Vanishing Act

It’s turning out to be one of those strange conversations you’d normally only hear from TV shows or the movies.  The details were obscured or maybe it’s because I didn’t believe it was real at all. He claimed that he’s been getting frequent visits from aliens. I almost choked and fell from my seat when he shared that.  But with everything that’s been happening lately, who knows what exactly could happen next. Besides, he wasn’t the type who’d make up such a delusional story, he’s incapable of lying, too. I just couldn’t imagine him wasting time like that, that’s all. For him, life is too short for such empty rhetorics. 

I wasn’t quite sure how to handle it.  We’ve known each other since we were kids so I’d know, even if he’s pulling a well-orchestrated prank on me or if he’s trying to conceal something.  He was hesitant though. I mean, it was as if he’s pulling his punches with regards to the details. It felt like he’s sparing me from something, even his voice was different that afternoon.  I didn’t bother to fight it either, I mean, I didn’t want to get sucked into it.  Besides, I was lazy enough not to. And as obscurity would often have it, there wasn’t much to work on. The so-called facts were limited to the following: That the visits happened every Monday evenings, between ten and eleven o’clock, that there were bright lights flashing on his bedroom window, and silhouettes of the lanky visitors stood at the hedges communicating only with meek hand gestures.

I tried to chew on it. I tried to spot gaps in his narrative but he’s relatively consistent. It was a strange afternoon but we still sat there in our wicker chairs anyway, outside the cafe, puffing cigarettes while piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of his predicament.

The sultry afternoon breeze carried the remaining traces of that summer. I can still remember how incredibly hot it was. We’d have been dehydrated to death if not for the occasional mild ventilation from the passing air of the entrance door.

He wrapped up the matter in an abrupt manner as if prodded by the heat. He confessed, like the current state of things that summer, that he felt as though he’s all dried up on the inside, like an empty well in a desolate land.

“I don’t think there’s much left in me. Not much inside this draining well. I haven’t been sleeping since these visits had started to occur to tell you the truth. It feels like they take away a part of me each time.”

His voice sounded tired, impliedly soliciting for a benevolent recoil.

“Even if the well is full, I don’t think there’d be anyone wild enough to drink from it.”  was my response to cheer him on. 

“There were a few who deliberately did, as a matter of fact, you pompous prick.” He shot back with a burst of timid laughter.

I tried to employ my fully charged optimism to sustain the little progress we had ongoing.

“Whatever it is, aliens or no aliens, I’m sure you’d perk up in no time, maybe it’s yet to precipitate, you know? Like the rain after the drought.”

I sensed his eagerness to refute the last statement was rising up halfway to my point. But the sky suddenly lashed out an angry roar when he was about to.

We both looked up and referred to what we saw as a sign —

“We don’t want to be caught in this downpour.” He was getting up to leave, cramming to get his things into his pouch.

“I don’t want to rain on your parade kid, but you kinda want to.” This I exclaimed with a chuckle.

“So, we’re doing puns now? ” We got the check and drove to the bay.  We spent the remainder of the day watching the sunset where he was able to get some brief sleep at the backseat.

We were supposed to meet the following month at the same tired cafe for our routine catch up. It’s one of those things we tried to hold onto after I moved out of town. You could say it’s our own little way of preserving our history together. We could have agreed to do it more often but we both passed up the idea as proximity and real-life happenings weren’t exactly participative, to say the least. 

I was about to head out when I decided to give him a call to confirm the rendevous. There was no answer, apparently, the service has been discontinued. I showed up at the place anyway. I waited for four hours before deciding on calling it quits. I learned sometime later from a family friend who lives nearby, that he sort of moved out of his apartment, he didn’t leave a word. 

“He just stopped answering the door, according to his landlord.”  His things, everything has been completely abandoned.

I tried our common friends, since doing that would likely yield more results than contacting his siblings. And without surprise, I found out, that I was the only person who’s still in contact with him.

I still sat there at our table from time to time, hoping to bump into him somehow. But after a few days, I realized, I did it mainly because of my inability to break habits or it was born out of the protracted inertia if you will.

I was able to convince his landlord to lend me a duplicate key to his apartment,  provided that I settle the payment for the unpaid months left in his contract. I packed a few of my stuff, good enough for a few nights of stay, a ream of cigarettes, and a lot of snacks to munch on. I also brought a flashlight and a camcorder just in case.  I reversed my sleeping routine to stay awake at night, even decided to put a halt on drinking, too. 

I was ready to see anything if you want to know the truth.  Again, I’m no believer in such things but who knows what’s out there really.  Nothing happened during the first few nights, just random cars jolting here and about. It felt like a retreat of some sort in a weird way, staying in some strange place like that. There was that unexpected tranquility of being alone, there was this sense of oneself that was heightened.  Sure, I love the wife and the kids, couldn’t live without them, but there’s something about solitude that sets me down.  

On the 8th day, while on the phone talking to my wife, I heard a noise coming from the second floor.  I found it unsettling since the ceiling which was the floor of the master’s was made of concrete.  If it had been an earthquake, the whole house should’ve moved as well, but it didn’t.  

I felt my throat suddenly becoming dry, the same hot feeling I had the last time I was with my missing friend fell all over me.  My steps paced stealthily when I went up the stairs, on the way to his room.  I turned the knob, swung the door wide, but there was nothing there. Just a sad view of a flyover behind the neighboring apartments and hardbound books that were knocked over by the wind. The bed was made and all of his clothes were neatly ironed and in place. 

Maybe, I was overthinking it. I think he’s somewhere out there, safe. Maybe he just needed to go somewhere to be alone for himself, too, just for a while. Probably, he turned into vapor for a quick spin. Probably he’s up there, perched on a cloud, waiting for the end of summer, waiting for the right moment to pour in. 

I don’t know, it’s turning out to be one of those strange stories you’d normally only hear from TV shows or the movies.  These are strange times indeed. 

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 a 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.