H still thought it was a good idea for us to tag along. There wasn’t much else to do anyway, nor did we find any reason not to. We just agreed and went. At the party, the three of us kept on downing drinks, cracking up while we ransacked the fridge and whatever was there in the pantry; the birthday girl, whom we only met once, treated us like some delegates because we’ve got the funniest jokes that night. While the brightly colored confetti, like dirty snow, was sidelined soon after they touched the ground. They remained in the slums of spilled drinks with all the muddied cigarette ash on the floor as the faint breeze from the rotating stand fan plowed the half-deflated balloons, frustratingly convincing the onlookers that they still got a pulse. After some time, we slid out through the backdoor, sat by the pool, and watched the reflection of the moon quiver on its surface. My friends and I talked about old western tramways and isolation, argued about bullfights, spending afternoons in the countryside — we talked about this and that, mainly about the trip that would never happen. We stayed seated there, like some discarded tinsel, our backs pinned against the chicken fence while watching the moon shine low over a satellite dish.
They watched the night trains roll by the apartment window giving out occasional electric sparks. It almost felt like counting sheep, but they didn’t work. Their iron wheels on the flat-footed rails were heavy and their hisses sharp. Besides, it wasn’t the time for sleep. When the time came, as the clock went off, it cued the man to get up and get dressed, to pocket his keys together with his phone, pulled out a few notes, and paid her rate. He wanted to stay a bit longer, say something nice, talk more, perhaps about where she’d got that new dress. He thought about calling room service before hitting the road. But her moonlight face chose to stay in the night, her light would drown in the sun; she’d be inconspicuous and ordinary. Her faint glow needed the dark alright, but the shine consigned was at a price that he could never afford.
In the end, he’d sorted out his affairs just before things got worse. It was the best advice he got from his physician since the time he started seeing him. He would have phoned his lawyer to help him out with his estate if only he had any. At least his debts would die with him, it was little consolations like this that he’d leave behind for his loved ones which he hoped would merit a good enough eulogy. A few nice lines were enough, perhaps some of them would stay for the cake. He imagined it would rain and everyone would bring their black umbrellas, wearing the same type of clothing, perhaps play his favorite song. However, during the service, the sky was clear, there wasn’t a single patch of cloud that can be seen. The sun was out, shining, wildflowers sprouted everywhere while little canaries sang in the blowing wind from afar. It was as if the day wasn’t even trying.
The ward where they placed him was humid and cramped. But for crazy people like himself, things like these were mere trivial matters. During art lessons, the woman, a year or two older than he was, started humming a tune while she dabbled the paintbrush on the canvas. Nobody in the room realized it at first, but the song, although made up, resonated with everyone, especially with the young man. They just knew. It was like an anthem sang by angels.
This is about a strange encounter I had many years ago. It’s a lengthy one, but allow me to narrate it to you just the same. I came from a middle-class family and although I should be able to live comfortably enough as a student, things went sour after my father’s passing. Tuition payments could be intense and so I had no choice but to find work to help out with the expenses, luckily, I was able to land one nearby. The place was open 24-hours, however, it was not as popular as compared to the big names you’d usually go for. But they had decent food choices, making them a good-enough alternative for those who worked at the nearby commercial buildings and for the students who went to the university. I worked on the graveyard shift, which meant, foot traffic wasn’t as high compared to daytime. Needless to say, it worked pretty well with what I needed — a peaceful place where I could focus to do a bit of studying while earning. The only setback was that the public transport wasn’t available during wee hours, either you’d wait it out until daybreak or walk for a few kilometers to get to the nearest bus station which was ill-advised. On that particular night, when I clocked in to relieve the last guy, I remember feeling anxious about schoolwork but nowhere near the right mood for it. I was on a deadline and felt that I should hit the books the first instance I could jump into, it’s just that my mind wasn’t in the right place so to speak.
There was quite a downpour making the mood sort of slow and quiet. Past midnight, the number of customers decreased as expected and the last of the customers were a couple making a last stop bite before heading home. After serving their food, they still hung around though, standing there by the counter. Usually, they’d just go, but they didn’t. They were probably waiting for the rain to let up. Figuring that they’re through, I went on to my other routine wiping off the counter surface, I got the mop and started with the kitchen floor. And when I ducked down reaching for something on the lower counter compartments, I heard someone say hello to me. It sounded like it came all the way from the front entrance but when I resurfaced, instead of seeing the couple, an old man was standing there in front of me. The couple was gone and was sort of replaced by this new customer. Naturally, I was taken aback by how the man snuck up on me like that. I didn’t see him entering nor standing in line, he was like a stealthy cat.
The old man had a transparent plastic poncho on and a fedora. Under his raincoat, was a tweed jacket over a white button-down shirt and what appeared to be a faded brown tie. He looked nice enough, he could as well be one of the university professors, at least that was my initial impression, but I don’t remember seeing him around the campus nor elsewhere. When he took off his hat, most of his hair was gone, and he had a creased smile that shrunk his Asian features all the more. He was very polite and should I say, still full of energy for his age. As he leaned on the aluminum counter and surveyed the menu overhead, his brows met, as if that meal was of a great deal of consequence, muttering to himself as he read through the list.
“I think I’ll take one of each.”
“I’m awfully sorry, which one?”
“I could be very indecisive, so please indulge me.”
Dumbfounded, it took me a few beats before I was able to respond.
“Very well, Sir, I suppose this is to go?”
“No, I prefer to dine here.”
At this point, I didn’t pursue the matter anymore. I thought, the sooner I started working on his orders the sooner I could get him off my back and probably begin my schoolwork. I thought of giving a recap of the order but doing that would just make me sound rather silly. Instead, I went on to work right ahead. I preheated the fryer and griddle, cleared the prep table, and started working. “Of all the nights it had to be tonight,” I complained to myself while watching the old man leisurely reading a folded newspaper through the tray rack.
I ran back and forth serving each of the meals on the menu. And each time I went to the old man’s table, he’d turn to me with the widest smile which crept me out a little bit. I know he was just being polite, it’s just that it was a little too much for me I guess.
Considering his medium-size built, the old man didn’t look as if he’s slowing down, I even thought he looked determined finishing all of that food.
I forgot to mention that while preparing his food, apart from the newspaper he brought, I also saw him flipping through a small pocket notebook. It looked pretty worn-down like it’s been with him for a very long time. It looked like one of those notebooks sleuths would carry around in their pockets. The old man was seated just across from where I stood behind the counter and I saw him intensely reading every bit of it. At first, I didn’t think it was anything at all, but he kept on whispering to himself, kept on looking through the glass window, his gaze off to somewhere very distant like he’s onto some deep serious thoughts.
He didn’t pay cash and so, through the card that he used, I thought I should be able to look his name up on the web but it turned out nothing.
I didn’t know what came over me. But it seemed odd that I couldn’t find any trace of him. You’d usually find most people online. But then again, maybe not all people are fond of being found at all.
“I don’t think I could finish all of these,” the old man turned to me after some time.
“Can you wrap the rest to go instead, please? But you could do that later, I’m not backing down just yet.”
“No worries, please do let me know if you’re about done.
“Oh yes, I will.”
Under the light, he looked strangely familiar. When I thought about it, he really did look like John Wayne, except, he’s Asian.
“Say, do you mind me asking a few questions?”
He pulls up a small colored photo of a woman in her twenties and started asking questions about the woman’s whereabouts. Of course, I didn’t know anything.
“Any chance you that it may have just slipped out of your mind?”
“I think I would recognize a beautiful young lady like that from a distance.”
“So you’re saying you would have pursued her, that you’re attracted to her?”
“No, I didn’t say that.”
“But you admitted that you think she’s attractive.”
“Yeah, sure, but I didn’t say I would approach her.”
“What would you do then?”
“What do you mean?”
“If you’d seen her walking through that door, sitting here this late, what would you have done?”
I didn’t say anything for a while and sort of composed my thoughts.
That’s when it hit me. Just a few nights before, a woman’s lifeless body was found in some abandoned warehouse, somewhere near the outskirts of the tech hub. The police working on the case had a few leads but nothing certain came out of their investigation. Truthfully, I wasn’t surprised at all given their unimpressive track record. The area where they had found the woman was a cesspool for delinquents and they’re hinting that it was the cause. Of course, they could be right, after all, the warehouse was in a secluded vicinity. Runaways and many homeless people use the place for shelter all the time since the government hasn’t reclaimed the area yet. But the manner to which they found the woman’s body didn’t exactly correspond to that assessment. According to the official report, she was probably mugged, drugged, and tortured, suffered for days before finally being put out of her misery. It was so gruesome that the family decided to have a closed casket funeral instead. Based on what my friends and I have heard, her skin, except for the head, had been peeled off. And what’s worse, she was alive when this diabolical act was done. It was like some sick dark ritual, nothing a common criminal would do.
“Is that the same person who I think it is?”
“Why? Do you know her?”
“I may be wrong but is she the one they found just a few nights ago?”
“So you did see her?”
“If she’s the one on TV, then yes. But only on TV.”
At this point, our conversation took a sharp turn. I may or may have not told him that he looked like John Wayne. Anyway, I explained to the old man the truth that I memorized his name through the receipt and looked him up online.
“Seems like I have a competition right here. Have you considered serving?”
I thought hearing that question was quite odd. I may not know who that old guy was, but there were clear indicators that he was working on the case.
“Please forgive me for snooping, Sir, I was just curious that’s all. As you can see, I am alone here, no security guards around, I hope you could see where I’m coming from.”
Although I didn’t know the woman or anything about the case, I stayed in the conversation because I was intrigued. Besides, I knew I wasn’t guilty of anything, so I thought I’d get more out of the conversation than he would.
“Probably there was something that she’d said, maybe she went against the wrong people. I mean, if you’re working on this case and interviewing people uptown, there must be something more than the angle of mugging.”
I must have been deep in my thoughts when I was explaining this that I didn’t realize sooner that he was taking notes.
“Do you believe that’s what happened?”
“It’s just a thought,” I clarified.
Then he showed me another photo. A photo of me in a rally.
“Can you confirm that this was you here?”
I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was confused. What in the hell is happening? Why does this man have a photo of me?
“Where did you get this?”
“Just answer the question kid.”
Beads of sweat began to build upon my forehead, this was so unexpected. He dropped a few more names, names whom I’ve heard were part of an underground group attempting to topple the government and some I only heard that night.
“I didn’t take you for a thought police.”
The old man’s expression suddenly changed.
From cheerful and friendly, it became perplexed.
His Asian features, as well as his facial lines, deepened.
We sat there in silence for quite a long time.
It was an uncomfortable stare-down, but it was a kind of conversation that I also enjoyed, you could say.
Probably the juice I needed to finish my school paper.
I know that the old man knew that the woman and myself didn’t know each other.
That he was there for me. That the woman was a reminder.
If there was one thing I realized was that, whoever that woman was, she got to them deep where it really hurt.
I later found out that she was suspected of smuggling drugs and what happened was apparently a rubout. Of course, with how things went down that night, nothing could be further from the truth.
It was the last time I saw the old man. After a few months of working at the food joint, I eventually quit.
But I couldn’t help but feel that I’m still being followed. I think I see or rather sense people watching me here and there. They’d be standing by an electrical post or walking meters away following me, pretending to have phone calls or eating tables away from me, reading my mails. Of course, it could just be my imagination, but I get that same strange feeling every time, the same feeling I’ve got the night I met that old man.
As for the woman, the news eventually stopped covering updates about her case and as with all things, life had moved onto other things.
Two weeks ago, I got reacquainted with an old friend who is still involved with our school. I told him my experience but I rather not share the details with you here. But If there’s anything I would say it’s that, we had an even stranger conversation that would go further deep down the rabbit hole.
A guy walked into a bar. It was midday and although there were only fine rains, he decided it’s better to wait it out and not risk it. Climate change has made weather reports unreliable these days, he thought, and a few cold beers wouldn’t hurt anyway. There was a woman with an orange tabby cat at the bar. The cat was in a carrier on a stool next to her casually licking its paws. The guy pulled the corner stool and ordered his drink, lit a cigarette. The woman, probably in her mid-thirties, pulled out from her handbag, a much smaller purse, and two small men jumped out of it as if scurrying. And although they were standing next to each other for some time now, the two tiny men seemed to be oblivious of each other’s presence. The first one sat at the chair with a table the woman has also pulled out from her purse, drinking bourbon the woman poured, while the other one found a spot at the edge of the bar and swung a fishing rod into the air as if he was at the sea.
The woman first talked to the tiny man who was sitting at the miniature table, talking to him as he shuffled a deck of cards. Because of his size, the tiny man got drunk quite fast. Both the woman and the first tiny man exchanged laughs as their conversation went on. Watching them, the guy on the corner stool thought that they must be lovers, and although it was none of his concern, he couldn’t resist observing them from where he sat. From the way the woman tilted her head and how she was playing with the locks of her hair every time the tiny man cracked a joke, she seemed quite interested. Needless to say, the first tiny man was quite a charmer. After a few minutes, the woman excused herself and went to the rest room. When she returned to her seat, she turned to the second tiny man and started a conversation. As far as the first tiny man was concerned, she still wasn’t back. The woman and the second tiny man mainly talked about fishing and his search for the “biggest fishing conquest,” his eyes gleamed when he talked about his adventures and declared that he’d love to take her with him some time very soon.
The woman did this for some time, the two tiny men taking turns, unaware of each other’s existence as if living in separate worlds. As time went on, it became less and less for the guy at the corner stool to hear what they’re talking about. All he could see was that they were all whispering to each other’s ears in turns, giggling as they got more engaged.
“Why don’t we go somewhere more quiet, private?” The woman addressed both tiny men at the same time. They were caught off guard in a good way of course, even the guy sitting on the corner stool heard the invitation. The tiny men simultaneously gave out their answers to the woman, as they held each side of her well-defined jawline, as if placed in some sort of spell. The woman held out her hand, guided the tiny man with the fishing rod into the cat carrier since he was the closest, opening the cage and slipped him through with a gentle nudge of her hand. Moments later, there was a rattle inside the carrier and some muted screams as the fat orange cat pounced on her prey. The same fate awaited for the other tiny man, only this time, it was quieter. He was drunk from the four sips of bourbon — there wasn’t much struggle. The only sound that the guy sitting on the corner stool heard was the crunching of the tiny man’s little bones.
Horrified, the guy from the corner stool quietly pulled out his wallet to settle his bill. He pretended to take a call so as not to draw attention. He was in a strange place, in a strange town. It was his first time there. And when he looked around, although there were only few, the patrons appeared to be unperturbed by the incident. He continued to talk to the fictitious person on the other end of the fictitious call as he stood up and pulled his bag onto his shoulder. And as he walked toward the front door and stepped out, it was only then when he realized that the rain let up and it was already nighttime. But it was completely dark out, there were no streetlights nor the windows from the neighboring apartment buildings were nowhere to be seen. It was completely dark except for the two amber moons overhead that somehow resembled the eyes of the orange tabby cat from inside the bar.
The hospital beds were lined up evenly as if parked cars. All of the patients were facing eastward towards the direction of the morning sun, it’d be good for us, the nurses kept on saying. Next to me, was a middle-aged man struggling with his breakfast which he sipped through a plastic straw. His undivided attention, life’s worth of training dedicated to that simple pursuit. I heard that he used to be well-known, used to play overseas some years ago before a career-ending incident. Looking around, a grim thought suddenly dawned on me — the inevitable truth that we are all heading down the same corridor. Our shadows will catch on eventually. The patients looked the same in those gowns they made us wear. All of our collective backstories, identities, and even passions, were mere incidental trivial matters for the time being.
We went back to her apartment and rewatched some of the old movies she had on CDs. As usual, traffic was so bad that we missed the screening of the weekend premiere. “But that’s okay,” she said while reliving those perfect lines from that perfect screenplay. A million times over and yet, I still saw those tears rolling over her cheeks at the exact queues — it was like a magic trick. I snuck a peek to look at her in the dark; her face enveloped in the light of the TV monitor. And at that moment, I could not help but feel that I was being taken. It felt as if I was swallowed up and being washed away, in the foams of a great wave. It was definitely magic.
Two amateur robbers were squatting in the dark.
“John, I don’t think I could get through this.” one of the robbers said hesitantly.
As if hearing nothing, John (not his real name) wiped off the sweat under his ski-mask and just continued working on the fence with the wire cutters.
“I’m sorry, but I’m bailing out.” The fearful robber jumped off the wall but hurt his ankle when he landed. He missed the thicket. Bellowing in pain, he lay on his back holding the injured leg with both hands.
There were barking dogs that can be heard in the distance.
John abandoned his attempt to break in and helped the friend up.
While fleeing farther away from the scene, the friend apologized sincerely while limping.
“I should shoot you, you know?”
“I know. I’m sorry I let you down.”
“Nah, I guess it’s a sign. Let’s face it, we’re not cut out for this sort of thing. At least we learned something tonight.”
“Yeah? Like what exactly?”
“That we should enter politics instead.”
A buddy and I liked to drive around town and have our usual aimless conversations. He’s one of those kids who live in those affluent subdivisions with really high walls you’d mistake for a fortress. For the life of me, I still don’t know how we ended up as friends. I suppose it didn’t matter to him, or maybe, having me around was a novelty for his kind. No matter, I was just glad to have him around during those years, I even thought that I was helping him. I showed him the real world while he helped me escape it — a paradoxical symbiosis of a sort.
If we could, we’d exchange lives. We both thought we’d rub each other out.
Maybe, I just liked driving around in shiny cars I only saw on TV. He tried to explain things to me but I could not catch on. Maybe, I got lost in the haze. Maybe, he was too. We just drove on, agreed that we would stay on that stretch in silence instead. The way was dark, but at least we had those four feet of headlights to guide us through into the night.
She was one of those aspiring movie stars I met in a smoky bar after-hours. It was just temporary, she said, working graveyard shifts for some offshore company paying premium for local support. She was celebrating, skipped work, liberating herself for the occasion. She bought me two rounds of Jim Beam and a platter of chicken wings, I guess, to warrant the intent. I wanted to believe her, rooted for her even. But there was something in the way she held that drink that betrayed her. I decided not to pursue it, I didn’t want to ruin the night. Instead, I found my fingers plodding the crucifix tattoo she had on her chest. It was her lucky charm, she claimed. It had worked so well that, she thought it was what got her the part more than her acting talent.
“The audition didn’t even last half an hour. We went filming shortly after. I guess it sort of attracts sordid men.” It was an indie film, the type that doesn’t roll credits at the end.
“One of the cool girls had this and so I thought I should get one myself. Thinking about it now, it feels like living in somebody else’s dream. You know? I don’t remember much of that life anymore, or why this tattoo? I mean, I don’t even pray.”
“Maybe the deed is beginning to pay off.” I said sincerely.
And as if hearing nothing, she kept on dragging her cigarette, until it finally burned her cracked lips.
Drunk Men Don’t Sleep
We passed around the bottle as we did with the stories we shared that night — crude tales of old men, of the scarred and the beaten, of those who carry saddlebags under their eyes, the sleepless. Besides, drunken men do not sleep, at least not the weary ones. It was a sultry night. We buried the smell of our mixed sweat with the stench of cigarette smoke and our incessant laughter. We fought off the coming of the day, we all wanted to stay, recluse, in the night. We hid in our own lies caught between our teeth. In those minced words. We lurked, like gawking vultures in the dark for any leftovers. Waiting, ever long, sleepless like a steady patch of a cloud on a windless night.
It was New Year’s. Everything was still. Quiet. Tranquil.
It was more than what I deserved, but I took it anyway.
“Hey, bud.” The Mulberry plant began.
I turned to the door but there was no one.
“Hey, bud. Are you there?” It was only then when I realized that it was talking to its actual bud.
Again, I turned to the doorway and minded my own.
I reclaimed the quiet and sat on the stillness of the brand new day.
They stood along the roadside where the rest of the crowd had also gathered. The child perched upon the shoulders of his old man, cheering on beautifully embellished motorcades reeling past them with colorful balloons strapped at the corners.
Everybody was waiting for the sixty-foot marionettes to come. And when they appeared, they couldn’t believe what they were actually witnessing. It was nothing they’ve seen before.
The giants glided over the water, at the great lake by the ravine.
The town police stood between the onlookers and the mechanical beings made mostly of wood. There were only iron barricades and nylon ropes to keep the crowd at bay. The crowd broke loose, lurched forward into the lake to welcome the gods. While high-ranking officials cavorted with off-duty prostitutes and bootleggers became the day’s official suppliers of folly — the acolytes of Dionysus.