A Canned Penance

I moved my gaze away from the glow of the tail lights and set my eyes at the intermittent passing of advertising billboards across the road. I got stood up, waited for nearly three hours standing in front of a bingo joint along Visayas avenue until I decided to push through with the trip anyway.

Life must be a peach for those endorsing celebrities, I mused to myself. Before long, I fell back into a deep sleep once more.

The road ahead was winding, and the bus was heading farther into the provinces that the radio frequencies were hardly keeping up. And soon, the ads had longer intervals between them, until there was not even one that can be spotted waving by.

As the way got darker, we sped our way through some uphill turns on the mountainside as if we were on a race or something. It was quiet, and the songs on the radio were almost inaudible at this point. After a few more hours the night got too deep that it made the aisle of the bus even darker. Standing over the passengers, the conductor gently tapped my shoulder to wake me and did the same to the couple sitting across in front of me.

I got off at the nearest rest stop by the lamp post. My welcome was not exactly warm, but I would not have it any other way. I was greeted by the cold air traveling from the mountain tops that swept down into the valley. There was quite a chill, but the skies were so clear, I swear I must have seen every single star out there. I couldn’t see much of the mountain range at that time but in the morning, the view would be spectacular, I had imagined.

From a local bakery, I bought a bag of hot bread and smoked two sticks of lights in a row. Looking around, a nostalgic feeling gradually warmed up inside, even if it was my first time arriving there. This kind of feeling had never failed to get me each time. A kind of renewal that was like a childhood trick that never gets old.

This allowed me to reconcile a few misconnections.

In another lifetime, many years ago, I remember one evening when my dad got home so drunk, I almost did not recognize him. He was sitting at the kitchen table, sobbing, apologizing for everything he did wrong. “I was just trying to get away for a while, that was all I ever tried to do.”

Like an answer out of a can, he managed to sum it all up in just a single line.

There is always this infallible force that reminds me of home. But all we ever wanted was to get away. Just like what he has said.

“Please tell me we’re okay?’ He pleaded.

I nodded and asked him what the matter was and handed him a bowl of hot chicken noodle soup.

His body was shaking, and he pleaded some more.

Advertisements

The Hostess on Romulo Street

The lady at the front desk was dressed in a traditional kimono with western jewelry jingling on her wrist.  Its intricately carved stone was of bright ruby that glistened when she handed over my key.  “You’re all set sir, room is at 801 and breakfast is served at six.”  It was too bad I told her.  I usually have trouble sleeping in strange places I rather want to start my day ahead.  She recommended trying out the bar instead.

A bleeping sound was made when I tapped the card on the door panel.  As I entered, I was greeted by a citrus scent that suggested that the room was clean, and it was.  Everything was spotless, this I attributed to the reputation the place has.  I started placing my bag on the luggage rack, retired my shoes under it, and sat on the corner of the bed in front of the television.

By the awnings, I watched the blanket of the night that slithered below.  The moonlight shone over the rain-soaked pavement—it coated the foams of the clouds white, sailing across overhead.

As a matter of habit, I first unpacked the clothes I was going to wear, hanged them all in the closet and lined up the toiletries neatly on the lavatory before changing to head out.

It was getting late, and the hallways waned in the darkness as I waited long enough for the elevator before realizing that it was not working.  I decided to use the fire exit since the bar was just four floors down.   At the end of the hall the exit sign glowed as if an enticing invitation was calling upon me.  In the dark, I trailed the narrow glimmer of green neon light until I reached and pushed the heavy door.

Two flights down I heard a murmuring from below.  I stopped, startled of this irregularity.  Guests were not supposed to loiter around these parts and I suppose the management does not allow employees as well.  But the voices grew louder as I approached and caught a smell of stale cigarettes in the air.

As I climbed down the stairs, placing most of my weight on my heels, I came about a huddle of men on the landing.  Some of them were on their knees, one was sitting on the railings, and a few were standing with their hands either propped on their thighs or on the wall.  A flashlight was directed to the ground where playing cards were laid down with the pot money in the middle.

With their loud response, I do not know how many of them shrieked in surprise.

Standing so close to them this time, I reckoned that they were a good ten at least — some bore old tired faces, some were foreigners whose skins were as pink as salmons adjusting to the heat, and women smoking with only burnt tips visible.

“The bartender does not know what he is doing” A man complained to me and reached up and offered his drink.  “Right here we like it clean.”

“Thanks comrade” And downed the drink in a gulp.

There was a voice that loomed from the lower landing.  It was the receptionist, but she is out of her uniform now.  “You’re 801, right?”

At first, I could not make out who she was, but I remembered when I heard the jingling of her bracelet.

“I guess I am” I tried responding coolly.

“What are you doing here 801? Are you lost?”

“Your elevators do not work.  The lights led me to the stairs.”

“Is it now?”

“Are you not going to fix it?”

“Everything gets broken around here anyway, why bother? Besides somebody from maintenance will find out sooner eventually, stay for a while, and care to play will you now?”

I declined politely.  I would rather take my chances at the bar I told her.  It is one of the few places I know is fair.

She asked if she could tag along. I did not know why she did that, but it was probably because she suspected me of ratting them out.  It took a bit of an effort, but I convinced her that I was not.

“But it was not about that at all” she assured me.

“I thought you would rather go to a better place to drink. I owe you that”

We walked two blocks to this place she knew.   She had one round and another.  She was a terrific hostess until around two when she left me in peace.

But peace is a just another word thrown around so carelessly these days.  What we have is silence in the shade of a world set ablaze.

The Invisible Man

Jupiter was no bigger than a five-centavo coin when it shined that night. Thrilled, he placed it inside the hole he made with his fingers and peeped through it into the sky with one eye. He took a photograph of the sighting but his phone camera failed to deliver justice and so he decided to just discard it.

Overhead, its glow was diluted by the increased display lightings of the bookstore. As he stood outside, he then watched the storekeepers and the customers raced — like lab mice — the mazes of the bookcases inside. Uninvited, he crushed his half-done cigarette and went in and did the same. He started with the selected features and trod along the modern classics section until he slowed down when he reached the aisle between the Russian giants and H.G. Wells. He decided to procrastinate venturing and opted for the latter instead this time. Besides, he figured that reading Tolstoy or Dostoevsky would not sit very well with commuting on public transportation and discerned that he doesn’t want another unfinished book.

He had plenty of time, he tried to convince himself. But by the year he reached thirty-four true friends had enormously reduced to mostly dead writers and fictional protagonists. It was as if living people were only worth trying out if their thoughts and general interests were first proofread and edited like any publication houses would do.

This he thought about and the million things that could potentially take place in his short lifespan. But who would dare care? After a while, people would eventually move on with their lives. He confronted himself with the thoughts of unreciprocated love affairs and unfulfilled passions. What if they discovered that the only thing, he could ever love unconditionally was the rain? The time of the monsoon was coming, and it would be cooler soon. The thought began to console him. It was not necessarily of importance but for him, they were like the soundtrack of a very good film and the foams in his drink.

They say that life flashes on by without you realizing it. And oftentimes we miss it, especially when it counted the most. But in his case, there were no flashes, no theatrics — Just a series of random movements and intermittent pauses.

On the escalator going down, he bumped into an old colleague from the University. They exchanged numbers after going over a crash course of where their lives had led them since they last saw each other.

During the dialogue, all he was thinking about was the Irish coffee he was dying to have.

He never thought that the idea would ever touch his ugly mouth, but it did, he blurted it out, he felt ashamed.

At that moment everything else sounded broken to him.

It was a beautiful reclusion of the heart.

Paperback Series

It was nearly the end of the hour, most of the customers have already left the counters and those who remained were the regulars playing a few more rounds of pool before calling it quits. On a napkin, she drew a Martian cat holding a flag and a pint, folded it in half and inserted it in my phone casing.

I was feeling light, tired. She said it might have been the lateness of the night; we were not the same as we used to be. We were different then, but in a way, have not changed much.  Probably we were both.

It was my turn to buy the next round. I was running thin on beer money, but the night was still asking.

It was a mistake, but who’s counting nowadays? The world is full of it. Everyone has drums and boxes filled with it.

“Where were we?”

“Back to where we used to be, in a place we ought to be” She insisted.

“But you’re moving back to California.”

“A tourniquet.”

“The moon was fuller the last time we were here. Your hair longer and I didn’t have this limp.”

“You were dashing” She chuckled.

I returned some myself. “Eight years of alcohol does a lot to you.”

The container trucks lined up overhead, stuck on a flyover across our window.  The stream of orange highway lamps traced the roads with broken lines and asphalt.  She wrapped her head as it rested on her upper arm and continued,

“Will you cook me breakfast?”

“If you still like over easy with burnt hems.”

“I always thought it was perfect.”

“Yeah?”

“Yep.”

Sometimes I go to this place in my head where I recounted this sequence over and over. There were nights when I’d just look up in the sky and hope for a chance.  I still keep it with me, her dog-eared paperback copy of The Trial, protesting, one unused bookmark at a time.

Photo by Biankitty

City Tour

H narrowed his eyes, squinting at the three-hundred-year-old enamel chalices, spoons, and ladles sitting inside the glass case.  As he read the inscriptions, the professor was observing him quite amused with his growing interest for the Spanish colonial artifacts.  “Now that we’re done with the kitchenware, when can we see the replicas of the Manila Galleons?”  H half-jokingly mused but the host paid little attention to him and continued on with his private tour.  Their heels clacked raucously against the linoleum tiles until they were seated inside a study, where the curator usually entertains visits from historians, politicians, grantors, and special acquaintances in the scientific socio-sphere.

The professor scheduled the tour on an early morning of midweek, which meant the city tours were on low key which worked perfectly both for them and the host.  Education was essential to move forward, but the past was an integral part.  “You see“, placing the boater hat on his right knee, “The tales of history are always best told in such fashion.  True appreciation depicts demeanor, so bring some of that home with you.”

But H was daydreaming.  The lucid mind receded.  It was a terrible habit.

After a few, he asked earnestly “But how do we know we’re making the right kind of history?”

This came out of nowhere but the professor welcomed it anyway.

“Well, that’s tough.” He repositioned and crossed legs.

“But I guess all good ones are.”

The old man commended H for his potential, for his innate artistic brilliance.  He felt responsible for him — he was but a ship that was imperative to build.

That night at the ball they were in their double-breasted amerikanas, surrounded with great pieces in the Amorsolo gallery.  “It feels quite absurd wearing uncomfortable outfits in such scorching climate” H complained.

But like his fathers before him, who shared the same streams of aspirations but unable to shine on fully, he was willing to submit, basking in its symphonic reception.  The corners of his lips widened as the smiles beamed.  By and by the crowd has been able to separate the two, until arthritis got the better of the old man.

The General Council on Cultural Development had taken interest in the works of the young aspirant.  They consist mostly of middle-aged men, of scholars and intricate critics who busied themselves buzzing on and about, clinking champagne glasses and exchanging small talks here and there to no end.

A woman in her fifties approached H who was now standing by the tribal shaft ornaments.  The powder on her face traced the wrinkles on her temples, while the yellows of her teeth emphasized by the redness of her lips.  The laces of her evening gown appeared uncomfortably itchy to him.

He felt like a young buck drinking water from a murky shallow swamp.

It made him feel worse he wanted to change right away into his regular clothes and lay down by the awning thatched windows of home.  In his mind, he would sail the leagues of his imagination where he’d set out on a trip on-board the Manila Galleon bearing great treasures of gold, ancient jewelry, and rare

spices of the east.  Then at nightfall when the skies are clear enough, he’d be under the stars, gazing in his hammock suspended as it sways to the gentle motions the ship.  And as it bobs on the cradles of the ocean, he’d wonder on further to even greater depths to where the giant squids are lurking, rare sea creatures reign on the decks of sunken armadas.  He’d be there where the midnight blue outlines the darkened earth of the mountainsides, while the waters like dark ink with splinters of glass mirror the cloudless sky.

He pinched his nose as he walked out of the gallery. Both teacher and pupil started the road again.

“There are always dark days ahead.  In my case, my arthritis.”

“I was just here for the relics.”  H grinned.

“So did you sign the job offer?”  The professor sat at the park bench and fed the koi fishes in the pond.

“Well, I placed an X mark on it”

Photo by: Biankitty

Walls

The white walls were all there were.  I was sitting in front of it. At the bedroom table, I was surrounded by all of them. White walls on all sides. Plain as it could get, except for the outdated calendar hanged limply on the southwest side that was about to give out in the faintest blow of the wind. The room was still. Even with open windows, there was no breeze entering at all. No rustling coming from the neighboring trees, neither whistling nor visits from the birds that usually perched on the window sill. The smoke of the cigarette followed the pathless hike, ceiling-bound as it curled in front of my face.  Everything around me was silent as if we were all waiting together for something important to happen.   Thin sheets of clouds were covering most parts of the sky like an oversized gray patch so dull it resembled a clearing of a lahar aftermath.  I decided to rescue an empty coffee container made of glass, to use it as a spare mug should I have visitors coming over.  But I was not expecting anyone that night, or any time soon I figured.  Still, I washed the damn thing anyway and placed it on the drying rack next to a microwavable dish plate.

It was not always like this in fact.  Especially on weekends when the halls outside my room were packed by children running up and down playing and yelling until twilight when their parents call them in for supper. Or at Christmas when my mom and sisters come over to have lunch with me before heading back for Noche Buena, or last summer when I dated someone from work who also lived nearby the sea.  In this vacuum of time I remained, in this void, I lingered, over expanding in the thoughts of my consciousness boundless. I thought I belonged there, it was like a homecoming.  I began to snap my fingers to break the chain.  I could no longer stand the silence.  I walked towards my reflection and saw the lines on my forehead.  Deeper than the last time I remembered them to be, even the placements had changed, it was uncanny.  I didn’t realize that my wrinkles were well-traveled.  And when did they decide to move was unknown to me.  When one was asleep perhaps?  It should be that, lest I would have noticed it moved.

The cream firmed up. I stirred and stirred before it lost warmth.  I leaned over stretching my head to see the other side of the wooden fence below for an acquaintance resting my arms on the balcony.  Then I heard a heavy knocking on the door which caught me off-guard.  At first, I thought somebody saw me peering at the neighbor’s and ran up to my room to tell me off.  But that was too fast of a reaction it was impossible.  I didn’t know who it was behind it, as I said I wasn’t expecting anyone anytime soon.  As I turned to approach the door, I thought it could be the caretaker, or someone from the other units probably borrowing some tools like a Phillips screwdriver or an electrical tape.  People always forget to buy electrical tapes ending up asking the neighbor for some.  And as I came closer, I remembered all of a sudden that I was still in my sleep clothes and thought of putting on something more decent.  So, I did that, throwing in over a sweatshirt although it’s thirty-three degrees that afternoon.

When finally, I turned the knob to open, there stood in uniform a guard from downstairs panting, catching his breath while wiping his massive neck with a face towel.  He has a wide body, probably too big for his shirt and hat, who also was taller than I was.  I gave him a moment before he was able to say that there was a phone call for me at the reception.

“I don’t understand, did the caller leave a name?”

“I’m sorry, I neglected to ask” he responded, finally regaining himself.

“That’s fine, does it sound urgent?”

“It was a woman’s voice, I can’t really tell”

From the living area, I heard the first arrival of the birds perching on the tufts of the sofa.  The leaves rustled for the first time that day.

I invited him in to drink a good glass of cold water and joined my perched friends on the balcony.

Photo by: LJ Jumig

Red Moon Parting

As scheduled, they met at the family residence after dusk and sat together at the dining table under the low ceiling light hanging over them.  The tiny crystal pendants around its main light, of which the glass shade refracted prisms on each dangling embellishment themed the room with mixed hues.   Luis sat at the head of the table, while the younger brother sat by the corner, the two of them slightly facing each other while the lawyers seated side by side across.  There were piles of documents atop the leather case between them, and cigarette stubs nearly overflowed in a porcelain ashtray by the cups of consumed coffee.

“Have you thought about your options, Luis?” the lead counselor began.  Jojo turned to his elder for an answer.  “I guess we have.”  Luis’ voice has fallen tired when he responded.

“Or could we have more time to go over it?  I mean we don’t have to decide right away, do we attorney?”  Jojo injected worriedly.

“Inasmuch as we want to get the arrangements done for at this point, we want you to know that we completely understand how hard these things could get.  Please take all the time you need but let us know as soon as you have arrived at a decision.  It would be best if we get something by the end of the week, but we’ll hold it off as much as we can.”

And the rest of the exchanges were all ceremonials to make sure that everything down to the last detail was in order.  After half an hour, they all stood up and shook hands except for Luis who remained silent in his seat.  The younger brother showed the lawyers to the door and excused the indifference of the brother and blamed it all to exhaustion and explained further that he was not quite himself lately.  He went back to the dining area after getting a pitcher of cold water from the fridge, and Luis mechanically reached for the glasses from the rack in front of him and handed one to the brother.

Frustrated, he bolts right up on his feet and walked around and turned his back to Jojo.

“I can’t believe mother would do such a thing” and mellowed down after a pause,

“I guess it can’t be helped.”

After supper, in front of the wooden dresser, he peeled off a strip of white tape from the dispenser and wrote her name on it. He then plastered it across the surface of the mirror where his reflection was, on eye level, to ensure that he won’t forget to think about her every time he stood there.  Sometimes, the air in the bedroom would feel like a visit from the past.  The room still smelled of dried flowers from the house altar which their mother used to keep. It has been decided that they would always keep her room locked from the housekeepers or anyone for that matter without explicit permission.

A few days had passed, it was the weekend, the brothers decided to get some air on the coast.  Luis drove while Jojo was looking up to the direction of the foliage ahead with the wind on his face. The sun was always gentle after the rain he mused and reached behind him to the back seat to open the rest of the windows to let the cold breeze in.  The waves were full upon their arrival to the shore. For countless years they have carved in the skirts of the land mass deep into the ocean floor.  The crashes were hollow as it trembled heavily as both brothers felt minute in their presence.

“I remember how our parents have thrown their worries out here.  Do you recall?”  The stares of Luis fixed onto the horizon as if he has latched his gaze onto the ends of the ocean.

“I just remember how different things were, kuya.  Those were just the happiest times.” Jojo replied as he stepped a few paces forward into the beach and felt the salt water drown his feet, and continued as if mimicking,

“I guess it can’t be helped.”

Just as they stood a mushroom smoke steadied its girth from the horizon up to the ends of the sky.  The wild forest fire has been on for three days showing no signs of stopping.

The moon that night glared wildly red in the sky while its reflection quivered on the surface of the garden pond beneath the motionless virgin of the grotto.  Its light sliced through the gaps of the wooden jalousie into the rooms of the house.  The shadows crept in the corners, through the halls, and under the shed, while silhouettes shifted, and parted with each passing vehicle on the nearby street.

Photo by Biankitty