Fire Starter

It was a Wednesday. Thelma was boiling water with the percolator. She can smell the heated coils from the vapor which tells her that the water is nearly done. She was making complimentary coffee for two. One for the old man and the other for the armadillo. But the old man doesn’t drink coffee or eat. He only consumes alcohol all day. He reeks of it. You can’t stand four feet from him without catching a whiff of the booze coming out the pores of his skin. Thelma placed the serving tray between them. It was nearly three o’clock and they were the only ones who were left in the bar. The armadillo clamped up into a ball when she handed them their coffee. “Oh, I’m sorry, did I startle you?” Thelma inquired. “Don’t worry, it’s not you. He’s not quite himself today.” Cheered the old man.

The music that was playing had stopped. Thelma placed the tray on her side and went over to the jukebox and gave it a hard yank to fix it. It was a success. She then returned behind the bar and resumed wiping glasses to dry and anything else that she could find.

When the coast was clear, the armadillo resumed posture and started nipping on his cup. It liked how the hot liquid felt inside its stomach. The old man preferred his bourbon and water. A lady walked into the bar in her high heels, soaking from the head down, and sat at the far end of the bar. She ordered a scotch and asked for a telephone. There was a hard rain outside and she couldn’t drive through it.

The lady took out a pack of cigarettes. But this caused an alarm that as if a rolling bowling ball, the armadillo rushed over towards the lady and warned her about lightning anything inside the bar.

“You must forgive my intrusion miss, but smoking will get everyone here killed.” The armadillo slightly panting.

Startled, the lady almost spilling her drink, gave a puzzled look at the stranger.

The armadillo tried to explain. “You see, if you ignite so much as a matchstick, it would be the end of us.” He turned to the old man and faced her again. “My friend over there has this rare condition. That scent of alcohol that you’re getting right now is highly flammable.”

“It’s true. The old man drinks so much he’s got that medical thing. But I let him come here still. He’s about the only regular-paying customer I’ve got.” Thelma seconded.

“And the only reason I keep coming back to this filth of a place is that no one ever comes here I could drink in peace.”

“Touché.” Said Thelma.

The old man and the armadillo just smiled.

“It’s either I smoke or it would have to be something else. Would you like to dance handsome?” Feeling rather bored, the lady asked the old man.

They danced to some slow music written in the eighties. The lady was too drunk to notice the stench coming out of the old man’s wrinkly skin. She kissed him with a tongue and he kissed her back. “I’m Tabitha, what’s yours?”

“I’m Fred.”

“Just Fred?”

“Yeah, everyone calls me Fred.”

“You’re a lucky man Fred, you’re dancing with a celebrity.”

It didn’t matter to him.

“God, I could blow someone for a cigarette right now.”

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t be that man for you.”

“You’re funny, Fred.”

“No, I’m being serious. I’m so old I don’t have the time for jokes. But I could’ve set your world on fire.”

Tabitha laughed. “Oh, that’s alright honey, you don’t have to save me. I live in a world of haze, where the texture is soft and fluffy, but the line between success and disappointment is a blur. Don’t worry, I’m a big girl.”

“I think I live on the same street.”

They ordered two more rounds before billing out. The rain washed away the stench of alcohol on him standing outside the bar in a shared umbrella. The armadillo clung onto his shoulder while the lady was on his side. When they got into the car, Tabitha tried the ignition several times but she couldn’t start it. The old man popped the hood but still couldn’t do anything to fix it.

“We can’t say we didn’t try.” The old man giving up.

“Should we try the bar again?” Suggested the armadillo.

It was almost six in the morning, but the skies were still dark. Thelma was closing up when she saw the car still parked in front of her. It was still raining hard and there were no signs of stopping.

“What are you doing?”

“The car won’t start.” Said Tabitha.

“Thank God! You’re not supposed to drive.”

“Can you give us a lift then?”

“Or we can try the bar again.” Insisted the armadillo.

“Nah, I think you guys had more than enough for one night.” Answered Thelma.

They stood around in the rain for a few more minutes. They convinced Thelma to drive them as far as she could. They were dropped off in front of the armadillo’s apartment where they bought three more bottles of Jack and some breakfast from a deli nearby.

At the last minute, the call for a cigarette caught up with the celebrity. She bailed on them as they were falling in line to pay for their supplies. But the paparazzi has already done his job and decided to buy himself a drink at Thelma’s to celebrate.

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Eczema (wildflowers)

 

Wrinkles

I told everybody that I was leaving. My closest friends had asked me where, of course, but I felt it didn’t matter if I shared exactly where. I wasn’t even sure myself. All I knew was that it had to be done sooner than later. No use if I tried to go against the inevitable. The dried leaves in the public pool that night seemed like old people trying to swim. Their wrinkles were cloaked by the soak, I thought the contrast was beautiful. I took a dip under the crescent moon — the tidal wave in the sky. I felt weightless and buoyant, and I could stay like that for the rest of my days, I told her from afar. Then I caught her doing a backstroke. Her plumped breasts made it so easy to stay. When she remerges, she waved at me like a child.

 

After-taste

There was an enormous moon that shined that night. Its glow was on the unsteady surface of the public pool which sprayed chlorine water in the gush of the wind.  Under one of the beach umbrellas, she spotted a satellite that orbited across the sky, until it disappeared completely behind a thick grey cloud. The chlorine had an after-taste when it landed on her lips. It made quite an impression.

 

Detergent

The bathrobe had too much detergent on it that it stung the nostrils. They used too much — as always.  One of the maids said that it had to be like that to make sure that they were clean. “I’d say, kill them all, sir, and dump the bodies in Manila Bay to fatten the fishes.”  Then she left me the bucket of ice she fetched from the bar.

 

Wildflower

Even after watching a Clint Eastwood movie I couldn’t get myself to bed. I had an early flight and I was restless. It was around midnight by the time I got out of the hotel. When I was about to cross the street there was a man waving at me as if I was a relative that he was meeting at the airport.

“Bikini Bar, sir? Young girls, pretty girls, sir?”  I didn’t look at him and continued walking.

“Just come and see first, sir.  Two, five. Very cheap, sir.”  There were wildflowers sprouting in the gloom.

Still, I didn’t respond and went about my way. But he reeked of persistence. And as the sleepless often are, my mind was as playful and as curious. We did that night by the pool when she skinny-dipped.

There was a burning rash on the skin, but I couldn’t stop scratching.

 

The Devil Likes Oranges

A long May summer sky has become a companion that overstayed its welcome. It made matters worse when it brought along drought that led to many indecisions to do anything productive. I guess I was waging war against climate change by drinking at the bar every night. It was definitely never a good idea but I did it anyway. I guess I was afraid it was making me rather quite compelled to do absolutely nothing and at the same time feel accomplished under the false pretenses that I was a philosopher when I had a little too much to drink.

Everything is peachy on the right side of alcohol, they say.

I drove up to the mountainside where it was cooler. There I was to be greeted by my friends. And by friends, I mean is those made up. I think.

At the rest stop, there was a bench waiting for me. It was sitting under the sun next to an enormous fig tree along with the others that lined up quite evenly.

There I talked to the devil. He wasn’t as bad as everybody thought. He’s just misunderstood like most people I know. He was going to stick around until the end of summer, he declared. After that it would be cool again, this he promised.

We ended up talking about a lot of things. I even invited him over to my place for more drinks but he said that he doesn’t want to impose and give my parents a heart attack.

I asked him if he regretted anything that he did. It took me a while to find the right words and the right timing to ask him.

At first, he hesitated. But after a slug of whiskey, he answered anyway.

“We make bad decisions all the time. This happens to everybody. And if you’re in it for the long haul, believe me on this, I really think that you’d see through the end of it. But this is not the only consolation, you see. You’d find out eventually and I hope that it will appease you to know, that there are the little things worth staying for.”

The devil was consoling me. It couldn’t be more ironic than that.

“I know what you’re trying to tell me. I know I should be glad, grateful even, but truthfully, I’m not.” I shared ruefully.

“There’s a festival coming up.” He pointed to the summit. “Right there between the two peaks. I think you should definitely come. It’s for St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things.

“Sure, I’ll check my calendar” I gave a friendly scoff.

“And also, if you can be so kind as to loan me a book. I couldn’t find the time to buy one. And even if I did, I don’t think they’d ever let me in.”

He confessed that he was a slow reader. I told him that I never find the guts to smoke in front of my mom, in return.

“You’ve always been a slow reader, so what? You literally made world domination popular.”

I was peeling an orange and handed him over a slice. He told me it was the most refreshing thing he had in a long while. We sat there exchanging thoughts until twilight.

Almost Famous

I never did well in a crowd. But I tried to stand there in a half circle with the boys watching the girls in their miniskirts in some friend’s party. I was particularly drawn on how detailed they were with their descriptions of a woman’s anatomy, about their psychology, on the time they spent to study that universe. I was so intrigued, it was like a complex algebra problem to me. I could never get it even if I tried harder.

I could very well be mistaken as a wallpaper. I was awkward and mean and dull. I guess looking back we all were at some point but I never got past that. I lacked personality and patience for any human interaction. I was a cockroach that everyone despised.

Luckily Bianca was fool-proof.

Bianca lit up when I showed her the book. It was another eight-hundred peso purchase on my second Bukowski that month but it was never a question to spend on well-written treasures she said. I wasn’t interested in his books about poetry, but I find his short stories particularly moving.

It was a long summer. But we got through it just fine even though the heat of the sun was of no help when you’re trying to put things together.

You use the material that you have, Didion said.

So I put my dark glasses on, drink coke straight from the one-liter bottle while placing the words on the electronic paper.

Font 11, Calibri (Body).

The phone rang.

B: “Hello?”

D: “Hi”

B: “How was the writing?”

D: “What was that?”

B: “I miss hearing your voice, how was the writing?”

D: “I’m sorry the reception is terrible, it’s quite slow, but I got past the hard part

— first two paragraphs — I think I’m making progress.”

B: “That’s good to hear!”

D: “How’s Kafka?”

B: “He misses his Dad”

D: “Tell him I’ll be home soon enough”

D: “Hello?”

B: “I can’t hear you, can you move to a better spot?”

D: “Tell that to the president.”

B: “Let’s talk later, maybe the service will be better then.”

D: “Okay.”

B: “See you soon, I love you.”

A few days ago I saw the president on TV.

I also saw a cockroach that landed on his shoulder and squirmed a little in my seat.

I also laughed a little, cried a little, but paying close attention I realized that the cockroach was me.

It was a long time ago, but it was still me.

I guess I am what you call a celebrity.

It Was Like Catching Flu

It’s late in the night when we took a cab ride around the outskirts of town. We picked up some supplies on the way at the local 24-hour convenience store near the bay and paid extra on top of the fare. He was sorry about waking me up, but he didn’t know who else to call at the time, he explained. Of course, I didn’t mind one bit.

We watched the smoke lingered in the air under a street lamp. It was like a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  This made him forget for a little while, which relieved me in a way, for I was putting on a terrible performance consoling him.

We didn’t talk about it much really. I didn’t know how. The ebbing of the tides in the moonlight did all of that for us.

I guess that was all he ever needed, what both of us did.

“I don’t think we could ever prepare for these sort of things.” He started.

“You’d know if it’s good when it’s scarce.

All the good ones are.”

I didn’t say anything.

We waited until dawn before heading back. He wanted to catch both the last light of the night and the first of the coming day.

At the end of it, he knew that profanity is the cheapest means of revenge.

“Think about something else. “ I urged him finally.

“Like what?”

“The good days.” I knew I was doing worse I wanted to puke.

“I want to see that try bring down all the xenophobic ideas in the world.”

Then the warm rays glimpsed upon us suddenly with the breeze blowing from the direction of the sun.

And it went on in my head. I could still trace him.  My son’s scent on the pillows.

I think it’s painfully blissful, sometimes I couldn’t stand it.

It was like catching flu in the rain.

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