped. This freaked me out. The boy fell silent and did not move.

“Hey kid… are you okay?” I tried to sound concerned.

There was no answer.

I tried to call him a few more times but the boy didn’t budge as if he was not hearing me. That settled it. That boy was not of this world.

I took a few steps back and tried to say goodbye as if asking for permission to do so. But when I did, suddenly, I saw it moved. Its head turned but its body remained in place as it was. I panicked. I felt all the hair on my body stood up. I tried to move, but my legs won’t give.

Finally, it heard me. Out of desperation, I thought that maybe I could talk my way out of it.

“Do you need help?” I started.

It stared at me and shook its head as if saying no. Its head appeared weirdly loose as if it was dislocated.

“Where are your parents? What are you doing out here all alone? I insisted.

It shook its head again but more rapidly this time. As I was saying all of these, I noticed something else… something sinister.

It was a feeling that somebody was watching me.

At first, I didn’t notice it. But it was there… A figure… I saw its face behind one of the crooked trees. Its face had a strange grin on it. I saw its front teeth — too many than it’s supposed to be. It was a dark figure, clad in black; it was tall; it bore no face at all except for its wide-opened eyes and its strange expressionless grin. It was as if it wanted to be seen. And when I locked eyes with it, it moved its face closer towards me, as if curious, as it peered behind a bark… I stood there just a few meters away from it — stunned, blood drained down from my body. I couldn’t move even if I tried to direct my limbs to do so. Somehow its stare had a grasp on me.

It wasn’t moving; it just stood right there, behind the bark. But the strange thing was, it felt it was getting closer and closer… I knew it hasn’t left its place behind the bark but it was definitely getting close. It was like a life-size photograph being zoomed in. And before long, I found myself standing face to face with its dark expressionless face. Its eyes were now wider than ever. Clear white and pure of malice. It felt like it desired something… Of mine…

All of a sudden it opened its mouth wide. It was dark and hollow. I’ve never seen black that way in my life! It felt I was drowning in the full darkness. I couldn’t breathe until I passed out.

The next thing I knew I was in the university clinic. Apparently, I was found by my grandfather when he went to fetch me from school. It was getting late so naturally, he was worried. When later I asked for the details, I found out that he had found me a little later after sundown, which meant that the entire experience only lasted just a few minutes, give or take, ten minutes tops.

“Huh? No way… I swear I must have been walking around those parts for at least two hours…”

Up until now, I couldn’t explain what had happened that day. I didn’t go back to our town nor the university and agreed to stay with my grandfather for good. After that day, I didn’t take photographs anymore. I was afraid that both the boy and the black figure will appear in one of the pictures, that they had followed me through it.

Even if my grandfather had asked me, I declined to take up photography, not even as just a hobby. When I was asked whatever happened to his old camera I just told him that I had dropped it in the forest where he found me. To be honest, I was glad that I lost it. I don’t want to have anything to do with it, to say the least. But I couldn’t help myself to wonder still… What really happened that night? And above all, why me?

I have a weird theory though. I can’t help but feel that both the boy and the mysterious black figure were manifestations of what I was feeling at the time. That somehow it was me who gave them life. The idea of that kept me awake most nights, I felt sick in my stomach. I don’t know, but I have a strong hunch that the boy was the sad and lonely part of me and the dark figure embodied all of my anger for my parents.

It’s been years now since I last saw my mom and my dad. I plan on taking a drive this weekend to see both of them in our old town. I’m also considering dropping by the university and to see the mountainside. I guess I will find out the answers then. Maybe…

Nice Guys Finish Last

I waved down a taxi and got in. We made an abrupt U-turn and almost hit the curb but we just drove on as if it didn’t happen. I told the driver the destination. I was surprised that he didn’t ask for extra as most drivers do. I thought I was lucky.

The backseat smelt of LPG. I can barely breathe. It’s the same kind of gas you’d find in a typical household kitchen, except we weren’t frying bacon and eggs that morning — it made my head hurt.

I was running late. I was attending a friend’s wedding. It seemed obvious enough to the driver since I was wearing my oversized white barong with a boutonniere flower pinned on.

He asked me if I was one of the groom’s men. I said no. Then he asked me if I was already married. I told him that I was somewhere in between. He asked me what that means. I told him I’d tell him when I found out for myself. He stopped asking.

“You seem like a nice guy,” The driver started. “But you know what they say about nice guys.”  He needed not to finish the line. I don’t know about me being a nice guy, but I know I’ve always finished last.  I had no response. We beat a red light.

The sky was overcast and a little later there were some light rains that sprayed.

I wasn’t able to make it to the exchange of vows, I wasn’t able to make it to the church at all. But I was just in time for the opening of the bar. I liked my scotch dry. I liked it with water too.  I ordered a round, and another, and another — it was like a well in a desolate desert more than a wedding reception.

There was a lady sitting next to me, I thought I knew her, but she reassured me that it wasn’t the case. We started talking, first about Bernie Sanders, and a lot of random things that I have already forgotten about.

She was alright. We slow danced to Death in Vegas’ Girls while expertly holding our cocktails. I thought it was perfect when they decided to tone down the lights. The indigo matched the mood.

“Do you believe in marriages?”  She pulled her head back and waited for my answer as if it was a test of character.

“You’re the second stranger who asked me about marriage today. Well, I think of it as a retirement package.”

“Wait, what? Like living off on a pension and taking vacation trips on cruise ships?”

“Yes, all of that. But don’t forget about prostate cancer too.”

There was some laughter.

“But seriously, I think it’s a lot of work. And you reap the rewards long after —

I think I believe in the integrity of its commitment.”  I retracted for a simpler answer.

“What do you do anyway?”  She asked.

“I’m a writer.”

“They say writers are difficult to live with.”

“Oh yeah?”

“I guess, maybe you’re overly committed to what you do.”

“No. I think it’s because we’re poor.”

I went home alone as usual. I went out for a nightcap at a local nightclub. As I sat at the bar I thought about Santiago in Hemingway’s book. I thought about his fish and the lions walking on the beaches of Africa in his dreams. I thought about the great Joe DiMaggio and the great games he played. On how good he must have felt winning. And the prisms, in the day, and the reflection of the countless stars on the surface of the sea at night. I thought about a lot of things in between those thoughts. And when I snapped back, I wasn’t anymore in the mood for watching the girls on stage. But there I was, still inside the bar, still draining the well.

I checked my wallet and there was almost nothing there.

But I drank like how rich men do. I felt like Bukowski. I felt like an entire world inside of me existed.

I drank like a millionaire.

The Color of The Ink Wasn’t Blue

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.

A Warm Bowl of Ramen

“What is that exactly?” He pointed to the sky but I couldn’t make out what he was referring to. I asked him what he meant, there must be over a thousand stars up there. The cigarette smoke was clouding up my glasses. We were both standing outside a ramen place after we had a few drinks from a watering hole we found across.

It has been a cold February and we were having a great time.

“It could just be a satellite or probably just a glare you caught.” I finally responded.

Truth is, Ronnie has been developing a severe case of an optic nerve disorder or probably glaucoma. He wouldn’t tell me exactly. I think it’s progressive. I think it’s getting worse.

We ran a little magazine back then. Ronnie had all the connections in town and we used his place when we worked. He convinced me to run it. I was moved by his persistence and dedication. We asked independent writers with the right material to contribute but most of the stories were written by us. It wasn’t in any way prolific, we make just about enough, but in most days less, still, we felt we had our audience going and that was all that mattered.

It was a dying form – writing – and it was going away with his eyes, he told me. And that the ramen was delicious, it makes his soul happy. “If we keep it real like this godsend dish, we will never go out of business. That’s what I believe.” But we both knew we were going out of business. He was slurping a mouthful of wheat noodles and washing it down every time with an ice-cold beer.  I don’t exactly understand where he wanted us to go, but that’s how he saw things from where he sat.

Ronnie was a good writer. Problem was, he was all passion but rarely obeys form. He was all over the place. But then, maybe it was wrong of me to judge that. During our time together, I was helping him finish the stuff that he wrote but he always felt that it wasn’t good enough, or I was editing too much, that it wasn’t raw enough to publish.

On his best days, he would ask me to do what I do. He would apologize, but of course, I understood. I was in charge of copyediting and proofreading, basically making sure that he would finish his work. But I couldn’t not tolerate him. Of course, there was the women, and the self-inflicting defacing moments of isolation, and drugs, and the drinking. It was good for a period of time, however, real-life catches on and we missed deadlines and there were just too much unfulfilled commitments both to our writers and readers.

For what it’s worth it was a good run, we both agreed. It was those who did not try who really failed, as the wise would say. We both got married and had kids. I teach basic writing and he just enjoys early retirement and the riches his parents left to him. I heard he goes to the doctor every now and then, but it wasn’t for his eyes apparently. We see each other twice a year during the anniversaries of the magazine when it started and ended.

I took the time finishing my broth. It was warm and cozy on the inside that it deserved to linger in those moments. I took my time in a lot of things, it seems. This was probably just an excuse. I have always been a slow reader and it has been the same with everything else—I still hadn’t gotten over it. I lighted a cigarette and he asked me for one. And I looked into those eyes and I saw there was passion still. The same kind. They may be tired, damaged, a little frustrated perhaps, but the soul hasn’t departed yet.

I lifted my bowl and slurped to my heart’s content. And he was right. The ramen made our souls happy that night.

A Life with Joan Didion

She wanted to be exactly like Joan Didion. She basically patterned her life on her. She would even mimic JD’s writing style, except that she wasn’t as good. She would try, and a lot of her readers like what she writes, but for her, it wasn’t good enough. She would go at lengths, she would even refer to her boyfriend as ‘John’, and named her cat after Quintana — Didion’s late husband and daughter. She would dress up like her, and would always wear dark sunglasses, and would always prefer drinking straight from a large bottle of Coke first thing in the morning. Her favorite imitation of her, was a picture taken dressed up like the renowned writer — In a long-sleeved dress, with a cigarette pointing to the ground, leaning against a Corvette Stingray. She was particularly keen about matching every detail, except for the car, which was tough to find, so she settled with an old white Toyota Crown.

Her boyfriend didn’t mind. He even finds it amusing sometimes. He would even help her, giving her all the time she needed in writing, encouraging her to the aspiration. What he did mind, however, was when it got eerily weird when she wanted to talk about his apparent death, and as to the manner of which it would occur.

One time, after writing for nearly seven hours — locked up in her room — she woke him up at around three.  She asked him to comment about what she had written about, with an intense glare of excitement in her eyes. At first, he didn’t see anything wrong with it, in fact, he likes how driven she could get, but then, there was something in her look that night that wasn’t there before.

He sat up, opened the bedside lamp, and put on his glasses. She was holding what appeared to be a printed manuscript against her chest.  “Do you want me to heat your dinner, honey?” Asked John.

“No, just need to hear what you think, that’s all.” John read it, while she sat anxiously at the edge of the bed, waiting.

“I like it.”

“You do? That’s great!” She looked genuinely relieved. “What else, John?”

“Uhm, I think it’s perfect. I would read this over and over and never get tired.”

“And? How about the technical composition, the arrangements?”

“I think it’s great, honey. I really think it’s good.”

She smiled dimly and fell silent for a while and said:

“The real John would have been a good critique. Obviously, you’re not him. You could have at least pretended to be smart by going against it. How typical.”

“Because I’m not John, honey.”  Stunned, he almost yelled at her.

She collected the printed papers and went back to the study. The next morning when John woke up, she was lying next to him, still asleep. During breakfast, he asked her about the night before but she didn’t have a memory of it at all. He asked her about what she wrote, which she was able to recall, but the episode in the bedroom apparently didn’t happen as far as she was concerned.

In the weeks that followed, she’s been gradually moving out of their place, discreetly, until she was able to empty the apartment of all of her belongings. Of course, John noticed this but opted not to say anything.  She took some of John’s stuff — probably by accident — in exchange, she left Quintana. Besides, one couldn’t hang around with the dead that was just absurd.

At the bar, everyone is calling him by his real name, of course. Nobody knew that the name ‘John’ was just a pet name she once gave him. He spent most of the time in the university where he teaches in the mornings until late afternoons and took his night classes at the bar. The apartment was just a place where he sleeps. “It’s Quintana’s home now, I’m just a boarder.” He told the old man and the armadillo.

Weeks turned to months, thirty-two to be exact. He saw her doing an interview in some late-night show. She’s been doing great. Published four novels, and a book of essays, and a weekly feature column. Of course, she had to use her real name now. She goes by Mia S. Torres. But hearing this sounded distant to him. She will always be Joan to him. It was rather strange. But all in all, he was genuinely happy for her.

He heard so much about her. Especially from common friends. They say, that she was seen sometimes just driving around in a vintage car, a Corvette, sometimes in their hometown. That she’s been around artists, and other writers, and celebrities of her kind in loud music bars, smoking and drinking behind a cordoned-off area. His friends say that she is a lot nicer, despite of everything, and that she appears to be grounded still, a better person.  Of course, he knew, that this is just a dense assessment of her character confined in the limited quarters of their brief encounters on some random street somewhere.

But he knew that she has become all of the things she once wanted, and more. Again, he felt genuinely happy for her.

While he lived his life as is, just the same, he always remained consistent. He always preferred to be still and constant. To be reliable. To his students and on keeping the barkeep employed — Despite all that had happened.

After sometime Quintana, the cat died. “She just got old, I’m sorry.” He phoned to tell her about it.

“Was she in pain?”

“I think she passed on quietly. The vet was really delicate about it.”

“Thank you for letting me know. I appreciate it a lot.”

“That’s not a problem at all. I’m happy to have called you.”

“Thanks again, Elliot.”

“No, I mean, you’re welcome…

But please, call me John.”

Ugly Men

They were in a shopping center along Taft Avenue. The old man and the armadillo were both standing in front of a mannequin. Just staring at it.

“I don’t think it’s going to budge, Fred.” Said the armadillo.

“Just wait. We’ve been here this long, why back down now?”

They had lunch at the food court. It wasn’t that good, but they had plenty of choices, plus, there was a lot of greasy food too.

A couple walked past them. The guy, whom they assumed the boyfriend, was carrying the bag of the woman he was with.

“I feel sorry for the guy.” Fred almost twisting his head following the couple.

“I don’t know about you, Fred, but I think she’s just gorgeous.”

“I didn’t mean that.”

“What then?”

“I mean him carrying that woman’s bag.”

“Why? Is it how he’s carrying it?”

“Especially that. The lady must not have insisted on it. But the way he wears that bag slung across his chest like that, just gets me.”

“Oh, I see.” The armadillo was admiring its newly polished shell.

“What’s the title of that movie with those giant, worm-like monsters in a small desert town? I just remembered something.” Asked Fred.

“What? Earthworm Jim?”

“No, the one with Kevin Bacon in it.”

“You mean Tremors?”

“Yeah, that one.”

“What about it?”

“Well, I had a young lady once. Pretty as hell. Like one of those beautiful college girls we go see sometimes.” Fred paused and picked up the plastic saucer and drank what’s left of the gravy. “Anyways, I just thought about that other thing she told me. Other than what she said about men carrying shoulder bags.”

“Why? Did she despise it too?”

“Quite naturally.”

“Have you ever heard about chivalry, Fred?” Refuted the armadillo.

“It’s not about that. But yeah, that too… Anyway, that’s not the point.”

“Then what is?”

“Tremors, buddy. Tremors.”

“I’m not sure I follow you.”

“She prefers ugly men with little wieners, seriously, over those who are good looking but packing big guns.”

“For real? We’re ugly, we like to travel light. Well, that’s our department.”

“Yes. I really thought I finally found the perfect girl.”

“Have you ever.”

“Yes. I thought so too.” A busboy came over and cleaned the adjacent table beside them. They caught a whiff of detergent.

“I’m not sure how, but ever since she saw that movie she got nightmares non-stop.”

“So what happened?”

“You know, things.”

“Why don’t you get back with her? Obviously, you’re still hungover.”

“I’m in my late sixties. She’s probably dying or dead by now.”

“Probably.” The armadillo plainly responded. “Was she the reason why you were staring at that mannequin earlier?”

Fred did not respond.

“But one thing I don’t understand…” The armadillo straightened up from its curved stance. “Why that mannequin? We could have picked up a live one. I know just a place.”

“Well, it had no face.”

“You’re getting weird again, Fred.”

“No, it’s not like that, A.”

“Get to the point.”

“I’m getting there. Jeez.” Fred took a sip of tap water, then continued. “I’m an old bastard. And nowadays, I forget things, you know?”

“Right. Go on…”

“I mean, I still remember the details, but I couldn’t seem to remember her face, anymore.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Fred.” The armadillo replied genuinely.

“That’s okay, I guess.”

“Oh. Like that Joey Albert song! Only in reverse.”

“Ha! Like that one exactly!” Both of them laughed.

Then silence fell between them. It was a thin one, but it was sincere.

“Something like that, huh?” The armadillo looked to the direction of the crowd.

“Yeah. Something like that.”

Fred’s tone was a little somber. He then checked his hands and licked the gravy off his fingers. They’re now both looking at the direction of the crowd, where a street dance contest was about to begin.